Keenan G. Wellar <email@example.com>
Ingenia Communications Corporation
The Special Needs Education Network (SNE) originated as an initiative of the Canadian Ministry of Industry (Industry Canada) SchoolNet project. In operation since July 1995, the SNE provides information and resources that assist in the education of students with special needs. Following a very successful first year that saw the development of a popular Web site, international discussion groups, and a dedicated user community, a special subproject was developed to respond to two issues consistently raised by SNE users: the need for a revised curriculum that meets desired educational outcomes for students with developmental disabilities, and the development and use of Internet technologies that benefit students with cognitive disabilities. This paper outlines the activities of the Room 13: Community Connections and the Global Village project, offering numerous insights and suggested directions in the future development of the Information Highway and educational curricula.
The Internet holds the promise of new worlds of information and experience for all. Canada has pursued a leadership role in building the Information Highway, with government and private industry coming together to form of variety of unique partnership arrangements. As a result, Canadians are going online at a rapid rate. Although a minority of citizens in Canada (and the rest of the world) are Internet users at this time , important foundations have been laid for future generations. Initiatives such as Canada's SchoolNet are leading this charge. This massive undertaking, associated with bringing well over half of Canadian schools online to date, has worked to bring even the most remote communities into the wired world .
One SchoolNet-sponsored initiative is reaching out to a unique community that is not distinguished by geography but rather by a desire to assist students with special needs. The SNE  was first conceived in July 1995, as a response to important teaching and learning realities:
The provision of a SchoolNet service specific to Students with Exceptionalities is necessary and important in order to meet the needs of both the clientele and the multidisciplinary team of individuals, organizations, and institutions that are involved in providing Special Needs services and programs. 
This initiative has experienced significant success, developing a dedicated and involved user community, which in turn has generated the unprecedented popularity of the SNE Web site and electronic mailing lists .
The SNE has focused on developing a collaborative environment for those who work with students with special needs. Some original user-initiated projects have been completed , but interest in direct involvement in classroom teaching and learning is a recent priority. The insightful feedback of SNE users has revealed two dominant areas of interest.
First, one of the most common topics of discussion raised on SNE e-mail lists relates to concerns about educational outcomes.
How can the school curriculum provide students with developmental disabilities with the skills necessary to become productive contributors to Canadian society?
Second, SNE users, excited by the power of the Internet, wonder about opportunities to use technology in direct interaction with their students. Whereas many barriers to the operation of computer technologies by persons with physical challenges have been eliminated or greatly decreased, the same cannot be said for the intellectually challenged.
How can Internet technologies be utilized to the benefit of those with limited literacy skills?
The SNE has always been about sharing. Collaboration is key to the successful development of educational programs for students with special needs. Special Education teachers have always needed to be excellent communicators, working with parents, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists--the list is endless. Ironically, however, the Special Education professional is often one of the more isolated members of the educational community.
Historically, these teachers were often isolated as a group, working in special schools, usually out of touch with peers in mainstream educational environments. From a professional development perspective, the move to include students with special needs in neighborhood schools has been a mixed blessing for the educators involved. Although participating in the regular school environment offers many new opportunities, it also brings an isolating effect: the challenges faced by the "Special Ed" teacher are often very different from those of their peers.
Enter the Internet! Despite the incredible advances in networked technologies, in many respects the simple but powerful force of one of the Internet's earliest functions--electronic mail and borderless communication--is still the most exciting. A teacher confronted with a new challenge can now reach out across the country and the world, via a conduit like the SNE, to a comprehensive online community. SNE e-mail discussion groups wield the combined knowledge of parents, teachers, physicians, occupational therapists, principals, and others, ready and willing to share their experience for the betterment of not only those who are asking the questions, but more importantly the community they serve--students with special needs.
A major component of this community is students with intellectual disabilities . In fact, using the Province of Ontario as an example, behavioral, communication, and intellectual exceptionalities account for about 95 percent of the special needs population, with physical exceptionalities making up the remainder .
One topic that has featured prominently in the communications of SNE users relates to the design of educational programs for students with developmental challenges ("developmentally challenged" is used for the purposes of this paper to encompass a number of diagnostic terms used to designate persons with cognitive/intellectual learning difficulties) . In particular, educators and other interested parties are challenged to provide a learning strategy that will enable developmentally challenged students to enjoy life as active contributors to their community upon completion of their K-12 program.
Fulfilling such a comprehensive informational need was far beyond the scope of the basic SNE service. An educational model was needed, and, once discovered, would simply need to be shared. This effort to locate, develop, and make publicly available an appropriate educational model became one key component of the Room 13 Project.
The SNE project concept has been built around "assisting those who assist" students with special needs. Over time, as the benefits of classroom Internet projects became known through SchoolNet and other educational communication networks, SNE developers, and the SNE user community, wondered about similar opportunities for their students.
The search for an educational model for students with Developmental Disabilities led to award-winning educator Steve Levandusky of the Ottawa Board of Education . At the conclusion of the 1996 school year, preliminary plans were made for the SNE to share information about Mr. Levandusky's "Partnership/Mentorship" approach to community-based learning . This would be supplemented by applied research in his Community Living (Intermediate) classroom for developmentally challenged students at Carleton Heights School, Room 13.
Throughout the months of July and August, efforts were dedicated to the development of the Room 13 Project Web site concept, and to the pursuit of community partnership arrangements. Working as a team, SNE Project Manager Keenan Wellar and teacher Steve Levandusky were able to bring on board no less than a dozen community partners during a two-week blitz of meetings and presentations prior to the start of the 1996-1997 school year .
Given that this Partnership/Mentorship approach was built around cooperative efforts with other members of the educational community, it seemed only logical to take on a second challenge within the scope of this one project: exploring the use of Internet technologies for students with intellectual challenges. This meant taking on additional partners to test and experiment with modern information technologies. With the addition of two new education partners in September 1996, the Room 13 Project: Community Connections and the Global Village initiative was born.
Although the Room 13 Project (in its first year) will directly involve only three classrooms, the issues being addressed are of importance to a wide audience.
Outcomes-oriented education is becoming increasingly in vogue, as policy makers seek to bridge the gap between academic skills development and the demands of the modern workplace. This gap is perhaps most significant for members of the K-12 population who will not have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education. When most students with developmental challenges leave the public school system, their formal education does not continue.
Universal access to the Information Highway is also an issue of extreme relevance to a broad sector of Canadians. Much thought has already been devoted to issues pertinent to certain disenfranchised communities--such as the economically disadvantaged and the geographically remote--by governments, organizations, and individuals who are concerned that these communities will have difficulty being included in and contributing to the information society . Persons with developmental challenges may be most affected by the rapid changes taking place. How will such persons, with limited literacy skills cope, let alone benefit, from the development of Canada's Information Highway?
The first major issue, how to best educate students to ensure the most self-actualized participation in society possible, should be of interest to all educators and policy makers. It comes down to a question of educational outcomes--looking at what students need to be able to do when they leave school--and designing curriculum around those needs. The answer in the case of Mr. Levandusky's Partnership/Mentorship approach to educating students with developmental disabilities is clear: the desired outcome is successful life in the community, and this requires a community-based learning approach--taking students out of the classroom and into real-world situations as a matter of routine.
Although this may seem straightforward, such a concept raises numerous questions. As school systems across Canada and the world move to increasingly "inclusive" school environments, in which it is thought desirable for many (or all) students with special needs to spend much (or all) of their time with their nonlabeled peers, a program like Mr. Levandusky's may be seen to run counter to the positive trends. However, it can be argued that this is not the case. Rather, the difference is in the choice of environment for inclusive activities; that is, in the case of the Partnership/Mentorship approach, inclusion is pursued primarily in the community (as well as in the school) rather than solely in the classroom environment, which provides only limited access to real-world experiences.
This concept is often referred to as an "alternative curriculum" approach . Although specialized programs often bring with them higher "per pupil" costs, the Canadian public is highly supportive of (and willing to fund with their tax dollars) effective programs for special needs students . Where the Canadian public is concerned, support of Special Education programs may also be considered "a question of outcomes." Taxpayers recognize that certain students require specialized assistance, and they are willing to support the costs associated with those programs--provided that the programs bring results and demonstrate success.
In the limited time that Mr. Levandusky's Community Living class program has been observed in association with the Room 13 Project, it has proven highly successful. Through the development of a huge web of community partners, almost 50 percent of class time is spent in the community.
As an example, one activity that demonstrates a full range of benefits to this community of learners would be the weekly visits to the Ottawa Food Bank . The class of seven students travels to this food distribution warehouse one afternoon a week, where they are involved in opening large crates of unsorted food donated by the public at collection centers across Ottawa. The large bins of food items are emptied onto a large station of tables, where they are then sorted into over a dozen different categories, packed in small boxes, sealed, and readied for delivery to food distribution centers across the community.
The benefits of this activity are too numerous to describe within the confines of this paper, but some of the key learning opportunities will provide the context involved. Bear in mind that these students, aged 12-14, are still developing a basic vocabulary that includes the recognition and identification of food items. In the classroom, typical language arts activities may see students matching words with pictures, or perhaps, in a slightly more relevant mode, the teacher may have real food items in the classroom which are utilized in mock situations.
These activities are replicated in the Food Bank situation, only they are authentic, not contrived. The work that the students are doing is important, and they know it! They interact with supportive colleagues (the Food Bank employees and other community volunteers). They see the boxes unloaded from trucks for sorting and loaded back on after packaging. They realize that what they are doing is purposeful, and it shows in their attitude--they are making a real contribution to society.
However, this is not simply a work experience activity. Having videotaped one of these two-hour sessions, I can be accurately report that the Food Bank experience provides ample opportunity for the development of language skills. The students are constantly sorting and categorizing (grouping different types of soups together, differentiating a bottle of olive oil from a bottle of mineral water, and so on) within the context of a rich language environment. The conversations are steeped with relevant vocabulary.
Not only are they learning the names of the various items and how they are identified, but in addition they are developing essential social and life skills, such as how to work and communicate with others as a member of a team, how to adapt behavior within the context of different social environments, how to learn new skills through observation and practice (there are several distinct activities, including unpacking, sorting, packing, labeling, and packaging), how to pass on what they have learned to others (they often explain the system to new volunteers), and more.
The students are engaged in similar authentic learning experiences part of every day of every week, be it environmental maintenance in a local park, preparing a meal for a guest (the class routinely invites people they meet in the community to visit the school), or purchasing groceries and maintaining a bank account at a local shopping mall. What is striking about students' development in the context of this Community Living program is that the students can do things. As many parents will attest, 15 years of language arts activities in the classroom cannot guarantee that a developmentally disabled student can independently purchase a few items from a grocery list. At the age of 14, students who leave this Community Living program can handle such tasks and more.
If it is accepted that such community-based learning activities are of significant pedagogical value, why are such programs not pursued with greater frequency? There are many barriers, including organizational inertia within school systems, but perhaps more difficult to overcome is the need for community cooperation, or rather the perception that such cooperation is to difficult to arrange.
Mr. Levandusky has demonstrated that community partnerships are not only viable but extremely practical and highly obtainable. By blurring the lines between school and community, community-based learning is clearly a step towards self-actualization and societal independence for these students. Surely the point of their 15 years in the education system is to ensure that they can be included members of the community in which they live. Why should they wait until age 21 to begin interacting with that community? Programs like Mr. Levandusky's Community Living class will provide them with the contacts and self-confidence that they will need to become productive citizens and contributors to the economy of Canada.
It is hoped that by providing a model for community-based learning the Room 13 Project will spark further interest in authentic learning programs and a fundamental re-examination of student learning with respect to key educational outcomes.
Similarly, it is hoped that by exploring the needs of students with developmental disabilities in the context of the building of Canada's Information Highway, important issues concerning access to information technologies will be brought to the forefront. If the issues raised become fundamental to future development processes, a re-examination of technology access issues will not be necessary but rather part of the process. Properly considering these issues now will ensure that persons with developmental disabilities will not be left behind. Furthermore, in building accessible "on-ramps" Canadian society as a whole may derive great benefits from inclusive policies.
The Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), which was established in April 1994 by the Minister of Industry, had the mandate of providing advice to the Government on the best way to develop the Canadian Information Highway. Chapter 4 of the final IHAC report, "Access and Social Impacts: The Human Dimension," discussed the issue of the Internet and access for persons with disabilities, stating in part the following:
There must be equitable opportunity for all, including people with disabilities and groups with special needs, to access and use the Information Highway .
While it is important to note that this need to provide access for all has been recognized, how to make it a reality is a much greater challenge. What is needed is the same type of comprehensive national programs that have been implemented for other groups with special needs. For example, in the case of persons with physical challenges, access to information technologies has improved dramatically, fueled in part by initiatives such as the Assistive Devices Programme Office (ADPO) .
In the case of persons with cognitive challenges, however, the path to "universal access" is not so clear. A high level of "literacy"--not only in the traditional sense, but also computer literacy--is required at this time in order to take advantage of even the most basic offerings on the Information Highway. While access issues have been explored from many important perspectives, such as economically disadvantaged and geographically isolated populations, representations on behalf of the cognitively challenged have yet to take center stage.
This need for a change of mind-set is explained by Andrew Clement and Leslie Shade of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information Studies in "What Do We Mean By 'Universal Access?': Social Perspectives in a Canadian Context":
The term "electronic curb cuts" refers to telecommunications equipment that is designed and accessible for people with physical or cognitive handicaps. As Goldberg (1995) points out, "It wasn't long after sidewalks began to be redesigned for wheelchair users that the benefits of curb cuts began to be realized by other people. Parents with strollers, skateboarders, bicycle riders, and delivery people helped prove the point that 'a sidewalk with a curb cut is simply a better sidewalk.'" This concept of universal design, then, needs to be applied at an early stage to the development and design of...services and systems .
Similar concerns have been expressed by a wide contingent of Canadians in response to various municipal, provincial, and federal government Internet projects. Although there is general agreement that the Internet is a valuable and effective communications tool, there is concern that some people may be left out. For example, the release of the new Government of Canada Web site  in January 1996 brought rave reviews as an innovative means of distributing information to Canadian citizens, but with this praise also came apprehension, as expressed by the Ottawa Citizen editorial board:
While the government should be applauded for its efforts to make information more accessible, it will have to ensure that all Canadians, including the non-computer-literate, can get the information they need .
One recent technological development that may provide a breakthrough with respect to students (and all persons) with developmental challenges or limited literacy in using the Internet is that of networked videoconferencing. At the time of the release of this paper, the final steps had been taken in the creation of an Internet videoconferencing trial with the three education partners in the Room 13 Project . The trial was to begin in March 1997 and continue throughout the 1996-1997 school year, and, if continued for the 1997-1998 school year, will expand to include partners across Canada and the world.
The intent of the trial is to provide these students with some of the learning advantages and opportunities enjoyed by their more literate peers who are tapping into the Internet's learning potential. This includes, for example, the important social and communication skills development that can take place through both structured and unstructured e-mail exchanges with both peers in other schools, as well as members of the global Internet community. The construction of an ongoing e-mail dialogue, for many students with developmental disabilities, requires a prohibitive level of reading and writing skills. While composing an e-mail can be valuable as a language arts strategy for students who are developing their basic reading and writing skills, the time required (and the need for assistance and guidance) limits the potential for a truly interactive social and language experience.
The addition of Internet videoconferencing will provide the students with real-time interactive opportunities, developing both communication and social skills. It is not always possible to bring students to the community, but Internet videoconferencing can bring a bit of the community to the students, by facilitating interaction with people across the street or across the planet.
As mentioned, experiments with conventional Internet activities are also proving beneficial to students with developmental challenges. The three partner classrooms, which include an elementary/junior class at Clifford Bowey school, a junior class at Robert Bateman school, and an intermediate class at Carleton Heights school, have enjoyed Internet connectivity through their participation in the Room 13 Project since late November 1996. Configuring the user interface and arranging for an Internet connectivity solution proved challenging , but once in place Internet connectivity has reaped many rewards.
For example, many students have difficulty with recall or communication skills in sharing their daily experiences with parents or guardians. Some of the parents have e-mail at home or at work, and the teachers have been experimenting with encouraging students to write notes and updates of their progress and send them to their parents. This has proved an excellent motivator! One challenge faced by Special Education teachers is motivating students to read and write, when often a great deal of effort is required by the student to create just one or two sentences. However, when a sentence produced leads to meaningful reciprocal communication, the motivational benefits are obvious.
The World Wide Web has also proved to be an exceptional educational tool for the Room 13 Project classrooms. A problem that often arises in educating students with basic reading and writing skills is that age-appropriate materials are hard to find. Whereas reading materials with pictures and brief text are very useful, it is difficult to find relevant (age-appropriate) literature for post-elementary students. The graphics and hyperlinks of the World Wide Web provide an almost ideal medium. The students find comfort in sites with graphical navigation tools. Many sites also utilize brief pieces of text, which do not overwhelm the students. And best of all, the students can locate subjects of personal interest!
Researching musicians, sports, and celebrities is an example of one popular activity. With training from classroom staff, the students learn how to access their browser's Bookmark file, where they can link to Yahoo! and other directories or search tools . Once they locate a site of interest, the site can then be bookmarked and accessed easily on a follow-up visit. Web pages can be printed out and the graphics or text used for projects, notebooks, and daily journal activities.
These students and teachers are also testing one of the very latest technologies to utilize the World Wide Web platform. The Room 13 Project is fortunate to have been selected as the proud owners of a SchoolNet MOO Moderated Web Conferencing Room (MMWCR), as developed by Neil Fraser of Ingenia Communications Corporation . MMWCR technology allows users to access a real-time text and graphics-capable conferencing system simply by entering a URL into a Web browser from anywhere in the world. The owner or moderator of a particular "room" controls access to the conference and can add or delete users at any time. Each eligible MMWCR user receives a personal password that is required in order to access the facility.
This technology has numerous uses, from conducting a distance-independent business meeting to carrying on a simple conversation. Having been brought in on the ground floor, the Room 13 Project participants will have the opportunity to provide feedback from a perspective that is seldom part of the Internet development process--that of persons with cognitive challenges. The MMWCR developer has already received feedback from the teachers and students. For example, the system allows participants to transmit graphics by using an image (IMG) tag with standard Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) coding. However, this is very challenging for the students (and a bit tedious for us all) when attempting to maintain a level of interaction with the other participants. In response to this feedback, we may develop a "graphics palette," which will allow users to have certain graphics ready that can then be "jumped in" with the click of a mouse.
What are the pedagogical benefits to using technology such as MMWCRs? The implications for language learning are quite significant. Although many children with developmental challenges experience some difficulty with verbal communication, most possess speaking skills far more advanced than their reading and writing. Technologies like MMWCR (or other synchronous text-chat platforms) offer an unusual meld of communication modes and features.
Communicating via MMWCR resembles a verbal conversation, in that a session would look much like (or exactly like) the transcript of a verbal conversation. Yet the conversation cannot take place without continuous writing and reading. Thus, it may draw on a student's strength--conversation--to enhance a weakness--reading or writing). The fact that the activity requires multiple participants adds a certain relevancy to the activity. Typing a sentence or working to comprehend what another participant is saying may motivate students much better that simply responding to a teacher's instructions.
The Room 13 Project: Community Connections and the Global Village is still in the earliest stages of development, but already it has taken on new directions, some of the most exciting of which were unintended!
In the beginning, it seemed convenient to attempt to address two of the most common concerns raised by SNE users within the scope of a project that would be drawing upon the same community of teachers and learners. Since then, one of the questions has begun to "turn around," and two seemingly different issues are becoming one.
Recall the key questions (in paraphrased form):
It is now clear that the first question is somewhat misdirected. If we include the developers of information technologies as members of this community (and rightly so) we are then left with only one key question:
How can the power of the community be harnessed to the benefit of students with special needs?
With only one question to address, it appears that there is also but one answer: partnerships.
Just as cooperation between schools, family, government, business, social services, and other community organizations is required to ensure that students with developmental disabilities can emerge from the school system with the skills necessary to take their place as contributing members of society, so too is consideration for this population necessary in the future plans for the development of the Information Highway.
Special Education teachers and students with developmental challenges are not typically targeted as one of the first groups to be blessed with the opportunity to explore new technologies. If we are to build an Information Highway that features universal access to technology, this must change. "Adaptations" for persons with intellectual challenges should not be necessary--the devices in question should be constructed with their needs in mind from the conceptual stage through to the point of production. Not only will the special population in question face a drastic improvement, but also the millions of citizens worldwide, with their VCRs blinking 00:00, will derive many benefits from a more thoughtful production process.
A similar message can be applied to the development of an appropriate, meaningful, and relevant curriculum. As we work to develop increasingly inclusive forms of education for students with special needs, it will be important to keep educational outcomes in mind. Some students require "curb cuts" in their educational planning so that they can reach their goal--to engage in meaningful activities in their community--to work, to socialize, and to participate in democratic processes. This should include a voice, "a turn in the driver's seat," for persons with cognitive challenges and their advocates.
Communication is, above all, a social activity, and the Internet is by far the most exciting communications development of our time--perhaps ever. It is hoped that initiatives like the Room 13 Project and the SNE can bring seldom-heard voices into this all-important dialogue and that this input will result in the building of a better Information Highway--and society--for us all.