There is baggage that comes with the term “assistive technology” as the use of this term often generates certain stereotypes. One of them is that assistive technology is specialized technology. Another is that assistive technology is hardware or software that is designed only for, or mainly for, individuals with special needs. While that may well have been the case in the past, today’s devices come with “assistive” software that can be utilized to the advantage of everyone.
Connecting back to a previous blog post where I was musing on the difference between Differentiated Instruction and Universal Design for Learning, we can see that today’s cell phones are adding more functionality and are designed with the spirit of Universal Design in mind. Just as sensored doors equally assist those in wheel chairs, baby strollers or those whose hands are full of bags, today’s cell phones are adding more functionality that incorporates features that traditionally have been associated with “assistive technology” and made it available to everyone. Let’s take the voice dialing feature on most cell phones as an example. Piggybacking on voice input technology that traditionally assisted those with physical disabilities to use voice commands to control a computer and/or some form of hardware, voice dialing also allows anyone to make a phone call without actually dialing a number. This is a handy hands free feature to those who happen to be driving while they are on the phone (I should add that this is a practice that is frowned upon in many jurisdictions around the world). Another example is a voice note feature found on some of today’s smart phones. Piggybacking on traditional “assistive technology” software that allowed those with physical disabilities or those with learning disabilities dictate thoughts onto a computer screen when using pencil and paper was impossible or impractical, voice notes features allow anyone to use their voice to create quick notes when pencil and paper is not available or practical to use.
In the classroom, cell phones can be used as an assistive technology for all. Today’s cell phones allow for two-way communication through different forms from voice communication to text communication. These devices allow students to access learning materials in different forms either through auditory means as through an mp3 recording of a book or visually by text on a screen (i.e. Mobipocket Reader is one cross-device software app that makes reading digital audiobooks on a cell phone practical). While pricey data plans often make using the internet on a cell phone impossible in most schools, more and more phones are being sold with built in Wi-Fi. This allows schools to provide a wireless signal (many schools already have this for use with laptops) thus allowing students to access reference material, communicate on services such as Twitter or to publish to a global audience on a blog or wiki right from a cell phone.
When Apple came out with the iPhone and their app store, what they did was raise the bar on what is possible on a mobile communication device such as a cell phone. More and more cell phone manufacturers including RIM and Palm are 0pening up their own app store with free and paid apps to personalize and extend the potential uses of their hardware. What this means for teachers is that if they embrace this technology and allow their students to bring in their devices to school and to use them as part of their learning, there is the potential for students to customize their devices, even with free apps, that would extend the functionality of their phones to make them assistive devices to enhance their own learning experiences whether they are a special needs student or not.
Cell phones in learning a novel idea with powerful potential…