I work as an Assistive Technology (AT) Specialist at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The Disability Services Office determines what accommodations are to be granted and then refers the student to me. I describe the key primary tasks of my job as follows:
- Assess the student’s barriers to accessing classes and related activities.
- Determine what technology would serve to address those barriers.
- Train the student to use that technology.
Some universities do not use an AT Specialist to assess students. Rather, they list their available technologies on their website and allow the students to choose what they want once an accommodation is granted. In my opinion, this is a grave mistake. Students, especially freshmen often do not have the knowledge, maturity, and objectivity to know what will work best for them in a college setting. If given the choice, they may inevitably choose the sexiest, cutting-edge tool whether it is right for them or not. Some become overwhelmed with the choices and don’t know what to pick so they pick nothing. After a failed semester, they may blame the teacher or the university or ask for more accommodations or simply drop out of school not ever knowing that there is a better solution.
Let’s take the accommodation of notetaking assistance as an example.
Finding the Barrier
Why does the student need help with taking notes? Is the issue a physical problem like a broken arm, a stroke, an accident, or surgery affecting their dominant side? If it is one of those, the barrier may not just be physical. There can be fatigue, emotional adjustments, and cognitive stamina issues to contend with. Is the notetaking accommodation due to a learning disability which doesn’t allow them to focus well on listening when writing notes? Is it an audio processing limitation which doesn’t allow them to comprehend the lecture in real time? If so, they desperately need to review notes after the fact, but they are missing crucial points in their notes.
Determining the Technology
Let’s say it is a broken bone that will limit the use of their dominant hand for the next six months. The next question I ask is if the student knows how to type. If they are a good touch typist, I consider recommending a one-handed typing product that allows you to type in the same home position as a two-handed typist. The program predicts which letter you are typing from the right side or left side of the keyboard using contextual clues. It takes the brain about 5 minutes to adjust to this program and the results are quite accurate.
The dictation feature in MS Word is another option for online classes. The student will need to speak clearly and use punctuation as they dictate to have the best outcome with this tool. This might not be the best option for someone who has a traumatic brain injury or a recent stroke that has affected their speech. This won’t work for an in-person class because dictating aloud would interrupt the entire classroom.
Suppose the student needs help with note taking because they can’t focus long enough to write a whole concept down and also listen simultaneously. In fact, they need to pace in the back of the classroom in order to fully focus on what is being taught. In this case, we may need to provide a digital recorder so the student can re-play the lecture in chunks and take notes from the recorded lecture later in their own time. They need to be willing to take the time to do this. If the student does not learn well by listening when there is no accompanying visual, they probably won’t go back and listen later. They may lose interest.
We offer smart pens for students which allow them to write notes in a notebook and the pen records the lecture as they write. When they study from their notes, they can listen to the part of the lecture that was going on when they wrote a specific note. This works wonderfully for students who like to write notes but find that their notes are sometimes incomplete if they zone out for a minute or five in class. Studies have shown that handwriting notes can be more effective than typing. Some students have different quirks that eliminate the smart pen as an ideal choice.
One student I worked with did fine using various color pens because specific colors were exceptionally meaningful for her. The problem was that switching colors took too much time, and she got behind in class. Since the student had an iPad and an Apple pencil, I suggested she use a well-known app for iPads, that allowed her to write on the screen in various colors and take pictures and record audio and it kept this data in an organized series of notebooks. Another student had a similar preference for colors but did not own an iPad. He was also not technically savvy. The answer for him was a low-tech old-fashioned multicolor, retractable pen.
Another student could not fit his notes on the page easily due to his over-large printing (dysgraphia). In his case, I found a larger notebook and turned it to landscape, and he was able to use the smart pen effectively in spite of this issue.
I will also recommend Glean software, apps for mobile phones, amplification systems, an ergonomic keyboard, sitting in the front, doodling in the margins, using notecards instead of a notebook…the list goes on.
I train each student rather than sending them off to take the pre-recorded tutorials. This is how I am able to troubleshoot any issues that come up, and they do come up. Procrastination, inaccessible tutorials, confusing videos, and simple fear can be barriers to learning and I like to see students have a fighting chance before sending them on their way.
An individual one-on-one assessment is essential for choosing the best assistive technology for each particular student. I need to assess where the student is finding difficulty, not just the medical diagnosis. I ask about the devices they own and their comfort level around technology. I find out whether they learn well visually, aurally, by writing or in some other way. I even ask if they have enough time to study or if they have three kids at home and a fulltime job to juggle with their schoolwork. I discover which classes are the most challenging and how many classes they are taking and even the attitudes of their professors towards a student who brings recording devices or types notes on a laptop. Situations and scenarios are important. I include the student in the decision-making process, leaving room for them to express their own opinion around their limitations. I train them and repeat training as needed. This process insures they are willing, capable, and even excited to try the assistive technology that we chose together. With appropriate access, students stay enrolled, and the sky is the limit to their learning!