Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 10 / OCTOBER 1984 / PAGE 96

Computers make special education more effective and fun. Glenn M. Kleiman; Mary M. Humphrey.

We have often encountered teachers, parents, and administrators who believe that special education students should not use computers. They present negative arguments like the following:

Negative Argument #1: Special education students won't be able to use computers. They are too complex and students will only become frustrated trying

to make them work.   They can't do

math or read; how are they going to operate a computer?

Negative Argument #3: Their social skills are poor enough now. If you put them on machines they will become even worse at communicating with other students and teachers.

Negative Argument #4: There is too much for the special education teachers to do already. When will they find time to learn to use the computers themselves, teach the kids, and then make sure the computers are used properly and not damaged?

In this article, we describe the experiences of teachers and students in two special education classes into which computers were successfully introduced. Their experiences convinced us that computers can be especially valuable for students with learning problems. Background

We introduced computers into these classrooms as part of a project that involved developing and testing software designed for spelling drill-and-practice. Twenty-nine children, from 7 to 13 years of age, participated in the project. All the children had learning problems which required special remedial instruction. Eighteen of the children came to a resource room from their regular classrooms for one hour each day. The other eleven children had more severe learning problems and spent the entire school day in a special education classroom. Each child used the computer individually three or four times a week, for 15 to 20 minutes each time. The project lasted ten weeks.

All the students had histories of serious problems with their school work. Their books and papers were quite messy, and their interactions with other students and teachers were poor. These children required a great deal of individual attention from teachers, whose time and patience were often strained.

The four negative arguments we have described claim that computers would increase these problems. However, we found that computers helped alleviate them.

The spelling program successfully increased the rate at which the children learned their words. More importantly, we found that the use of computers led to improvements in the children's self-esteem, their interactions with others, and their feelings about school and learning. These benefits are of far more general significance than the learning of spelling words, and so we will focus upon them in this article. Computers Are Easy to Use

Many educators believe that computers are too complex for students with learning problems, and therefore will lead to frustration. This fear may be based on misconceptions about the difficulties of using computers or it may stem from experiences with poorly designed software.

Most children, even those with learning difficulties, quickly become confortable with computers. Some children in our project took only one practice session to learn to operate the computer. These students were then able to serve as tutors for the others.

All the children mastered the procedures for using the computer in a few sessions. They were not at all intimidated by the computer and were quite willing to experiment, pressing different keys to see what could happen. The children seldom encountered problems in operating the computer. When a problem did occur, they re-entered answers, pressed RETURN, repeated LOAD or RUN commands, and so on--they did not become frustrated or give up.

An important factor in the success of our project was that the software was easy for children to use. The difficulty of the drills could be adjusted to an appropriate level for each child. The computer prompted the children at each step and the procedures were simple and consistent. The program waited for the children to signal that they were ready, and it provided feedback that they could understand easily. Computers Don't Wear Out

Educators and parents also express concern that since special education students often produce messy work, wear out their books, and break crayons and pencils, they are likely to damage computers. A closer look at the type of wear and tear in these classrooms did not show evidence of any deliberate abuse, but rather the results of problems common among special education students. Many of these children have difficulty with the fine motor coordination required to fold papers, draw within lines, write legibly, and erase mistakes neatly. Consequently, one of the best liked features of the computer was that it did not require any of these skills and did not break, tear, or wrinkle.

Even when children had to "hunt and peck" to enter answers, they found it much easier to type than to write with a pen or pencil. For these children, pressing a key to delete an answer meant that they were able to erase a mistake "without making a hole in the screen." Computers Encourage Social Interaction

Another negative argument is based on the view that special education students are withdrawn or socially isolated children who need to be encouraged to initiate interactions. Our experience leads us to believe that this is not the case. Most of the children we worked with demanded a great deal of attention, particularly from the teachers. The amount of time they spent seeking directions and approval from the teacher had been both annoying for the teacher and disrupting for the class as a whole.

While working on the computer, the children were kept busy entering answers, changing mistakes, or moving on to the next part of the lesson. They received frequent and immediate feed-back about their answers and continued working on each word until they spelled it correctly. They participated more actively in learning than they did in most of their other lessons.

Using the computer allowed the students to be more independent with their work. the teachers felt that this reduced the competition between students for their attention and improved the overall quality of teacher-student interactions.

An important feature of the lesson program was that it responded immediately to incorrect answers. Feelings of failure were lessened since the children did not accumulate a collection of errors beofre receiving feedback (as usually happens when working paper and pencil lessons that the teacher later checks).

The program also required the students to type each word correctly before going on to the next one. Rather than going on to the next one. Rather than cause frustration, this practice helped the children avoid making the same mistake repeatedly--a frequent problem for these students. The teachers felt that their students were better able to tolerate failures and showed more patience when working their lessons on the computer. Many times when they had trouble with one of their other lessons, the children asked to be allowed to "work it on the computer."

The computer project had dramatic effects upon the children's sefl-esteem and upon how they were regarded by the other children, teachers, and their parents. The children came to see themselves as more capable because they were able to operate a "real about computer." They became more confident and willing to take on challenges, and were less easily frustrated. The teachers began to expect the children to be capable of mastering more difficult lessons.

For the first time, other children in the school (who did not have computers in their classes) were envious of the special education children. The children's parents were interested in the project and expressed pride in their children's ability to use the computer. The number of parents who came to the school on parent-teacher meeting nights increased dramatically. Computers Help Teachers

Many teachers are concerned that introducing a computer to their classroom would be a drain upon their time and resources. The time devoted to learning how to use the computer and implementing it in the classroom is less than many teachers expect. The rewards can be well worth the time and effort.

In the classrooms participating in our project, the teachers quickly learned to use the computer. The use of peer-tutors to help other children was efficient for the teachers and contributed to positive interactions among the children. It also led to students helping each other with computer problems that occurred later.

After a schedule was developed, the children took their computer turns without teacher supervision. The teachers found the computer could replace them as monitors and drill-practice technicians, and thereby allowed them to devote more time and effort to teaching. Summary

After the ten weeks with computers in their classrooms, the teachers summarized their views as follows:

"In addition to the fun, the children enjoyed improved communication skills, an increased ability to handle frustration, an opportunity to progress in academic areas, and a growing independence within their learning environments. The success that the children experienced at the computer enhanced their self-esteem. Communications between parent and child, teacher and child, and teacher and teacher improved. All of these aspects helped establish a happy, friendly, and positive climate within the classroom."

We have not discussed the details of the software and other aspects of our project, since we believe comparable effects could be obtained with many different applications of computers in special education. However, using computers does not automatically lead to such benefits.

We regard three general factors as critical to the successful introduction of computers into any classroom, and we believe that these factors are even more important for special education classes. First, the computer learning experiences must be integrated into the overall program of instruction. That is, the computer must be treated as a tool for learning, not as a toy for playing games. Second, the teachers and children must be given sufficient training in how to operate the computer to become comfortable with it. Third, the software must be well designed and easy to use. Positive Arguments

After using computers with special education students, we are convinced that the arguments against doing so are invalid. With good software and proper implementation, computers can have very positive effects. We propose the following five arguments in favor of using computers in special education:

Positive Argument #1: Computers can individualize instruction. They can be programmed to present lessons or drills at a level of difficulty and speed appropriate for each child. They can provide immediate and informative feedback, which is particularly helpful for children with learning problems.

Positive Argument #2: Computers can help special education children become active learners. As they learn to control and interact with the computer, their work habits and study skills improve.

Positive Argument #3: Improved learning skills lead to remarkable changes in children's self-esteem. They have a chance to see learning as fun and easy, to see themselves as capable and in control. Their expectations for success in other school activities also improve.

Positive Argument #4: As the special education students become more capable and confident, other children, teachers, and parents begin to change their attitudes about these students' abilities.

Positive Argument #5: Special education teachers find their jobs more rewarding as they spend less time keeping records, coaxing and monitoring students, and more time actually teaching.