Using Technology to Help Special Needs Students See More of the World

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Long before Richard Engel became NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent and won the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, he was a special education student at New York’s Riverdale Country School struggling with dyslexia.

He once attacked one of his teachers by hitting her in the head with a xylophone. "The more I was coddled and made to feel like a person with a defect, the more angry I'd feel," he said.

When he was 13, his parents sent him to a wilderness survival camp in Wyoming, where Engel received no such coddling. He was expected to perform, just like everyone else, and the experience gave him so some much-needed self-confidence. He spent his junior year of high school abroad and learned to speak fluent Italian. In Italy, Engel realized how much he thrived when thrown into a foreign environment and forced to figure his way through it. 

After earning a degree from Stanford, he took $2,000, moved to Cairo and become a foreign correspondent. In addition to becoming a successful journalist, Engel now speaks several languages including Italian, Spanish, French, and four Arabic dialects. Of course, he’d been told by his teachers that he wasn’t capable of learning another language.


Using Technology to Help Special Needs Students See More of the World


You never know whether one of the students sitting in your room — maybe even the one who just acted out violently against a teacher — might have a future like Richard Engel’s. Use technology to introduce your special needs students to a world beyond their classroom walls.


Start Small

When she was a classroom teacher in St. Louis, Krissy Venosdale used Skype to let her students videoconference with students in another state. The first call was uneventful and even awkward, but her students were hooked by the experience.


Using Technology to Help Special Needs Students See More of the World


Venosdale started participating in a project called KnowGlobe, which helps teachers set up conversations with students in classrooms all over the world. Through the project, Venosdale found opportunities to teach about time zones, global weather patterns, world education, and cultural differences.

Venosdale says that the secret of video conferencing with students in other countries is to start with small, focused conversations. A special education teacher, for example, could try scripting and roleplaying online conversations, either one-on-one with students receiving services or while team-teaching in the regular classroom.

Venosdale suggests #MysterySkype, a program that uses Skype to set up a videoconference between two classrooms. After setting up the call, students play a game similar to “20 Questions” until they guess where the location of the other group of students. In addition to these simple conversations, #MysterySkype offers multiple lesson plans to create facilitate fun and engaging global encounters.


Let the Students Lead

Do your students love penguins? If they do, they might enjoy a Skype call with the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Just ask northeast England’s Egglescliffe Primary School, where students connected over Skype to SANCCOB, speaking to seabird caretaker Rifqah Taliep and meeting Beakie the penguin.


Using Technology to Help Special Needs Students See More of the World


Skype in the classroom organized the call, but you can arrange all kinds of interactions with overseas subject matter experts with the help of your social networks. Venosdale says that when her students have an international question that requires an expert answer, they ask her to “tweet it out” to get the attention of an expert.

For example, thanks to her Twitter network, Venosdale arranged a Skype call with Dr. Anita Sengupta, an engineer who works for NASA designing entry systems for Martian landing craft. She says that forming a digital network takes a while, but persistence pays off. Keep tweeting and trying outreach until you make an overseas connection.


Teach Virtual Social Skills

When talking to students overseas, it’s crucial not only to teach them lessons about social interaction and digital etiquette. Before you start a conversation with overseas students, have your own chat with the other teacher or communicate over email to discuss any potential cultural land mines. Also, you’ll find many articles online designed for international business etiquette. You can easily modify the business etiquette tips and present them to your students.


The World on a Screen

Even special needs kids who don’t go on to become world-famous journalists like Richard Engel will become voters who need a global perspective. Thanks to social media and video conferencing, you can bring the whole world into the special needs classroom.