SNOW: Special Needs Opportunity Windows: Just-in-time, On-line Information For Educators
Computer hardware, software and Internet connections - these are the new tools for education which are appearing in classrooms everywhere. At the same time, more and more students with special needs are taking part in the "regular" school activities as educators are asked to integrate these learners into their mainstream classrooms. As a result, teachers are under pressure, on the fly, to find technology-based solutions and provide adapted curriculum for use by exceptional students. Even if they are fortunate enough to have had some training in the area of special education, they inevitably face questions about identification of appropriate assistive technology, provision of adapted programming, and classroom strategies for accommodating special needs.
The SNOW project web site has been developed to address the needs of today's educators, by providing immediate access to the information and resources they need - consistently available to anyone, anywhere and at anytime. SNOW has become an on-line community meeting place, where we can share with one another our knowledge and insights about teaching learners with special needs.
The SNOW project, hosted by the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto, was launched as a part of a "Technology Incentive Partnership Program" funded by the Ontario government. The idea of a partnership has been integral to the project, as representatives from a variety of sectors have worked together to lay the foundation for the development of SNOW. They include resource and research centres such as The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, University of Toronto and the Centre for Learning Technologies and Ryerson Polytechnical University. Schools which are devoted to the education of students with special needs, such as the Bloorview MacMillan School Board of Education, who work with children who have physical disabilities, and the Ministry of Education and Training, Provincial Schools, a network of eight government-funded schools for students with special needs.
Another partner is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, a not-for-profit organization providing services for people who are blind. Finally, we include the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, a faculty that provides undergraduate, graduate level and professional development courses. To this list we have added many other partner since the beginning of the project.
Launch of the SNOW Web Site
The project was launched in July of 1997, a with a flurry of excitement and enthusiasm for our goal of creating an on-line community of educators, organizations and students with special needs who share the same interests. To achieve this goal, SNOW offers the following main services:
- 1. educational and professional development programs, including on-line courses and discussion forums;
- 2. information and resource materials related to the education of students with special needs;
- 3. electronic delivery of innovative curriculum resources in accessible formats.
1. Educational and Professional Development Programs
SNOW provides a unique opportunity for education and training to support teachers, staff and also parents, through on-line distance education. The web site features a series of free professional development and special interest courses on Special Education topics, as well as other topics which are of interest to a broader range of educators:
Course offerings include:
- Introduction to Adaptive Computer Technologies
- Designing Accessible Curriculum
- Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills
- HowToWeb for Educators of Students with Special Needs
- Learning to Braille: Introductory Level
- Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom
- Problem Solving in the Classroom
- Special Education: The Basics
- Victimless Teaching Strategies for Confrontational and Defiant Students
All of the courses were developed and continue to be moderated by experts in the field, primarily recruited through our relationship with the Provincial Schools for students with disabilities. The project partnerships between those with expertise in the field, and those who had the technical skills and resources to implement on-line courses, lead to a unique opportunity to share knowledge with a much broader audience. The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre staff also contribute significantly to the courses dealing with more technical issues related to accessibility.
For those who would like to see an example of a SNOW course, publicly accessible version of several are available on our web site. Full course descriptions and on-line registration are also posted.
On-line learning opportunities are particularly important to educators, parents and staff who are "geographically challenged," yet need to learn how to best support their students with special needs. We have had educators joining in from remote areas of Ontario, Canada and the US. As well as participants from around the world, including locations such as Argentina, Scotland, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Israel and many other countries. One of the interesting aspects of the on-line dialogue has been comparison of notes on different practices followed by these diverse cultures.
Another group of eager participants are educators who are "time challenged." While some of these on-line professional development programs are offered over the course of 10 weeks, others are shorter "on-line workshops" running about three weeks. Our experience has shown that time is a teachers most precious commodity. While many are motivated to enhance their teaching skills or learn more about new technologies, a shorter period of learning is often preferred. The on-line workshop provide an opportunity for new ideas and methodologies to be introduced, for participants to share their concerns and experiences with one another, and for information and resources relevant to the topic to be provided.
After the moderated portion of the course is over, participants may continue to stay in touch with others in the group via e-mail or bulletin boards. SNOW hosts several discussion forums, the most popular of which is "Teachers Helping Teachers." This forum gives educators an opportunity to present problems or requests for information on a particular topic, and receive a response by another who has had experience with the same issue or question.
2. Information and Resources
Yet another dimension of the SNOW project is its function as an extensive on-line clearinghouse of web resources related to special education, new technologies and organizations that support student with different needs. Examples of subject areas include:
- Special education resources
- Disability organizations
- "How-to" guides and technical support links
- Adaptive technology resources
- Product information
Visitors to the site continuously offer suggestions for additions to our Web resources section, enabling us to maintain a comprehensive collection of links.
New developments in the field are accelerating at such a pace that it is both exciting and challenging to keep abreast of the changes. Teachers need to know about upgrades to existing technologies, such as screen readers, or the latest voice recognition software. The SNOW resource pages and "Technical Support" pages help educators and students find the most current information about these and many other access technologies. Again, a discussion forum known as "HowToWeb" provides an opportunity to ask specific questions, or compare notes on creative solutions.
With the expertise of a wide range of partners available to us, and an ever- increasing local community interest in the project, we have been able to expand the Best Practices section of the site considerably over the past year. Examples of contributions include:
- Resources were provided by the Royal Ontario Museum on "Discovery Learning" for students with disabilities.
- Best practices and lesson plans for teaching art to students who are blind have been posted as a follow-up to a one-day workshop which SNOW initiated in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario.
- A complete guide to using voice recognition technology with students who have learning disabilities was developed by a teacher who has become an expert in this area.
- A special education consultant from the Ministry of Education offered her original resource notes on identifying and accommodating learners with special needs. This resource includes information on community resources, classroom management strategies, and teaching techniques.
These and other "best practice" resources are available on our web pages, and the collection is continuing to grow.
3. Electronic Delivery of Innovative Curriculum Resources in Accessible Formats
SNOW also encourages the development of electronic curriculum materials that are designed for access via the Internet. The site allows educators to contribute accessible curriculum materials and resources to a "shared" area of the web site, where they are categorized by topic and age appropriateness, and made available for download by others. . Providing text alternatives to images, provision of captioning on video clips, and avoiding use of frames in web pages are examples of accommodations that can be made.
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, as a partner in the SNOW project, has provided a number of curriculum resources, primarily works of fiction which are in the public domain. These have been converted to HTML for easy access via the web, and many have been enhanced addition of images linked to detailed descriptions ("d-links") to showcase implementation of this accessibility feature. We have also created audio files that are both educational and entertaining, to demonstrate multi-modal presentation of information.
A partnership with TVOntario has given the SNOW development team access to a number of educational videos. We have experimented with addition of a descriptive video, adding a second sound track to video clips, to provide information that would otherwise only be available to a viewer who is sighted. This enhancement of the video allows students who are blind to equally benefit from video formats.
The SNOW Kids site is a "sister" for the main SNOW site, an extensive collection of web resources that are just for children. The "kid-friendly" look and feel attracts younger students, but teachers and parents who are looking for innovative and motivating resources also visit the area. This area is under development, but growing steadily.
Finally, we have been able to work with the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) to provide extensive curriculum resources in accessible formats. The ILC is the agency, which distributes correspondence courses for the provincial Ministry of Education. As a pilot project, we converted the first five lessons of approximately 20 of their secondary school level courses into accessible HTML and have made them available through the SNOW site. In this way, we have been able to provide valuable resources for teachers and students, and also heighten the awareness of the ILC as to the importance of creating accessible formats as they make the transition from print-based to web-based delivery.
The SNOW site continues to be a work in progress, as we respond to the needs and the concerns of the education community. One of our goals is to encourage teachers to contribute more of their own curriculum materials via the Shared Curriculum section of the site.
Another of our targets is further research and development in the area of accessible formats for Internet-based communication of mathematical and scientific notations.
A third initiative involves a new partnership with WebCT, the software company providing the framework for delivery of our on-line courses. Our experience in implementation of these courses highlighted the need for a development tool which automates accessible design. By working with the software programmers at WebCT in the creation of such a tool, we hope to raise awareness of this issue and set a new standard in this highly competitive field.
Now in our second year, funding has been continued, based on the accomplishments and successes we have already demonstrated in creating a meeting place for technology and access. To date there have been over 60,000 visitors to the SNOW web site, conducting research, participating in courses, contributing and collaborating via on-line forums. The SNOW project has become an integral part of the Province's educational community. It is a centralized, multi-purpose, low-cost model for delivery of professional development and information, just in time, at the teachers fingertips.
The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, and the SNOW Project team, will continue to promote the use of technology as an avenue to access for learners with special needs.
This project was made possible through funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. Acknowledgment goes out to all on the SNOW team including Kevin Nguyen, Colin Clark, Taras Kowaliz, David Namisato, Nancy Sicchia, Karen McCall, Vera Roberts and Karen Taylor. Special thanks to Jutta Treviranus, Greg Gay and John Lubert. The URL for the SNOW project is: http://snow.utoronto.ca