The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002) outline the role that technology could play in the education of students, especially those with special needs. Both initiatives emphasize assistive and instructional technologies to provide access to the general curriculum and improve instruction. They also emphasize the importance of professionals capable and qualified to deliver high quality instruction.
However, this heightened emphasis on assistive and instructional technologies has presented challenges for many schools and districts.
To learn more about the challenges facing districts and schools, the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) conducted seven focus groups in 2005 in urban and suburban locations. The focus groups were held with general and special education teachers, administrators, assistive technology service providers, and mathematic education experts.
The dialogues focused on the difficulties that students with disabilities encounter in learning mathematics, instructional strategies teachers use to address these challenges, and how teachers integrate technology in their mathematics instruction.
The CITEd team found common challenges facing schools and districts with respect to providing technology-enhanced mathematics instructions, including funding, time constraints, and the need to provide professional development that embeds technology in content area training.
These challenges are explored below; how schools and districts are creating solutions for them is explored in a companion document, Creative Solutions to Technology Integration Challenges in Mathematics.
The most common obstacle mentioned by teachers and administrators was funding.
A lack of funding touches every level of education and makes it particularly difficult to provide technology infrastructure and tools, sufficient support staff, and professional development opportunities. When schools and districts are faced with shrinking budgets, improving technology and providing technology training is not considered a priority, according to several teachers and administrators. Many computers and software programs in the classrooms are outdated. Schools and districts have limited computers, Internet access, software and support to offer each classroom.
Limited funding can also mean limited professional development opportunities. Many schools and districts do not have funds to hire outside consultants and must rely on internal resources for technology training. The result, teachers reported, is often superficial training on technology without explicit time spent on planning how to integrate the technology into their curriculum and instruction.
An interesting counter-example, however, came from a school serving a severely economically depressed neighborhood.
Maximizing their fundraising-capacity as a technology magnet school serving a high-poverty, underserved community has resulted in an enviable, technology-rich teaching and learning environment. The school has smart boards and laptops available to all classrooms, plus computer labs, content area coaches as well as technology support staff, and a robust plan for professional development. Their situation shows that funds can be found even in high poverty areas.
Another obstacle that many teachers face is personal and school-day time constraints. That teachers' time is tight is no surprise.
Our discussions revolved around the impact that reality had on teachers' ability to find resources and do the planning work necessary to integrate technology into their teaching.
Teachers lamented that their time constraints prevented them even knowing what there was to know.
"I'd like to know what my options are…I don't know what I could have that would enhance the process," one teacher reported.
And while teachers know the Internet could provide them with a vast database of free resources, they do not have time to search for them and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available.
"Where do I begin?" asked one teacher. The teachers identified a need for trusted clearinghouses of reviewed information that could sort and review these resources.
Time constraints and rigid scheduling also limit a class's access to a school's computer lab. Predetermined schedules and the high ratio of students to computers make it difficult for teachers to integrate their lab time into content area instruction in a meaningful way.
"You have to barter to get time in [the lab]! I would love to use it, and I know I should use it. But I don't," one teacher laughed in exasperation.
Both funding limitations and time constraints contribute to the third challenge. Here, the challenge is the dire need to offer teachers in-depth, ongoing professional development in teaching mathematics that embeds the specific technology solutions they have access to in their classrooms.
In the absence of such an intensive and targeted learning opportunity, respondents spoke of the difficulty of leaving teachers to figure out how to integrate technology into their instruction on their own time.
Several assistive technology and mathematics experts noted a perception of a difference between students who struggle with mathematics versus reading. They expressed concern that mathematics disabilities are considered more acceptable than reading disabilities by some teachers and parents.
Underdeveloped guidelines for identifying students with mathematics disabilities may also leave a large population of struggling learners unidentified. Students who need individualized instruction may not be receiving it.
Teachers who have access to mathematics coaches in their school appreciate the expertise these colleagues offer, but recognize that the coaches rarely have expertise in technology solutions or special education. Solutions for students with disabilities lie in the dynamic collaboration of these three areas of expertise.
Further discussion will lead to a better understanding of how to overcome the challenges facing schools and districts. The CITEd team has provided resources below that can be used as first steps, but also encourages you to address these common challenges by participating in the CITEd online community and sharing your creative solutions.
Planning for Funding and Budget
This resource discusses important factors to consider when planning your technology budget.
The Tech Matrix
The math and reading matrices, developed by CITEd and NCTI, are searchable databases that present evidence and products for the use of technologies that support instruction for students with special needs.
21st Century Information Fluency Project
This is an excellent portal that provides well organized and tech-savvy lesson plans, implementation tips, listings for free professional development opportunities and annotated links for other good resources.
Digital File Management
This tool shows teachers the best ways to manage technology in their classrooms.
Assistive Technology (AT) Ideas for Writing, Reading, Math, Studying and Organizing (PDF)
This document provides strategies and modifications for using assistive technology.