How ChatGPT and Other AI Tools Can Transform Special Education

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Artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be the only thing people are talking about these days. And if you are in education, the opinion can run from the destroyer of the fabric of school itself to the future of humanity.

But despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of articles on the place of AI in schools, more must be written about how tools like ChatGPT could support learners. And not just ones with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) but all learners.

In February of 2023, we (Tim Villegas and DJ Nicholson) met to discuss why teachers leave the classroom and some factors that led us to that decision. And during that discussion, we brought up the subject of AI in the classroom. Technology was an integral part of our instruction when we were classroom teachers. We thought, if we were still teaching, how would we utilize AI tools to support students? Were there any teachers right now testing it out? And how would a tool like ChatGPT be written as a support in an IEP?

All great questions, but we needed more information. So, Tim reached out to Gregg Vanderheiden of the Trace Center at the University of Maryland, known for being a leader in assistive technology since 1971. And DJ contacted some educators attempting to bring AI tools to their students.

Tim and Gregg discussed the importance of accessibility and how AI tools can help support learners with disabilities in the classroom. Gregg suggested educators think of AI in the same way they think of calculators and computers. He believes AI can provide similar support for learners with disabilities, allowing them to access resources and materials in a way that is more accessible to them.

Here is what Dr. Vanderheiden said when Tim asked him how educators should think about AI (edited for clarity).

“When calculators came out, there was a big thing to not allow anybody to have a calculator in school because otherwise, they wouldn’t learn arithmetic. Well, what if you had a learning disability around math. That was a real problem. But if you pulled out a calculator, then you were, quote, cheating. But we all wear glasses, or many of us wear glasses. Is it cheating to wear glasses? Why aren’t you using your natural vision and your natural ability to squint to be able to do your work? You’re depending on a crutch, these glasses, and now for the rest of your life, you’re going to be dependent upon this crutch, these glasses that you’re wearing. And the answer is, so what?

You know, people with wheelchairs can use wheelchairs. Those of us who have glasses need glasses. And in some cases, you could say, yeah, but not only could you have glasses, but what if you had some of the kids want to come in with telescopes on their glasses so that they can see the front of the classroom better than the other students. And I would say let all the students wear telescopic lenses if they want to. I mean, the question isn’t your ability to learn. Give them the ability to see the front of the room. And they’re always going to use a calculator. By the time they get out of school, calculators are going to be, you know, nothing. Why don’t we teach them something that will be useful? Don’t teach backwards. Don’t teach them how to do things for the world that was; teach them how to do things for the world that will be.”

DJ met with two elementary special education teachers who support children with disabilities in inclusion and Exceptional Student Education (ESE) settings, respectively. Mrs. S is a special education teacher and provides inclusive/push-in services and support for a group of 4 third-grade students. Miss J provides one-to-one special education support to a 5th-grade student.

Here is a glimpse into their experiences with AI for Mrs. S (edited for clarity):

“Our small group instruction takes place in the classroom during ELA rotations. Recently, we had a discussion and came to the conclusion that one student in particular, Michael, could benefit from reading passages that have been adjusted using AI technology. Michael’s IEP includes a goal for decoding, and he is currently reading independently at a late first-grade level. Our intention behind providing Michael with AI-adjusted text was to enhance his comprehension and fluency at his current reading level, thus granting him better access to grade-level content. However, despite recognizing the potential benefits of AI-adjusted text for Michael, we encountered ongoing resistance from his classroom teacher.

She repeatedly expressed her disapproval, stating, “This isn’t approved.”, “We can’t use AI in school.”, and “It isn’t in his IEP, so I’m not letting him use it.” This disagreement caused tension between her and me, ultimately escalating to the point where the classroom teacher lodged a complaint with the administration. Given the circumstances and the opposition to the AI trial, I have decided to conduct a trial using speech-to-text as a classroom assistive technology accommodation for Michael. The goal is to ensure that he has greater access to grade-level material. While this alternative might not provide the same benefits as AI-adjusted text, I am hopeful that it will still support Michael’s reading development and help bridge the gap between his current level and grade level expectations.”

And for Miss J:

“Jania requires support with decoding, multisyllabic words and comprehension. Surprisingly, despite her reading abilities and being two grade levels below her peers, she currently has no classroom assistive technology in place. To address Jania’s needs, I decided to utilize AI technology to create independent reading level text for her in Science, specifically focusing on environmental changes that affect wildlife. I developed two different AI passages for her. The first passage was composed at Jania’s independent reading level, but it still contained grade level vocabulary. Before reading the passage, I made sure to pre-teach the vocabulary to her. The second passage was composed at the grade level, but it didn’t include the relevant vocabulary. Instead, I defined the vocabulary within the passage using simpler terms or by providing their definitions; however, I was unsure about how to support her vocabulary acquisition outside of the passage.

After careful consideration, we determined that the AI passage composed at Jania’s independent reading level, which included relevant vocabulary, was the most efficient option. This passage could easily connect back to grade-level passages and content, ensuring a deeper learning experience. I emphasized the importance of including vocabulary in the AI-created passage, regardless of the reading level. Moving forward, I am considering adding leveled text as an accommodation in Jania’s IEP, but I will omit any mention of AI until I receive guidance from the district regarding its use. Personally, I found the AI program to be user-friendly and much easier to work with when compared to the time consuming task of leveling text manually. It has significantly simplified the process of providing appropriate reading materials for Jania’s individual needs.”

“Don’t teach backwards.” Dr. Vanderheiden stated what many educational professionals believe to be true. When we take a forward-thinking and open approach to teaching and supporting children of all ability levels, we can create learning environments that meet the needs of every child.

Does every child need glasses to read? No. Does every child need an accommodation for instructional clarification? No. But do we provide these? Absolutely.

As our society changes, the educational system and how we support unique learners must change. Supports like reading glasses and instructional clarification are quite common, but that was not always the case. It’s the same for AI. It’s new, and it’s relatively unknown in the education space. And it might seem a bit daunting. But when we take the time to pause for a moment and learn more about AI, we can consider the benefits for children who might need leveled, adapted or summarized text.

So let’s keep the forward momentum and try AI as a possible learning accommodation. After all, leveling text is a daunting task all on its own, right?

Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. He is also the founder of Think Inclusive, which is the blog, podcast, and social media handle of MCIE. He has 16 years of experience in public education as a teacher and district support specialist. His focus now is on how media and communications can promote inclusive education for all learners.

DJ Nicholson is an educational mentor and trainer with a life-long passion for ensuring that children with disabilities are supported in their educational environment.  Her 27 years of experience as a teacher, district-level educational coach and trainer has resulted in the development of Inclusiveology, a business that is committed to including every child in learning, creating unique learning options for children, and problem-solving for success.  She coaches parents to advocate for their child’s best learning through tools and strategies for engagement, accessibility, and flexibility.  DJ also consults with schools and provides professional development.  When she is not engaged in her career passions, she is volunteering with a pug rescue group, hiking, and doing yoga!

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