Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology- Part I: Where have we been and where are we headed?

In this Part I webinar based on the 2010 NCTI Brief on the use of innovation as AT, hosts Alise Brann and Tracy Gray of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) discusses the brief's findings and their use to provide insight for current and future investment, development, and research in AT. 




- [Voiceover] Good afternoon. My name is Tracy Gray, and I am part of the Center on Technology and Disability here in Washington, D.C. at the American Institutes for Research. I'm joined today with my colleague, Elise Brandt, who's also with the American Institutes for Research, who's joining us from Boston, and Ana-Maria Gutierrez, who is part of our team from FHI360. We're delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you today about our exciting work, Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology. Where have we been, and where are we headed? This is work that we started through the National Center for Technology Innovation in 2010, and also the Center for Implementing Technology in Education, both projects funded by the US Department of Education, OSEP. We were able to reach out to thought leaders from around the country to really focus on this question of assistive technology and how can we really leverage all of the exciting tools and the changing technologies that were occurring in 2010 up to the present.

We conducted research that focused on not only current but also future investments and developments and research ideas related to developing and rolling out tools to meet the needs of students with disabilities. We asked ourselves the questions of, "What have been the significant changes "over the last five years? "Where are we going with assistive technology?" and, "What are the possibilities for innovation "that exist with all of the new tech that we now have "in our pockets, in our homes, in our cars, and elsewhere," and so, we're working as part of the CTD team to build upon this work, to highlight changes in the field, and to identify future direction. So, let's look at where we've been and get a sense of what the foundation is, based on our research from 2009 and 2010. At that time, as I noted, we reached out to the field, and we heard from 65 thought leaders, who represented a wide range of professional roles. You can see from the pie chart that the majority of people who connected with us were in the field of education and training.

They accounted for 58%, and we also had people from academia. That was 21%. Business and industry, people who were developing technology, working in ed tech represented 11%. We were able to get comments from policy makers at the federal, state, and local level, and also professional associations. What we did was we analyzed this information, and we focused on a key question. One was, "What are state of the art AT devices?" 'Cause we wanted to get a sense of how the field defined these terms. What we found was, in terms of the responses, that these were the devices that used the latest, most convenient technology that saves time and efforts for students and teachers. Also, those that use the latest technology and teaching strategies in their implementation. These were devices that increased portability, wireless access, and ease of use, and if you think back to 2010, which, when we put it in the context of technology and innovation, that does seem like eons ago.

People were just starting to be using smartphones and using wireless devices, not only throughout their homes but also in business and school settings. One of the other things that we heard is that AT is life-enhancing for a very broad spectrum of individuals, and that, if they provide very simple tools, in many instances, that help individuals overcome barriers, whether it's for enhanced communication, using text-to-speech, or many of the other features that we have available to us in AT devices. What we were very pleased to see is that there were five key themes that emerged in our survey responses, and what makes this research so exciting is that, when you look at these five themes, you'll see their relevance when we think about assistive technology today, in 2014. The first overarching theme was convergence. That's where you see the transformation of technology devices across a variety of technological systems to move to a single platform to perform multiple tasks. For example, smartphones. If you look at your smartphone, it brings together technologies that were once only available on separate platforms. This is particularly important when you think about students with special needs and how these types of devices are able to support students, whereas previously, they had to go to a resource room, where they found a whole variety of AT tools.

Now, depending upon the needs of the student, because of convergence, they can go to one device and get the type of support they need. The next theme had to do with customizability, or universal design for learning. I'm sure all of you are familiar with the notion of UDL and the importance to make sure that materials and the curriculum is accessible to students, can meet their needs, and that the materials are presented in formats that can be adapted by the teacher to meet the special needs of the students. Portability. Devices have gotten a lot smaller. It's always interesting to look at old movies, where you see people using handheld devices. It looks like they're putting a mixmaster up to their ear. We know that they've gotten much smaller, whether it's your computer or your phone or whatever the device is. We also see that portability being played out with AT devices, where students are able to take those devices with them, use them in the classroom without, again, having to go to a separate place. There're all different kinds of tools and devices that are now being made available to students where they can, in some instances, go to their laptop, and they can identify what their special needs are, and those accommodations are made available on that particular computer.

So, AT has gotten more portable, smaller, and much easier to use. Since we did this research, there's also been an emergence of researchers who are focusing on issues related to assistive technology and special needs. The research on state of the art devices has gotten a lot more focused, where they're looking at special populations and identifying how those AT devices can, in fact, support the needs of students with disability. And then, interoperability. We've certainly seen the emergence of tools where you have the ability to use two or more systems or components to exchange information. You can move from one platform to another, and that also makes it a lot easier for students to access material that heretofore were not available to them because devices were not able to communicate across multiple platforms. So, the underlying theme that we heard over and over from our respondents was that designs need to be simple, and the designers of these technology tools really need to think about how these tools can operate across platforms to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

So, let's move on. In terms of this question of, "What is the state "of the art of AT training?" As we know, the notion of professional development and training still emerges as one of the key challenges facing teachers and other personnel, particularly those working with students with special needs. Over 60% of our special needs students spend over 80% of their time in general ed classrooms, so it is evermore imperative for teachers and other staff to know what's available, in terms of AT devices, and how those devices can support students with special needs. So, in terms of, "What is the state "of the art in AT training?" there was a very strong recognition of the need for hands-on opportunities for trainees. Time to actually plan and to learn how to use these AT devices. There's the need for it to be simple and intuitive, and there continues to be this need for just in time follow-up support. We all have heard from teachers that it's great to have trainings at the beginning of the year or throughout the year, but what's really missing is when they need help now, and they need it just in time to make sure that the technology that they have in the classroom works for the students, and when they need that help, they need a place to go to get it.

And also, there was a call for collaborative decision-making. Teachers and others talked about the need to have learning communities, where they can connect with their peers and others who are working with students to share what works and what doesn't work. So, those are all relevant findings that clearly speak to the need of people today working in schools and classrooms. So, in terms of state of the art training, to integrate that technology into the classroom, what do teachers need? They need high-quality, expert-led, and targeted training. Again, that hands-on experience. They need practice using the tool, using these particular devices in authentic classroom environments, and they need training and support that helps them connect the use of these devices and technology tools to particular content areas in curriculum. And they were looking for a multi-faceted approach for training; one that provides multiple opportunities for learning in a variety of formats: online forums, tutorial videos, and face-to-face instruction, and again, they underscore the need for that ongoing support and on-site assistance. So, now I'm going to hand it over to Elise to talk about the state of AT and training, and where are we now? Take it away, Elise.

- [Voiceover] Great, thanks Tracy. So, one of the exciting things, as Tracy and I started to go through this report and think about how can we update it now, since so much has changed, is really starting to look at what is happening in the field. Here we are, almost in 2015, and how well that aligned with all of the things that our survey respondents were saying back in 2009, that this was their vision for where AT needed to go, and where we are now kind of aligns very nicely. So, we've decided to, just for this particular webinar focus on one area of AT that is pretty exciting, right now, and very innovative, and that would be, if you can guess from this picture of this adorable little child, here, Do It Yourself. Creating your own AT with things like 3D printers, laser cutters, et cetera. So, here's a great example of a little boy with his hand, and we thought this was really interesting because anyone who works in AT has always been a DIY-er, a maker.

Way back when I did my classwork in assisted technology, we had a course where we learned how to build things with corrugated cardboard, and I'm sure any special ed teacher or AT specialist is used to getting creative, having to use rubber bands and cardboard to build a stand, and I'm gonna click through this one. Sorry, I've lost my voice. I'm coming down with a cold, so I keep starting to lose my voice. And so, when we started to look at what people in AT are doing now, it really reflected that DIY mentality that a lot of AT specialists have already, and the connections that AT has now with Maker Culture we thought was a really interesting thing to look at, in terms of where we are now versus this technology. Is there anyone who's not familiar with the Maker Movement or Maker Culture? It's a technology-supported offshoot of DIY. It's very collaborative and community-focused. There's a big focus on open-source designs and sharing ideas. There's a focus on creative and collaborative problem-solving and invention using both online and in-person spaces.

So, you may have heard things about MakerSpaces, FabLabs, which is a place that you can go and use fabrication tools, HackerSpaces, and both local and national Maker Faires, where people will come together and show off the things that they've made, and it's really exciting in terms of assistive technology because it's opening up a lot of the tools of manufacturing that would have been previously something that we couldn't, as consumers, access, and gives you the opportunity to, if there's something that you need for a student, a child that you're working with, that does not exist, you can build it yourself. You can create it yourself. So, it moves us from consumers to both inventors and designers and builders. It also opens up the potential for the student or the user with the disability, themselves, to become the designer and the inventor of their own assistive technology. So, we really thought this was a good example of how innovators in the field are helping to push the future of assistive technology and assistive devices forward with innovation in things like wearables, 3D printed prosthetics, like the picture I showed earlier, and devices for daily living, and a great Sounds like there's (cuts out) going on with the sound.

- [Voiceover] I think it's better now, Elise.

- [Voiceover] Yes.

- [Voiceover] Great!

- [Voiceover] Thank you! And so, one of the most exciting examples in terms of devices for daily living. I'm sure many of you have seen this new spoon that helps people with tremors, and it vibrates in such a way that it adjusts tremors, and this was created by a few people who knew some people with tremors and thought, "Something like this doesn't exist, and I've seen "how challenging this is for my friends that have tremors "and are unable to use a spoon to eat, "so I'm gonna build it myself," and now, Google has just purchased this tool, and it's being disseminated widely. So, that's another great example of someone saying, "This doesn't exist, but I can build it. "I can make this happen." And so, it aligns really nicely with those key themes that Tracy was talking about earlier. These things are customizable. Certainly with things like 3D printed prosthetics, it's easy enough for somebody, especially for young children, to create something that fits them where they are in their life, and as they grow and change or as their needs change, to be able to create a new device or a new prosthetic that meets that student's or that child's needs as they go forward.

And far more cheaply and far more quickly than they would have been able to do previously. It allows you to create things that are portable, address multiple needs, and promote user independence, and particularly with that potential for AT users to become AT designers and really make things that meet their specific needs. So, as I mentioned before, one of the ways that Maker Culture is really changing AT and is helping to push it forward and look at new innovations in AT is that it's giving us access to tools of manufacturing: 3D printers, laser cutters, single-board microcontrollers. I love this picture, here, of these, from Enabling the Future, these students building their own devices and their own tools, and open-source design plans. You can go out there and find, even if you are not a designer, there's communities out there that will work with you, or there are people that have already uploaded designs and ideas that you can take and use for your own, print out things using local 3D printers. It's really helped to democratize this process of manufacturing and being able to create your own assistive technology. So, that's just one small example of what we thought.

You know, it was a good representative example, though, of where AT is right now, and what some of the exciting things that are happening are, and how they align to those themes that people brought up way back in 2009, back in the dark ages. So, we wanted to look at, now, as part of this kick off webinar: we have an online forum that we've created on the CTD website to give everybody a space to discuss and share their thoughts. We've also created a survey to start to gather in this information, but we wanna look at, "Where are we going next?" and use this information that we collect over the course of the next month or so to update this 2010 report and look forward to the next five years of innovation in AT and AT training.

So, there's a link here to our survey. It's also included in our event, or you can feel free to participate in the discussion forum as a way of sharing thoughts and ideas. Please feel free to share the survey with colleagues or others in your network. The more information, the more ideas, the more thoughts, the better, and we'll be hosting a follow-up webinar in January to talk about the initial feedback, initial responses that we've gotten and give you a little sneak-peek for where this new report will be headed. And now, I wanna make sure that we open it up to questions, and I see one, already, asking, "Would the Raspberry-Pi "be an example of a single-board microcontroller?" Yes. Absolutely. I was thinking Raspberry-Pi and those types of devices, where you can get this little board and then program and create something to do just about anything that you want it to do. Good question.

- [Voiceover] Well, and that's just a great example of what we've seen emerging since we did this work in 2010. There's just been really an enormous amount of not only innovation but really, of focus on meeting the individual needs of students. I'm sure many of you, if not all of you, can reflect back on going to conferences where the display area was filled with these huge screen readers and these huge devices that filled up the convention hall, and now, you go, and you see a lot more innovation and a lot more exciting tools, because developers have found that there's a huge marketplace, and the convergence of students with special needs and those aging boomers has made it a much more lucrative marketplace, because when we started this, years ago, at the National Center for Technology Innovation, what we heard from developers was that they didn't feel that the market was sufficiently robust for them to get into assistive technology, whether it was text-to-speech or some of the other features. Those features, now, have become pretty mainstay for technology devices, and so, I think we've just seen an enormous burgeoning of these kinds of issues over the years, where the needs of students are now becoming integrated into general consumer technology.

- [Voiceover] Looks like we've got Betsy typing and Jackie typing. Yeah, and I think that's one of the most exciting things about some of these tools, Tracy, is, as you mentioned, a lot of devices or tools that were only useful for a small percentage of the population, it was not viable for companies or developers to create some of these products, or it would be one person creating it in their garage and trying to meet the needs of the field but not being able to get enough of a market share to do all these different prototypes or whatever, and now, with things like 3D printing or access to FabLabs, you can do a one-off very easily, or you can make a small run of something that is really, truly customized for one user's individual needs, and then make some small changes to it and do another one that's more customized to a different user's needs.

- [Voiceover] Let's look at Betsy's question, where Betsy's saying that she can see the advantages in creativity to MakerSpace AT, but how about when it breaks? Then, there's no support from a company. What would you say about that issue? That's a great concern, Betsy, and certainly, where you think of a school district or a parent paying a large sum of money, and then, the tool breaks, and with any kind of innovation, that's certainly going to be a concern, and it is incumbent upon the consumer to be circumspect about what the support is from the company.

- [Voiceover] Yeah, I mean, I think there's pluses and minuses, certainly, to things like MakerSpaces or Maker-type products, and one of the benefits is there's, particularly with things like 3D-printed prosthetics or devices for daily living, but if those break, or you have, it's fairly simple and fairly inexpensive to create another one. So, that's one benefit, but certainly, for more complicated things or if you are using an app, for example, that just some guy has created or some girl, some woman, there may not be that level of support that you would get with something like the Kurzweil-type programs, where you know that there's a company behind it, and you can reach out to somebody. Sometimes, when you may be downloading an app, it may have been somebody that created it halfway around the world to meet a specific need and they're no longer supporting it, so yes, there's definitely risks involved.

- [Voiceover] Let's go to Jackie's question about, "What do we see as the barriers for moving "from proof of concept to widespread adoption "of a new device or program?" That's a great question, Jackie, and I think we've all been humbled by working in schools and the challenges of purchasing equipment of any kind. Just the procurement process tends to be quite slow and laborious, and then, when you talk about moving from proof of concept to widespread adoption, that becomes even more challenging, although, I think schools are recognizing that they're obligated to ensure that all students have the necessary AT that they need and that there's more pressure on them to find those devices that meet their needs, but you raise a really good question about how do we break through those barriers. One of the ways is to set aside funds to make sure that people know about these particular devices. Oftentimes, the two key pieces in development that get short-tripped is the marketing and also the professional development to support the implementation of these devices. But you raised a really good point. Betsy's raising the point about it being hard to develop a system of support based on MakerSpace AT. Elise, what's your sense of that?

- [Voiceover] Yeah, I think, you know, it's definitely, MakerSpaces are definitely just one example of how AT is shifting and what innovation might look like in AT. I think one of the... I don't see MakerSpaces as that much different from where AT has always been. Certainly, there's, we've always had to purchase hardware and software, but anyone who has worked with students with special needs has made use of TheraBands or rigged up something to help give their student movement while they're sitting, or created, you know, like I said, I used to build stands for devices out of cardboard, because we didn't always have the funds to get something specific that we needed for a student, and oftentimes, it was very expensive. So, it's one example of how technology is helping people in AT be able to do those same kinds of things that we've always done, and with building and creating, but to do it in a new way. But certainly, it's not when everybody is kind of creating their own or building their own, even if you're part of a community, there's still that lack of official support. There's community support, and there's a collaborative spirit, and you can certainly connect up with other ATE specialists that are doing similar things, but it's not the same level as being able to call an 800 number and get somebody to help you troubleshoot if something is not working.

- [Voiceover] Well, and Marvin's raising a really good point about being concerned about lower income, under-resourced communities, and that has been a concern, I think, from day one. The challenge of making sure that under-resourced schools have these devices available. One could argue that the Maker Movement, in some ways, is a possible way to get around that, but I don't think we're naive in realizing that making sure that low income communities have the necessary support and that they shouldn't be expected to develop them themselves. That that's not an excuse, if you will, to make sure that these students have the devices that they need. You've got some really good questions going on, here. Sorry, Elise.

- [Voiceover] Oh, yeah, I was just gonna say, one, if any of you have not been to this site, if nothing else, it's your feel-good for the afternoon, because they have great videos, but the boy that I posted with his 3D printed hand is from a site called Enabling the Future, and this is people from all over the world who are working together to build and design and 3D print hands for children, and many of these are low resource communities, and people are volunteering their time. So, it's a great example of how these communities are finding ways to provide, in this case, prosthetics to resource-poor areas and places that may not have access to these types of devices. There's certainly much, much more that needs to be done, and even with there being MakerSpaces that are cropping up in communities or websites like Shapeways, where you can send your design and pay to have it printed and mailed to you. That's not going to be an option that's always available for schools or for parents or families who are in low income communities and don't have those same kinds of resources. So it's definitely a concern.

- [Voiceover] And Jackie's, yeah, Jackie's raising the issue of staff attitudes and training, and that's always been a challenge, and it can be a huge barrier. I think what we're seeing, and, of course, it's moving much faster in some places, but where students are taking ownership for their own technology needs. Now, obviously, we're not talking about students with severe disabilities, but students who need these kinds of support because there's growing sophistication on the part of our students, that the notion of the only way assistive technology or a general technology is gonna get into the classroom is if the teacher can use the tool. I think what we're finding in a growing number of school districts is that students are, in fact, because of their facile abilities with these tools, are basically taking the tools into their own hands and finding creative ways to integrate them in the classroom. And thanks, Andy, for putting the Enabling the Future site up there, and also Betsy noting that. That's a really interesting point. In Rhode Island, that the libraries are starting to create MakerSpaces there. So, that's certainly a place to keep our eye on, in terms of what's being developed, and back to Jackie's issue, of what's actually getting traction and getting out there into the hands of the students and teachers who need these tools.

- [Voiceover] Yes. There's a lot of exciting things happening, and we hope that, definitely, you'll continue to think about these things and add them either to the discussion forum that we've created or to the survey, because, I think, these are gonna be the really important issues that need to get pulled out into this new, updated report about innovate AT use. And I see Jackie's point, yes, about good teachers won't feel threatened by student ownership, but some device use will require adjusted and universally-designed lesson plans.

- [Both Voices] Absolutely.

- [Voiceover] No question. And I wanna underscore that we're not in any way minimizing the challenges that are out there. I think, for anyone who's been in this field for any length of time, I think we're all humbled by the, what seems to be in some places, the snail's pace of progress, in terms of integrating these tools into the classroom, making sure that students who can really benefit from them get access to them, even the most basic technology tools that are available. Oftentimes, students aren't aware that they are. So, Betsy's asking, "Where does "AIM-accessible instructional materials "figure into the work?" Certainly, accessible materials is a critical element, and it fits in with the whole issue of universal design, as we know. That's also another place, Betsy, where you see some convergence, where before, students needed a special device to enlarge the font or to change the backlighting, and, as we all know, those kinds, to access the materials, we know that that kind of functionality is available on a tablet, for example, but it is part of the challenge in the field to make sure that the materials that are available are, in fact, accessible, and that students have the technology tools that they need to provide the access to these materials.

- [Voiceover] Yes, and all of these things, as they come out in the survey, you'll see, our original survey we left very open-ended. It was only about two questions. It was, "What is state of the art AT devices?" and "What does it mean to you?" because we didn't wanna dictate from the field. We wanted to give them a chance to really say, "This is what I think state of the art AT means," or "This is what I think state "'of the art AT training means," and we did something very similar with this new survey, is we left it very open-ended but also asked people to provide stories and examples of things that they've seen that they think sort of represent state of the art and innovation, and because we hope that these things like AIM will come out and other critical needs that the field needs to be focusing on. We wanna make sure that this speaks to people that are out there in the day-to-day in the field and what they see happening and what they see that needs to be happening, so that we can help point to future directions for research and development and investment.

- [Voiceover] Well, and Marvin, raising a critical point that we don't want to get lost in this discusson, and that is that everyone needs to be mindful of ensuring that the materials are accessible, that they are OCR'ed, so that they can run on whatever the technology tool is, whether it's a tablet or a Chromebook, or whatever the device, and making sure that school administrators are aware of this reality, and that teachers, also, but ultimately, it's about everyone who's working with children with special needs, that they need to be educated about these various issues. Otherwise, we will continue to not be able to meet the needs of students with disabilities and special needs in our schools.

- [Voiceover] Yeah, and that's a really great point, 'cause there can sometimes be a tendency to think, "Well, we have technology, so therefore, it's accessible. "We have digital texts," you know, or "Students can read "it online, so it's that accessible," and schools may not always know to look for or teachers may not always know to look for the various pieces that might make, you know. Just having the technology tool or having the texts available on a computer does not necessarily mean that it's going to be accessible for all your students.

- [Voiceover] Absolutely. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the fact that CAST up there in Boston has received a grant from OSEP. They've just changed the name of their AIM center. I was thinking of that, Marvin, as I was reading your comment, to, I won't even try to pronounce it, A-E-M. They're moving from instructional materials to educational materials, but they've got a new site. I was just looking at it yesterday, and it's very, very updated and much easier to navigate, and I see you're talking about continuing this conversation to include higher education. That's just such a critical issue, because, as you know, once students leave the K-12 environment and transition into a higher education space, all of the issues that tend to be focused upon in K-12, in terms of accessible instructional materials and devices, while post-secondary institutions are, by law, required to meet student needs, that very often doesn't happen, and what we've found in our work is it doesn't happen for two reasons. One is that the schools are not particularly vigilant, and the second is, oftentimes, students are reluctant to come forward to make their special needs known. So, thank you, Andy, for telling me it's pronounced the same way. AEM That's good.

- [Voiceover] I, personally, hope so.

- [Voiceover] Yeah, I wasn't sure how to pronounce it, so I didn't wanna take a stab at it. And Betsy's point about it needs to be seamless, absolutely. And it's a challenge facing all of us, particularly parents with children with special needs, as they move from K-12 education into higher education. The good news is we get them into schools of post-secondary education, but they don't necessarily have the support that they did in K-12.

- [Voiceover] Right, or know how to access them.

- [Voiceover] Yeah, but that's exactly right.

- [Voiceover] Well, I wanna point out the time, 'cause we've got about two minutes left, and I know everybody is very busy, as we all are, but I hope, if anybody has any additional questions, feel free to keep typing, but I also hope that you will join us online in the forum. Throughout the next several weeks, share thoughts. Engage in discussion, there. Feel free to share the survey with anyone you know who might have a thought about AT, and we'll hope to see you all for our January 6th follow-up webinar, where we'll talk about at least some of the initial findings, in a very sort of rough way, that we've pulled out of these surveys, out of the discussion forum, out of the great comments that have come up here during this webinar, today, and pull them together and start to talk about some of the themes that are emerging, and then, we'll continue to gather information from the field and work towards creating a new and improved, updated Unleashing the Power of Innovation for Assistive Technology report.

- [Voiceover] Great, thanks so much, Elise, and thank you all for this very vibrant and stimulating conversation. It's really been a learning experience for me, and we hope to keep the dialogue going. So, happy holidays to you all, and take good care. Thank you!

- {Voiceover] Thank you!

- [Voicecover] Bye-bye!