Broadly, technology is no different from any other tool. The power comes not from what it is, but rather how it is used. Technology cannot help with everything, but skilled application of technology can increase many areas of independence for students with MSID/ASD. Beginning with the broad term of assistive technology that was first codified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004), Part B, Section 612, (1), the definition simply states that assistive technology is: “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988; IDEA: 20 U.S.C. Part A, Section 602). This definition was modified further under the IDEA in 2004 to exclude any surgically implanted medical devices. Although this definition captures just about anything imaginable, using the terms of IDEA, we will separate it into two different, but overlapping, applications: (a) instructional technology and (b) assistive technology. Instructional technology explicitly is used to teach skills. Once the skills are learned, the technology is no longer necessary and, therefore, is not utilized. For example, a software program designed to teach typing concepts and/or keyboarding would fall into the category of instructional technology, as it was used to teach a specific skill. Assistive technology, on the other hand, most often plays a role in the ongoing support of an individual who is completing a task. A digital reminder that triggers a vibrating alarm and alerts the user to take his or her medicine would be an example of assistive technology. Combining and interweaving these two ideas into how technology is applied for students with MSID/ASD can help in conceptualizing how to best build an instructional program. Although there is a range of commercially available products that fall into each of these broad categories, we focus instead on those tools or applications that are freely available (often part of the mobile device operating system) that teachers, parents, and other service providers can customize to meet an individual's needs. This is not to ignore the effective commercially available software; rather, it is to focus attention on those practices that have emerged in the literature that are easy to implement and do not require the purchase of specialized and, at times, costly software.
Mobile Technology and Skill Instruction
An emerging literature base is exploring the potential of mobile technology as an instructional tool. Largely, mobile technologies have been used to deliver video or photographic support to learners (Mechling, 2011). Initial work with mobile technology focused on using portable DVD players to present video models of tasks to individuals with MSID/ASD. For example, Mechling, Gast, and Fields (2008) combined a portable DVD player with a system of least prompts procedure to teach cooking tasks to a group of young adults with moderate intellectual disability who acquired and maintained task performance. As technology has shifted away from optical media and in favor of smaller, more mobile, devices, several researchers have used techniques similar to Mechling et al. to deliver video modeling instruction in settings where skills are needed (i.e, kitchen environment), rather than with a student sitting at a television or computer in a classroom setting. For example, Van Laarhoven, Johnson, Van Laarhoven-Myers, Grider, and Grider (2009) used a video-prompting procedure on an iPod to help instruct a young man with developmental disabilities to complete vocational tasks in a competitive work setting. Mechling, Gast and Seid (2009) adapted this approach with a personal digital assistant to teach cooking skills to a group of individuals with ASD and to a group of students with moderate intellectual disability (Mechling, Gast, & Seid, 2010) when using both video and photographic prompts. Similarly, Mechling and Seid (2011) used video and photographic prompts on a personal digital assistant (PDA) to assist pedestrian travel by students with moderate intellectual disability. More recently, Walser, Ayres, and Foote (2012) used an iPhone and a video-modeling procedure to instruct a group of high school students with moderate intellectual disability to prepare food.
These studies have used technology to deliver video-based instruction in the form of models (where a learner views an entire task sequence and then is asked to complete the task), as well as prompts (where only individual steps of a task are shown as part of an instructional sequence). Traditionally, there have been hosts of other response-prompting procedures to teach similar types of skills (e.g., constant and progressive time delay, system of least prompts, most-to-least prompting etc.; Wolery, Ault, & Doyle, 1992). The power of technology comes in its ability to: (a) provide multiple sets of materials and equipment (i.e., in a community or classroom setting, a teacher does not have access to multiple sets of materials, such as two sets of washing machines and dryers); (b) provide a repeated “perfect” model every time it is needed; (c) allow the individual to rewind and review the video instruction as often as needed; and (d) remove some of the burdens associated with modeling tasks in vivo. Without technology, if educators wanted to model an individual step and then ask students to perform it, they would have to ask the students to watch them complete the step and then undo the step. Consider the scenario whereby an educator prompts the student to open the lid to a washing machine. The educator might secure the student's attention and then lift the lid. He or she would have to then close the lid for the student to have an opportunity to imitate the step. If the student imitates exactly what was modeled, then the student would open the lid and immediately close it, not the desired response! With technology, educators can use a single set of materials demonstrated on a video and simply show the step that needs to be completed. In addition, with a video model used on a mobile device (and shared between teachers, parents, etc.), the student has the advantage of seeing the exact same demonstration of the task, regardless of who is trying to teach the skill. This has the advantage of increasing procedural fidelity and improving learning.
In short, the work with mobile technology has tended to focus on the use of the technology as an instructional support for teaching chained tasks in the areas of life skills and vocational/employment skills. The examples provided earlier all relied on video as the primary prompting support, but both photographs and audio prompting, via mobile devices, also are evidenced in the literature (Cihak, Wright, & Ayres, 2010; Davies, Stock, & Wehmeyer, 2002). Cihak, Kessler, and Alberto (2007, 2008) reported on the use of a hand-held prompting system designed to improve independent transition between tasks. The system consisted of pictures and audio, with task directions, on a PDA. Students learned to use the system to prompt themselves between activities. Improvements in transitioning like this have been similarly accomplished with lower-tech picture schedules (e.g. Carson, Gast, & Ayres, 2008; Spriggs, Gast, & Ayres, 2007). The difference with Cihak et al. (2010), aside from the technology itself, is that technology, for many students, is motivating and preferred (Mechling & Seid, 2011).
In 2005, Taber-Doughty conducted a study to compare the differential effects of a system of least prompts procedure and self-prompting with pictures with self-prompting with audio cues (only the auditory prompting would be considered mobile technology). The use of self-auditory prompting has been documented previously (Alberto, Sharpton, Briggs, & Stright, 1986), but in the 2005 study, Taber-Doughty considered student preference (i.e. choice, an aspect of self-determination) for prompting systems and discovered that the students tended to perform best with the prompting system they favored. Although this may not hold true in all cases, when it comes to technology and wanting to “fit in,” or at least not stand out, educators may find that using something that looks more typical (e.g., smartphone) may aid learning and that providing students with an opportunity for choice may, in itself, help promote more self-determined behavior.
Mobile Technology and Self-Determination
Clearly, learning new skills using mobile technology is a positive outcome that could potentially feed into aspects of self-determination. For example, if a student has a larger repertoire of skills, he or she may have a greater sense of self-efficacy (one of the components of self-determination cited by Wehmeyer, 1996). However, mobile technology goes beyond this because in addition to teaching skills, it can provide valuable ways to promote self-management and self-instruction. In terms of self-management, Cihak et al. (2008) demonstrated that mobile technology could be used to assist students with following tasks in a sequence in much the same way many professionals use calendars or to-do lists. Cihak, Fahrenkrog, Ayres, and Smith (2010) replicated these findings by substituting video for the photographs. In the context of a withdrawal design (ABAB), four students with ASD demonstrated better performance with the support than without. The students did not become more independent per se, but they learned to use a system to self-manage their behavior and meet classroom expectations in a general education setting. The portability of the technology combined with the fact that it supplanted a teacher assistant (who would often be assigned to keep a student on task) allowed for a more positive inclusive experience. Mechling and Savidge (2011) also found that their use of a PDA with multiple prompt levels (i.e., pictures, video, audio) increased the ability of three students with ASD to self-manage and transition between tasks within their independent work sessions.
A second, very prominent benefit of mobile technology is its use for self-instruction. Today, when most individuals are confronted with a task that they do not know how to perform, they have the problem-solving skills (another feature of self-determination) to seek out resources, such as reading a reference manual, searching the Internet for instructions, or watching a YouTube video to help them complete the task. Having portable technologies readily available allows persons to self-instruct, which is another feature of self-determination. Bereznak, Ayres, Mechling, and Alexander (2012a, 2012b), building on work by Mechling et al. (2010), taught two high school students with autism how to operate an iPhone to prompt themselves through two daily living tasks and one vocational task. Another participant did not have the motor ability to operate the iPhone for himself, so the teacher mediated the prompting. The demonstrated benefit is that once students learn to use a system, they can build their own skill repertoire, as needed, by using that single set of skills (i.e., using a smartphone) to work their way through a novel task. Further, the flexibility of the technology allowed the teacher to use it for one set of students in one way and then individualize delivery of the system for a third student.
Although mobile technology will not provide all students with a means to self-manage and self-instruct, it can provide a flexible way for educators to build a variety of supports from which many students can benefit. The value of these self-management and instructional supports goes beyond the potential for learning and staying on task. Whereas many students with MSID/ASD participate on the margins of school activities and do not have as many opportunities to successfully engage with their peers without disabilities, technology has the potential for bridging this gap by serving as a common medium shared by their peers. Mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets, are pervasive, and their presence in a learning environment, lunchroom, hallway, or other school setting blends in more readily than teachers walking beside a student with small photo albums or laminated card stock with picture prompts. In addition to their mainstream acceptability, the use of mobile technologies has the potential for increasing social opportunities of students with MSID/ASD through contact with peers or other individuals by using avenues such as emails and text messaging. Social media, including blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, may also provide opportunities for ongoing, instant, social interactions with persons who share common interests.
Training Mobile Technology Use
The full potential of technology cannot be realized if educators and students do not know how to use the technology to enhance learning. One of the first caveats for introduction of technology to a student is that one cannot expect the student to learn from the technology until the student is taught to use it. Although this seems obvious on the surface, more than one educator has turned away a piece of assistive technology because it “did not work for the student,” when, in reality, the student was not taught to use the technology in the appropriate way. Walser et al. (2012) evaluated video modeling for teaching a group of three high school students, each diagnosed with a moderate intellectual disability, how to use an iPhone. They indicated that two of the three participants had never touched a smartphone before. This may have contributed to their reluctance to use the iPhone during baseline due to a fear of breaking it. Because of this, the first author demonstrated the durability of the iPhone to the students by striking it on the table. Their lack of training and hesitation to use the technology was quickly alleviated following the instructor's demonstration. This may have contributed an adaptation threat, as baseline responding was low until the first author smacked the phone on the table several times to show them that they were unlikely to damage the phone (Bereznak et al., 2012b).
Teaching students with video modeling as Walser et al. (2012) did, however, is limited in that it still requires direct intervention of adults in the environment to provide support. Bereznak et al. (2012a) sought a means to teach a group of high-school-aged students with ASD to use mobile technology to complete a novel task. Wanting to ensure that students were appropriately relying on the phone for video supports prior to requiring them to use the phone to learn the target tasks for the study, Bereznak et al. created a series of three simple assembly tasks. When completing each step of these three tasks, it was not possible for students to infer the next step because the models developed were completely contrived. This resulted in the students learning to refer to the phone to see the next step and, then, responding accordingly. Students were verbally prompted and physically guided as needed, as they learned to use the iPhone to complete the assemblies.
In another series of studies focused on training technology use, Hammond, Whatley, Ayres, and Gast (2010) simply used video modeling on a laptop to teach a group of adolescents with intellectual disabilities to access different features of an iPod. Hammond, Muething, Ayres, and Gast (in review) replicated this procedure with a group of students with ASD. In each case, systematic direct instruction and video modeling resulted in skill acquisition.
An important point of recognition gained from these studies is that none departed from fundamentally sound direct systematic instruction to teach students how to use the technology to self-instruct or self-manage. Assuming that educators are well versed in systematic instruction (behavioral instructional procedures such as time delay, least-to-most prompting, graduated guidance), the next step would be to identify what, if any, advantage technology may have in a given instructional situation, followed by teaching the students to use the technology. Other student support personnel, such as school psychologists, are well positioned to raise awareness of the possibility that technology solutions are available that can enhance learning, lead to more self-determined behavior, and distally impact postschool outcomes. The challenge then is to work collaboratively with educational teams to identify which technologies may be best suited for the learner and to provide the necessary training in its use.
Technology on the Horizon
Most information written about technology is dated the moment it is published. Although the summaries of the extant research provided in this article regarding existing mobile technologies and their fundamental interventions have remained fairly constant over the past 10 years, new possibilities are forthcoming. Methodologies covered here certainly will evolve to take advantage of new technologies, resulting in differing procedures and applications for educators.
Some of this evolution will capitalize on hardware advances. For example, most smartphones now have global positioning system (GPS) capabilities. This allows for a range of options for teaching community navigation. Whereas previously intensive community and classroom video simulation training was used to teach skills such as using public transit (Mechling & O'Brien, 2010), new methods already are being pioneered that rely on the use of the GPS capabilities (Davies, Stock, Holloway, & Wehmeyer, 2010). GPS technology can be tied to other features of a smartphone to trigger events based on location. For example, in Apple's iOS (iPhone), alarms can be set based on geographic location to deliver text-based reminders. This is a technology that could, in theory, be adopted to provide location-specific supports in the form of audio or video prompts for nonreaders. This could lead to enhanced opportunities for self-management, as well as self-instruction.
Another technology that is beginning to be explored as a means to provide instructional support is referred to as covert audio coaching (bug-in-ear). Bennett, Brady, Scott, Dukes, and Frain (2010) presented a set of procedures using mobile technologies to provide audio prompts to individuals working in supported employment. The advantage in this situation is that individuals in supported employment do not have to have their teacher or job coach right next to them. Instead, the instructor can stand away from the area (thus allowing more natural social interaction) and provide audio support as needed. With a smartphone and a Bluetooth headset, this is a simple procedure to adopt and, again, blends in with the environment. In addition, Google has recently circulated video demonstration teasers of their Project Glass, referred to as “Google Glasses,” that is still in development. The glasses include a video camera that faces outward toward the environment and can transmit information regarding what the user sees. Likewise, the user is able to view, within the lenses of the glasses, information overlaying on the environment (e.g., address to a building). Combining the features of the glasses with a teacher positioned remotely, an individual with MSID/ASD would have even greater flexibility to receive feedback and coaching while engaging in a task without the proximity of their trainer, who may impede social interactions. Similar developments are being explored in the area of augmented reality (using technology to “overlay” information on a naturally occurring situation). For example, Escobedo et al. (2012) reported using an augmented reality system to support younger children with ASD with engagement in appropriate social interactions on the playground. The system incorporated a curriculum called Social Compass (Boyd, McReynolds & Chanin, 2010) and provided students with prompts and cues, as well as a self-assessment component, for students to rate the quality of their own engagement after each episode.
What will develop in the next 2 to 3 years related to technology is uncertain. Innovators of technology already are recognizing and acknowledging the marketing opportunities surrounding the field of ASD. Further, as the baby boomer generation ages and requires more assistance to maintain their day-to-day activities (including cognitively demanding tasks), the market for technology products will undoubtedly increase to support their needs. This aging population of adults who have the resources to purchase more technology to enhance their lives increases the likelihood that a flood of new software and hardware products will be available in the near future that will have application to the lives of those with MSID/ASD.