New project focuses on technology instruction for nonverbal students

SamSennottsDaughterWiPad (2)Nearly one percent of the general student population has some kind of severe disability, such as autism, cerebral palsy, or a physical disorder, that makes verbal communication difficult. These children can be very bright and motivated, but because of communication difficulties, become frustrated and are at very high risk of falling behind or failing in school.

A new project in the GSE was conceived to help educators learn best practices in working with nonverbal children. The 3T Accessibility Project (Teaching, Technology and Theory) will connect PK-12 students with autism and other developmental disabilities to unique technology that will help them communicate, and ultimately, advance in school. The 3T Project is driven by research-based theory of technology integration. An emphasis will be placed on serving students who have disabilities that impact their ability to speak. Students will have new access to communication, which will improve academics, social and arts experiences, and in the future, vocational pursuits.

While significant advances in special education have occurred, too often individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities still lack access to this technology. This is due in part to cost, but also to teachers and other support team members’ limited knowledge of available options and how to best integrate rapidly advancing new technologies with quality teaching practices. With the advent of computers and mobile devices, even more tools are now available at a lower cost than ever before. The 3T Project will assist in helping teachers identify new tools and teaching techniques, while the project team collects data that will inform best practices, next steps, and future work.

“We are really interested in learning how to make this process work,” says Dr. Samuel Sennott, project director. “It’s about planning, goal setting, implementation, and using best practices.”

Dr. Sam Sennott is the principal investigator for the project. He is in his second year as a faculty member in the GSE’s special education department, and has a strong background in technology applications for special education. Dr. Sennott co-created Proloquo2Go, an award-winning smart phone app that enables individuals who are minimally verbal to communicate by choosing a series of symbols to create sentences. Dr. Sennott’s clinical research and development, and advocacy work focuses on assistive technology, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), language and literacy, and universal design—a concept which seeks to make environments and learning accessible to individuals with and without disabilities.

In the past, assistive technology equipment had consisted of dedicated, proprietary devices that could often be very expensive. With the emergence of smart phones, iPads and other devices, there has been a renaissance in low-cost digital options available for working with individuals who are minimally verbal. What once cost upwards of $10,000 per unit can now be acquired for around $500 to $800. Now educators, parents, and caregivers have affordable options from which to choose, and with the 3T Accessibility Project, local students and their support teams, in and out of school, will soon learn how these tools will revolutionize instruction and communication.

Making more technology available to classrooms is a beginning, but wouldn’t necessarily be helpful without a strategy around how to use it. “Everyone is busy implementing, and they haven’t been able to take the time to look at results,” says Dr. Sennott. “What’s really needed is good teaching and technology combined. We are starting by adding layers of observational research. This could be the start of a major line of research. It has the potential to really help a lot of people, not only with providing the technology, but with reaching important learning objectives.”

The enormous potential of the project has attracted funding from multiple sources. The Quest Foundation issued a $25,000 challenge grant, which was met by local philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer. Although her main focus is the autistic child, Mrs. Schnitzer is also “interested in the potential benefits of technology for students with autism, such as incorporating iPads and other communication tools into classrooms.” The project has also received support from the Oregon Department of Education, the GSE Dean’s Fund for Excellence, and has a contract to work with David Douglas School District. “We are so thankful and inspired by the support of our partners,” says Dr. Sennott. “It has motivated us to work even harder so that we can build on this for the future of these individuals and the people who painstakingly work to support them.”

In the pilot project, an initial group of approximately 75 individuals have been identified from families with financial need. Equipment serving the students will be on loan to participating classrooms and will be reused with subsequent students. Data collected from the first cohort groups in the project will serve to expand future activities in the GSE’s newly-founded Universal Design Lab (uLab). Because of the low initial cost of the new equipment, districts will be able to expand instruction and services to additional students in subsequent years.

The long-term goal of the project is to refine a mechanism for teaching students that helps create a replicable model that could be leveraged across all districts even as technology continues to change. Ultimately, the 3T Project will open new doors for students, teachers, parents and service providers in a fundamentally different way. As the project progresses, findings and best practices will be shared with stakeholders via a website that is under development.

If you are interested in supporting the 3T Accessibility Project, or other Graduate School of Education projects, please contact Jaymee Jacoby, Director of Development, at or 503-725-4789.

3 thoughts on “New project focuses on technology instruction for nonverbal students

  1. A team in Springfield, Oregon is working with Dr. Sennott on this project. We are excited about the help and new opportunities provided to two of our students. Thanks to all who have funded this work!

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