By Nadia Rousseau, Ph. D. and Léna Bergeron, M.A., Doctoral Candidate Normand-Maurice Research Chair, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
In this review, the authors examine at the efficacy of assistive technology (AT) for intermediate level (grade 6-8) students with learning disabilities (LDs). Additionally, the authors present a number of research findings and suggestions for implementing AT.
Assistive Technology for Learning
In the education system, AT is used to provide personalized support that meets the unique needs of individual students and also allows students to access the curriculum. This support represents an adaptive pedagogical response to help reduce a student’s disability situation in the classroom while fostering the student’s autonomy (Benoît and Sagot, 2008; Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl and Zabala, 2005).
Definition of the term disability situation
The use of the term disability may surprise some readers; however, it is important to understand that the term disability situation refers to the context, or interaction, between the personal characteristics of an individual and the physical, social or cultural characteristics of his or her environment. It is this interaction that creates obstacles that prevent the individual from participating fully in a given situation (e.g. at school, with his or her family, etc.) (Paré, Parent, Rémillard and Piché, 2010).
A student may find himself or herself in a disability situation in French class and later find himself or herself in another disability situation in Phys Ed class.
For students with LDs, AT offers many benefits, including an improvement in academic achievement (Ashton, 2005; Sitko, Laine and Sitko, 2005; Strangman and Dalton, 2005), an improvement in the quality of the school experience, enthusiasm for school, more positive self-esteem, feeling more capable, and an increase in the amount of time spent working on a task (Lewis, 2005; Sitko, Laine and Sitko, 2005; Strangman and Dalton, 2005).
However, although each technology brings its share of benefits, nothing can replace a student’s cognitive engagement. A survey of the literature reveals the specific benefits and limitations of each technology (e.g., word prediction, voice synthesis, etc.) for students with LDs (Rousseau, Paquet-Bélanger, Stanké, Bergeron and Renaud, 2014). The efficacy of an assistive technology is partially determined by the degree to which a student is able to use it autonomously. In other words, students need to become experts in the technology they use and, for this, they need the support of educators.
Essentially, the main benefits of the use of AT for students with LDs are:
- An improvement in academic achievement
- A more positive school experience
- Greater enthusiasm for school
- More positive self-esteem
- Feeling more capable
- An increase in the amount of time spent working on a task
While the research findings do identify benefits, there are three factors that have an impact on the efficacy of AT:
- Systematic use in the school (Zabala and Carl, 2005);
- Teachers’ sense of their own ability to use this technology (Flanagan, Bouck and Richardson, 2013; Lewis, 2005); and
- The degree to which education stakeholders are open to their use (Bergeron, Rousseau and St-Vincent, 2012; Brunelles, 2008).
These three factors, combined with the lack of French language scientific literature on AT, led the authors to develop a two-year research-action-training project on the effective implementation of AT with intermediate level students. This project included professional development for education stakeholders and an assessment of the impact of implementation on the students who used the technology. In this review, we look at this second dimension of our project.
A Critical Look at the Benefits of AT at the Intermediate Level
Our research-action-training project was designed to achieve effective, concerted implementation of AT at the intermediate level; for this, we used a series of quantitative and qualitative tools to critically examine the benefits associated with the use of AT for intermediate level students with LDs. The juxtaposition of the perceptions of parents, students, and education stakeholders proved extremely useful to our analysis and interpretation of the data.
Participants in our data collection were 21 students between the ages of 12 and 14 who used AT, 19 educators (teachers and special education teachers), and 10 parents.
Key Contributions and Limitations of AT at the Intermediate Level
One early finding of our analysis is that educators who learn how to use AT develop a better understanding of LDs and their students are more likely to use the technology. The context provided by our research-action-training project had a positive impact on the creation of opportunities for students to use AT.
Motivation, self-confidence, and self-esteem
Educators reported that when students use AT, it increases their motivation and self-confidence. The students, who reported that certain tasks involving reading and writing were more enjoyable, corroborated this observation. This enjoyment was associated with the direct support that the technology offers and with the open-mindedness of the educator who encouraged the student to use it. This openness is interpreted as help from the educator.
In addition to being more motivated, students reported higher self-esteem in their roles as learners. They reported feeling “more confident”, “more self-assured”, and “better”. “With assistive technology, you feel like you’re doing your best. You feel like” you’re becoming “better than you were before”. Many parents also reported that their children had more confidence. The quantitative assessment of self-esteem revealed a significant difference in self-esteem. The students had higher self-esteem at the end of the project.
Some students also reported a decrease in school-related stress and fear around bad marks. The following quote speaks volumes about the role that AT can play in stress management during writing tasks:
“Before, I was more stressed. […] I have to study, I have to study. Now, I know that I have assistive technology […]. So, I can study, but now I know that if I have to write something, I will know what the subject is. I can find ideas. So, then I know that the assistive technology will help me to correct my mistakes […]. And that’s a really big help.”
A similar comment was also made about a reduction in stress related to a reading comprehension task with the use of voice recognition AT.
Educators reported that reduced stress around reading and writing leads to more positive attitudes in students. Their students were less stressed and, as a result, were less disagreeable, fidgety, and shut down. Parents also reported a decrease in school-related stress in their children.
Execution of school tasks and improvements in academic achievement
Students reported that they appreciated the help they received through the use of AT. They associated it with an increase in the concentration and attention that they brought to tasks. They reported that they were more effective in terms of the time it took them to perform a task (less time) and in terms of their achievement (completion of tasks). Similarly, educators reported that students were more engaged and took action more quickly. They reported that, for several students, AT made all the difference: they were able to complete tasks that they had not been able to complete before.
Several students reported that AT was helping them to get better marks, allowing them to achieve a passing mark or even better. Most of the students used AT for tasks requiring reading and writing, most often in French class or English class. Some students reported that they only used AT when they were being assessed. Educators also reported that AT contributed to greater progress and higher marks, particularly on written work, reading tests, and reading comprehension. This kind of success was associated with a sense of pride among the students. Parents also reported that their children’s achievement had improved.
Self-awareness and self-regulation in students with LDs
Students who used AT had a more positive perception of their role as learners. Some even went so far as to say that the experience had changed how they saw certain teachers. Most of the students were able to explain their disability or difficulty; some were also able to say that AT had enabled them to discover their most common errors and some of their difficulties with reading and writing. These students reported combining non-technological strategies with the software’s help functions, saying that this enabled them to use reading and writing strategies more effectively in a variety of contexts, with or without the software. AT contributed to their knowledge of themselves as learners and to their ability to self-regulate during a task. Their educators talked about “acceptance” of the learning disability and a decrease in feelings of “guilt” around the difficulties that the disability posed.
A tool is no substitute for individual effort
Some of the students reported that, in spite of the positive contribution that AT made to their school experience, the use of AT alone was not enough. As one student put it, “I still have to do my share of the work. […] The technology can’t do all of the work. […] I have to do my share, too.” Educators agreed, adding that remedial work done with the technology was also important, particularly for reading and writing.
Development of autonomy
The students reported that they were becoming more autonomous; they reported that the strategies they were developing in the process of using the various software programs and the simple fact of making up their own minds about their use supported their autonomy. They reported that they could choose whether or not to use the technology or, in other contexts, to follow the suggestions of their teacher. Educators also reported that their students were more autonomous: “honestly, a hundred times more, both for our students and for us!” Their students were using laptops autonomously; they described them as more responsible and more able to make choices. Some students chose to use their AT in all learning situations; others chose to use them for certain tasks. Parents also reported that their children were developing more autonomous behaviour, particularly, in doing their homework.
Educators play a key role in the effective use of AT
Educators recognized that they had a big role to play in getting other students to accept the use of AT by students with LDs. They were aware of the importance of providing early support to students as they appropriated the AT. They reported that mastery of the help functions was key to their effective use. The same applied to the importance of cohesion and communication within the team.
Recommendations for Making the Most of AT
In light of the results of our research-action-training and the literature on the effective use of AT, the authors made the following recommendations:
- Promote concerted implementation of AT throughout the school. This will lead to greater cohesion and an increased sense of safety for student users.
- Promote a clearly defined approach to implementation. This approach may be based on a theoretical model or some other model, but it must also include a certain number of key steps:
- On the technological tools for all school staff;
- On the technological tools (and their specific help functions) for all student users
- On the technological tools (and their benefits) for the parents of all student users
- Identifying needs
- That arise from LDs
- That arise from the use of technology
- Identifying needs
- A choice of AT
- That supports the specific needs of the student
- That is based on the research data on the benefits and limitations of a series of assistive technology
- A choice of AT
- Evaluating the technology
- That includes an assessment of the student’s basic competencies and, if necessary, upgrading
- That includes a trial period
- That includes an evaluation of whether to continue using the technology or to investigate other tools that could be more appropriate for the student’s needs
- Evaluating the technology
- Student self-knowledge and autonomy
- That is based on development of the student’s self-knowledge
- Knowledge of his or her difficulty or learning disability
- Knowledge of the issues that it raises (specific to the individual)
- Knowledge of the tools/strategies that are made available to the student to mitigate these issues (support for learning – decreasing the disability situation)
- That is based on the possibility of making choices
- Around the use of the tool (different contexts, different tasks)
- Around the ability to explain one’s choices (in response to a specific need, in response to a specific strategy).
- Student self-knowledge and autonomy
Related Resources Available on the LD@school Website
Ashton, T.M. (2005). Students with Learning Disabilities Using Assistive Technology in the Inclusive Classroom. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of Special Education Technology Research and Practice (p. 229-270). Wisconsin: Knowledge by Design.
Benoît, H. and Sagot, J. (2008). L’apport des aides techniques à la scolarisation des élèves handicapés, La nouvelle revue de l’adaptation and de la scolarisation, (43), p. 19-26.
Bergeron, L., Rousseau, N. and St-Vincent, L.-A. (2012). Défis and enjeux liés à l’utilisation des technologies d’aide en contexte scolaire. Revue suisse de pédagogie spécialisée. Les MITIC. Handicap and migration. Nouveau droit de protection de l’adulte, (4), 31-39.
Bergeron, L., St-Vincent, L.-A. and Rousseau, N. (2014). La mise en place des technologies d’aide chez les enseignants du secondaire : exemple d’un processus de changement and d’appropriation. Dans N. Rousseau and V. Angelucci (dir.), Les aides technologiques à l’apprentissage pour soutenir l’inclusion scolaire (p. 111-130). Québec : Presses de l’Université du Québec.
Brunelles, P. (2008). Aides techniques, scolarité, élèves à besoins spécifiques. Dans J. Sagot and T. Bertrand (dir.), Des aides techniques pour l’accessibilité à l’école (p. 27-44). Suresnes : Éditions de l’INS HEA.
Flanagan, S., Bouck, E.C. and Richardson, J. (2013). Middle School Special Education Teachers’ Perceptions and Use of Assistive Technology in Literacy Instruction. Assistive Technology: The Official Journal of RESNA, 25, 24-30.
Lewis, R.B. (2005). Classroom technology for students with learning disabilities. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of special education technology research and practice (p. 325-334). Whitefish Bay: Knowledge by Design.
Paré, C., Parent, G., Rémillard, M.-B. and Piché, J.-P. (2010). Le modèle du processus de production du handicap de Fougeyrollas. Dans N. Rousseau (dir.), La pédagogie de l’inclusion scolaire. Pistes d’action pour apprendre tous ensemble (p. 265-286). Québec : Presses de l’Université du Québec.
Rose, D.H., Hasselbring, T.S., Stahl, S. and Zabala, J. (2005). Assistive Technologie and Universal Design for Learning: Two Sides of the Same Coin. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of Special Education Technology Research and Practice (p. 507-518). Wisconsin: Knowledge by Design.
Rousseau, N. (2010). Troubles d’apprentissage and technology d’aide. L’accès à une vie scolaire riche and stimulante. Québec : Septembre éditeur.
Rousseau, N., Paquet-Bélanger, N., Stanké, B. and Bergeron, L. (avec la coll. de M. Renaud) (2014). Pédagogie universelle and technologie d’aide : deux voies complémentaires favorisant le soutien tantôt collectif, tantôt individuel aux apprentissages. Dans N. Rousseau and V. Angelucci (dir.), Les aides technologiques à l’apprentissage pour soutenir l’inclusion scolaire (p. 5-38). Québec : Presses de l’Université du Québec.
Sitko, M.C., Laine, C.J. and Sitko, C. (2005). Writing Tools: Technology and Strategies for Struggling Writers. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of Special Education Technology Research and Practice (p. 571-598). Wisconsin: Knowledge by Design.
Strangman, N. and Dalton, B. (2005). Using Technology to Support Struggling Readers: A Review of the Research. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of Special Education Technology Research and Practice (p. 545-569). Wisconsin: Knowledge by Design.
Zabala, J.S. and Carl, D.F. (2005). Quality indicators for assistive technology services in schools. Dans D. Edyburn, K. Higgins and R. Boone (dir.), Handbook of special education technology research and practice (p. 179-208). Wisconsin: Knowledge by Design.
 Note: this review was conducted in Quebec, where students in grades 6 – 8 are referred to as Secondary I students; in Ontario, students in grades 6-8 are at the intermediate level.
 This review only deals with learning disabilities; however, we did find that where students with attention deficit disorder are concerned, the use of assistive technology also led to a significant difference in self-esteem. Improvements in self-esteem were much higher among sporadic users than among regular users.
 For example, the school could use the model presented in Bergeron, St-Vincent and Rousseau (2014, Table 6.1, p. 123-124), Zabala and Carl’s QIAT model (2005) presented in Rousseau (2010, p. 83-98) or Raskind’s model (2006) presented in Rousseau (2010, p. 24-25).
 Rousseau, Paquet-Bélanger, Stanké and Bergeron, with the co-operation of Renaud, 2014, p. 6-38.
Nadia Rousseau has a master’s degree in Special Education and a PhD in Psychopedagogy from the University of Alberta. She teaches at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and is the Normand-Maurice Research Chair. She leads the QISAQ, a group of researchers and undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students who are interested in the qualification and inclusion of young adults in Quebec. Winner of an award for excellence in research in 2009, Professor Rousseau’s areas of interest are the school experience and self-knowledge of young people with learning disabilities, inclusive pedagogy, and factors conducive to an increase in the number of young people with learning difficulties who are successful in earning a certificate, diploma or degree.
Léna Bergeron has a master’s degree in Education from Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, where she is currently working on a doctoral degree in Education. She is a Research Assistant to the Normand-Maurice Research Chair and a student member of LISIS, an international laboratory on inclusiveness in education systems. Her areas of interest are, support for the development of self-determination in students with special needs and education planning for a broad range of students.