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Types of Technology

A. Edward Blackhurst
National Assistive Technology Research Institute

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Learn about the evolution of technology in educational settings, the different types of technology,
and how each can be used by people with disabilities.




To many of us, the term technology conjures up visions of things such as computers, cell phones, spaceships, digital video players, computer games, advanced military equipment, and other highly sophisticated machines. Such perceptions have been acquired and reinforced through exposure to televised reports of fascinating devices and news articles about them, science fiction books and movies, and our use of equipment such as automobiles, telephones, computers, and automatic teller machines.

While this focus on devices and machines seems to be very prevalent among the general population, many educators also hold a similar perspective. Since Pressey developed the first teaching machine in 1926 (Nazzaro, 1977), technology applications in public schools and post-secondary education institutions have tended to focus on the acquisition and use of equipment such as film projectors, audio and video tape recorders, overhead projectors, and computers.

Since the early 1960s, however, a trend has emerged that is changing the way we perceive technology in education. At that time, educators began considering the concept of instructional technology. Subsequently, after considerable deliberation, a Congressional Commission on Instructional Technology (1970) concluded that technology involved more than just hardware. The Commission concluded that, in addition to the use of devices and equipment, instructional technology also involves a systematic way of designing and delivering instruction.

With the rapid development of microcomputer technology, increased research on instructional procedures, and the invention of new devices and equipment to aid those with health problems, physical disabilities, and sensory impairments, the latter third of the 20th century has borne witness to a very dramatic evolution. The current perspective is a broad one in which six types of technology are recognized: the technology of teaching, instructional technology, assistive technology, medical technology, technology productivity tools, and information technology (Blackhurst & Edyburn, 2000).

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The technology of teaching refers to instructional approaches that are very systematically designed and applied in very precise ways. Such approaches typically include the use of well-defined objectives, precise instructional procedures based upon the tasks that students are required to learn, small units of instruction that are carefully sequenced, a high degree of teacher activity, high levels of student involvement, liberal use of reinforcement, and careful monitoring of student performance.

Instructional procedures that embody many of these principles include approaches such as direct instruction (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1990), applied behavior analysis (Alberto & Troutman, 1995; Wolery, Bailey, & Sugai, 1988), learning strategies (Deshler & Schumaker, 1986), and response prompting (Wolery, Ault, & Doyle, 1992). Most often, machines and equipment are not involved when implementing various technologies of teaching; however, they can be, as will be seen later.

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Although there are differing opinions about the nature of instructional technology, the Commission on Instructional Technology (1970) provided the following definition:
Instructional technology is a systematic way of designing, carrying out, and evaluating the total process of learning and teaching in terms of specific objectives, based on research in human learning and communication, and employing a combination of human and nonhuman resources to bring about more effective instruction. (p. 199)

Typical applications of instructional technology may use conventional media such as videotapes, computer assisted instruction, or more complex systems, such as hypermedia programs in which computers are used to control the display of audio and visual images stored on videodisc (Blackhurst & Morse, 1996), CD-ROM and digital video discs. The use of telecommunication systems, particularly the Internet (Williams, 1995) and its World Wide Web component (Williams, 1996), have great promise for use in classrooms and for distance education. Computer software systems are now available that can be used to manage the delivery of instruction via the Web. Such systems have been used successfully to deliver instruction to undergraduate and graduate students on topics related to special education (Blackhurst, Hales, & Lahm, 1997).

It is important to note the various components of the above definition and to realize that technology is actually a tool for the delivery of instruction. In this conceptualization, technological devices are considered as means to an end and not an end in and of themselves. Use of technology cannot compensate for instruction that is poorly designed or implemented.

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Assistive technology employs the use of various types of services and devices designed to help people with disabilities function within the environment. Assistive technologies include mechanical, electronic, and microprocessor-based equipment, non-mechanical and non-electronic aids, specialized instructional materials, services, and strategies that people with disabilities can use either to (a) assist them in learning, (b) make the environment more accessible, (c) enable them to compete in the workplace, (d) enhance their independence, or (e) otherwise improve their quality of life.

Assistive technologies may include commercially available or "home made" devices that are specially designed to meet the idiosyncratic needs of a particular individual (Blackhurst & Lahm, 2000). Examples include eyeglasses, communication aids, alternative computer keyboards, adaptive switches, and services such as those that might be provided by speech/language pathologists.

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The field of medicine continues to amaze us with the advances constantly being made in medical technology. In addition to seemingly miraculous surgical procedures that are technology-based, many individuals are dependent upon medical technology to stay alive or otherwise enable people to function outside of hospitals and other medical settings. It is not uncommon to see people in their home and community settings who use medical technology.

For example, artifical limbs and hip and knee implants can help people function in the environment. Cochlear implants can often improve the hearing of people with auditory nerve damage. Some devices provide respiratory assistance through oxygen supplementation and mechanical ventilation. Others, such as cardiorespiratory monitors and pulse oximeters are used as surveillance devices that alert an attendant to a potential vitality problem. Nutritive assistive devices can assist in tube feeding or elimination through ostomies. Intravenous therapy can be provided through medication infusion and kidney function can be assumed by kidney dialysis machines (Batshaw & Perret, 1992). In addition to keeping people alive, technologies such as these can enable people to fully participate in school, community, and work activities.

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As the name implies, technology productivity tools are computer software, hardware, and related systems that enable us to work more effectively and efficiently. For example, computer software such as database programs can be used to store and rapidly retrieve information; word processing programs can be used to easily edit text material; FAX machines can facilitate the transmission of written documents over long distances; expert system computer programs can aid in decision making, such as weather forecasting; and video conferencing facilities can reduce the need for travel.
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Information technologies provide access to knowledge and resources on a wide range of topics. The Internet, and its World Wide Web component, is the most prominent example of information technology. The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) is another example. The ERIC system enables people to search and locate much of the world's educational literature on a given topic. More information about the ERIC System is available elsewhere on this Web site.
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Each of the above types of technology has significant implications for the education of students with disabilities, in and of itself. It is important to remember, however, that these also may be used in combination.

For example, a high school student who is paralyzed may require a respirator to assist in breathing (medical technology). In a course designed to teach about telecommunications, that individual may use a voice-operated computer (assistive technology) to pursue a tutorial about how to design databases from a software program (instructional technology) that was designed according to principles of near-errorless learning (technology of teaching). As a result of the tutorial, the student will be able to set up a database, enter and retrieve information necessary to function effectively in class (technology productivity tool) and use the Internet (information technology) to locate information that could be stored in the database.

While the above example may be somewhat extreme, it serves to place the various types of technology into perspective. In reality, it is more likely that only one or two types of technology would be used at a time. It is important to keep the different types of technology in mind when considering technology solutions for people with disabilities.

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Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (1995). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Batshaw, M. L., & Perret, Y. M. (1992). Children with disabilities: A medical primer. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Blackhurst, A. E., & Edyburn, D. L. (2000). A brief history of special education technology. Special Education Technology Practice. 2(1), 21-35.

Blackhurst, A. E., Hales, R. M., & Lahm, E. A. (1998). Using an education server software system to deliver special education instruction via the World Wide Web. Journal of Special Education Technology, 13(4), 78-98.

Blackhurst, A. E. & Lahm, E. A. (2000). Foundations of technology and exceptionality. In J. Lindsey (Ed.), Technology and Exceptional Individuals (3rd ed, pp. 3-45). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Blackhurst, A. E. & Morse, T. E. (1996). Using anchored instruction to teach about assistive technology. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 11, 131-141.

Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., & Kameenui, E. J. (1990). Direct instruction reading (2nd. ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Commission on Instructional Technology (1970). To improve learning: A report to the President and the Congress of the United States. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1986). Learning strategies: An instructional alternative for low-achieving adolescents. Exceptional Children, 52(6), 583-590.

Nazzaro, J. N. (1977). Exceptional timetables: Historic events affecting the handicapped and gifted. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Williams, B. (1995). The Internet for teachers. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide.

Williams, B. (1996). The World Wide Web for teachers. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide.

Wolery, M., Ault, M. J., & Doyle, P. M. (1992). Teaching students with moderate and severe disabilities: Use of response prompting procedures. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Wolery, M., Bailey, D. B., & Sugai, G. M. (1988). Effective teaching: Principles of applied behavior analysis with exceptional students. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Types of Technology (© 2001) was prepared for the National Assistive Technology Research Institute (NATRI) by A. Edward Blackhurst, Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling, University of Kentucky. NATRI is a partner in the TAM Technology Instructional Resources Initiative. It may be duplicated and circulated for non-commercial purposes, provided this credit is included.

Support for the preparation of this report was provided by the University of Kentucky and the Research to Practice Division of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U. S. Department of Education under Cooperative Agreement #H327G000004 . The information presented in this report does not necessarily reflect the official position of TAM or the funding agencies.

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Posted March 9, 2002