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Chad Downes, Teacher/SEA Trainer, London District Catholic School Board

This article provides a foundational understanding of the differences and complementary roles of instructional and assistive technologies in education. It serves as a starting point for educators to explore how they can effectively integrate these tools into their teaching practices to support all learners, especially those with learning disabilities (LDs).

In today’s classroom, technology plays an integral role in shaping the learning experiences of students, especially those with learning disabilities. As classroom teachers, understanding the nuances between instructional technology and assistive technology is a crucial skill in creating an inclusive environment that caters to the diverse needs of learners.

Instructional Technology: Enhancing Learning for All

Instructional technology encompasses the tools and resources used to facilitate learning and improve performance. It’s an umbrella term that includes any software, hardware, or process that instructors can use to deliver content and assess student learning. Examples include interactive whiteboards, online learning platforms, and even the methodologies employed for teaching, such as flipped classrooms (like Khan Academy) or blended learning.

The goal of instructional technology is to make learning more engaging, efficient, and accessible to all students. It’s not specifically designed for students with learning disabilities, but it can be tailored to support them. For instance, a teacher might use a video presentation with subtitles to cater to both auditory and visual learners, including those who have hearing impairments or reading difficulties.

Assistive Technology: Support for Individual Needs

Assistive technology, on the other hand, is specifically designed to support individuals with disabilities in performing functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. These technologies are often personalized to address the unique challenges faced by students with LDs. They can range from simple tools like pencil grips to sophisticated programs that read text aloud or convert speech to text.

For students with LDs, text-to-speech software can be a game-changer, allowing them to comprehend written material without the barrier of their reading disability. Similarly, speech recognition technology can assist students with a learning disability in writing assignments, enabling them to dictate their thoughts without the hindrance of their handwriting difficulties.

Bridging the Gap: Complementary Roles

While instructional and assistive technologies serve different purposes, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they often complement each other in the classroom. Instructional technology can be adapted to include assistive features and assistive technology can be integrated into broader instructional strategies.

For example, a virtual learning environment (VLE) might be considered instructional technology, but when it includes options for text enlargement or colour contrast adjustments, it also serves an assistive function. Similarly, a class set of Chromebooks used to complete a writing assignment would be instructional technology, where students who use any tool in a program such as Read&Write (ie, word prediction or voice-to-text) would be utilizing assistive technology.

At times the differences may seem subtle, and it’s important to remember that it is not always the tool but how it is used that differentiates Instructional vs assistive technology. An additional example is a screen mask or line reader, which can both be utilized as instructional and assistive technology. This digital tool allows students with learning disabilities to focus or chunk their reading to avoid distractions. In this instance, the tool is being used as assistive technology. However, when the teacher uses the tool to point out important information to the entire class it would be an instructional tool.

Being able to leverage new instructional technologies requires educators to stay current with developments in education and throughout the Ministry. The human rights tribunal for Ontario conducted the Right to Read Inquiry, which listed a number of evidence-based approaches, one of which is Lexia. Lexia Core 5 is an example of instructional technology that meets the specific needs of each learner. The program provides direct instruction with opportunities for mass practice of reading skills with tiered interventions. By using instructional technology tools such as this in Math and Language, we support struggling learners and students with LDs outside their grade level to remediate their unique areas of need. The teacher is then available to support all students when they become stuck on a particular concept to ensure that all students have the necessary foundational skills to progress. Students require training and opportunities to use technology while staff should be using external evaluation to ensure the technology is addressing the skills and concepts you are expecting.

Empowering Teachers and Students

As a teacher, embracing both instructional and assistive technologies means recognizing that while all students can benefit from the former, the latter may be essential for some to access the curriculum. It’s about creating multiple pathways to learning and acknowledging that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Professional development and ongoing training are key to effectively implementing these technologies. Teachers must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to select and utilize the right tools for their students’ needs. Collaboration with special education professionals and technology specialists, as well as product training supports can provide valuable insights into the most effective use of both instructional and assistive technologies.

Conclusion: A Synergistic Approach

In conclusion, the distinction between instructional technology and assistive technology lies in their intended purpose and target audience. Instructional technology is used by the teacher and all students while assistive technology is used by students to compensate for an area of need. However, in practice, they work synergistically to support the learning of all students, particularly those with learning disabilities. By understanding and leveraging the strengths of both, teachers can create a more inclusive and empowering classroom environment.

As we move forward in the 21st century, the integration of these technologies will continue to evolve, and educators must remain adaptable and informed. The ultimate goal is to ensure that every student, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, has the opportunity to reach their full potential!

About the Author:

Chad Downes is a Teacher with the London District Catholic School and holds the position of SEA Trainer. A graduate of Media Information Techno-culture from Western University, he earned a master’s in teaching by studying the impact of computer technology on literacy. Chad holds a strong commitment to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) through a strength-based approach so that all students can achieve. Chad was the Assistive Technology Advisor for the Amethyst Provincial Demonstration School, a member of both the Accessible Formatting team as well as EDI steering committee for EQAO, and he helped rewrite the AQ course on Assistive Technology for the Ontario College of Teachers. Chad has written 2courses on Educational Technology for the Educational Supports program at Fanshawe College. His work expanded at CPRI, an inpatient mental health facility for Ontario youth, as the elearning trainer and developer, and was recently on secondment with School Mental Health Ontario. He has presented and developed capacity on 21st Century learning skills, with a focus on students with learning disabilities, at conferences around the province, including ASET, CEC, and LD@school’s Educators’ Institute.