Gentz: Smart technology and special education – Where they intersect

As I consider how technology is changing education across the country, there are amazing new learning models and helpful tools that are being used to change lives. This is how it should be. Every industry partner in the market should be striving to create tools that are versatile and enhance student experiences and learning opportunities, giving teachers and students a complete toolkit to complete any given task.

While it is often a challenge, even in general education, to create momentum for project-based or competency-based learning environments, it is even more of a challenge in special education. Between 12% to 16% of students nationwide require personalized adaptations or modifications to their learning environment in order to ensure they are receiving access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

These students, for a spectrum of different reasons, need additional assistance. Often, these students are in general education classes with teachers who may not have much training in additional learning needs, or at the very least, do not have the tools they need to best communicate with parents and students. These students are required under law to have an individualized education plan to assist them in their learning.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are federally enforceable contracts between students, parents, teachers, administrators and specialists that states what specific modifications offer to each specific student within a general education classroom. Once all of the individuals who support this student agree on a plan to support that student, it is legally required that progress is continually tracked, issues are continually recorded, and the IEP is continually improved to ensure student success.

There is so much time and work that goes into creating these plans, holding the ongoing meetings, and managing the continuous communications throughout the entire year that the average teaching team cannot keep up without smart technology solutions. However, even with all the technology at our fingertips, the process still looks eerily similar to 10 years ago.

There are many things wrong with this. First, teachers who already have a lot on their plates are expected to update parents regularly. The amount of time a teacher has to get parents to comments isn’t really defined in law and many times teachers don’t share comments for even a couple of months after a meeting with the parents have happened. This is a problem. Students who are on IEPs are already at a learning disadvantage, and taking even more time to update recommendations or learning processes or targets will result in a student falling only further behind. This creates a need for real-time communication if we truly want to raise the academic achievement of special education students.

Not only do the teachers have a lot on their plate and often find themselves working outside of their contracted hours to meet the needs of special education parents and students, but many times the comments are shared back and forth in emails that make it hard to locate information quickly. Threads can get really long, and unless you know the exact keyword that can help you find that email, it could take a lot of unnecessary time to find the information you are looking for- either as a parent or teacher.

Data protection is also at the forefront of every educator’s mind. The Family Educational Rights to Privacy Act was enacted in 1974 and has not been updated since. This means that even though technology has advanced further than President Ford could have ever imagined, the law has not kept up with changing demands. It’s not uncommon for a student’s data to go home in a backpack and be lost somewhere from school to home, but even more importantly, if a district is using a “free” source for data- I will just say nothing is free. You are giving data to a company to mine. If you are not paying in money, you are paying in data. And while the legal system has yet to catch up with our modern technological reality, new research is emerging in the legal community for defining when a communication is so insecure that it is unethical to continue using it. We must protect student data- especially the data of our most vulnerable students.

Without an organized place to store data and share information, we are not using technology well to enhance opportunities for students with IEPs. Fortunately, companies like Trokt is working hard to create a cloud-based solution to protect, organize, and share timely data between only the parties who need to see the information. Based in Des Moines, Trokt has created the opportunity to put all communications on blockchain to create an even more secure environment.

There are no more excuses for sending student data to the wrong person or people. There are no more excuses for students with IEPs to fall through the cracks. And there are no more excuses for delaying information that impacts the future of any learner. The technology exists, it’s time for us to use it.