AQ ePortfolio Artifact: Every Child has Special Needs

This is one part of a 5 part assignment, highlighting contributions to an AQ course. The assignment asks the student to select 5 – 7 pieces of your work from this course that shows “You”.

The Question: Write a 2-3 page summary report on how a digital portfolio would benefit a student with special needs more than just the average student. Feel free to research this topic, but just list any references that you may use.

The Answer: The question for this assignment — Write a 2-3 page summary report on how a digital portfolio would benefit a student with special needs more than just the average student — is wrong. Technology as a learning tool, when used appropriately, benefits all students. The ways that we individualize learning, and attempt to make it relevant to a learner’s style, and to their strengths and weaknesses, shouldn’t be something relegated to students with special needs, in the way that we use that term to quantify students who have learning disabilities. Every student has needs, and every child is special, and therefore every student should be provided the benefits we afford to students with learning disabilities. Every student should be given access to technology that assists them in reaching their full potential. Put aside for a moment that the “average student” can cope in today’s education system without access to digital tools and resources. That they are conditioned to jump through the right hoops and summon up the requisite effort to qualify among the average, while we create individualized learning plans for students who fail to either fit the mould or toe the line. I am not trying to sweep away the very real existence of learning disabilities; but I also submit that the way some of our current classrooms operate, where silence and diligence in worksheets that will aid in achieving higher marks on standardized testing, make “identified” students a sometimes blanket term for any child not willing to move in step with the others.

ePortfolios — which for the purpose of this paper I define as a blog — are not only relevant in teaching and learning, but important as a component of a blended learning environment to differentiate for learners. I utilize blogging in this capacity for its ease of use as a publishing platform to centralize work from multiple sources through the ability to embed; its compatibility with different forms of multimedia; and for the varied permissions that can be set on authorship and administrative capabilities. Blogging is also relevant for this purpose because of the ability to provide feedback, commentary, and discussion regarding the work posted.

 As a starting point, blogs add many elements to the learning environment:

  • Blogs provide a “centralized portfolio” where creative work can be posted from multiple disciplines

  • Blogs on a standardized platform provide an ongoing digital portfolio that the student will continue contributing to from year to year, instead of having to utilize a different tool for each class, for each year, for each assignment

  • This ongoing digital portfolio allows teachers to assess the level of achievement of students entering their classrooms (see the work from June in early Sept.)

  • Digital portfolios allow for better sharing of student work (the display wall becomes infinitely larger, and more accessible to other feedback and monitoring by other teachers, administration, and students), leading to a better knowledge of our students, and more sources of descriptive feedback: a key component in the learning process

  • Digital portfolios/Blogs, by their very nature, are conversation tools that enable feedback to occur from multiple sources. Assessment as Learning occurs organically as students read and comment on each others’ submissions

  • An authentic audience is created.  The teacher is no longer the only “reader” of the work

  • A community of writers is created.

  • The portfolio becomes a repository where creations from other Web 2.0 tools (stop motion animation, podcasting, comics, movies etc.) can be centrally located, shared, and assessed. The portfolio becomes the “binder” where all digital work is collected

These are features that are of value to all learners, and help to enhance the learning environment in myriad ways. It is important for us to recognize the importance of creating blended learning environments, with ePortfolios as a facet, to benefit learning for all.

As a tool for students with learning disabilities, electronic forms of communication (and technology outright) — as a replacement for paper — as a means of delivering evidence of learning between a learner and their teacher, are essential. We must leverage the assistive technology available to help students meet their full potential. Allowing students access to the technology available to meet their learning needs should be seen as a fundamental right for students growing up in the current age. It cannot be seen as something we limit to students who meet a certain set of criteria, or for students who show a suitable proclivity to utilizing the technology. It should not be optional. Technology in all its forms (both hardware and software), in this age of information, is a key learning tool for all.

This is an emerging construct; as technology becomes more accessible, and its uses become more enabling for learners, we begin to see it as less of an option and more of an imperative. As we see dependence on these tools in our own lives as a key element of lifelong learning, we begin to understand their value in pedagogy.  I’ll use the current SEA claim practice at HWDSB as an example of where this thinking should applied. Claims for funding for students who have met the criteria of an appropriately qualified professional as benefiting from technology, still go through a 6 week trial process in which “schools must demonstrate that the student is willingly and effectively using technology” (HWDSB Special Equipment Amount Claim Procedures Manual). I am sure there was relevance to this policy, perhaps as a response to seeing too many pieces of SEA Claim equipment collecting dust or being deployed improperly, but it seems backwards. Not only should every student have access to current and relevant technology, but If a trained professional (usually someone with a PhD) says that a child in a school where this isn’t the current reality will benefit from the use of technology, it should not be up to the child to then dictate readiness, but up to the teacher to show a willingness to help the student understand how to effectively use the technology, and therefore become willing. If the teacher cannot demonstrate that they can willingly and effectively use technology, they are doing a disservice to their students.

We cannot put the blame on individual teachers though. A teacher alone cannot provide technology for their classroom. It is the responsibility of the school board to ensure that the essential conditions for learning exist. These are learning conditions for the professional, as well as for the student. If the opportunity does not exist to practice with technology, so that it becomes a part of practice, then teachers cannot reasonably show willing and effective use. We must then ensure that our classrooms are properly equipped with the right technology, and once the technology is in place, we can begin to look at the ways in which it can be harnessed to improve student learning.

This takes us back to eportfolios, blended learning, and technology, as a means to interact with students, and as a space where they can recognize an authentic audience, show pride in their achievements, and share their learning with a wider audience. E-portfolios create a vehicle in which students share their personal interests, alongside the purposeful work they complete in class. In the current system it may be seen to be of greater importance with students with special needs, as the blog becomes a vehicle for the student to share their knowledge on subjects of personal interest (video games, comic books, sports etc.) as a differentiation strategy, while the “average students” toil on content served up in traditional textbook fashion; but a willingness to provide assessment data in the same format, on the same subject matter, as the teacher has deemed appropriate, does not preclude them from wanting, and benefiting from, being able to share what they know, about what they know, to an audience.

Blended learning, and e-portfolios as a key component of that blend, is an essential part of today’s classroom. We cannot continue to relegate consistent access to technology to students with “special needs”. We need to ensure that all students have this type of access, and we need to remove any barriers we have in place that make it more difficult for students to gain that access. Technology may be an outright necessity for some students with learning disabilities that prevent them from functioning in the world without technology, but beyond those extreme situations, every student can benefit from technology, and to say that it may be better for some, may be mistaken to meaning optional for others.

The Motivation: Here is another example of treading away from the requesting content as the spirit behind the question runs counter to my beliefs about technology integration in the classroom. I think I present a sound argument, but not one necessarily answers the question, as much as it hopefully examines the spirit of the question.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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  1. Jared, I had to reply to this post because I feel so strongly about what you shared here. I absolutely agree with you! I’ve often heard the statement shared before, “Why should I change my classroom for just one student?” This is usually in regards to a child with special needs. The thought behind this comment makes sense: the teacher is considering all of the students in the class, and does not want to neglect the others. My problem with the comment stems from the fact that often if you make the changes to the whole classroom that would benefit this one student (e.g., the ability to choose the way of communicating your thinking OR the ability of using technology to read or write OR the use of an electronic portfolio), it really does benefit everyone.

    This year, I have many students with special needs in my class. Four students went to the Centre for Success, and have their own laptop and assistive technology to use for all of their work. It would be easy to just let them have access to these tools, but I think that this creates a culture of “us” and “them.” It also makes students believe that they are smarter than the students that may have a learning disability. What needs to be remembered is that for a child to be identified as L.D., they need to have average to above average intelligence. It’s the gap between verbal and non-verbal skills that produces the diagnosis. Students with learning disabilities are not “stupid” and are very capable of learning. We need to provide them with the right tools, support, and instruction to ensure that they do. All students deserve this same right! This is why I installed the Premier toolbar on all of my desktop and laptop computers, and any student that would benefit from using these tools, does so. I also purchased WordQ for my personal iPads, and numerous students use it. Those that struggle with spelling find it incredibly helpful, and those that constantly write run-on sentences are actually using the app to help proofread. Shouldn’t all students that need a tool be able to have access to it?

    We often speak about getting students with learning disabilities to learn to advocate for themselves. The thought is that they need to be able to tell their teachers what they need in place to do well. Isn’t that true for all students though? Yes, I use a lot of technology in my classroom, but more than that, I give students choice about what to use and how to pick what works best for them. This benefits ALL students, not just those with learning disabilities.

    I’m glad that you pushed the limits of this assignment because I think you make an important point that needs to be discussed more in education. Thank you for starting this discussion! (And my apologies for writing a blog post of my own as a comment. :-))


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