Faculty at UMaine are Examining How AI may be used Most Effectively in Special Education
Special Education

The greatest and most moral ways to employ AI and machine learning in many sectors are becoming more and more relevant as these technologies are used in more and more fields. For instance, in K–12 education, educators, parents, and other stakeholders must make important choices regarding how to weigh the advantages of generative AI and other tools against their drawbacks, which include bias, plagiarism, and cheating.

Sarah Howorth, an associate professor of special education at the University of Maine, is attempting to answer some of these queries with her research. Howorth is collaborating with colleagues at UMaine and across the nation to determine the most effective ways to use AI to serve children with disabilities in inclusive settings, as well as the practicing and preservice teachers who educate them.

Howorth, who serves as the director of Maine Access to Inclusive Education Resources—a collaboration between the university and the Maine Department of Education that serves as an information hub for educators, families, and other professionals serving students with disabilities—and coordinator of special education graduate programs at the UMaine College of Education and Human Development, says, “Many of these tools, including AI for text/language generation and speech recognition, could have major benefits for exceptional students, their teachers, and families.” AI text to speech enables students with visual impairments or reading difficulties to access educational content more easily. It promotes inclusivity by providing alternative means of consuming text-based materials.

According to her, “some educators are already using AI creatively to design and deliver courses.”

But when it comes to using these tools in the classroom, we as a culture need to define what it means to be smart. How may they be used to bolster abilities that are specific to humans?
The largest international professional organization devoted to enhancing the educational success of children and youth with disabilities, as well as special gifts and talents, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), has awarded a $9,000 grant to Howorth’s project, “Leading the Way: AI in Special Education Teacher Education.”

Howorth, a seasoned participant and former head of the CEC’s Division on Innovations in Special Education Technology (ISET), is collaborating on the project with specialists from the organization’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) and Teacher Education Divisions (TED).

With the support of this funding, researchers from all three divisions will be able to work together to provide direction and feedback on pedagogical practices and policy concerning the swift advancement of AI in education. It will facilitate the formation of an award competition for educators on the “Creative Use of AI to Support Exceptional Students and Inclusive Educational Practices,” as well as four webinars later this year with experts on subjects pertaining to AI and its application in the classroom.

Up to three instructors that show creative use of AI to enhance evidence-based, inclusive practices for all children will win $500 awards in this competition. In addition, Howorth and her coworkers from the CEC Teacher Education Division intend to curate an artificial intelligence-focused special issue of the Journal of Special Educator Preparation.

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