School of Education Blog

Lauren Tucker
Special Education Department

Assistive technology (AT) is defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as any item that “increases, maintains, or improves the functional capability of a student” (IDEA, 2004). When focusing purely on the definition of AT and applying it to the challenge of virtual learning for many students with disabilities, a variety of tools are revealed as critical aspects of this new learning modality. In this unprecedented pandemic, teachers are consistently learning new tools and navigating foreign platforms and activities along with students, and it is natural to feel vulnerable, like we are stepping off the edge of a cliff, unsure of where it will take us.

Think of a scene in Indiana Jones in which there seems as if there is no way to get to the other side. But if we take a chance, a path is revealed. Once we take the risk, we can discover the path to accomplishing our tasks, just as Indiana Jones did.  Most importantly, we must model the way for our students, so they don’t feel the same sense of worry as the path reveals itself.

We have an opportunity as teachers to model the use of built-in assistive technology to support the pandemic learning for our students now and impact their future use. Since many schools utilized Google or Microsoft platforms, I’ll focus on options within these two.

Built in Accessibility for Reading

The majority of the academic tasks our students need to complete require some aspect of reading—maybe they only need to read the assignment directions or they have to read an entire story to complete the task. However, many of our students encounter an immediate barrier with the need to read, especially those with reading challenges and ESL learners. While reviewing our expectations or an activity for students, we can model how to use text-to-speech; that is, the computer reads text aloud. We can script out loud to our students what tool we are using and how it helps us to listen to and understand the text. Google and Microsoft both have options to do this for free.  The Chrome extension Read and Write for Google, by Texthelp, will read any text out loud for the user.  It will simultaneously highlight the sentence and word as it is reading them. An example is included below:

On the Microsoft platform, Immersive Reader is built into Microsoft products.  In Microsoft Word it can be accessed under the “Review” menu, where there is a “Read Aloud” option.  This feature can also be a great editing tool.  Students can listen to their typed work before submitting it to a teacher or printing it out.

If students are working in Microsoft Teams or OneNote, they can also access the Immersive Reader under the “View” menu.

Modeling how we use these tools teaches our students where and how to access these necessary supports.  Many students are also experiencing increased challenges with inconsistent routines, learning environments, and new tasks.  I have found that many students are benefiting from increased options and supports to remove additional barriers to their learning.  To complement removing assignment obstacles, facilitating executive functioning supports is also a perfect use of tools as assistive technology.

Executive Functioning Supports

As a professor and mother, I had to level-up my organizational game during virtual and in-person teaching and learning hopscotch. Similarly, our students are experiencing the same disorientation, challenges, and worries. I have found that increasing the executive supports available for my students helps me stay organized and improves their performance.

Microsoft To Do has integration with Outlook Calendar and Microsoft Teams so you can create aList for your class and share it with students, paraprofessionals, or parents. You can add files to tasks, reminders, and/or repeat a task.

Similarly, Google Forms has Google Keep which is also a task or to-do list. Google Keep allows you to also share specific lists with others, set reminders and alerts. In the example below I included a class task list with cues referencing the assistive technology tools within the task to remind students when they can access tool to remove barriers.One of the features I love most about Google Keep is the ability to open a side bar with Google Keep while working in a Google Doc.  The screen shot below displays an example of student work on the left and a Google Keep note with a reminder of the R.A.C.E. strategy on the right.  Students can also drag and drop information from Google Keep directly into their Google Document.

Long Term

Although we are teaching and learning in extreme circumstances right now, we can create long-term routines and strategies to impact accessibility and learning. Universal access on platforms is increasingly built-in and transparent.  Given this increased access, all students, regardless of ability, can harness the use of this technology to facilitate learning. We can utilize these features available to all students as technology to “increase, maintain, or improve the functional capability of a student” (IDEA, 2004)—be it in virtual or on-the-ground learning. Assistive technology and universally designed tools are beneficial for all students, but vital to success for some.  We can help reveal the path of implementing these tools within their learning.

West Haven High's Liam Leapley is an incredibly inspiring teacher, says recent college grad Alice Obas -- which is why she successfully nominated him for a highly prestigious teaching award.

West Haven High School teacher Liam Leapley, '00, was nominated for the award by Alice Obas. "Mr. Leapley has not only upheld the values of equity and inclusion during his teaching career but has also instilled those values in his hundreds of students, and in me," says Obas, who recently graduated from Williams College.

With graduation fast approaching, Alice Obas, then a senior at Williams College, was considering an important question in addition to planning her next phase of life: who, among her former teachers at West Haven High School, had the most influence on her education?

Such contemplation is a rite of passage for seniors at Williams, who, each year, are invited to nominate their former teachers for the George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary Education.

For Obas, the choice was obvious: Southern alumnus Liam Leapley, ’00, a special education teacher at West Haven High who also leads the Program for Accelerated Credit Recovery in Education (PACE) at the school. Leapley designed and implemented PACE and, years ago, worked closely with Obas when she was a talented high school student serving as a teaching assistant with the program.

“While the Olmsted Prize is for nominating former teachers, and I was not a part of the PACE program, I feel that I learned and was taught more from Mr. Leapley than my AP [advanced placement] and Honors classes taught me out of a book,” says Obas. The judging committee was inspired as well, selecting Leapley as one of only four recipients of the Olmsted Award. In recognition, he received $3,000, and an additional $5,000 was presented to West Haven High. The award is particularly prestigious in light of the college’s standing: it’s been cited repeatedly as the top liberal arts college in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes, including this year.

PACE — an intervention program for at-risk youth in grades 8 through 12 — incorporates outside the box approaches to education, including a community-based work experience component, to reignite students’ interest in learning, “Every child can move forward, but you must be willing to work with them no matter where they begin and at which pace they move,” says Leapley, who’s been a special education teacher since 2000 and led the PACE program since 2009.

Award recipient Liam Leapley, ’00, receives an award for exceptional teaching at the high school level at Williams College’s Ivy Exercises.

His influence, notes Obas, has been profound and far-reaching. “Mr. Leapley has not only upheld the values of equity and inclusion during his teaching career but has also instilled those values in his hundreds of students, and in me,” she says.

Southern has historically been a leader in the field of education, with graduates of the School of Education earning many top awards at the state level and beyond. Among the honorees is Jahana Hayes,’05, who was named the National Teacher of the Year in 2016 and went on to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The American Council on Education (ACE) has selected Stephen Hegedus, dean of the School of Education at Southern Connecticut State University, as one of 45 emerging college and university leaders for the 2018-19 class of the ACE Fellows Program, the longest-running leadership development program in the United States.

Established in 1965, the ACE Fellows Program is designed to strengthen institutions and leadership in American higher education by identifying and preparing faculty and staff for senior administration positions through an intensive nominator-driven, cohort-based mentorship model.

Stephen Hegedus

“Southern was proud to nominate Dean Hegedus for this prestigious fellowship,” said SCSU President Joe Bertolino. “During nearly four years leading our School of Education, Stephen has demonstrated leadership and vision and a true commitment to providing expanded educational opportunities to historically disadvantaged populations.”

Among recent initiatives, Hegedus has led a scholarship-based collaborative effort with the region’s school districts to increase the number of minority teachers in elementary and secondary education. He has also been one of the prime movers in the construction of the new Strong Communications Magnet and K-4 Lab School on Southern’s campus – a signature academic partnership with the city of New Haven and its school system.

More than 2,000 higher education leaders have participated in the ACE Fellows Program over the past five decades, with more than 80 percent of Fellows having gone on to serve as senior leaders of colleges and universities.

“For more than a half-century, the ACE Fellows Program has been a powerful engine fueling the expansion of a talented and diverse higher education leadership pipeline,” said ACE President Ted Mitchell. “We are excited to welcome this new class of Fellows and look forward to each enjoying a transformative experience that will help advance individual leadership readiness while also enriching the capacity of institutions to innovate and thrive.”

Celebrating its centennial in 2018, ACE is the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, representing nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and related associations. It provides leadership on key higher education issues and influences public policy through advocacy.

Hegedus’ ACE fellowship will begin in August and he will be on leave from Southern during the fall semester, returning mid-January. During the placement, he will observe and work with the president and other senior officers at his host institution, attend decision-making meetings, and focus on issues of interest.

“When he returns, Dean Hegedus will bring back valuable experiences in innovative programming and institutional advancement that will help further our mission both in the School of Education and campus-wide,” President Bertolino said.

Before joining Southern, Hegedus was a professor of mathematics and mathematics education at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Dartmouth, where he was the founding director of the Kaput Center for Research and Innovation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education. Named the UMass Dartmouth Scholar of the Year in 2009, he previously held appointments as a research fellow, educational consultant, and lecturer at the University of Oxford in England.

Southern has been training teachers since its origins in 1893, and it consistently produces the largest numbers of teachers, principals, and school administrators in Connecticut through its School of Education.

In the picture, from left to right: Dean Hegedus, Christina Esposito (English), Tai Olasanoye (Special Education), Mirka Dominguez (Curriculum and Learning), Marisol Rivera (Curriculum and Learning), Thomas Mitchell (Educational Leadership), Lori Donovan (Curriculum and Learning), Laura Obringer (English), Olivia Loughlin (Special Education), Malcolm Welfare (Information and Library Science), Meghan Weller (Educational Leadership), Justin Hitchcock (English), Andres Reyes (History), Hannah O’Hazo (Curriculum and Learning), Alex Audet (Math), and Dr. Angela Lopez-Velasquez. Missing from photo: Rebecca Harmon.

The School of Education is proud to have a new Dean’s Student Leadership Group (SLG) cohort this year. Faculty across the university involved in educator preparation nominated a large pool of students for their strong leadership potential in all aspects of PreK-12 education. After an interview process, the current SLG was selected for their outstanding personal and academic qualities, as well as for demonstrating their leadership in school and community contexts. In addition to undergraduate students, the Dean’s SLG includes master’s and doctoral students. Under the guidance of Dr. Stephen Hegedus, Dean of the School of Education and Dr. Angela Lopez-Velasquez, faculty liaison from the Department of Special Education and Reading, the SLG are involved in activities at the School of Education, the university, and the larger community including advocacy efforts with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) both nationally and at the state level, to further develop their leadership skills.