1998 Conference Proceedings

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Using Shared Cyberspace for Inclusion of Students with Intensive Disabilities

Alec F. Peck
Boston College,
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

Abstract Through a project entitled "Creating a Shared Learning Space" (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) students with intensive physical and developmental disabilities who attended classes in a private, substantially separate school "met," socially interacted with, and completed curricular tasks with students in a typical public school which was miles away. These meetings and learning sessions occurred in cyberspace, where the communication and social differences between the students were minimized by the common format of electronic communication. Not only were the students remotely located, but their communication systems ranged from typical 11 and 12 year old verbal and written language to symbolic picture communication systems. By using the the "least common communicator" system of symbolic pictures, the students were able to correspond with each other and began to work on common curriculum units at levels appropriate to their functional abilities.

Introduction

School-based activities which are inclusive of both typical students and students with disabilities are proliferating rapidly, and many students with disabilities who were previously isolated from their chronologically aged peers are now attending classes in their home school communities. Nevertheless, there are some students who, due to a variety of medical and/or learning issues, are unable to attend local schools and to profit from interactions with typical peers. These students must receive educational services in substantially separate facilities where their unique needs can be addressed. "Inclusion Without Walls" is intended to be a series of Boston College initiatives aimed at creating interactions between typical students and students in substantially separate facilities. "Creating a Shared Learning Space" is an academic component of this project, in which elementary-aged students with disabilities in a substantially separate school are making social and academic contact with same-aged peers without disabilities in a typical public school.

Facilities

The Boston College Campus School (BCCS) is a substantially separate special education facility which serves 46 students who each have intensive special needs. Many of the students have receptive and/or expressive language problems which mask their ability to understand and solve problems. Most also have gross and fine motor problems. Some also have vision and/or hearing problems which further complicate communication activities.

BCCS students have profited greatly from a variety of adaptive devices which enable them to access computers. Touch screens, specialized keyboards, and a wide variety of custom switches are regularly used to allow these students to access computers. The "Eagle Eyes" Project even allows students who have no consistent control over any body part save eye movement to access computers by using eye gaze to control cursor movement. However, in spite of the many teaching and learning advantages which are offered by adaptive devices, the students continue to be physically isolated from similar-aged non-disabled peers. For various reasons these students are unable to attend mainstream or inclusion classes, and therefore miss the many advantages offered by regular, consistent interaction with a variety of other students.

Newton Public Schools Inclusion Classes

The Newton, Massachusetts Public Schools provide inclusion opportunities for all students with disabilities whose families and IEP Team members desire such opportunities. 'Inclusion'here refers to participation in the regular classroom environment and curriculum activities to the maximum extent possible. District wide, over 400 students with disabilities are participating in Newton Public Schools Inclusion Classes (NPSIC). While there are many benefits to participating in these classes for students with disabilities, there are also significant advantages to non-disabled students. One of the major benefits of participation in such classes for students without disabilities is learning to communicate and interact effectively with a wide range of individuals (Ryndak & Alper, 1996). This project extends the opportunities for interesting and alternative forms of communication within the language arts and science curricula.

Method

Intent of this Project

Because the very nature of inclusion for students with disabilities is a highly individualized process which is based on the strengths and difficulties faced by students, it is not possible to prescribe a single curriculum which is appropriate for all of these individuals. Nevertheless, a primary challenge to educators is to develop a functional curriculum in which all may participate (Ryndak & Alper, 1996). This project brought together the educators directly involved in this process to plan and test modifications in the curricula used in each physical space so that they can be carried out together in a virtual space.

Hardware/Software

The three participating BCCS classrooms are each equipped with a Power Macintosh 7500/100 computer and a 15" monitor with touch-screen. Each computer is hard-wired to the Boston College campus-wide ethernet system. The NPSIC classrooms also have Power Macintosh computers and are also hard-wired to a T-1 line which services the entire school district. The software collection used by each of the schools is extensive, but for this project "Boardmaker" software (Mayer-Johnson Co., 1995) was selected as the communication system which could be used by all students. The students with disabilities in the BCCS had already had extensive experience with the software, while the NPSIC students learned to use the software for this project.

Students

While about 30 students had occasional opportunities to participate in the project, the active group consisted of 6 students at BCCS and 6 students in NPSIC classrooms. These were the students who established relationships with each other and who regularly communicated with their partner classrooms.

Staff

Five teachers in the NPSIC and 5 teachers in the BCCS participated, along with the author (a Boston College faculty member), a student assistant, and an administrative representative of the Newton Public Schools.

Preliminary Results

At the time of this writing (February, 1998) the project has been underway for approximately one year. Substantial progress has occurred, but much has also been learned about the difficulties of a project such as this.

The following are among the project successes:

1) An observable increase in the curiosity of students about their counterparts has occurred, which seems to indicate genuine interest in the condition of their peers and the beginnings of social friendships.

2) Students have begun collecting data on weather and plant growth in their respective schools and are using this as a normal part of the science curriculum. This essentially negates the expected impact of the intensive disabilities under which the BCCS students work when participating in a group project with non-disabled peers.

3) The messages which the NPSIC students have sent have gradually become much more like messages which they might normally send to friends whom they have known for an extended period of time.

4) The teachers in both settings (BCCS and NPSIC) have developed great respect for the curricular innovations used by their counterparts.

Originally, it was envisioned that up to 40 students would actively participate in the project. However, a number of issues prevented this level of participation. Among them were the following:

1) A lack of true, sustainable (non-novelty) interest in computer-based activities became apparent after the first few months. This was true in both the NPSIC classrooms and the BCCS classrooms.

2) Technology breaks down, and in classrooms this leads to temporary abandonment of the project until someone can diagnose and repair the system at a later time. Often this is after the students have left for the day.

3) Curricula which require special (1:1 or small-group) supervision are vulnerable under many conditions, including illness on the part of staff or students, other scheduled events (assemblies, videos, etc.), and unusual levels of classroom stress.

Conclusion

Although not all of the curriculum benefits which were originally envisioned have been realized at this time, substantial progress has been made toward integrating students with intensive disabilities with their chronologically aged peers via a cyberspace environment. The experience of many classroom-based inclusion efforts has been that more normal social relationships have been the major benefit to students with intensive disabilities. To date, this project has demonstrated that these more normal social relationships can also be developed in cyberspace. With additional time, it is hoped that substantial academic benefits for both groups of students will also be achieved.

Further information on this project can be obtained on the project's web page: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/campsch/cpbweb/project.html

References Ryndak, D.L. and Alper A. (1996) Curriculum content for students with moderate and severe disabilities in inclusive settings. Boston: Allyn &;Bacon. Westling D. L. and Fox, L. Teaching students with severe disabilities. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Alec F. Peck
alec.peck@bc.edu 
Campion 108 Boston College
Chestnut Hill MA 02167
(voice)(617) 552-3149
(FAX)(617) 552-0812


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