Back-to-School Ed Tech

Planning for diverse learning needs

By Annabel Dotzman, M.Ed

For educators, the back to school frenzy begins well before the first day of school. Each year, students enter classrooms at different learning levels, with different learning styles, and with diverse needs.

Teachers take this into account and seek out effective strategies and tools that will help meet their students’ needs, including students with special needs and English Learners. With schools expanding student access to technology, setting up any classroom for a new school year should include intentional planning for technology use. As student needs are identified, it is best to seek out effective technology that can be integrated to bridge their needs and to assist in achieving learning goals.

With iPads and Chromebooks becoming readily available in classrooms, manufacturers are designing devices with assistive technology that was once only available on specialized equipment. Devices with built-in universal design features can be integral in leveling the learning playing field for students with special needs.

Apple has invested a great deal in assistive technology; their devices come equipped with features to support students with special needs. iPads have numerous universal design features built in, specifically, tools to support students with sensory and learning disabilities, as well as English Learners. Below are just a few features:

Guided Access – This feature provides a way of keeping students focused and on task by locking the iPad to a single, specified app or site. Teachers designate which features of the iPad or app can be used, as well as set a time limit for use of the app or site.

Display Accommodations – To accommodate students with visual impairments, screen colors can be inverted, color filters and grayscale can be applied, and color intensity and frame rate can be adjusted. Text in apps such as mail, calendars, and settings can be adjusted to be larger or bolder.

Typing Feedback – This feature allows students to proof listen their writing which can benefit students with dyslexia, English Learners, or students having difficulty seeing the keyboard. Options include to have characters, words, text corrections and suggestions, auto-capitalizations, and typing predictions spoken aloud.

Assistive Touch – Numerous options provide support for students that have motor skills difficulty. The iPad’s multi-touch screen and gestures, such as double-tapping and pinching can be modified to be completed with a single tap. Custom gestures can be programmed; sticky keys and switch controls are also supported.

VoiceOver – This built in screen reader describes screen content and can be instrumental for students with visual impairments. Read aloud math equations, explore with Maps, and edit videos with this feature. The speaking rate and pitch can be adjusted according to students’ needs. VoiceOver Gestures offers customization of how the screen is described and controlled via simple hand or keyboard gestures. There is also the option to enable an onscreen braille keyboard.

Speak Screen and Speak Selection highlights and reads aloud selected text and screen content, which can benefit English Learners and students with reading difficulties.

Many of these features run on iOS8 or higher, and are located in the Accessibility menu under the iPad’s General > Settings menu. For a complete listing of universal design features for iPad and specific iOS requirements, visit Apple’s iPad Accessibility webpage.

While not as extensive as an iPad, Chromebooks offer similar features to support diverse learning needs. The features below can be found in Chromebook’s Settings menu.

ChromeVox – The built in screen reader provides support for those with visual impairments. There are options to modify pitch and speech rate, as well as several language options. ChromeVox provides a way for students to learn the keyboard as it reads aloud key names as they are pressed, thus a support for English Learners. Braille displays are supported when Chromebook is connected via USB.

Display accessibility – These built-in features make viewing and reading screen content easier for students. Zoom and magnify, screen resolution adjustments, and screen magnifiers provide options for increasing the size of icons, documents, web pages, or anything else displayed on the device screen.  High contrast mode aids in reading text and viewing image details easier.

Keyboard and touchpad accessibility – Options include sticky keys, tap dragging, auto clicks, keyboard repeat rates, auto capitalization and word prediction (Note that auto capitalization and word prediction features are not available within the G Suite apps). A virtual keyboard is available for students with difficulty using a touchpad or typing on a physical keyboard. The virtual keyboard can be used in conjunction with voice input, thus providing the option of speech to text input (This voice input differs from the voice typing tool available in Google Docs).

In addition to the Chromebook features, there are integrated tools and Chrome Extensions, designed for G Suite Apps to support learning needs. While this list is not comprehensive, below are a few standouts:

Voice Typing in Google Docs – A powerful speech to text tool built-in to Google’s word processing platform. Words, lists, and writing can be dictated directly in a document. Formatting, punctuation, and editing can be dictated as well. Foreign languages are supported.

Picto4me for Google Drive – Create, edit, and share visual communication boards straight through Google Drive

OpenDyslexic – A free, open-source font that increases readability for readers with dyslexia. This Chrome Extension overlays the OpenDyslexic font on to webpages, and formats the pages to be more easily readable.

As best practice, technology should be utilized to increase student engagement and student learning outcomes. Educators can provide all their students additional means for planning, managing, and completing class work with meaningful technology integration. Regardless of the devices students have access to during the school year, effective use of technology can be an integral component to help level the educational playing field for all and provide students the opportunity and pathway to be successful in achieving their learning goals.

For more information and resources regarding assistive technology, visit the Center on Technology and Disability website.

Annabel Dotzman, M.Ed. is a PreK-12 Technology Integration Coach for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, providing training and support to Archdiocesan educators for the integration and best practice use of educational technology across the curriculum.

Image credit: Shutterstock 210190075

Image credit: Shutterstock 210190075

All content copyright © Today’s Catholic Teacher/ All rights reserved. May be reproduced for classroom/parish use with full attribution as long as the content is unaltered from its original form. To request permission to reprint online, email

Image credit: Shutterstock 210190075