Computer Literacy For Children with Special Needs

Published: Jun 16, 2008 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Jason Mosheim, jmosheim@merion.com,

Source: Vol. 18 * Issue 8 * Page 6 ADVANCE

Every summer since 2005, the Computer Literacy Academy at Auburn University, in Auburn, AL, becomes a melting pot of sorts. Children with special needs and their typically developing peers sit side by side in front of computers as graduate students in the departments of Communication Disorders and Computer Science and Software Engineering work together to guide the day's activities.

The program encompasses the type of successful collaboration that many speech-language pathologists and other professionals yearn for but often find difficult to achieve.

"Very often you see special education instructors who have problems with technology," said Daniela Marghitu, PhD, faculty coordinator in computer science. "They're afraid of it because their background is in human science. There are lots of people who have the knowledge and the will to do it, but they probably believe it's more challenging than it actually is."

There were many camps for typical children in the surrounding community, but Dr. Marghitu, who founded the Computer Literacy Academy, wanted to develop a program that accepted children with special needs and encouraged them to interact with each other and their typically developing peers.

"We provide children with the help they need to be treated fairly and equally," she told ADVANCE. The program helps them realize they can perform the same activities as everybody else.

The Computer Literacy Academy focuses on making sure children with special needs are integrated into mainstream learning environments and giving graduate students in communication disorders and computer science the opportunity to come together and share their skills.

Over the last three years, the program has worked with children with Down syndrome, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, cleft palate and attention deficit disorder. Last summer the program hosted eight children with disabilities and 16 typical children. Even though the children were at different learning levels, they all followed the same program. Primary goals included following directions, retelling stories, grammar, verb tense, letter and picture identification, and articulation.

"Children with special needs followed the same program as the typical children, but it was very modified," said Elizabeth Zylla-Jones, MS, CCC-SLP, associate clinical professor in the Speech and Hearing Clinic at Auburn. In the modified versions of the programs, the children might be asked to read a specific word.

The children also needed to work on the programs at their own pace.

"The worst thing you can do is ask them to do more than they can do," said Dr. Marghitu. Adapting the computer programs to individual needs helps the children feel more comfortable and eases their frustration.

Some children required specialized assistive technology (AT) or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. Traditional software such as MS Word, PowerPoint and Excel also were used in conjunction with special software programs like Webber Interactive WH Questions, by Super Duper Inc., in Greenville, SC; Acorn's Tree House, by Janelle Publications, in DeKalb, IL; No Glamour Grammar, by LinguiSystems, in East Moline, IL; and Understanding and Following Directions, by Academic Communication Associates in Oceanside, CA.

Children with disabilities mostly worked with MS Word, PowerPoint and Excel. If a child was working on articulation goals, for example, instructors could type in a list of words in MS Word and have the child read the words aloud. If a child was working on the /s/ sound, instructors could set up one of the software programs to simulate shopping for items like soup or soap. Children working on -ing verb tenses could talk with peers about their hobbies, like swimming, reading or singing, and type the information into an Excel document.

The students also created PowerPoint presentations about their families. After asking their families questions about pets and other topics, they created graphs in Excel and designed their presentations. The instructors printed out their projects and sent them home with the children to promote carry-over.

When the program started in 2005, Dr. Marghitu and Zylla-Jones had no language-oriented computer programs. They acquired one program in 2006 and last year received a grant to purchase several new programs, as well as AT and AAC devices.

At the completion of the program in 2005, the students with disabilities had made a 17 percent gain in their targeted goals. That figure increased to 20 percent the following year and an additional percentage point last year.

"If you look at 2005 to 2007, it looks pretty good," said Zylla-Jones. "Perhaps there wasn't as much gain from 2006 to 2007 because we were using some specialized programs in 2006. Because we were able to purchase the devices, we could include more severely involved children, so progress might have been more limited."

Graduate students in communication disorders who participated in the Computer Literacy Academy completed pre- and post-assessment surveys on their ability to understand computers and work in an inclusive environment. The average score, based on a five-point scale, increased from 4.1 on the pre-assessment survey to 4.6 post-assessment.

The survey asked graduate students how comfortable they felt working with peers from a different discipline, if they were able to interact easily with peers, if working with peers from computer science was an effective way to increase their knowledge of computers, if working with children with disabilities was effective in increasing their knowledge, if they understood how to incorporate academic classroom goals with computers, if they knew how to modify computers to reach goals, and if they understood how to work with children with special needs in an inclusive setting.

The graduate students in computer science completed a modified version of the survey. Their average score was 4.2 on the pre-assessment and 4.5 post-assessment.

"The students reported that they felt very comfortable working with their peers, that they learned a lot working directly with children with special needs, and that they felt more comfortable working with the computers," reported Zylla-Jones.

"The graduate students in the computer program said they actually wanted to learn more, which is amazing. It's exactly what we wanted," said Dr. Marghitu.

Computer students interact less with people, especially children, she said. Working in the program gives them "a better understanding of children with special needs if they become professors, and they will be better prepared to understand this population if they become software developers."

It's uncertain which computer programs had the most impact. The children sometimes jumped from program to program, especially if they became bored. Future changes to the program may include trying to make sure that the students stick with a program for longer periods of time so the instructors can get more specific data on each program.

Using the specialized computer programs, the children improved 23 percent in their targeted goals. They exhibited a 19 percent gain with the traditional programs of MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

While it's important to find out which computer programs have the biggest impact, it's equally important to let the children explore and have fun, observed Dr. Marghitu. "That's one of the key ingredients. If they have fun on top of using good software and hardware, the rate of achievement will be higher. We are trying to show these kids that they can use their brains much more than they believe they can. Once they break down those walls and realize they can do more, they'll feel more comfortable."

Her department recently moved into a new state-of-the-art building with a lab for educational assistive technologies. This setting will enable the computer science staff to evaluate and develop more software applications and integrate them into the computer literacy program.

With the new lab Dr. Marghitu hopes to add to the literature showing that children's communication skills are enhanced when computer technology is introduced. Technology improves communication skills by providing opportunities for interaction. In addition, it can be customized to a particular child's needs. This is a large part of the computer literacy program and a big reason why it has been so successful.

Overall, the benefit of inclusion is that it gives children with special needs the opportunity to interact with their peers.

"It's certainly a motivator," said Zylla-Jones. "It helps with their self-esteem to see that they're working on the same programs and computers as their peers."

For More Information

Daniela Marghitu, PhD, e-mail: marghda@auburn.edu

Elizabeth Zylla-Jones, e-mail: zyllael@auburn.edu

Jason Mosheim is an Associate Editor for ADVANCE. He can be reached at jmosheim@merion.com.