January 2010 - Crossing the Technology Bridge -- Where Do We Go as a Field to Help All Learners Succeed?
Crossing the Technology Bridge --
An Interview with Ruth Ziolkowski,
This month the Family Center is pleased to feature the insights of Ruth Ziolkowski, President and CEO of the Don Johnston Company, a leading assistive technology firm that recently celebrated its 30th year in business. Don Johnston, and the company that bears his name, are known for literacy software programs, tools, devices and professional development services aimed at supporting students with cognitive, physical and learning challenges. We asked Ms. Ziolkowski to comment on various aspects of the AT field, including where it is headed in K-12 education.
Ruth Ziolkowski began her work with Don Johnston in 1987. She holds a Bachelors degree from the University of Illinois in Occupational Therapy and a Masters degree from the Keller Graduate School of Management. Ruth has held several positions in the company including V.P. of Research & Development and now oversees the critical day-to-day operations of the company. She collaborates with a variety of experts in the field of educational technology and literacy. She is co-author of the Beginning Literacy Framework with Karen Erickson and Caroline Musselwhite, and serves as an expert panel member for the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI). Ruth is also a board member of National-Louis University, Bookshare, and the National Center for Accessible Instructional Materials.
She begins by acknowledging the influence that Don Johnston has had on her. “I’ve been privileged to learn from Don. With a background in organizational psychology, he thoroughly understands system change. He taught me how to regard an organization as a system, the dynamics of change and the barriers we must overcome. Those lessons guide my leadership today and have shaped our mission as an AT company. It is still our goal as a caring company to ensure that as many students as possible who have disabilities and learning challenges receive the tools and strategies they need to be successful.”
Today, Ruth says, the AT field is “confronted by many issues reflective of those faced by our society, especially by the impact of the economic recession, which has resulted in constricted school budgets. This economic distress, however, has spawned the recent U.S. federal government stimulus assistance, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. In this legislation AT was one of the top five spending recommendations for school districts nationwide.”
School System Response to ARRA
Scenario #1: There are districts in which ARRA-funded AT is not a factor. “Districts that have other pressing needs do not understand AT or are not using it. Therefore, they have not been changed for better or worse by ARRA in their approach to AT.”
Scenario #2: Districts, in which funding has been very tight for the past couple of years, have been aided by a pinch of ARRA funding in attempts to acquire AT. “This funding,” Ruth notes, “helps to replenish some of a district’s older technology, or upgrade their licenses and add some new technology. In these districts, the availability of AT is beneficial for individual students. ARRA funding will be a source of protection if other sources remain constrained for the next few years. These districts probably didn’t acquire new technology, but were able to obtain updated copies of technology in which they’ve already invested in.”
Scenario #3: Systemic Change in School Districts
“For example,” she continues, “it is clear that some AT genres, like word prediction, have helped students with disabilities to write and express themselves more clearly for over 30 years. Word prediction continues to be a solid AT investment for schools. Students have needed these tools to succeed all along. They need this technology now and will need it tomorrow. I talk to individuals at the district level about whether these genres of technology have made a significant impact on students and then ask them how this technology can be implemented in a way that has a wider impact. They want to consider their AT investments systemically so that they can meet their mandate for a least restrictive environment. We also tried to help them formulate a more modified curriculum, but have come to realize that’s not what schools want. Instead, they want students who use AT to have access to the general education curriculum.”
“We expect students to use these tools, like email, but if email was only on one computer, would we use it ubiquitously? If word prediction is only on one computer in a special education classroom, how can a student who needs the writing tool do well in every class? And we wonder why the tools don’t get much use.
“This limited approach is inconvenient for teachers too. AT professionals spend countless hours installing AT tools on single machines and have to track all of them individually instead of training and supporting teachers and students in implementation and usage of the technology. As a consequence, our company took a fresh look at network licensing pricing, making it possible for districts to more easily include AT on the network for every computer or device, just like Microsoft Word. Word processors are everywhere and core AT tools, like word prediction, should be more widely available.”
The Don Johnston CEO maintains that “companies must risk creating pricing structures that facilitate ubiquity and universality. Should such a pricing model be established, schools could then serve students with IEPs more efficiently and would be better prepared to function in a response-to-intervention (RTI) environment in which students might not be in special education but the appropriate AT tools would be available. Schools, in turn, would have full AT licenses to serve more students who need this support. Such a whole-school learning approach would provide the AT field with a true Universal Design for Learning (UDL) perspective. Districts that employ their ARRA funding to achieve this perspective will derive the most potential.”
Building AT Infrastructure – The Time for Cost Efficiencies is Now
Accommodation or Intervention? “Research Says We Should Do Both”
Ruth also cites a study reported in the Journal of Special Education Technology (JSET) that evaluated word prediction, word processing and talking word processing technology in terms of productivity. Overall, she comments, “the research found that all those tools helped the students. Some made huge gains using only word prediction. Others made big gains with just the talking word processor. There’s still a level of individualization needed, students need different solutions to support different needs, but with AT tools, children do increase their productivity and stay engaged.”
Ruth lauds research conducted by Karen Erickson through an NCTI grant as among the best in the AT field. “Dr. Erickson’s research demonstrates that in addition to thinking about AT as an accommodation, if we apply it in certain ways, we have definitive evidence of skill achievement.”
“Although AT does not ‘fix’ children with disabilities,” she continues, “it can significantly assist them to produce better outcomes and to close some of the achievement gaps that are evident today. It can be significantly helpful to address the larger NCLB mission.
“On that front we have to answer the question, ‘Is that enough?’ In other words, unless AT can improve children’s test scores, are the benefits derived from its use sufficient for us and for them? We often work with students who won’t or cannot read or write. Research proves that these children read and write more often with AT tools. They don’t achieve grade-level results overnight, but the indicators show that they can keep better pace, which is where we want them to be.
“We can also look at the research conducted by Sally Shaywitz, M.D., a nationally recognized pediatrician, neuroscientist, member of the National Reading Panel, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the NICHD-Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. Dr. Shaywitz wrote about the issue of intervention versus accommodation in a 2008 article (http://www.iapsych.com/chcreading/LinkedDocuments/shaywitz2008hl.pdf).
What Dr. Shaywitz makes extremely clear is that intervention alone is not enough to get our students to grade level curriculum. This is an important assertion by a well-respected authority in the field who says that we need to cease looking at AT as an ‘either-or’ tool to fill students’ needs. Good intervention and good accommodations are not a choice. If we want our kids to be successful, we should do both and we will see an enormous impact on our students’ learning abilities and in access to required materials they need to succeed.”
Accessible Instructional Materials: Think Systemically
She explains… “IDEA 2004 contained additional language pertaining to accessible instructional materials that added clarity to the legislation. The reauthorized IDEA made file formats clearer and created the NIMAS standard. AIM’s overall intention is to encourage the AT field to think systemically to reduce duplication of effort regarding accessibility. If we establish a standard, there should be faster movement. It’s like the Beta/VHS tape battle where it took 10 years for the market to determine a standard. IDEA 2004 has served as a standard for accelerating access to the alternate format and to do as much as possible to eliminate redundancy.
“Students need to be able to use grade-level curriculum, but for that to happen materials must be made accessible. As a nation we need to be smart about how we provide universal access. In terms of traditional and new accessible instructional tools, the new tools are coming out of the commercial mainstream and we are just beginning to see them adopted.”
Ruth cites Amazon’s Kindle, the Sony Book Reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook electronic book reader and the Apple tablet as examples of mainstream consumer products with potential for children who need accessible instructional materials. At the consumer electronics show she saw that e-book readers were the hottest tools on the floor. “Text readers and screen readers are a core genre of AT and we’re seeing them now as high-profile products in the consumer realm. For some students, these devices may provide a solution. We find, though, that the core accessibility features students often need the most are left off. For instance, we know that speech support is very important – but the consumer readers don’t yet have that feature.”
Will these readers, when modified to address core issues, provide significant help to students who need reading support? Ruth says, “Computers should have solved problems for all the students who were physically disabled because computers enabled them to type instead of hand write. But that benefit has also brought new challenges. Eventually modified electronic reading devices will be a core solution for students, but we still have to encourage accessibility and ease of use for students with disabilities.”
Are Electronic Textbooks Available Yet?
Ruth explains: “Chafee allows an ‘authorized entity’ such as a governmental agency or non-profit organization, like Bookshare, to reproduce or distribute copyrighted materials in specialized formats for blind or other print disabled students without the need to obtain permission of the copyright owner. The definition of ‘print disability’ is unclear and does not cover every student with an IEP, so many students are not yet able to benefit from accessible instructional materials. That problem will continue to exist until districts begin to reexamine their purchasing policies, their contract language and their overall AT considerations for accommodations.
“Administrators are going to have to work with the publishers and begin to negotiate for what they need from publishers,” advises Ruth. “Leading AT individuals in the field and AT organizations are beginning to say that if we are smarter in our acquisition of materials to get the accessibility and flexibility we need right from the start, we will serve not only students with special needs but all learners. In addition, AT services can shift from creating and making materials accessible (scanning) to working with teachers and students in modeling the use of flexible materials to help students reach access to grade level curriculum. In terms of tools, the AT field is asking, ‘How do we make these tools more available and cost-effective?’”
New licensing methods are one answer. In school districts, Ruth has noticed a ‘value shift’ occurring. “If we’re shifting away from every district remaking its own materials then more value is placed by a district on acquiring, for example, the most sophisticated optical character recognition (OCR) program to create its own digital materials or an accessible text reader that supports reading instruction. Even though there’s a NIMAS standard, districts and schools are using whatever materials are available. I see a shift to technology that will meet the new standards but still support the accessibility standard and to much-needed professional development for teachers, but there’s still room to grow.”
Resistance to Full Digitization Remains
“AIM has helped to spotlight the need for multiple formats and this will continue to evolve. Devices like iTunes and the iPhone, which can accommodate accessible formats, put pressure on companies to determine new business models for making content available in new formats. Yet the irony is that at the end of the day, despite this accelerated technological evolution, schools are amazingly still looking for traditional textbooks.”
Even with the new AIM-related laws, Ruth says it is a struggle to get content in the formats that are needed. She is confident, however, that increased activity among digital publishers will eventually result in the creation of appropriate material.
In terms of AT usage overall, Ruth feels, “more often than not, technology usage is based more on the teachers’ comfort level with technology instead of the student’s need for technology. If we were driven more by student need, we would see much more use of technology. According to an NCLD report, 66% of students with learning disabilities are reading 3 or more grade levels behind. I can assure you that 66% of students with learning disabilities are not using assistive technology to get access to the general curriculum.”
Student proficiency with technology has been a major contributor to positive change in teachers’ relationship with technology, she asserts. “It’s trite but true: Most kids are proficient users of technology, which can frighten or intimidate some teachers because they don’t want to appear to know less than their students.”
Ruth’s mentor and founder of her company, Don Johnston, did not learn to read until the 8th grade when an inspiring teacher, Mrs. Tedesco, taught Don to learn in different ways. Don is to write a second book about returning to school. In his first book, an autobiography, Don writes about his learning challenges in grade school and the teacher who changed his life. The book is called “Building Wings: How I Made it Through School” and was a hit among teachers and students with disabilities. Don received hundreds of letters sharing the impact the book made on struggling and reluctant readers. A Building Wings Readers Theater Toolkit (learning materials to accompany Don’s book) was created by local teachers in Schaumburg School District 54 near the Don Johnston headquarters. The online book and Readers Theater are free to download from the website at http://www.donjohnston.com/building_wings/readers_theater.html
Today, Don Johnston is training to be a docent who leads tours for the Chicago Architectural Committee. “It’s a very stringent program,” shares Ruth, but this time Don can use technology to learn which was not available to him when he attended grade school. Don receives his materials digitally and uses his Read:OutLoud accessible text reader to take notes and study the information. Don is seen as a tech-savvy learner, not one with reading difficulties. No one is questioning whether he is getting an unfair advantage or telling him that he can’t use these tools when he is assessed for his docent certification. Don expects school to be much different this time around and still envisions a world where all learners will get these opportunities.”
AT Benefits for Students on the Autism Spectrum
Many districts use Don Johnston’s Start-to-Finish computer books (http://www.donjohnston.com/products/start_to_finish/library/index.html) which are written in a considerate text format to keep struggling readers engaged and feeling more independent. “The reason children with autism do better with these materials is that the books are written to understand a different developing language system,” shared Ruth. “If a child is unable to comprehend a complex sentence he/she can probably understand a simple sentence. Start-to-Finish was written to accommodate a developmental language system. Children on the autism spectrum often need alternate materials as well as assistive technology.”
Among the anecdotes, Ruth has heard about a practitioner from Minnesota who works with students with autism. “She uses technology that was created for one purpose in multiple ways to support her students with different needs. For example, she used a word prediction writing tool for a non-verbal student to bolster his overall communication skills. The child’s verbal skills consisted of repeating what others said, a very Echolalic (the automatic repetition of vocalizations initiated by another individual) trait. He was unable to initiate any dialogue on his own. The teacher used word prediction and a talking word processor to facilitate the child’s writing skills. The child was then able to generate ideas of his own and initiate conversation.”
The Rise of Digital Rights Managers - Change is Coming
Already, Ruth says, AT professionals are surfacing as Digital Rights Managers or DRMs. “Virginia and Indiana, in their instructional materials programs, are asking districts to identify DRMs. Sometimes that individual is an AT professional, sometimes an IT professional, sometimes it’s a librarian. This is a new movement and a new responsibility. Even if the AT professional in a district doesn’t become the DRM, he/she will have to maintain a good working relationship with the individual who is selected to fulfill that responsibility in order to make sure the general curriculum is accessible to every student with an IEP. In the end, we are crossing this bridge together to make a difference in the lives of many more students in special and general education. Our company is committed to this effort and to support and serve educators for many more years to come.”
Don Johnston founded his educational publishing company in 1980 with a sincere desire to develop tools and services that would help students become successful readers, writers and thinkers. He is a highly respected leader in the assistive technology field, dedicated to helping struggling learners identify their unique learning styles and become self-advocates for their learning success. In the mid 1970’s, Don started an alternative school in collaboration with the local school district for students with behavior and learning problems. Later, he became an organizational consultant for businesses planning change and taught part-time for 15 years in the Organizational Development Department at George Williams College and Aurora University in Illinois. Don holds a Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Kent State University and a Masters Degree in Psychology specializing in Groups and Organizational Cange from George Williams College. He is well respected for his knowledge of brain-based research and the study of how children learn best; including the theory of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Over the years, he has collaborated with many educators, researchers and scientists at Vanderbilt University, NASA and has received numerous awards. In 2005, Don Johnston received the Outstanding Leadership Award presented by the Technology and Media Group (TAM) from the Council for Exceptional Children. Don is also a well-known author, photographer, science enthusiast, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, teacher and student ambassador.
iPods May Help Asperger’s Kids Navigate Life
Recognizing that many local education agencies (LEAs) may need to use a large portion of the ARRA funds to support teacher salaries or other critical short-term needs, this resource suggests how LEAs can use such funds to support activities that increase LEA and school capacity in a manner that is consistent with regulatory requirements and in coordination with other funding sources including their regular IDEA Part B allocation.
FCTD AT Glossary
Here at the Family Center, we understand that it is important for parents to understand the “language” of assistive technology so they can beinformed advocates for their child’s technology needs. The FCTD AT Glossary can help parents learn about the kinds of assistive technologies that are currently available. An updated 2010 version is now availble on our website. To access the glossary, please visit http://www.fctd.info/factsheet/glossary
KNOWLEDGE NETWORK MEMBERS
Colligo: Digital Content and Assistive Technology
The DAISY Standard is based on several recommendations of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3). Currently, these include the Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL). Both are internationally recognized standards accepted in the technology industry. The DAISY Standard allows the producing agency full flexibility regarding the mix of text and audio ranging from audio-only, to full text and audio, to text-only. Using the DAISY Standard, content creators, such as libraries serving individuals who are blind or visually impaired, or a book publisher, can produce accessible and navigable books to meet a variety of reading needs. In general, organizations can:
A DAISY book is defined as a set of digital files that includes:
The center administers the Fraser Project, which utilizes these iPods and iTunes devices and applications to create social stories and other necessary supports for individuals with autism and Asperger‘s Syndrome. For further information on the center, contact:
Funding provided by the US Department of Education under grant number H327F080003
Project Officer: Jo Ann McCann