Students Build Apps for Peers in Special Education


By Joni Blecher

At San Elijo Middle School in San Diego, students are using their technology prowess to help fellow students with special needs learn. It began when one teacher's interest in his colleague's teaching methods blossomed into a program that uses technology as a learning aid for both of classes.

As an entrepreneur turned teacher, Allen Brooks has always had a passion for technology, and has sought to bring it into the classroom. In his First Year and Advanced Technology classes, he teaches programming, design, and how to create projects that have value outside of the classroom. One such project came as a result of his collaboration with fellow teacher Shannon Dudley.

For some time, Brooks had known of SMART Technologies' SMART Table, an interactive table with a 42-inch LCD surface that offers a multi-touch, multi-sense experience that can handle up to 40 different touches simultaneously. When Brooks witnessed some of the challenges that students with moderate to severe disabilities faced in Dudley's inclusive class (6th - 8th grade), he knew how the SMART Table could be put to use. That's when he approached Dudley with his idea: Allow his 8th grade technology students to build apps for the table designed to meet the needs of her pupils.

"Miss Dudley had the most important role, because she opened the door to me. They never said 'no' to me. It's a great gift because it requires a tremendous amount of trust and confidence," said Brooks.

To kick off the project, Brooks sent his Advanced Technology students (in groups of six) to Dudley's classroom to see how her students learned. There they interacted and formed lasting connections. Additionally, Dudley taught them about adaptive teaching techniques, which observes an aspect of a student's performance and adjusts what is presented to each student based on those observations.

"Students came back everyday taller, stronger, and wiser. It was interesting to see how they grew from the experience," added Brooks.

Based on what they gathered from their time spent in Dudley's class, Brooks assigned his students the task of creating SMART Table apps based on specific education needs and interests of each student in her class. Using the SMART Table Toolkit, which has a drag-and-drop interface with graphic design and audio editing features, his students began to build adaptive learning apps in class. For example, one of Dudley's students was passionate about maps, so they developed a geography lesson using maps to identify oceans, seas, and continents.

The program was so successful in its inaugural year that it's being brought back for the coming school year, and Brooks' Advanced Technology class will develop new SMART Table lessons for Dudley's students.

"I never told my students they can't," said Brooks. "My goal as a teacher is to change students from pure consumers to creators. When you can create, you can give back."

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Joni Blecher is a freelance writer who has spent her career covering tech and a myriad of lifestyle topics. When she's not writing, you can find her exploring the food scene in Portland, OR.

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