Education

How the iPad can turn teaching special ed ‘on its head’

Above: TabCam and iPads in action at Ococee Middle School.

Image Credit: AVer

Neil Virani was using iPads to teach his students, long before the Los Angeles Unified School District pledged to make that the norm.

But Virani’s classroom isn’t like a vast majority of those in the nation’s largest school district.

Virani teaches special education classes, and said his use of iPads has caused a dramatic difference in his classrooms.

“I had a student with Cerebral Palsy who only has proficient access to one finger,” Virani said. “The iPad comes along and 35 minutes after opening it from the box, he wrote his name for the first time — it was the first word he ever wrote. I thought if we can do this in 35 minutes, what can we do in nine months? The possibilities are endless when we have the right tools.”

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is accommodating varying levels of ability and paces of learning. This challenge is particularly pronounced in special needs classrooms. Some students have physical handicaps, some have mental, and some have both. Some students can’t move from their desks, while others are unable to communicate.

Each student requires one-on-one attention and it is difficult for many of them to work with textbooks, paper, and writing utensils. Virani saw how iPads would help students overcome some of these issues, and received a School Improvement Grant years ago to outfit his students with the devices.

“The philosophy in my classroom is to have the highest expectations for students, in an area where expectations are traditionally low,” Virani said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We went from having virtually no academic instruction or curriculum to having any resource we wanted. Getting these tech tools has made all the difference. Each one of my students has made significant progress.”

Classrooms with iPads have tremendous access to a wealth of education applications. AVer, which makes an array of “visual collaboration solutions,” recently came out with a product called TabCam that has given Virani significant mobility and flexibility in the way he teaches.

The TabCam is a wireless streaming camera that captures and delivers live video to other devices. Virani uses the TabCam to broadcast lessons to and from anywhere in the room.

Teachers can add notes, point out specific items, add supplemental content, make assignments, and highlight examples of student work. Everything is recorded and can be instantly uploaded and shared to DropBox, YouTube, and classroom sites.

Students can access the content when they need a refresher or miss class and to collaborate with their peers. Teachers can use it to track their curriculum and share content with the class or with other schools. It also makes it easier to customize lessons for each student, and to engage parents and other teachers in their education.

“The TabCam provides more accessibility for my student with different modalities of instruction,” Virani said. “I can go outside to do a presentation on plant life and stream that content back to the classroom, for students who have a disability or maybe an anxiety issue. It makes it easier to promote interactive learning, project-based learning, and small group instruction. It motivates students to use a higher order of thinking, and they can collaborate, share ideas, and see content in a way that they couldn’t before.”

There is a trend in education right now towards “blended learning.” This means that rather than traditional lecture-format, where teachers speak and students take notes, the emphasis is on engaging students directly in the content so they learn through activity.

Online video has also made “flipped classrooms” viable — where lectures are done at home, and class time is spent doing labs, interactive projects, and focusing on problem areas.

Technology can be a teacher’s best friend when it comes to being the sole educator in a room of 30 students — each with their own needs, abilities, and interests. American schools are in trouble. This is why President Obama has pledged that his administration will get more educational software into the hands of students, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is also eager to support digital learning.

LAUSD has some pretty major problems. It has a reputation for extremely crowded schools, large class sizes, high drop out and expulsion rates, and low academic performance.

The iPad initiative aims to improve the quality of education across the board. The program will initially supply 47 of its schools with over 30,000 iPads, in a deal worth $30 million, and the school board has committed to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” with Apple over the next few years.

Virani said that whatever works in a special ed classroom generally works well in other classrooms. He regularly speaks at educational conferences and events around the country, espousing the value the iPads in schools and encouraging other teachers, administrators, and districts, to follow suit.

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