Te(a)chnology: Access in Every Classroom

By Rebecca A. Hines

In the past, accessibility in the classroom has revolved largely around students with disabilities. As Universal Design for Learning has become a part of the vocabulary of education, however, the scope has been broadened. It is now expected that all teachers give multiple ways for students to take in and engage with course content. Add increasingly available technologies that increase productivity for everyone, and keeping up with the changes seems daunting. How can we do it all?

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In the new Common Core standards, technology plays a prominent role in every discipline and at every grade level for all students. For students with disabilities, access to and fluency with technology is particularly critical. In schools across the country, students with print disabilities are accessing, analyzing, and comprehending grade level texts using hand-held, mainstream text readers. Students with fine motor or executive functioning disabilities are composing essays on par with their non-disabled peers using mainstream text-to-speech software. Making these tools a regular part of the classroom continues to be a challenge for many educators.

Creating and labeling a space in every classroom specifically designated as an ACCESS CENTER is a place to start. Whether we are working in co-taught, consultation, or self-contained settings, ALL students should be learning that access is for everyone- we should all work to support ourselves.

Creating an Access Center

As with all planning in our classrooms, we begin with the end in mind. What do I want my students to have access to that they do not currently have? What individual needs exist for students with low incidence disabilities? What behavioral needs might be addressed with a fresh approach? What types of extension opportunities are available for my highest achievers?

Steps to Starting an Access Center

  1. Choose location
  2. Organize available hardware (computer, headphones, etc)
  3. Locate digital resources to include:
  4. Locate Non-Digital Items such as:
    • Practice workbooks
    • Extra reading materials
    • Activities with written instructions (crafts, for example)
    • Brain teasers
    • Relaxation supports 
  5. Post instructions 
  6. Present “mini lesson” to introduce to students
  7. Continuously
    1. Promote independence
    2. Add new materials
    3. Steer kids to finding appropriate levels of challenge/support

Tips: Be purposeful in your design, and consider changing featured websites even between class periods to match the standards you are teaching. Example: If students are working on continents, you might put Fact Monster as your featured website. But rather than having kids go to the main website, load it in advance to the page on continents!

There are many commercial products for computer-based learning today, but free activities abound on the web that can help get you started with independent assessment centers. I suggest that, as a way to use consistent language for the Access Station, you might categorize tools or activities in the following ways:

Productivity Tools

Encouraging students today to see themselves as producers rather than consumers begins with, well, telling them! Sample sites to promote productivity include:

  • Theme Poems , Arthur’s Movie Maker Simple sites like these might be featured for a week with the expectation that all students will find time to create a specific product. Rather than waiting for a laptop cart to become available and doing the activity as a whole group, students might be expected and encouraged to find time during the school day when they have completed work and can get to the access center to complete the simple activity. For those students who need support, schedule a specific time to ensure they complete the activity. Besides the language arts element, the goal is independence and teaching students to manage time!

Review Tools

Most major textbook publishers today have companion Web sites for their textbooks, sometimes at no additional cost. Finding the textbook Web site and showing students how to access it gives them unlimited opportunities to extend of review content in exactly the same language and style they are learning using your classroom materials.

  • This example from a Pearson math text illustrates the ease with which students can gain additional practice and immediate feedback.
  • Quizlet
    Like Study Stack, Quizlet is a free flash cards and study games Web site. The site is easy to navigate, and students can choose between reviewing flashcards, games or tests on subjects already in the database or added by any user. For the student who is difficult to keep on task for an entire class period, consider a few minutes of review/practice in the Access Station to break up the period. Have the site preloaded or bookmarked, and set a timer. A quick break may be just what is needed to keep a student engaged. The learner chooses the type of activity or test delivered, and responses are scored automatically.

Support Tools

Even though we may use this area with all students, ensuring that specific tools to support specific learners are available is critical.

  • ReadPlease2003 is a free download that allows users to have text read aloud from any PC. Of course, there are any number of screen readers available, so choose the one that works best for you and your students.
  • Goal setting worksheets offer a different approach. If students need to create goals for themselves, either during a crisis or to plan for instruction, the access center is a great place to take a moment and get started. When all students use this center, it is not stigmatizing when a students uses the space to accomplish a specific support task.

The bottom line is, all students should understand that in the classroom learning never ends. If you finish one activity, everyone needs access to more. Creating a space that promotes this idea- and provides access for students who needs specific supports- begins with a few simple changes to our classroom environment.

CEC member Rebecca A. Hines is a faculty member at the University of Central Florida, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in technology in special education and specializes in inclusive practices. She can be reached at rebecca.hines@ucf.edu.