As the first Assistive Technology Specialist at Bryn Mawr College, Ellen Farr is part of the Educational Technology Services team at LITS. Her goal is to help students access the curriculum and use available tools to gain more independence in their learning, their careers, and their lives. In this interview, Ellen tells us more about how she came to this position and her future projects.
Tell us a bit about what you did before coming to Bryn Mawr
I’ve been in higher education for over 20 years. Prior to coming to Bryn Mawr, I was an instructor of assistive technology for graduate students. These students were teachers or pre-service teachers earning their certification in teaching students with disabilities. In addition to that, I taught a graduate course on collaboration and partnerships focused on developing educators’ skills in conflict resolution, problem-solving, and communication strategies. I taught undergraduate courses as well, including children’s literature–that was something I got into because it was offered by the Special Education, Language and Literacy department, and I love children’s literature. I also taught a freshman advising seminar which is very similar to BMC’s THRIVE seminar in that it helped introduce students to college life and become familiar with the people on campus who will help them throughout their time on campus.
My other role at the College of New Jersey was running the Center on Assistive Technology and Inclusive Education Studies (CATIES). There, I coordinated assistive technology and augmentative communications evaluations for students–primarily K-12 and occasionally college students. At CATIES, we worked with students to determine the best way to promote academic independence using technology to support access to the curriculum. We worked with speech pathologists to figure out communication systems to best to give students a voice in their classes and lives. We also trained parents, students, teachers and staff, in higher education and K-12, in best practices for integrating assistive technology and augmentative communication.
What does an assistive technology specialist do?
As an assistive technology specialist, I focus on helping students gain independence using a variety of tools and strategies that promote access to the curriculum. Rather than relying on human aids, I want to help students use technology to become more independent. Over time, my work has changed a lot–it is so much easier now than it was ten years ago. Students are already very familiar with new technologies because many of them are embedded in devices they already use, for instance, their phones or iPads.
How do you see your current role at Bryn Mawr College?
I see my role right now as twofold. As it relates to students, I’m focused on how to help students who are working through their program, and how I can support them gaining access to what they need. Students learning needs are very specific–for instance, note-taking is very personal; some students need to scribe to capture the meaning, and that can’t happen if they are relying on a human notetaker. This is a need that relates to all students, not only students with disabilities. In that way, it all comes back to Universal Design: if instead of building stairs, you build a ramp, then everyone can get to the door. I am very big on using the tools we have to work smarter, not harder.
As it relates to faculty, my role is to ask them what they see their students needing assistance with, and if there is any way in which I can help. That might mean finding tools that help all students, using additional visual reminders or captions, or making sure that all the content in their courses is both ADA compliant and user-friendly.
Do you have a vision for Bryn Mawr’s assistive technology support?
I have already started working on an iPad loan program for students with disabilities, which will be piloted by the Graduate School of Social Work this semester. In the future, my vision is to set up a “demonstration room” where faculty and students can explore the types of tools that are available and have someone to guide them through how those tools are used. There’s a plethora of tools available–a room of this kind would help us explore which tools are worth our time and effort. Some of those tools would be available on an extended trial so students could assess the degree to which the tool supports their access to the curriculum.
Students, faculty and staff can set up an appointment with Ellen by visiting her Calendly page