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South Valley Riverton Journal

AI for access and equity

Oct 12, 2023 01:23PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students who struggle to read can easily keep up with their classmates by putting in headphones and using the text-to-voice feature on their digital devices. (Image generated by Abode Firefly, an AI tool.)

Editor’s note: this is part of a series of articles about artificial intelligence in schools. 

West Jordan Middle School teacher Dan Clark noticed a student struggling in his world geography class.

“He thinks he's just not very smart, but I know he is because if I'm speaking to him, he gets it immediately,” Clark said.

Clark recognized the symptoms of dyslexia and introduced the student to the AI tools available on his school-issued Chromebook—voice-to-text and text-to-voice—which would eliminate the problem of getting letters mixed up while reading and struggling to spell while writing.

“When I showed them these tools, their eyes got wide with excitement,” Clark said. “There's no better feeling for a teacher than when you get a student that's frustrated—they get that confused look on their face or they're putting their head down out of disinterest—and you show them a couple of little tricks that help them be engaged. There's no better feeling for a teacher. It's the reason we're all into it.”

West Jordan Middle School Principal Eric Price, an advocate for AI in education, believes AI tools can eliminate barriers for students with learning challenges and disabilities.

“My biggest philosophy is we don't stop the learning because somebody struggles to read,” Price said. “We find accommodations to help them to be successful.”

Price believes AI can even the playing field for students who struggle with traditional methods of learning and expression.

“You take a kid that's been struggling to write a paragraph for five to 10 years now, and they put in their best paragraph and tell Chat GPT, or whatever, to improve it,” he said. “Now they have this new improved way of increasing their ability to write, and they have just become more marketable in seconds.”

Price, who is dyslexic, said reading and spelling are particularly challenging for him, but that recent technology has helped him with both skills.

“The beauty of it now is I can go on my computer or phone and I can say the word and now I have it spelled for me,” he said. “So now I've taken areas that were a weakness and can turn them into a strength.”

Voice-to-text and text-to-voice, which come standard on smartphones and school-issued Chromebooks and iPads, can be a game changer for a dyslexic student because those tools help them keep up with their peers, Clark said.

He uses these tools to satisfy Individual Education Plan accommodations that necessitate students have test questions read aloud to them.

“It used to be that you needed an aide to take those kids into another room to read it out loud,” Clark said. “But now those kids aren't separated. They just put on some headphones, they hit play and it reads it.”

Jordan District provides some students with access to audiobooks and textbooks through online catalogs such as Bookshare and Learning Ally, which are available to people with disabilities.

Price said this access is important because when kids can listen to a text, they can get the information and enjoy the content without the stress of struggling to read the words.

“There's a difference between reading the words on the page and feeling a book, and that's one of the reasons why a lot of times struggling readers will give up on learning and give up on education,” Price said. “If you're sitting there reading the words on the page, you're not seeing the value of why we even read.”

Education for students with learning challenges and disabilities has evolved from 100 years ago, when students who struggled to learn, read, write or speak were segregated. Because technology eliminates barriers caused by disabilities, these same students are now able to demonstrate their intelligence despite physical or mental limitations. Innovations allow the use of ears instead of eyes, eyes instead of hands, and hands instead of voice.

Jordan School District policy is to provide education to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.

Cheri Blue, coordinator for assistive technology within Jordan District’s Special Education department, said this is accomplished by providing a range of technological tools for students with physical impairments, communication barriers and developmental disabilities.

She said the Jordan District administration has been very supportive of providing students with assistive technology.

“When we say a student needs something, they always get it,” she said.

Innovative tools allow the students to demonstrate their intellectual abilities without barriers. Tools such as voice typing, screen reading for text and graphics, customizable dictionaries for predictive text and note taking tools are available for free as Chrome add-ons and through Adobe Suite. 

Teachers use these tools to easily adapt assignments to a students’ abilities. With a few clicks, the reading level of a text can be adjusted to allow a student access to grade level content. A physical worksheet can be quickly digitized so that students can complete legible work beyond their limited fine motor skills.

AI digital voice assistants are regularly used in classrooms by physically and visually impaired students to open computer applications, navigate the screen and to initiate web searches.

“We use it more as an access method rather than generative to create,” Blue said. “So they could glean the same type of information from the internet that someone could do with a typed search, they could do it with a voice search.”

Blue said assistive technology gives students a way to express their thoughts, to learn something or to get something. The next step would be to use generative AI to help students create something new.

Blue predicts that as AI becomes more prevalent, educational methods will have to adapt to allow for this.

“It is something that we have to consider when we're thinking about our standards, what we want the students to be able to demonstrate and how they want to learn,” Blue said. “Looking standard by standard, we think about how could a generative AI tool be an assistive help to this, and also, on the flip side, how could the use of a tool like that prevent a student from actually learning this skill? We really need to have purpose and intention of how we're going to do it and not just the tool itself, but the system around supporting the tool and teaching students how to use it to meet their learning objectives.” λ