Ontario’s Upper Grand District chooses Chromebooks to help students with disabilities build confidence in learning

Challenge

With about 15 percent of its students identified as those with special needs, Upper Grand DSB takes its commitment to accessibility seriously. That means investing in resources to help students with disabilities reach their full academic potential.

In terms of assistive tools such as devices and software to manage motor skills and reading challenges, the problem was that there simply weren’t enough of them. Some laptops with specialized software can cost as much as $3,000 each, limiting how many could be distributed to students. The district could only afford 100 licenses for its previous text-to-speech software each year.

“We would hit our limit at about 400 laptops per year for the whole district,” says Bill MacKenzie, IT Program Liaison for Upper Grand DSB. “We had a terrible backlog—it could be weeks before students got their hands on the devices.”

Not only were devices and software expensive, some didn’t deliver much in the way of ease of use and flexibility. If certain laptops needed repair or service, IT technicians had to take them out of service, imposing even more gaps in student access to accessibility tools. Installing the few available accessibility software products also added to the IT team’s workload—and teachers, lacking budget and choice for tools, were limited in ways to inspire confidence and creativity among students with disabilities.

Students had issues with certain laptops, too. With some weighing eight pounds each, these heavy laptops were hard for younger students to carry from home to school and back, so students often left them at home.

Solution

To find more flexible and budget-friendly classroom tools, MacKenzie and his colleagues tested several laptops and tablets, including Chromebooks. “The cost difference was what first got our attention with Chromebooks,” MacKenzie says. “But then we saw the other problems they solved.” Children like using them, he says—and at only about three pounds each, Chromebooks were easy to carry. They booted up in just a few seconds, so students and teachers could get to work quickly.

With built-in accessibility tools like high-contrast mode and spoken feedback, Chromebooks offered far more choices to teachers seeking to personalize students’ learning experiences.

“The availability of so many apps has opened up more opportunities for us,” MacKenzie says of the apps and Chrome extensions that teachers use to supplement Chrome’s built-in tools. MacKenzie and his IT team can centrally manage apps through the Chrome management console, installing new apps in every Chromebook at once instead of technicians laboriously uploading software onto each device.

The district initially purchased 3,500 Chromebooks for students with disabilities—at first Samsung devices, but then switching to Dell’s Chromebook 11 3120 model. As students and teachers outside of special education saw Chromebooks, they clamored to use them.

“Special education is always ahead of the curve in terms of innovation,” MacKenzie says. “Our early work with laptops for students with disabilities drove our eventual implementation of Chromebooks for everyone.” Upper Grand DSB now has 20,000 Chromebooks, primarily for K-8 students. Students with disabilities can also take their Chromebooks home.

Benefits

“We have much more capacity for collaborative learning now that more students use Chromebooks. We’re able to challenge students to try new ways of learning beyond just basic skills.”

Bill MacKenzie, IT Program Liaison, Upper Grand District School Board

Helping students succeed

Using Chromebooks, teachers now have many more tools to help students overcome their unique learning challenges—starting with tools built into the Chrome operating system. Students can use voice typing with Google Docs if they have motor-skills issues; teachers can use the commenting feature in Google Docs to check on student progress and guide them in completing lessons. Other built-in accessibility features like ChromeVox, a built-in screen reader for the visually impaired, and support for devices like braille displays, help students with disabilities achieve more.

Chrome extensions like Texthelp’s Read&Write, with text-to-speech and speech-to-text features, have been game-changers for the district. “We bought it for every student with a disability—it’s spectacular,” MacKenzie says.

Blayne Pimeau, a curriculum leader at Upper Grand DSB, uses Read&Write to help students with disabilities read short stories and novels that might otherwise be above their grade levels. “It gives students with organizational needs a tool to highlight key information in digital texts without having to copy it to a piece of paper, saving time and keeping frustration levels down,” Primeau says. He also uses the Mindomo app to help students create outlines with visually engaging mind maps.

Placing devices in more hands

The Dell Chromebooks cost about $400 each—far lower than the cost of other popular laptops and expensive software. “We can buy 100 Chromebooks for the price of 30 of the previous laptops,” MacKenzie says. Trading offline text-to-speech software for the Read&Write Chrome extension also saved money. “For the cost of 10 of the previous licenses, we could buy a district-wide Read&Write license,” he adds.

Because of the cost savings, now every Upper Grand DSB student with a disability who needs a computer for learning receives a Chromebook. “Our budgets haven’t increased, but we’ve doubled the number of Chromebooks we had when we first started,” MacKenzie says.

MacKenzie and his IT team can also deliver Chromebooks to students faster thanks to easier provisioning, using Chrome Education license. “While there was often a three- or four-month lag time in getting a rugged laptop, we now fill an order in less than a week,” he says.

Building students’ confidence and independence

Tools to store notes and assignments, like Google Drive and Google Classroom, help students organize and access material they need for class—giving students with disabilities access to the same organizational tools that non-disabled students have used.

“Students can review their notes and assignments online and in a format that facilitates the use of text-to-voice,” says Kris Tozer, Head of Innovative Use of Technology for the district. “Work and assignments are also centralized, helping them to overcome organizational challenges.”

The more level playing field helps students build confidence when learning new skills alongside their peers, says Theresa Darroch, a Vice Principal at Upper Grand DSB. “One of our students presented a slideshow made with Google Slides that highlighted his independently written poetry,” Darroch says. “My grade 5/6 students can independently create documents, slide presentations and videos using apps. Their enthusiasm for reaching beyond is infectious.”

Looking for guidance and inspiration on improving accessibility in your classroom? Read other Google accessibility case studies here, and visit The A11y Project for more resources.

What they wanted to do

  • Increase device access for students with disabilities
  • Allow teachers more choice of learning apps

What they did

  • Adopted Chromebooks for students with disabilities, then added Chromebooks for grades K-8 district-wide
  • Used accessibility tools built in to Chrome OS, such as voice typing with Google Docs
  • Used Google Web Store to find and deploy additional accessibility tools, including Read&Write

What they accomplished

  • Increased access to tools to meet students’ unique learning challenges
  • Placed more devices in classrooms after reducing costs for devices and software
  • Boosted students’ confidence in their skills

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