Once considered a highly specialized field, assistive technology (AT) now increasingly can be found in applications and devices sold to the general public, says a new report that highlights several key trends in AT development.
The Nation Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) presented the report during its annual conference last month. The issue brief, titled "Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology," comes at a time of great opportunity for both schools and AT providers, the organization says.
"The confluence of federal stimulus money and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs … to consider investing in ‘state-of-the-art assistive technology and training’ affords the field a rare opportunity to define and shape what state-of-the-art assistive technology can be," says the brief.
With that goal in mind, NCTI solicited the opinions of more than 65 people from academia, the education-technology industry, professional associations, and all levels of government.
Based on this feedback and a review of existing literature, NCTI concluded that "applications originally designed for the disabled are increasingly recognized as presenting solutions for the wider consumer market." As a result, the group said, AT functionality now often is built into mainstream consumer devices.
Here are the five most significant trends in AT development, according to NCTI:
1. Convergence. NCTI defines this as the consolidation of various technological systems into "a single platform to perform multiple tasks"–such as the iPhone and other smart phones or mobile devices.
These devices have the ability to run multiple applications that can support and accompany students with disabilities throughout their daily activities.
For example, the brief mentions that students in Taiwan are engaging in an after-school program with smart phones and the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network. With this technology, students and teachers are able to interact to an extent that was not possible before.
In the United States, an iPhone application called iSigns can facilitate communication between deaf students and others who do not sign. Other iPhone apps for students with disabilities include Picture Scheduler, which helps students with autism create and organize personal tasks, and iPrompts, which provides visual prompting tools to help students understand upcoming events and make choices.
Other examples of convergent technologies include e-Book reader devices and online sites that cater to handheld technologies, such as Bookshare.org, which is an online library of digital books underwritten by the Education Department for students with qualifying print disabilities.
2. Customizability and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). According to the brief, customizable AT is designed so that it "can be configured in different ways to meet the needs of individual users."
UDL simply means customizing software to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. For example, a UDL curriculum should offer multiple means of representation (that is, it should give learners various ways of acquiring information), multiple means of action and expression (it should give students several alternatives for demonstrating what they know), and multiple means of engagement (it should motivate and challenge different learners appropriately).
While much educational software has included customizability in recent years, NCTI urges developers to include elements of UDL to help all learners succeed.
Gaming, another technology that recently has gained momentum in education, is also an area that needs work, says the brief. "Although game developers have not traditionally focused on accessibility and customizability, there is a growing movement to ensure that developers keep these features in mind as they design games," it says.
For instance, some organizations, such as Universally Accessible Games and the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, have supported designing games with customizable features that will make them universally accessible.
Some UDL features for gaming include the captioning of dialog, text-to-speech capabilities for on-screen text dialog and instructions, the ability to magnify areas of the screen, the ability to use an adapted controller in place of the standard one, and customizable colors for color-blindness.
Other UDL recommendations include offering variations in the degree of difficulty and additional supports for users, such as guides and features that highlight important points or reward effective strategies.
3. Research- or evidence-based design. With technology changing so rapidly, researchers are beginning to realize that studies of AT’s effectiveness should focus on features, usage, and the user population, rather than individual products, NCTI says.
"As features beneficial to users with and without disabilities become commonplace on everyday electronics, AT researchers have found that to stay current, they need to recognize that state-of-the-art research and evidence may come from other disciplines or from consumer testing and demands," the brief notes.
Even without formal studies or market research, it says, AT specialists and developers can determine utility, interest, and efficacy simply by reading reviews, determining the number of downloads, and talking or chatting online with users.
Currently, research that provides information on which features are most effective for which populations, under which conditions, and for which tasks is still in the early stages, especially for new technologies, the report says.
Yet initial research in the area of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices has shown that AAC systems with static visual-graphic systems might be more effective for users with autism, whereas other users might benefit more from speech-generating devices.
Also, "the advent of new technologies and multimodal communication abilities in both mainstream commercial communication devices and AAC devices has led to further confirmation of research that multimodal approaches (voice output devices, gesture, sign, facial expression, picture symbols, and computer-based technologies) are most effective in meeting a wide variety of communication needs in a variety of environments," the brief says.
4. Portability. To help promote independence, portability is critical, says the report. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, portable technologies are helping to redefine the mandate of "least restrictive environment" and are boosting independence.
One example of portable AT is a laptop computer, especially a netbook. Many of today’s laptops have a host of accessibility features, and netbooks allow for an even smaller, lighter solution.
Taking the idea of portability one step further, says the brief, is a growing movement toward high-quality, fully portable, open-source AT. Under this model, students can carry AT software on their jump drive and use it whenever appropriate.
CLiCk, Speak is one example of software that can be downloaded onto a jump drive and is described as "the only free, professional-grade screen magnifier that works across remote desktop software."
5. Interoperability. According to the brief, interoperability can mean many things for AT used in school, home, and community settings. It can refer to a device that can be used on multiple computer platforms, such as Windows or Mac OS X; or it can mean "the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged."
NCTI believes that as the technology industry moves toward software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing, the potential is growing for AT software applications that are not installed on a particular machine, but rather are accessed through the internet from any machine.
"As ubiquitous internet access becomes a reality in schools, this trend may empower users of specific software licenses to use that software on whatever machine they are near, thus eliminating the need for resource rooms or specialized AT labs," says the brief.
Another example of interoperability is when programs can share and compile data. One example is TeachTown, a software program that provides autism services and coordinates data and communication among parents, teachers, and clinicians. Sharing data facilitates communication, boosts the effectiveness of the clinical intervention, and eliminates the need for teachers or clinicians to transfer data manually into the school’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) records, says the brief.
According to NCTI, these five trends are critical to defining current state-of-the-art AT; however, technology developers must remember that "keeping it simple" is really the key to successful AT tools.
"NCTI hears this plea from … parents and caregivers as well. Too often, the sophistication of the features or interface of new devices precludes easy use by direct consumers or their parents, teachers, and friends. With more students being served in general-education classrooms of up to 30 students, devices need to offer as little complexity and facilitate as much independence for the user as possible," the brief says.
"It’s not just about adding new features to the stuff we already have," explained Tracy Gray, director of NCTI. "We must ask the question: What do we need to solve, and how can we do that?"
The brief also underscores the importance of state-of-the-art AT training for educators, and it lists possible uses for IDEA-based stimulus funding for schools.