On the Go: What Consumer Products Can Do For You (If You Know Where to Look!)

National Center for Technology Innovation
On the Go: What Consumer Products Can Do For You (If You Know Where to Look!)

As desktop-based computer technology continues to play an important role in the education of students with disabilities, consumer electronics emerge with the potential to change the way in which students, parents, and teachers think about mobile learning tools. Everyday cellular phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and hand-held MP3 players are doubling as portable assistive and learning technology tools in classrooms around the country.

Because most students are adept with the standard technologies in cellular phones, PDAs, and iPods, educators have begun incorporating these technologies into the classroom. Research in the field has shown that "electronic and information technology can be used by students with disabilities [to] contribute to their independence, productivity, and participation in academics and careers." 1

With the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), more materials are now available in digital format, increasing accessibility.2 A national task force of disability scholars and advocates has envisioned increased independence for persons with disabilities through technology; the more portable the device, the greater the range of environments in which they will be able to learn and participate.3

In addition to the increase of accessibility through mobile technology, the incorporation of AT-like applications in everyday consumer electronics leads to greater access and options for users. Some mobile technologies duplicate applications available on desktops and laptops, while others capitalize on the unique attributes of handheld devices. "While there are many interesting technical opportunities associated with handheld devices, the use of technology in education settings must be based upon pedagogical considerations. The challenge… is to create solutions that are educationally appropriate, not technologically complex."4 Here are some ideas.

PDAs, Mobile Phones, and Smartphones

Students are even getting involved in the question of PDAs and increased academic achievement. One New Jersey high school student who researched this topic now designs and develops math tutoring-software for handhelds for his peers. "Under catchy titles such as 'Algebra at the Mall' or 'Addition at the Movies,' [these programs present] problems and…guide students to correct answers, right on their pocket PCs." 5

PDAs and smartphones (any electronic handheld device that integrates the functionality of a mobile phone, PDA or other information appliance) can serve purposes beyond that of a calendar and address manager. Computers on handhelds are capable of running thousands of programs, including educational tools for students with disabilities. The iPhone has a number of apps available for students with disabilities; one recent usage is as a pocket communication device for users with speech difficulties.

Students may use PDAs, mobile phones and smartphones to set a reminder to take a medication, record lectures, store lesson notes and assignments by beaming documents, look up the spelling of a word in a mobile dictionary, load pictures and maps of unfamiliar locations, or communicate messages from a teacher to a parent.6 For example, using Google Maps on a cell phone or smartphone can turn the device into a simple GPS tool — helping students navigate neighborhoods, build confidence in navigational skills, and enhance independence.

Advances in technology have yielded even more detailed options for mapping. New smartphone applications generating buzz include augmented reality programs using the built-in camera and Internet capabilities of the phone. One such program shows subway information, coffee shops, and restaurants superimposed over an image of the user's current location. As the user moves, the information is automatically updated in real-time. Such tools may be helpful for individuals who have difficulty with direction and unfamiliar locations.

Although mobile devices are still not allowed in some schools, these everyday electronics do offer significant potential to aid users with built-in or third party applications, visual and audio reminders, predictive word software, and voice recognition options. As teachers and administrators recognize the potential of a 'pocket computer' for students with special needs, mobile computing is becoming more common in the classroom.

iPods and MP3 Players

Teachers across the U.S. are incorporating mobile music players and digital recorders, such as the iconic iPods, into the classroom to present students with the opportunities to podcast and direct their own daily radio shows, interview family members, learn phonics and vocabulary words, and record assignments.7 iPods also transform into assistive technologies through a built-in compatibility with audio books, study guides, and GPS maps.

With the availability of the iPod Touch students can also make use of available applications for the iPhone as well as built-in wireless capabilities to download helpful content. Some teens with autism spectrum disorders have used iPods to load video scripts, social cues and other information to help them deal with unfamiliar social situations.8 More information on these options is available below.

Keep in mind that there is a growing convergence of these devices and applications: Smartphones are becoming more akin to PDAs with such added functionalities as Internet access, video, and a variety of application programs. Similarly, PDAs are becoming more like telephones with dialing and Bluetooth capabilities. Before you buy another device, check to see if there are applications compatible with any consumer electronics you may already have.

More Information

PDAs and Smartphones

  • Merriam-Webster's Dictionaries are available for the several platforms of PDAs and different kinds of smartphones.
  • Snac free mobile widget application for Java mobile phones, BlackBerry and some Windows mobile phones; provides mobile access to news, weather, travel information and social networking sites.
  • iPhone Apps for Students provides a short list of helpful educational apps for the iPhone. Many educational applications are available through the iPhone or through 3rd parties. Apps are also available on the iPod Touch.
  • Combining directions, maps, and satellite imagery, Google Maps is a free download that finds local hangouts and businesses across town or the country from any cell phone.
  • Nuance VSuite is a voice command and control framework that allows for voice-based access to a phone's core features and services. Applications are designed to address the ease-of-use problem that confronts the mobile user as mobile handsets and keypads become smaller and more complex.
  • Google SMS allows users to text queries (similar to a Google search) to Google and receive instant information. Use Google SMS to retrieve sports scores, word definitions, directions, movie times, math solutions and many other pieces of information.

iPods and MP3 Players

  • iTunes and Audible.com provide audio books, magazines, and newscasts for mp3 players.

*To find how-to information on consumer electronics, consult the user manual, or look up the product online. CNET provides detailed information as well as website links for many popular products.


  1. Burgstahler, S. (2003). "The Role of Technology in Preparing Youth With Disabilities For Postsecondary Education and Employment." Journal of Special Education Technology. Vol. 18: No. 4. http://jset.unlv.edu/18.4/burgstahler/burgstahler.pdf
  2. Pisha, B. and S. Stahl (2005). The Promise of New Learning Environments for Students with Disabilities. Wakefield, MA: CAST.
  3. "Within Our Reach: Findings and Recommendations of the National Task Force on Technology and Disability," (2004). Paths to Equal Opportunity: Accessibility Directorate of Ontario. http://www.ntftd.org.
  4. Patten, B. et al. (2005). "Designing Collaborative, Constructionist and Contextual Applications for Handheld Devices." Centre for Research in IT in Education: Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
  5. Lucas, C. (2006). "Tech Savvy at Seventeen." Edutopia: The George Lucas Educational Foundation. http://www.edutopia.org/magazine/ed1article.php?id=Art_1357&issue=oct_05
  6. Bauer, A. and M. Ulrich (2002). "I've Got a Palm in My Pocket: Using Handheld Computers in an Inclusive Classroom." Teaching Exceptional Children: Council for Exceptional Children. http://journals.sped.org/EC/Archive_Articles/VOL.35NO.2NOVDEC2002_TEC_Article%202.pdf
  7. Lucas, C. (2005). " Pod People." Edutopia: The George Lucas Educational Foundation. http://www.edutopia.org/magazine/ed1article.php?id=Art_1280&issue=jun_05
  8. Lerner, M. (2009). "iPods may help Asperger's kids navigate life". Star Tribune. http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/51702302.html?page=1&c=y
Posted on BrainLine November 30, 2010.

A "Tech Works" brief from the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), 2009. Used with permission.