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Q&A with Dr. Todd Cunningham

In this Q&A with Dr. Todd Cunningham, you’ll learn the basics about assistive technology (AT) and how AT tools can help students with language-based learning disabilities to reach their full potential in the classroom.

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Dr. Todd Cunningham is a school and clinical child psychologist and an assistant professor in the Applied Psychology and Human Development department at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Cunningham started the organization as a place for students with learning differences (and their parents) to better understand their assessments, and develop strategies for managing those differences so they don’t stand in the way of learning.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any technology that enables a person to be able to continue to perform or to circumvent any area of challenge due to a disability. And I think one of the things that’s really important around the definition of assistive technology is this idea of the disability part. Because when we actually look at students who are using assistive technology, most of the technology that they’re using is the same type of technology that other students are using. They’re just using it to help them do something that is more challenging for them because of the nature of their learning profile.

And when we think about assistive technology, I often think about a person who’s paraplegic. So just not able to use their legs. And before we invented the wheelchair, if we wanted to get them from point A to point B, they could either pull themselves across the ground, a very effortful task, or they could ask someone to carry them from point A to point B. Not very independent. Then the wheelchair’s developed, suddenly they can get from point A to point B much more efficiently and do it independently.

And that is the promise assistive technology holds for students who have learning disabilities or other learning difficulties. That they can do the same type of work that their peers are doing, that they couldn’t do as well on their own without the technology. And they can do the work much more independently.

How has our understanding of assistive technology evolved over time?

Assistive technology has evolved from something that was very specialized to something that is much broadly used. Fifteen years ago, we had special technology for people who had visual impairments and students who had hearing impairments and people who had motor impairments and then, to help students with learning challenges, we drew on that technology. So someone who was unable to read due to a reading disability, well, we could pull on the technology that the vision impaired person was using, text to speech software, the ability to read text out loud to someone. And for a long time, we were developing or integrating more and more technology to help with very specific learning challenges.

But when we fast forward to today, anyone who uses their smartphone with a GPS on it to navigate through a city has a GPS talking to them, that’s using that same text-to- speech software. I see a lot of my friends having their emails read out load to them. They’re using the same text-to-speech software. So tools that were originally developed for a disabled population have suddenly become mainstream. We’re all talking to our phone, asking it silly questions. And that voice recognition is now being used by the general population.

So now the only reason to call something “assistive technology” is the fact that it’s being used purposefully to overcome an area of challenge for an individual.

With so many students using technology now, has it become easier for students with disabilities to use technology without feeling stigmatized?

In the past, one of the barriers to using technology is that students felt they were standing out as being different. So they didn’t want to open that laptop in the classroom. But today, so many people have smartphones and tablets. So I may be looking at the same webpage as my friend, but I’m just using the added feature of having my headphones on, and having it read out loud to me, whereas everybody thinks I might be listening to music. I’ve just disguised myself. I think that’s one of the really neat things, or the leveling effect that technology has at this point, because we are seeing more and more of this technology in every classroom. Those who really benefit from some great features, they have access to it, and they don’t have to be stigmatized.

How are students using technology to help them study?

There are a lot of great study tools available now. One example is the virtual highlighter, so if I’m on a web page, I can highlight a piece of text, or if I’m reading a pdf, I can highlight a piece of text. The software can gather those highlights, and create kind of note for the student. It’s like starting with the tools that we use for reading comprehension, such as using a highlighter to mark the main ideas, or a post-it note to write our questions down and then stick the note on a piece of paper. We’ve taken those basic tools and made them digital.

And one of the neat things about these digital tools is that when I highlight a piece of text on the computer screen, what it’s actually going to do is capture what I’ve highlighted, and turn it into a bulleted or “point form” note. So instead of me having to highlight, and then make my own notes on a separate document, the computer generates those notes as we go along. So I can go from one web page to another web page, or one pdf to another pdf, highlighting important information, and then I can say: “Hey, that’s all related to that subject that I’m studying right now.” I can then ask the computer, “Pull up all the notes I’ve highlighted on that subject,” and it’ll develop a document for me with all those notes.

These tools were originally developed for students who were having difficulties with reading comprehension, but you can show that technology to almost any student — and all my graduate students love this technology. You show that to them, they all want to use it. So this technology may be essential for some students, who have difficulties with reading comprehension, but it’s really beneficial for all students. All students can benefit from this type of technology.

Are there other examples you can think of about how AT is being used effectively to serve students with learning disabilities?

Another great example is word prediction. So for students who have difficulties with spelling, we have these fantastic programs that are very much like the auto correct on your smartphone. So as you’re typing in, it gives some suggestions of what are you actually trying to type, or changes it for you. However the technology for students with literacy difficulties is much more advanced than our smartphone is. It’s using very sophisticated algorithms to look at the phonetic spelling. So if I start off the word computer, and start spelling it with a K, instead of a C, the computer will recognize, “Oh, he’s trying to get the K sound, and be able to guess what I’m trying to write.

The software uses a natural language processing algorithm. So it will look at the words around the word that you’re trying to be spelled, and say, “Hmm, statistically based on the five words you’ve already written, what are the most likely words you’re going to try to be writing right now?” So looking at both the phonetic aspect and the statistical properties of that word in its environment. The software can be very accurate at guessing which word the child is trying to spell.

So if I have a spelling challenge, if I’m a really poor speller, if I start using one of these programs, almost immediately, I have bypassed my spelling challenges, so I can take all that energy that I use to spell, and trying to think of how do I spell that word “computer,” I can devote all that energy now into holding onto my main ideas, and thinking of what I want to write about, and then I can continue on in the writing process.

What's your perspective on speech-to-text software?

For some students with writing challenges, the thought is, “Oh my goodness, if you’re having difficulties with spelling, why not just talk to your computer?” The challenge with talking to your computer is the computer literally writes down word for word, and sound for sound on what you say. Now, six years ago, to be able to train a voice recognition program, it took about six hours to train at around an 80% accuracy rate. So if I dictated 100 words, 80% or 80 of those 100 words would be recognized properly.

Today, with absolutely no training at all, we’re at about a 98% accuracy rate. So right out of the box, I can sit down and start talking to the computer, and it will write down 98% of what I say perfectly. The challenge though is, as I’ve been talking here, I haven’t actually said any punctuation. So in spoken language, we don’t say periods, commas, quotation marks, we just speak, and the listener kind of fills in where the gaps are. But often, when you’re talking to the computer, you have to dictate all that information. You have to say, “How are you doing today? Question Mark.” “I’m doing fine. Period.” So you have to dictate your grammar right into the software. In addition, a lot of students don’t actually know how to speak in a way that translates into formal writing. Formal writing has its own unique style. Oral communication has its own unique style, and being able to talk to a computer in the way that writes out a nice perfectly structured paragraph is very, very challenging for most students. So, though voice recognition may seem like a great technology that’s going to help so many students, what we actually find is the amount of time it takes to edit what a student has dictated to the computer can be even longer than if they just typed it up themselves.

What would you do with a child who really struggles to get words down on a page?

Unfortunately, we still need to teach them how to type. Typing is still an essential component of that student’s life, and spending 15 minutes a day, five days a week for about four to six months is a really, really important skill for them to learn. Once they can type at about 35 words per minute, that’s enough speed so that they don’t have to look for the keys on the board anymore; they’re touch typing. And that allows them to take advantage of word prediction, and to use their word processor as their main form of getting their ideas down in writing. Or they’re using voice recognition just to dictate very small phrases, and then going back and linking those phrases up.

How do we go about finding the right tool for a particular child?

I think the AT Matrix has last documented more than 400 assistive technology tools out there on the market. So finding the right tool can be challenging. One way to think about this is called the SETT Framework: Student, Environment, Task, and Technology. So you start with the student. Who is the student? What are their learning strengths and challenges? And once you have an understanding of who our student is, you consider the environment that student’s going to be working within, knowing that students aren’t just in classrooms when they’re doing their work. So they might be at home, or in a library, or at a friend’s house. We have to know all the environments that the student is going to be working within. The importance with the environment variable is that if we prescribe a technology that doesn’t work in the environment that the student is in, then the student’s not going to use that technology. For example, for some tools, having access to high speed Internet is really important. If you don’t have a high speed internet, the product is not going to work. The third factor is to understand the tasks the student has to do. So if I’m asking a student to complete a worksheet, and the student can’t read the worksheet, then the task of reading is the thing that I need to figure out how to accommodate that student for. The last thing is I need to choose the right technology. So if I’m working in a school that with poor Internet connection and we’re using very basic Windows computers, and I need my student to be able to read something, then I might recommend a program called The Natural Reader, which is a free text to speech program that works on Windows platforms. that program can read any worksheets that are put into that computer out loud to the student. And hopefully that will turn out to be the right technology that’s going to help that student because we’ve thought about the different variables that are involved in selecting the program

Are there some common misconceptions about assistive technology that you often encounter?

The biggest one is that it’s a form of cheating. That the technology is doing the work for them. So often a teacher will be reluctant to allow a child to use some technology, because they feel that by the fact that the computer is reading out loud to them, that suddenly they must have some great new understanding, that their intelligence is kind of giving them the answer. Again, that’s not the case. It’s kind of like the wheelchair. The wheelchair does not give a person who’s paraplegic, any great super powers. It just allows them to do the same activities that other people who don’t have mobility issues can engage in. So technology is not giving students answers, or increasing their intelligence. Students still have to do all that thinking for themselves. Our technology at this point is really good at doing basic skills. It’s good at helping students to decode. It’s helping to record their thoughts. They still have to have those thoughts.

The second misconception that I often get from parents is, “If I just give my child the right technology, it will teach them how to read, or teach them how to spell.” And again, that’s not what assistive technology does. The wheelchair does not teach the person who’s paraplegic how to walk. It’s a tool to allow them to do the similar types of activities that the others are able to do. The technology is just enabling an individual to do the same type of work that their peers are doing. It’s not teaching them the underlying skill that they have difficulties with, such as decoding, or spelling, or math calculations.

The third question that I often get is, “Is my child going to need this for the rest of their life?” The answer is probably yes. Most individuals who have reading or spelling, or some math difficulties, they often need that technology for the rest of their life. And that’s becoming increasingly accepted, and increasingly common—for all individuals who have a form of disability to bring their tools to work, or have access to the tools that they need to be productive within that work environment.

When teachers don't use assistive technology, cost is often a factor. Are there good low tech solutions—or maybe some tools that are free or inexpensive that more teachers might consider?

Yes. If you look at reading, for example, we have multiple domains that students might struggle with. One domain is word reading—being able to recognize or decode individual words, and to do that reasonably fluently. To accommodate for that, text to speech is really the optimal technology. And you can spend $1400 for a program that can read out loud to you, but you can also use free tools. The Natural Reader is free on Macs, and on iPads, they have built-in text to speech, which is one of the best tools out there. It’s free if you have a recent version of the iPad. Google Chrome has text-to-speech built into their system at this point too. So if you have a Chrome Book, you can have the computer read out aloud to you for free.

Those tools are built on having some sort of device already. Audio books are another great way to be able to access text to speech. A lot of libraries have books in audio format, or they’ll have subscriptions to web content that is in audio book format. So students can listen to an audio book, and that audio book is bypassing the need read written text. Or you can go down to the lowest-tech approach, where you might have another person reading a book out loud to you. So in all those cases, what we’re doing is we’re having something or someone translate that text into audible speech, so that the student can understand what’s been written on the page.

For voice recognition, Google Docs has a free program, so students can click onto tools, click onto voice typing in a Google Doc, and get access to an outstanding free voice recognition program. Other students use Siri to talk out loud to their phones, to be able to write things down just using their voice. You can also use an inexpensive voice recorder, and dictate your ideas onto a recording device that you or someone else can transcribe later, just as a way to express your ideas through speaking, without having to write them down. So, again, there’s a real range of technologies that students can use.

Are there tools that can help make the physical act of writing easier?

For writing, the best approach is still teaching good old keyboarding skills. But it can be important to have the right keyboard. Often when teachers work with young kids, they give them a regular sized keyboard, but the child’s hands aren’t big enough for a regular size, and you see their little pinky stretching all the way to the far sides to grab those keys. So you need to size the keyboard, and often the keyboards used for cash registers are really nice. They’re about half the size of regular keyboards.

How can teachers and parents help students with attention issues, who have trouble getting organized or paying attention?

We have a whole host of tools these days. One interesting thing about students with ADHD is they often have real difficulty with the perception of time. So often a student will sit down, and they’ll start doing their homework, and they say, “You know what? I’m going to take a five minute break,” and the next thing they know, their parents are getting mad at them, because an hour and a half has gone by, and they’ve only done six questions out of the 30 questions that they have to complete. So that student, who meant to take just a five-minute break, didn’t realize that they’re actually off task for 45 minutes or an hour. So there’s this new wonderful app for the computer called Rescue Timer. It actually tracks the amount of time that you’re doing productive things on your device, or on your computer. And you can set it to say, “Hey, if I’m not productive for five minutes, or 10 minutes, then give me a bunch of warnings, or lock me out of this other program, so that I can’t go onto Minecraft for 45 minutes.” So Rescue Timer gives students simple feedback how much time they’re spending off-task. And the second part is to help them get back on task, by giving them prompts and reminders, or even restrictions to help make sure they get there.

Another great technology that comes in our smartphones is just our general reminders, reminding us do our homework, or to bring the homework assignments home at the end of the day. A couple of years ago, I had one father who came in, and said to me: “My daughter is using these reminders, but after school the reminder goes off and she just ignores it, because she still wants to talk to her friends. So let’s just say the custodian and I have become really good friends, because every night after dinner when my daughter sits down to do her work, soon enough we’re driving back to school, because there’s some textbook that she’s forgotten.”

Now, with the smart phones, we can actually have GPS-based reminders. So as the phone detects that it’s leaving the school, it can bring up a reminder that says: “Here is the list of homework assignments that you have to do tonight.” And hopefully that helps students remember that they need to bring their math book home.

There are also a lot of tracking or tagging devices such as The Tile that let you put a smart tag on a student’s books or other important possessions. So when a student is running around in the morning thinking, “Oh my goodness, where is my notebook?,” they can push a button, and the tracker will start beeping so they can see where that notebook actually is. It’s great for people who lose keys. It’s also great for students, who lose their textbooks on a regular basis.

We know that a lot of students have trouble keeping their papers organized. I love how students come into a clinic, and you say, “Can you take out your science binder?” And they open their knapsack, and they start taking out handfuls of paper, and spreading it out for you, and then they say, “Oh, sorry, that’s September’s work. And I think these papers are from math class. Oh wait, here’s the November stuff that we’re working on now.” But if students have a smartphone, they can take a picture of that science worksheet, and have that automatically load up into a cloud device, such as Dropbox, or Google Drive, or Microsoft’s version of it. So suddenly, they don’t have to worry about losing that paper. You can take a picture and have it in the right place, so you can refer back to it when you have to study for that upcoming exam. By getting the document in a digital format, either by their teachers providing it to them, or by taking a picture of it themselves, now they have it when they need it.

How do you go about engaging students to help formulate their own technology plan?

That can make a big difference, especially with older students. One thing we run into is we often give students way too much technology at first, and that can become overwhelming for them. So the goal really is to look at, and have the student help identify what is the main area that is most problematic for them. Am I struggling with reading? Or writing? Or getting my ideas generated and getting them down on paper? Am I struggling with math calculations, or word problems? What is it that is really the biggest problem? And then we get a technology solution that begins to address that one immediate problem, as well as provide them with a metacognitive strategy for using the technology in an effective way, so they can actually get their work done. And we just focus in on that one specific area. Then we give them time to practice—and often we start outside the classroom. We might ask the student to practice first at home, on their homework, so it’s in a safe environment. And as they start to gain some success, as they start to feel more confident, then they may be more willing to take that technology into the classroom. And we can problem-solve any implementation issues at the classroom level. Then once the student is really comfortable with that first tool, then we can consider introducing another tool. So we try to take it task by task for the student. We don’t want to overwhelm anyone. We want to identify one specific area that’s challenging, and use a technology solution to solve that one specific area before we move onto the next one.

We also need to keep an eye out for hidden barriers. If the technology is not readily accessible, if students can’t use it immediately when they need it, then they might stop using it. And sometimes we have a lot of hidden barriers in our schools. Can you access the Internet? Do you know where the power charger is? Is the device plugged in? Do you have to go to another classroom to get the technology? There are a lot of these little barriers that make it harder for students to actually use these tools.


What would you say to parents and teachers who don’t know much about technology and might be a little intimidated?

Don’t be afraid! A lot of these tools are really easy to use. For many of the assistive technology tools out there today, we often find that students either know how to use it already, or in five minutes they will figure it out. And obviously that’s not true for every student or every tool, but in many cases we just need to give students an opportunity and they will find the solution. Teachers often feel, because it’s something new to them, that they must teach the student how to use the assistive technology. Often what we need to do is just create the environment in which the technology can be used. We need to identify the barriers that might prevent the student from using the technology. If I have a student who’s using a laptop to read everything out loud, then handing them a paper copy of a worksheet is an immediate barrier. How do they get that piece of paper onto the computer? We have to think about those barriers and clear them out.


What is your perspective on Universal Design for Learning, or UDL?

CAST has developed a wonderful website on universal design for learning. It offers a terrific guide to developing lessons in a way that will be accessible and engaging for all students.

So from a UDL perspective, giving a worksheet in a digital format, as well as a printed format, helps all learners, because in that digital format the student who’s visually impaired, w can use a program called Zoom Text to enlarge the text, so that they can be able to see it. The student who has reading challenges can have that text read out loud to them using text to speech. The student who has writing difficulties could use word prediction, or voice recognition to get their ideas down onto that worksheet. The student who has ADHD, who just simply loses that worksheet, now, it’s in a digital format, and they can find it more easily and refer back to it. So giving it in that digital format, that worksheet, suddenly you’re helping a whole group of students, who have special needs be able to access that worksheet in different ways. You didn’t have to go teach each of those students how to use their different pieces, you just had to create that environment, so that all the students could use their different tools to access that task that you wanted them to do.

And what we see increasingly is that there’s nothing special about assistive technology at this point. These tools are often just good general technology that we’re all using already. What makes it special is when we put it to use to help every child succeed.


What change would you most like to see in the field of assistive technology?

For some reason, we still feel we have to teach kids how to use all the technology. We feel that technology is very special and sacred, and that we need experts who are trained in it to work with the students, and to teach them all of the nuts and bolts of every program. When you learned Microsoft Word, I bet you didn’t learn how to use all 125 features that Microsoft Word probably has in it. So when we teach a student how to use a text-to-speech software program, why are we teaching them how to use all 84 of the pieces in it? Students usually need just one or two specific pieces of a program. So let’s focus on those one or two pieces. Once we do that, a lot of students will figure it out for themselves. And if not, we can teach them, and then the students are good to go.