6 emerging technology trends ready to revolutionize special education

First, there was the iPad. Then, there were communication apps that were cheaper and more portable than dedicated devices.

What’s next in the world of assistive technology?

Bridget Gilormini, the director of the Simon Technology Center in the PACER Center, shared a list of potential contenders during PACER’s webinar Emerging Technologies: The Changing World of Assistive Technology.

Expect to see more of these trends and tools in your district:

• 3D printing. There are so many possibilities with 3D printers, Gilormini said. In some instances, printing AT can be much cheaper than buying a product off the shelf, she said. Parts for a 3D-printed prosthetic can be reprinted if broken, or the entire prosthetic can be reprinted when a student outgrows a previous model. 3D printers can also be used to make tactile books for students with vision impairments or for students who learn visually, Gilormini said. Look at websites such as Thingiverse and Instructables for popular children’s books designs, she said.

• Contextual computing. This technology uses conditions, such as GPS locations, to perform tasks, Gilormini said. Think about the contextual computing built into smartphones as an example. A student can set reminders for a location rather than a specific time, Gilormini said. A student can tell the personal assistant on his smartphone, “Remind me to do my homework when I get home,” she said.

Contextual computing can also be useful in conjunction with communication apps, Gilormini said. For instance, with the app SuperSpeak, an educator can place small beacons at points in a school or classroom. When a student’s device approaches the beacon, the app automatically displays vocabulary specific to that location, she said. Thus, when a student enters an art room that has a beacon, his color words and art vocabulary would appear on the screen.

Some schools and police departments are experimenting with contextual computing as a means of transmitting real-time information about a person in an emergency, Gilormini said. The VITALS app, which stands for Vulnerable Individuals Technology Assisted Location Services, uses credit card-sized beacons to send information about a person’s disability, related triggers, and calming techniques to first responders and other authorized users in the app’s network. The information is transmitted when an individual carrying the beacon comes within 40 feet of a person using the app.

• The DIY/Maker movement. Special educators are using the DIY/Maker movement to build solutions for young children with disabilities, Gilormini said. Look at the “Bumbo wheelchair” project, which attaches a wheelchair to a Bumbo seat, she said. “That’s providing young children with mobility,” she said. Another example is the University of Delaware’s GoBabyGo project, which teaches people how to rewire motorized cars with accessible switches for students who aren’t able to use a foot pedal, she said.

• Telepresence and robotics. Originally created for conferences, telepresence is now helping students with significant health conditions participate in class virtually, Gilormini said. “The robot becomes their avatar at school,” she said. The VGo robot is a tablet on wheels that can be controlled remotely by a student, Gilormini said. A stationary option is Kubi, which sits on a desk and can be remotely controlled for panning and rotating the screen, she said. Schools are also starting to use robots such as Milo and Nao to teach social skills and robots such as the Bee-Bot to introduce computer programming to students. Gilormini said.

• The Internet of Things. The “Internet of Things” describes everyday internet-connected devices and objects, Gilormini said. “One thing I’m most excited about is technology connected to the internet that I can use my voice with,” she said. For instance, using Amazon’s Echo with Alexa, a person can control lights and other internet-connected devices in their environments using only their voices, Gilormini said.

The Internet of Things can also be useful for monitoring daily routines. Mother is a hub with sensors that collect information from objects. For example, a person can attach a sensor to a pill bottle, and the hub will track when the bottle was opened and send an alert if it wasn’t opened at a specific time, Gilormini said.

• Wearables. Wearables can make existing technology more portable and faster to use, Gilormini said. For instance, a student can access a limited version of the AAC app Proloquo2Go on his wrist with the Apple Watch, she said. The wearable movement also encompasses accessible and adaptive clothing, which is designed to make it easier for an individual with a disability to get dressed independently, Gilormini said. For example, Independence Day Clothing makes tagless clothes that can be worn inside out or backwards, she said. Clothing can be used to apply calming pressure for students with anxiety with inflatable vests. The Tjacket is an inflatable vest that can be programmed using an app, Gilormini said. Finally, educators should anticipate the emergence of EEG headsets, still in testing phases, that can read a person’s brain waves and indicate a “yes” or “no” response to choices, Gilormini said.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.

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