Oct 12 2006

Technology Tools

Lost Homework?

Handhelds help students with learning disabilities keep track of school assignments and deadlines.


FOR MANY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS, AN extensive social studies research paper or a long-term science project might just be a drag. Yet for students with learning disabilities, which are often accompanied by Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), assignments like these—with numerous milestones and deadlines— can turn into an absolute nightmare.

“Students with ADD or ADHD have difficulty staying focused during class time,” explains Sharon Quay, assistant superintendent for special education at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia schools. Not only do these students have limited organizational skills, but many also have problems with writing and understanding verbal direction. Quay sees the struggles every day. The Archdiocese educates approximately 100,000 students in 232 schools, including five special education schools.

Click HereOne educator found support for students with learning disabilities in the form of technology. In 2001, Steve Pawlowski, the former president of Archbishop Ryan High School, learned how handheld computer technology helps the business world improve organization and thought it might help students with learning disabilities as well.

With school funds, he purchased 30 handheld computers as part of a pilot program for special education students in mainstream high schools. Pawlowski selected these students because they had challenges getting organized.

“The students’ organizational skills improved tremendously [with the handheld computers],” reports Paul Sanfrancesco, director of K-12 technology for the archdiocese. “That alone made the program a success.”

However, that wasn’t the only accomplishment: Students’ grades also improved. “For some of our students, one thing that drags their grades down is incomplete homework,” explains Maureen Dougherty, a special education teacher at Archbishop Ryan who was involved in the pilot program. “Part of [the solution] is just knowing what you have to do. Recording their homework gave these students a better chance of completing what was assigned, which helped improve their grades.”

After the successful pilot program, the Archdiocese plans to extend the program this fall. About 250 students with learning disabilities and their teachers in six elementary and three high schools will receive handhelds, thanks to a grant from the Connelly Foundation, a local Philadelphia organization dedicated to education.

Utilizing handhelds is expected to have a positive impact on the students’ success in school. “If a student had a long-term project, the teacher could remind the student [via the handheld device] when the outline was due, when the first draft was due and when the final project needed to be turned in,” Quay explains. “So it helps them along. Teachers can beam homework assignments using the device’s Memopad feature or can send actual worksheets to each student’s handheld so the sheets don’t get lost.”

The ability to quickly transfer data to and from the teachers’ and students’ handhelds eliminates a problem that numerous students with ADD face: losing paper homework assignments and class notes. “Teachers will be able to send a document to the handheld’s cradle or to all the handheld devices, or they will beam a document to a student and the student will beam it to others,” Sanfrancesco explains.

Students will also benefit from the advances in handheld technology made since the pilot started three years ago. The original handhelds offered a few basic software programs and black-and-white screens. In contrast, the new devices sport color screens and use popular PC software, such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The school is also negotiating with textbook companies to get textbooks on the handhelds.

Sanfrancesco expects the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to serve as a model for other schools interested in supporting their students with learning disabilities. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in it from other diocesan and other [private] districts,” he says, “and many public schools are also looking into this.”

Special education researchers say handheld technology is a promising trend in aiding students with learning disabilities.

“I believe there is a trend in the increasing use of these devices,” says Sam Goldstein, Ph.D, a member of the Professional Advisory Board of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, in Pittsburgh. “I have seen these kinds of technologies, as well as hand-written planners, work effectively when ongoing support is provided to teach self-discipline over a longer period of time.”

Quantifying the results is obviously important. Yet Goldstein points out that while there is a lot of talk about the use of technology as a learning aid for individuals with ADD or ADHD, he has not seen any peer-reviewed research on the subject.

Sanfrancesco says the archdiocese’ expanded program this fall could provide the research educators are seeking.

Dr. Ryil Adamson, former special education professor at the University of New Mexico and now director of Adamson Academy, a private elementary school in Albuquerque, is interested in learning the handheld program’s long-term effects.

“Any time you tell kids you’re doing a study with them, they tend to improve,” he points out. “A lot of educational studies really turn out to say that if you spend some extra money and some extra time on these kids, they’ll learn more.”

Other schools have already seen the benefits of technology in helping students with learning disabilities. For more than a year, educators at Ipswich Middle School in Ipswich, Mass., have been using software geared toward students with speech and reading disabilities.

Since the 2002-2003 school year, special education classes have been using software called E-Reader, developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a Peabody, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that works to expand educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities through the use of technology. Students listen to grade-level text converted into speech while following along on a computer screen. Another CAST software product, Thinking Reader, takes that speech text and prompts students to ask questions, summarize what they’ve read or predict what will happen next.

“It’s one way [for students with learning disabilities] to access grade-level curriculum,” reports Jackie Lawton, a sixth-grade special education teacher at Ipswich Middle School. “But this doesn’t solve everything. We still need to work on reading skills.”

Though the school hasn’t scientifically measured the software’s benefits yet, Principal Cheryl Forster says technology gives these students options. “Whether students are comfortable with a keyboard or a handheld, they have many more choices on how they want to learn the material,” she explains. The school is now working with CAST to begin quantifying the results of their work.

An Unwarranted Concern

In every pilot program, there are some areas of concern. In the handheld pilot at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia schools, some questioned whether students who struggle with organizational issues could handle the responsibility of caring for a small, valuable piece of equipment.

That concern has proved unwarranted: Only one device was lost—and that was by a staff member, according to Kevin Basquill, technology director at Archbishop Ryan High School. School officials believe that the excitement generated by the handheld device motivates the students to take good care of it.

“This is the most modern tool that we’re using right now,” Sanfrancesco says. “Students with learning disabilities are part of that, and that entices them. In fact, the children with learning disabilities taught the honors students how to use the [handheld device]. That was really a shift for the whole school.”

Teachers tell students to care for the handheld the same way they would care for their other coveted electronic toys. “You don’t see too many students losing their Game Boys or Walkmans,” Sanfrancesco says. “We found that with all students, the ownership piece is a big deal. So they take care of it.”

These handheld devices offer immeasurable possibilities for students with learning disabilities. “We’re hoping that giving these handheld devices to students in the fifth through eighth grades will give them practice in using it,” Quay says, “so that when they get to high school, it will be just like using a pen.”

Stacy Collett is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Benefits of Handheld Devices for Students With Learning Disabilities

• Students receive assignments electronically, which helps them stay organized.

• Teachers and students share common tools.

• Organized students allow teachers to teach at a faster pace without repeating/redoing.

• Students can transfer documents from the handheld to their home computer to work on a larger screen.

• Hot syncing provides another mode to reliably turn in homework.