Assistive Technology Interventions and Equity Within Literacy Instruction: Comparing Activity Theory Models

Assistive Technology Interventions and Equity Within Literacy Instruction: Comparing Activity Theory Models

Catherine Lipson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8860-4.ch012
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This study examines ways to provide assistive technology interventions within literacy courses for adolescents and young adults with disabilities. Instead of separating students from their peers during reading and writing assignments, literacy teachers who implement assistive technology can support equitable access to school curricula and technology-based learning resources. Unresolved questions about teacher training and accessibility led to the problem statement: What technology resources have special education service providers found useful during literacy instruction for students with support needs? Research reporting findings from intervention studies and/or interviews with educators showed differences between activity systems in secondary and post-secondary environments. Teachers' beliefs and expectations about student characteristics and the need for individual assistance could contribute to inequities in access to literacy instruction. The thematic analysis revealed practices within literacy classes that can decrease or maintain inequities for students with support needs.
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During the final two decades of the 20th century, technology use within schools was expected to transform “how teachers teach, how schools are organized, and how students work together and learn” (Culp et al., 2005, p. 20). Technology resources for school-age children were initially concentrated in specialized “computer rooms,” with little attempt to integrate the new technology with any classroom-based curricula.

Much of the technology associated with educational programs for students with support needs, such as wheelchairs, walkers, or leg braces, was meant to address physical support needs. For an instructional environment enhanced through technology, rehabilitation and support specialists also provided assistive technology that included ways to “increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities” of individuals with support needs (Tech Act, 1988, §300.5). These functional capabilities include literacy in all its forms: reading, writing, and responding verbally to printed or digital texts. Assistive technology solutions for students who require support with literacy tasks are an example of a compensatory approach within education: the technology can compensate for individual differences during reading or writing activities.

As technology advanced in the 21st century, teachers began to use desktop computers and printers in their classrooms. Internet connections became faster and more reliable, providing access to a wealth of resources previously only available within libraries. However, classroom reading and writing instruction remained nearly the same as it had been in the 1980s. When schools began to offer technology elective classes, these continued to be physically separated from classrooms where students did most of their reading and writing.

Within the last eight to twelve years, the capability to provide computers or laptops to an entire classroom has become a reality for many school districts. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards provided an infusion of funds that allowed schools to upgrade their technology options. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium requires all devices (computers and tablets) used by students during testing to meet certain requirements, so previous computers owned by the school districts had to be replaced.

However, hiring a technology specialist to support testing accommodations does not guarantee that this expertise will be passed along to classroom teachers. During daily instruction, it is unclear whether every student with support needs is fully supported by available classroom computers/tablets. Hew and Brush (2007) noted that there is no standard definition of technology integration in educational settings despite the common use of resources such as laptops, software, and the Internet for instructional purposes. Unresolved questions about teacher training, accessibility, and technology led to the research question for this literature review. There has been a lack of research demonstrating the extent to which secondary and post-secondary classroom teachers have integrated technology into literacy instruction for students with support needs (Hasselbring & Bausch, 2006; Parette et al., 2006; Alper & Rahaninirina, 2006).

Special education service providers are required to facilitate equitable access to the content of school curricula and any technology-based learning resources that support access (Edyburn, 2009; Ottenbreit-Leftwich et al., 2015). Integrating appropriate forms of technology into educational practice can ensure that students make progress during school activities as well as increase their social participation (Hemmingsson et al., 2009). Universal design principles advocate accessible and inclusive learning experiences for students with support needs and recommend integrating technological solutions to support literacy (Davies et al., 2013).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Accessible or Accessibility: Refers to products, devices, services, or environments designed for people with support needs. Many mainstream technology products are now equipped with accessibility features such as text-to-speech.

Adaptive Technology: The term adaptive technology refers to “an item that is specifically designed for persons with disabilities; devices which would seldom be used by non-disabled persons” (Family Center on Disability and Technology, 2009 AU46: The in-text citation "Disability and Technology, 2009" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Deficit Model of Disability: The belief that teachers need to identify “deficient” students and provide remedial solutions while isolating students who need support with reading or writing from their peers.

Literacy Instruction: Encompasses any form of reading and writing within instructional contexts, including viewing print and nonprint texts.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication: For individuals with support needs who have limited speech, the term Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) describes any form of nonspeech communication that replaces or complements natural speech.

Compensatory Approaches: For students who have support needs in reading and understanding printed text, the compensatory use of assistive technology can deliver information through another medium ( Edyburn, 2009 ).

Remedial Approaches: Re-teaching skills and concepts that students have not acquired during previous instructional efforts. Remedial approaches often follow assessment results that reveal academic areas where a student receives lower scores than same-age or same-grade-level peers.

Assistive Technology (AT): The Assistive Technology Act of 1998 defines assistive technology as any “product, device, or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” This definition is more inclusive than adaptive technology although it can also refer to specialized equipment or systems used “to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities” of individuals with support needs.

Technology Integration: Although definitions of technology integration within the K-12 literature vary ( Hew & Brush, 2007 ), this chapter’s focus on literacy instruction and interventions constrains the use of this term to using digital tools for teaching and learning purposes.

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