by Michela Ott
In 1985, the Institute for Educational Technology (ITD-CNR) in Genoa, created BSD - Biblioteca del Software Didattico the only public Italian library for educational software. The objective of BSD, which now contains more than 2000 products, is to collect, evaluate and disseminate information and know-how on the most significant Italian and foreign software packages for didactic purposes. Several research projects have been conducted within the context of BSD; one of these (within the framework of the European Commission project Helios) has regarded the functional evaluation of didactic software for disabled students. This article summarises some of the conclusions drawn from this project with respect to the employment of educational software as a support for special education and as a tool for the integration of disabled students into mainstream education. We also try to answer the question: 'Educational software for the disabled: does it exist?'
The full integration of disabled people is a major concern today and the area of education is no exception; the idea that Information Technology can play an important role in the education of disabled students has now gained general recognition. What are, or should be, then the main features of Educational software for the disabled ? The fact that so many different disabilities must be taken into account means that there is no single, easy answer to this question.
If, for example, we consider the needs of motor disabled or visually impaired students, the problem of providing tools which offer suitable access to the computer is top priority with respect to the choice of the educational software to be employed. When we are dealing with people who cannot use computers in their standard configuration, our major task is to find appropriate peripheral or adaptive hardware to help overcome obstacles and make the computer accessible.
Once access is ensured, the problem of choosing educational material becomes non specific: it can be regarded as a problem of education rather than of special education. A student who cannot write by hand, when enabled to use a computer, can write, take notes, follow lessons and use the same educational software as his/her classmates.
Main menu of the Educational Software Database available at ITD- CNR (Genova, Italy) including educational software for the disabled.
However, the situation can change completely when dealing with other kinds of disabilities. For example, deaf students have very specific educational needs. When learning a language such as Italian, these students have great difficulty in understanding the meaning of functional words whose sense is totally context-dependent, ie logical connectives, conjunctions etc. The meaning of such words is easily comprehensible only for people having full access to oral language. Thus, when our objective is to teach writing to deaf students, it is important to use very specific programs; in addition, such students could greatly benefit from access to products using sign language as a reference language.
The situation is again different when we deal with cognitive and learning disabilities: it is, of course, necessary to choose suitable products on the basis of their educational content, bearing in mind that they should match the student's mental rather than chronological age. However, the issue in this case is to find products using an appropriate educational strategy, satisfying the special needs. For instance, while nowadays in most schools the classical drill and practice programs are out of favour as they are considered too directive, the education of the mentally impaired and the learning disabled seems to benefit from the use of such products. In most cases, their mechanical and repetitive features are perceived as agreeable by these students and permit a better mastering of the contents and thus a more effective acquisition.
Educational software can also be regarded as a remedial tool: this is true, for instance, when students present specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dysgraphia; in such cases, rehabilitation and not simply education is the main task to be performed and the choice of remedial tools (including software) should be founded on both a solid theoretical basis and on clinical findings. This will affect not only the choice of products but also the evaluation of the results obtained.
We started by asking what we mean by Educational software for the disabled and we have tried to answer by mentioning some of the different values this term can assume, depending on the particular special education contexts. Our conclusion is that perhaps a clear distinction between products specially designed for the disabled and products which may be profitably used by them is unfounded, especially from the point of view of their real usefulness. At this point, if we try to answer the difficult question what kind of educational software better addresses the needs of the disabled and fosters their full integration into mainstream schools?, we can say that the choice of tools should be first of all consistent with the instructional objectives which, in their turn, must be embedded in a well-structured global educational project. Such a choice must take into account several parameters linked both to the kind of impairment we are dealing with and to the kind of knowledge/competence we want to impart.
The emerging idea is to change the term educational software for the disabled into educational software accessible by the disabled. Our educational choice should be made from within the larger range of educational software rather than in the narrow set of software products expressly designed for the disabled.
Michela Ott - ITD-CNR
Tel: +39 10 6475328