The Impacts of Technology Integration

12 Using Instructional Technology to Support Students with Exceptionalities

Jennifer Robb

Jennifer A. Robb (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, ON


Inclusive education has become increasingly popular due to the social and academic benefits afforded to students with exceptionalities. However, it also contributes to the growing diversity within K-12 classrooms, presenting a unique challenge for teachers to provide rich educational experiences for students with a range of learning needs. It is critical for educators to understand how instructional technologies, such as e-learning, virtual and augmented reality, digital writing software, and other applications can be used to improve academic outcomes and facilitate the development of essential skills for learning. This chapter explores the unique educational challenges faced by students with exceptionalities, the role of universal design for learning, and some of the potential benefits and challenges of using instructional technology in inclusive environments. In particular, it outlines how these technologies can help make learning more concrete, strengthen academic skills, reduce cognitive load, offset specific challenges associated with students’ exceptionalities, and promote self-confidence and a growth mindset. It also cautions educators to verify the accessibility of various tools before implementation and to evaluate the impact of chosen technologies on students’ physical and social well-being. The chapter offers several implications for practice which are examined in the context of e-Learning Ontario, a digital environment provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education to facilitate learning among students with or without special educational needs. Despite the apparent benefits of instructional technology, continued research is recommended to offer specific insight into the value of emerging tools and enable educators to make informed decisions regarding technology integration.

Keywords: educational technology, e-learning, differentiation, disability, inclusion


As the student population becomes increasingly diverse, with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and educational needs, teachers are tasked with differentiating their instruction such that it accounts for this variability and enables all students to participate and learn. In a society that is constantly innovating and changing, this means going beyond the prescribed curriculum to ensure that students develop the skills necessary to participate in a digital world (Hughes, 2017). These 21st-century skills, such as evaluating multiple sources of information and using different methods of communication, are essential for all learners but may facilitate additional social and academic outcomes for students with exceptionalities (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007; Fichten et al., 2009).

The province of Ontario promotes an inclusive approach to education which aims to support all students in fulfilling their goals and reaching their academic potential (Ontario Ministry of Education [OME], 2014). Classrooms have become diverse learning spaces, with students identified as having behavioural, communicational, intellectual, and physical exceptionalities learning alongside peers of a similar age, rather than in segregated spaces (OME, 2017). The inclusion model is supported by research, suggesting that students with exceptionalities achieve higher grades in core subjects and attend more days of school compared with students in specialized classrooms (Rea, McLaughlin & Walther-Thomas, 2002). With exceptional students spending more than 80% of their school day in inclusive environments (DeSimone & Parmar, 2006), educators must integrate tools and technologies that enable all their students to succeed.

Assistive technologies were designed to reduce educational barriers and improve the functional capacity of students with exceptionalities (Braddock, Rizzolo, Thompson & Bell, 2004; Edyburn, 2013). While the importance and utility of these tools cannot be understated, they are often visibly different than consumer devices and can be stigmatized, resulting in students avoiding their use unless absolutely necessary (Foley & Ferri, 2012). However, two decades of research on educational (or instructional) technology has found that, in addition to supporting teaching and learning across the curriculum (Edyburn, 2013), thoughtful integration of educational technology can provide specific benefits for students with exceptionalities. This chapter was intended to provide an overview of these benefits and offer recommendations for the use of educational technology in inclusive classrooms.

Background Information

Inclusive education is characterized by a commitment to identifying and removing barriers to support student achievement (OME, 2014). Although creating the conditions to foster success among diverse students can be challenging for teachers with limited time and resources, educational technology can be used to bridge gaps between learners and facilitate positive academic outcomes.

Educational Challenges for Students with Exceptionalities

While most teachers believe that inclusive classrooms provide valuable social and academic opportunities for students with exceptionalities, questions remain as to whether these students are able to learn effectively without dedicated support personnel (DeSimone & Parmar, 2006). Exceptional students often lack skills and strategies that are needed to engage with the curriculum at the same level as their peers, resulting in a disproportionate achievement gap (Deshler, 2005). Similarly, underdeveloped literacy skills and fine-motor coordination can prevent students from participating in traditional assessment activities (Stock, Davies & Wehmeyer, 2004).

Students with exceptionalities also face numerous personal challenges that can prevent full participation in classroom activities. Lack of confidence, self-efficacy, and positive feelings about school can result in students investing less effort into their academic work (Lackaye & Margalit, 2006), while diminished attention and motivation can affect students’ ability to engage with cognitively demanding content (DeSimone & Parmar, 2006). If not addressed, these challenges may culminate in students dropping out of school altogether (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer & Liu, 2010).

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has become a popular framework for understanding diversity in learning and how technology can be leveraged against the barriers encountered by students with exceptionalities (Edyburn, 2005, 2010). For learning activities to be considered universally accessible, they must include (a) multiple means of representation, to accommodate different learning styles and allow students to transform and manipulate content as needed; (b) multiple means of expression, to encourage flexibility in how students demonstrate their understanding; and (c) multiple means of engagement, to provide personalized challenges and motivation for learning (Edyburn, 2005; Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose & Jackson, 2002). Students should be given learning objectives that reflect these core principles, as well as regular assessments that provide feedback on their progress and enable teachers to adjust the direction of learning (Hitchcock et al., 2002).

Positive Impacts of Educational Technologies

Make learning concrete.

The visual nature of most instructional technologies can help clarify abstract concepts by encouraging learners to manipulate and engage with concrete representations (DeSimone & Parmar, 2006). This is particularly evident in studies of virtual environments, such as Second Life (Linden Lab, 2018), in which students interact with realistic, computer-generated contexts using immersion headsets or through a desktop computer (Braddock et al., 2004; Cromby, Standen & Brown, 1996). This situated approach to learning removes the challenge of disembedded thought and enables students with exceptionalities to experience concepts in ways they may not otherwise be able to (Cromby et al., 1996).

Improve academic skills.

As Deshler (2005) observed, the achievement gap between students with and without exceptionalities can be partially attributed to a lack of appropriate strategies for engaging with curricular content. However, educational technologies can promote the development of knowledge and skills that can reduce this divide and support future learning endeavours.

Organizational tools, such as responsive concept maps and writing organizers, scaffold students’ work by reducing the need to commit salient features of the task to memory (Englert, Zhao, Dunsmore, Collings & Wolbers, 2007). This support can amplify students’ productivity, enabling them to produce higher quality work in less time (Ciampa, 2017; Englert et al., 2007). Instructional technologies also improve the development of content literacy by offering alternative modes of access for students with exceptionalities (Ciampa, 2017). Finally, encouraging students to read, produce, and revise digital texts can result in a greater understanding of print- and web-based writing conventions, better preparing them for the demands of a technological society (Ciampa, 2017; Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000; MacArthur, 1996).

Reduce cognitive load.

In addition to supporting skill development, instructional technologies can offset some of the cognitive demand experienced by students with exceptionalities (Englert et al., 2007). Features such as spell-checking and word prediction (Ciampa, 2017; Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000), touchscreen navigation (Shah, 2011), clear text organization (Englert et al., 2007), and ease of correcting errors (Hughes, 2017), can help reduce the amount of cognitive processing required for learning (Kennedy & Deshler, 2010), enabling students to better engage with the content.

These technologies can further reduce cognitive pressure by offering additional time and alternative spaces for learning. Virtual environments and e-learning solutions, such as Skillshare (2018), allow students to work through course material at their own pace, revisiting or skipping over concepts as needed (Braddock et al., 2004; Bühler & Fisseler, 2007; Fichten et al., 2009; Repetto et al., 2010).

Counteract specific challenges.

While assistive technologies are designed to minimize the prohibitive side effects of various exceptionalities (see chapters 25 and 26), mainstream digital tools can reduce the impact of certain limitations and promote independent learning. For example, rendered virtual environments enable students with physical exceptionalities to explore perspectives and navigate learning spaces that would otherwise be too challenging (Cromby et al., 1996), while the use of iPads and other touchscreen devices increase access for students with fine-motor challenges (Shah, 2011). The multimodal affordances of educational technologies are perhaps the most notable, providing alternative means of expression, communication, and representation that can offset a wide range of challenges (Cromby et al., 1996; Hasselbring & Williams Glaser, 2000).

Promote self-confidence and growth mindset.

Students with exceptionalities are often inhibited in the classroom by a fear of failure, but virtual environments and other educational technologies provide a safe space to experiment and learn from mistakes without suffering lasting consequences (Cromby et al., 1996). Over time, these tools enhance students’ productivity (Ciampa, 2017) and enable them to become flexible, self-sufficient learners, resulting in elevated confidence and self-esteem (Stock et al., 2004). E-learning programs can also boost learners’ confidence through personalized curriculum and distance from social anxieties and conflicts that can prohibit complete engagement (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007; Fichten et al., 2009; Repetto et al., 2010).

Criticisms of Educational Technology

Although instructional technology can offer numerous benefits for students with exceptionalities, research has identified a variety of criticisms presented by teachers, administrators, and students themselves, on its current implementation. Many teachers feel inadequately prepared to effectively integrate technologies into their inclusive classrooms (Copley & Ziviani, 2004). Training typically covers the technical aspects of a tool – its capabilities, step-by-step directions, and troubleshooting – but lacks advice on curricular connections and use with specific learning challenges. This can affect teachers’ ability to plan integrated lessons that support their instructional goals and students’ individual learning needs (Copley & Ziviani, 2004). Educators are also discouraged by the possibility of encountering technical issues. Schools may not have the financial resources needed to acquire certain technologies, and if they do, instructional plans can be disrupted by an inability to access the tool due to scheduling conflicts, maintenance, or repairs (Copley & Ziviani, 2004).

Research has also uncovered several problematic perceptions of educational technology as it pertains to students with exceptionalities. Some teachers feel that technologies offer students an unfair advantage over their peers, or question the validity of tasks completed with technological support (Edyburn, 2006). However, these attitudes are rooted in ableist perspectives of learning and doing (Foley & Ferri, 2012), and prioritize unaided academic performance, what Edyburn (2006) refers to as “naked independence”. According to Ontario’s plan for equity and inclusive schools (OME, 2014), removing barriers to education is critical to providing fair and equitable education.

Finally, despite the affordances of e-learning for students with exceptionalities, improper use can create additional obstacles. A recent survey revealed that students were most frustrated with their instructors’ poor use of e-learning platforms, including inaccessible websites or learning management systems (Fichten et al., 2009). While some students were able to obtain assistance from their instructor or disability services, at least two-thirds of their complaints went unresolved (Fichten et al., 2009), pointing to a need for additional services and administrative support.

While many of these criticisms are valid, most could be addressed through the development of a multidimensional support team and ongoing professional development. While teachers may have trouble developing accessible e-learning resources (Fichten et al., 2009), or integrating new technologies into their instruction (Copley & Ziviani, 2004), reaching out to colleagues, special education experts, and technology specialists could help bridge these gaps. Furthermore, educators must be willing to re-assess their implementation of chosen technologies and make adjustments if they are not adequately meeting students’ needs (Copley & Ziviani, 2004; Fichten et al., 2009).

Considerations for Using Educational Technology

A review of the topical literature identifies several considerations for the use of instructional technologies, taking into account the affordances and criticisms. First, educators must determine the accessibility of the tools they wish to implement. Very few websites and informational databases provide reading levels, and those that do are often inflated, which can be problematic and demotivating for students with reading and writing challenges (Ciampa, 2017; Wehmeyer, Smith, Palmer & Davies, 2004). Similarly, inaccessible design can prevent students from engaging with otherwise educational technologies. Teachers must assess whether websites and tools are straightforward to navigate (Wehmeyer et al., 2004), provide clean, structured text with images that contain alt-text descriptions (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007), and abide by the principles of universal design (Edyburn, 2005, 2010; Fichten et al., 2009).

Another factor is whether devices affect students’ physical comfort. Despite the engagement and contextualization offered by immersive headsets and similar wearable technologies, these devices can be cumbersome for students with exceptionalities to wear and may induce or exacerbate headaches, physical and visual fatigue, and other pain or discomfort (Arvanitis et al., 2009). Lastly, educators must consider the social implications of various technologies. Instead of relying on assistive tools, which are often outdated and can perpetuate feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness, prioritize technologies that are accessible to all learners from the outset (Foley & Ferri, 2012).

Implications for Practice

Given the affordances of educational technology for students with exceptionalities, effective integration plays a substantial role in supporting Ontario’s inclusive education strategy (OME, 2014). Partnerships between classroom teachers, special education experts (OME, 2017), and other stakeholders (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007) can help identify technologies for personalizing and differentiating instruction in inclusive classrooms (Johnson & Hegarty, 2003). The research offers several implications for the selection and implementation of these tools.

While technology can promote engagement and excitement for learning (Ciampa, 2017; Shah, 2011), educators must prioritize solutions that align with their instructional and curricular goals (Englert et al., 2007). Koehler and Mishra’s technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) framework (as cited in Kennedy & Deshler, 2010) is a useful guide for selecting technologies that complement instruction and account for different learning needs. Combined with targeted instruction and effective modeling (Ciampa, 2017; Englert et al., 2007), technologies should provide scaffolding for students with exceptionalities to acquire the skills and strategies necessary to engage with content (Deshler, 2005).

To better support students in inclusive classrooms, instructional technologies should contain several features. To provide the motivation needed to sustain students’ attention (Johnson & Hegarty, 2003), tools should facilitate active learning, reflection, and provide opportunities to engage with visual and manipulative elements (Deshler, 2005; DeSimone & Parmar, 2006). Scenarios developed for augmented or immersive learning environments must consider students’ prior knowledge and experiences to avoid undue frustration with unrelatable content, as well as physical limitations that would impact the use of headsets and other wearable devices (Arvanitis et al., 2009; Cromby et al., 1996). Finally, promoting genuine inclusion means that educators must assess whether technologies reflect the principles of UDL, including readability and use of multimedia, and are accessible by their entire class (Ciampa, 2017; Foley & Ferri, 2012; Johnson & Hegarty, 2003; Stock et al., 2004).

Lessons Learned: Virtual Classrooms

As technological affordances have grown, virtual learning spaces have become a viable alternative to physical classrooms. Used in blended or fully-online formats, e-learning can reduce the impact of traditional barriers to education for students with exceptionalities (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007).

e-Learning Ontario is an OME initiative, providing provincial access to a learning management system, resource database (OME, 2006a), and a variety of learning and communication software to ensure numerous opportunities for student success (Barbour & LaBonte, 2018; OME, 2006b). The courses and accompanying resources were designed by Ontario teachers and connect directly to provincial curriculum expectations (OME, 2006b). Furthermore, the resource database offers content in multiple formats and is available to both teachers and students, providing the means to personalize and differentiate instruction. e-Learning Ontario is a publicly funded system, available to students in any of Ontario’s public or Catholic school boards (Barbour & LaBonte, 2018), and encourages instructors to customize any aspect of the course delivery to better serve students’ needs (OME, 2006b).

While e-Learning Ontario was not specifically designed for students with exceptionalities, its virtual learning environment is just one example of an educational technology with ubiquitous benefits (Foley & Ferri, 2012). With access to over 31,000 resources for instructional design (OME, 2006a), educators can ensure that every aspect of their course is designed in accordance with UDL recommendations (Bühler & Fisseler, 2007; Edyburn, 2005). The specific tools and resources used within each course are selected to support teachers’ pedagogical choices (Englert et al., 2007; Kennedy & Deshler, 2010) and personalize instruction (Johnson & Hegarty, 2003), providing varying levels of intensity and multimodality to better engage students with exceptionalities (Deshler, 2005; DeSimone & Parmar, 2006; Stock et al., 2004). E-learning also eliminates temporal and spatial barriers, enabling students to learn at their own pace in a location of their choosing (Fichten et al., 2009).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Given the advantages of inclusive education for students with exceptionalities, it is likely that this model will continue to transform classrooms worldwide. Educators must employ tools and technologies that not only enhance academic outcomes for a diverse population of learners but also facilitate the development of 21st-century skills that will ensure students’ ability to succeed in an increasingly digital world. While there will always be a need for assistive devices, research indicates that mainstream instructional technologies can provide numerous benefits for students with exceptionalities. By making learning more concrete, strengthening academic skills, reducing cognitive load, minimizing the impact of challenges posed by students’ exceptionalities, and promoting self-confidence and a growth mindset, educational technologies can facilitate genuine inclusion and ensure students are able to learn effectively alongside their peers.

The rate at which new technologies emerge can be overwhelming. Although most instructional technologies can inspire motivation and engagement through their relevance to students’ lives or by creating opportunities to pursue personal interests (Ciampa, 2017; Johnson & Hegarty, 2003; Shah, 2011), technology integration should add educational value (Englert et al., 2007; Kennedy & Deshler, 2010). As such, there is a continued need for research into potential applications of emerging technologies for students with exceptionalities (Blackhurst, 2005), despite the challenges posed by a continually changing digital market (Edyburn, 2013). This will enable educators and other stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding the role of educational technologies in supporting diverse, inclusive classrooms.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 by Jennifer Robb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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