I was an early adopter of technology in the classroom because I saw technology as a way to support students with a variety of learning needs. My personal mission to meet the needs of all students started early in my life. I grew up with two adopted brothers who faced developmental delays due to fetal alcohol syndrome. I witnessed the supports they needed at home and at school and knew that whatever path I went down, I wanted to ensure all kids had opportunities to grow and thrive.
I’ve been a special education teacher for almost three decades now, and I believe strongly that any teacher can relate to my experiences. I care about meeting the needs of individual students and providing multiple pathways to learning.
As teachers, we are constantly faced with questions such as: When a student is struggling to read, how do we ensure they can continue to learn while building literacy skills? When a student doesn’t speak, how can we support them to demonstrate what they know? When a student arrives in the classroom with language skills other than English, how can we celebrate those skills as an asset while helping them access content that’s in English?
I saw technology as an answer and devoted myself to learning about different tools and how to incorporate those tools into the classroom. In 2020, I encountered a report called The Opportunity Myth that found in a single school year, “the average student spends 581 of 720 available hours on assignments that are not high quality.” I realized that the way I had been thinking about technology was incomplete.
Technology can aid the delivery of content, but nothing can take the place of supporting teachers with a high-quality standards-aligned curriculum they need for students. Our focus must always remain on bringing the students up to the content and allowing them to leverage the strengths they bring to the classroom. Technology only matters if it is in service of this end.
For many years now, I’ve been a fierce advocate of leveraging technology to create equity for students, and some educators disagreed with my approach. Honestly, I understood their hesitation. Given the lack of time and training, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the learning needed to incorporate technology into the classroom. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and everything changed.
During the pandemic, my school conducted virtual and hybrid learning for students. We had no choice but to integrate technology into our classrooms if we wanted students to learn at all. Over time, we all began to see the value of technology and how it can improve access to coherent, grade-level content for students.
We’re back to in-person learning now, and I’m thrilled to see my students every day. Now that most teachers have at least a basic understanding, we can embrace the resources that continue to help us provide a wide range of learning opportunities for students. We don’t have to be technology experts, but committing to a few key practices can make a difference.
3 Ways Technology Helps Improve Access to Grade-Level Content
- Technology can support teachers to differentiate in order to meet the needs of individual students. All teachers have been there—30 students in a classroom, many with diverse needs we must simultaneously address. Having a standards-aligned curriculum is the foundation for preparing our students for the future, but no curriculum is one size fits all. Technology can be a key support as teachers differentiate lessons, tasks, or other content for students. One student might access the lesson by listening to the text being read while another student may be using voice to text to share what they know. Regardless of format, both are engaging in grade-level content.
- Technology allows students multiple pathways to demonstrate learning. Not every student can show what they’ve learned in the same ways as their classmates. High-quality instructional materials offer multiple options for engagement with the content, as well as multiple options for representation, action, and expression. They offer a variety of avenues for problem solving and support teachers to assess where students are. But some learners will still need extra support no matter what.
Technology such as predictive text or text to speech can break down language barriers and support students to access rigorous content. Translation technology, and technology that allows multilingual learners to hear their own voices, can also open the door to language and symbols the rest of the class is learning.
A student might excel at writing to demonstrate what they know. Another shines when they can orally present. Technology can offer ways for every student to show what they learn and be at their best.
- Technology can help to accelerate learning. Access to grade-level content is more important than ever, and we know gaps in learning have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Technology resources can help teachers leverage high-quality materials to focus on acceleration rather than remediation. This can be done by focusing on the major work of the standards and helping students access those standards through creative solutions. Students can use video and audio to show what they know rather than worksheets to raise engagement and increase student success.
Let Content Be Your Guide
Technology features should be a serious consideration in your next instructional materials selection process, but it should never be more important than the quality of the content. Leading with standards alignment and local priorities such as technology features in your decision making is integral to selecting a program that will meet the needs of your community. EdReports reviews include robust evidence about a program’s alignment and usability along with data about a variety of technology features, but it’s vital that adoption committees thoroughly vet materials before making a selection.
I’m excited for a future where with the combination of great materials, great teachers, and support from technology, all students can access learning that has the power to transform their lives.
Heather Gauck is a special education teacher and has taught for Grand Rapids Public Schools for more than two decades. She is the organizer and leader for a statewide team of eight educators that created Innovation Classroom. Most recently she was picked as a TeachPlus Fellow to work with education policy. Heather is an EdReports reviewer and Klawe Fellow.