In 1926, Pressey developed the first "teaching machine." In addition to devices and equipment, instructional technology also involves a systematic way of designing and delivering instruction.
During the past 25 years, we have seen a dramatic evolution of technology in education: microcomputer technology, research on instructional procedures, and many new assistive devices and equipment. In addition to technology productivity tools such as word processors, researchers and educators today recognize four types of technology: the technology of teaching, medical technology, instructional technology, and assistive technology (Blackhurst & Cross, 1993):
Creative and knowledgeable educators--or teams of educators and other professionals--often use these technologies in combination. For example, students who are unable to use their hands to operate a computer keyboard may use a voice-operated computer (assistive technology) that provides instruction from a software program that was designed to deliver spelling instruction (instructional technology) using a constant time delay response prompt fading instructional procedure (technology of teaching).
Unfortunately, many decisions about applications of technology in special education are "device driven." As new devices appear on the market, it is not uncommon to find consumers, parents, vendors, and professionals advocate strongly for their acquisition and use with different students-often with less than satisfactory results. Instead of getting caught up in the allure of new products with intriguing features, a better perspective is to focus on problems that children have in functioning within the environment. For example, a preschooler with cerebral palsy may lack the fine muscle control that will permit her to fasten buttons so that she can get dressed independently. A boy with a visual impairment may be unable to use printed material that is being used for instruction in an English class. Another student, due to unknown cause, may be unable to solve math problems. Similarly, a child who has been in an automobile accident may have had a severe head injury that has impaired her ability to speak clearly.
In all of these cases, environmental demands have been placed on the children to perform some function that they will find difficult to execute because of a set of unique circumstances or restriction in functional capability caused by the lack of personal resources. For example, the above children lack the physical or mental capability to button, read, calculate, or speak.
Many variables, which interact in very complex ways, are involved in making decisions about the provision of special education and related services and the selection and use of technology.
Although each exceptional child will be unique, the common challenge is to identify and apply the best possible array of special education and related services that will provide support, adjustment, or compensation for the child's functional needs or deficits. A variety of responses may be appropriate. For example, Velcro fasteners may be used to replace buttons on garments for the child having difficulty with buttoning. Braille or audio materials may be provided for the child who cannot read conventional print. The student who has difficulty calculating may require specialized, intense direct math instruction, while a computerized device that produces speech may enable the child who cannot talk to communicate. Monitoring and evaluation provide feedback about the personal changes that have occurred in order to determine whether additional modifications may be required. Functions that can be aided by technology include existence, communication, body support and positioning, travel and mobility, environmental adaptation, education and learning, rehabilitation, and sports, leisure, and recreation.
In projecting technology developments as we move to the 21st century, we can say few things with certainty. On the high-tech side, microprocessors will continue to get smaller and faster; and telecommunication systems will be developed with greater capacity and speed. Costs of computers and related equipment will decline. Software developers will develop smarter software, and computer memory and file storage requirements will increase. Interconnectivity among classrooms and schools will improve--and people will develop products that we cannot even conceptualize today.
On the no-tech side, people will become more knowledgeable about the various technologies and their application. Educators and other team members will pay more attention to the implications of technology when planning IEPs for individual students. Technology specialists and support systems will become more available in schools; more technology in-service training programs will be provided for special education teachers and related personnel; and colleges and universities will add instruction about technology for people who are preparing for special education positions and those who are involved in providing related services.
Ingenious computer scientists, creative engineers, clever software programmers, and talented tinkerers have produced--and will continue to produce--an amazing array of low-tech to high-tech devices that can help people who have severe medical problems to stay alive and function in our society, enable people who have difficulty speaking to communicate, assist people who cannot hear to use the telephone system, assist people who have limited muscle control to operate machinery and appliances, aid people who cannot walk move from place to place, help people who cannot see listen to machines that can read for them, and provide children who have difficulty learning with effective instruction. Many applications that once seemed futuristic are already available: expert systems (Aldinger, Warger, & Eavy, 1995), virtual reality (Inman, 1996a, 1996b), robotics (Cook & Hussey, 1995), voice recognition systems (Cavalier & Ferretti, 1996), and telecommunication systems (Slaton & Lacefield, 1991) to name a few.
Many of the current technology applications in special education reflect the "state of the art." A major challenge facing us for the future is to move those applications to the point where they reflect a "state of the science." We must continue to conduct research and study the application of technology devices and services in objective ways so that we can make informed decisions about their use.