‘TechTubs’ boost access to alternate curriculum for LAUSD students with significant disabilities

A “TechTub,” explains Ryan Morse, is a black-and-green plastic bin that contains four student iPads, one teacher iPad, four headsets, Apple TV Air Play, an AbleNet Action Dictionary, cables, and chargers.

To date, 288 TechTubs have been deployed in alternate curriculum programs for students with the most significant disabilities across Los Angeles Unified School District. The plan is to have one tub in each of these classrooms by the end of the 2016-17 school year, said Morse, an alternate curriculum specialist with the district.

With alternate curriculum moving more online, adding the mobile devices helps teachers and students take full advantage of the curriculum, Morse said.

“We’re using [the online curriculum] Unique Learning Systems,” Morse said. “Teachers have the option to download the documents, but they also have MyDocs, which makes each lesson interactive so the students can touch and manipulate things, project them on the board, or use text-to-speech,” he said.

Apps and built-in accessibility features also allow students more independent access, something that paper and pencil can’t always provide, he said.

“We use apps that allow the teachers to take pictures of worksheets or take pictures of text in a book and it’ll automatically convert it into a virtual, interactive worksheet with text-to-speech included as well,” Morse said.

Find out more about TechTubs and how LAUSD manages the program below.

• Shared devices promote inclusive group activities. To support small group instruction, the TechTub comes with only four iPads so students and teachers have to share them, Morse said. A classroom of 12 students might rotate the iPads through stations of four students who are being assisted by a teacher and paraprofessional, he said. Using the Air Watch available through the Apple TV in the bin, the teacher can project what one student is doing on his iPad on a larger screen that the whole class can see.

Teachers also use the TechTubs to facilitate inclusive group activities between students with and without disabilities, said Kari Tapie, coordinator of LAUSD’s Assistive Technology Lending Libraries program. “The TechTub project is focused on that integration of students with significant disabilities with their general education peers,” Tapie said.

For instance, a student may work with a student in the alternate curriculum program to read a Unique Learning Systems’ story using one of the TechTub iPads, Morse said. These devices are separate from a student’s assistive technology or augmentative and alternate communication device, but they can complement the use of such individualized technology. For instance, students might use the TechTub devices to read a story while a student uses an AAC app on his own IPad to respond to questions about the story, Morse said.

• Age-appropriate apps can be pushed out to different groups. The devices are preloaded with apps selected by a group of teachers. Using the district’s mobile device management system, the alternate curriculum department can push out certain apps that are age-appropriate for different groups of students in elementary or secondary school, Morse said. The MDM system includes separate “buckets” for the district’s IT department, AT department, and alternate curriculum department to manage their own devices and deploy apps, Morse said.

“You might see some elementary social skills video modeling going on in an app in the elementary school, whereas in high school they might be learning how to work in their community, so they might be using Google Maps or a metro app to plan bus trips.”

• Modeling use of TechTubs, sharing exemplary practices encourages use. Part of the deployment is professional development to encourage buy-in and use, Morse said. “It’s ongoing. We have a newsletter that goes out every few weeks where we highlight what you can do with the TechTubs and highlight new apps,” he said. Modeling the use of the TechTubs in the classroom helps teachers see not only how students benefit, but also how the devices can help make the teacher’s job easier, too, he said. The alternate curriculum department will also host a conference at the end of the year for teachers where vendors will be present and teachers can share how they use the TechTubs in the classroom, he said.

Research device specifications, hardware

“A lot of time and planning should go into what you’ll purchase, and what works best for the students, including the hardware involved,” Morse said. He shared these tips for planning a similar program:

• Consider the type of device, hardware, and cases you’ll need. “We looked at other devices, but we landed on the iPad because of the accessibility features for the students,” Morse said. “We chose the type of tub because it was very compact and fit just what we needed.”

• Stay in contact with representatives from vendor. “What they do affects us,” Morse said. “All their updates could change things for you.”

• Help teachers see devices as tool for instruction, not for behavior or reward. These devices are meant for instructional purposes, not as a reward or for behavioral purposes, Morse said.

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

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