An Assistive Technology Talk with Mark Coppin


I’m happy to be back writing for the Clyde Fitch Report! Since my professional focus shifted in 2013 from arts education administration to arts education and technology – or ArtsEdTech – I’ve decided to redirect the focus of Jessica Says to everything that is arts, education and technology. The column will feature monthly conversations I’ll have with folks doing groundbreaking work within the scope of ArtsEdTech.

ArtsEdTech Talks at Apple Soho in NYC
Talking ArtsEdTech in NYC (Photo: Phil O’Brien)

This month I had the incredible privilege to speak with Mark Coppin, Director of Assistive Technology for the Anne Carlsen Center in North Dakota. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator, and a recent “Champions of Change” awardee by President Obama and the White House.

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Coppin and I sat down at Apple SoHo in New York City on Jan. 16 for a conversation about his work with special needs populations and technology.

Here are a few excerpts of our talk.

J: Tell us a little bit about your background, your work with special needs populations and discovering technology.

M: I’ve been in education and special education for 27 years. I started out as a classroom teacher and started to implement technology with the students I was working with. I found that the kids really loved using technology.

Jessica Wilt and Mark Coppin at Apple SoHo NYC (Photo Credit: Mike Bawa)
Wilt and Coppin (Photo: Mike Bawa)

A funny thing happened about 25 years ago in education. If you knew anything about technology whatsoever, like how to plug in a computer or turn on a monitor you could become the director of IT! So they asked me if I wanted to be director of IT and started looking at what was available with assistive technology. As the years went on, I saw assistive technology really leveling the playing field for kids that I work with.

J: When you reference assistive technology, what exactly is that?

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M: When I talk about assistive technology, it’s providing a tool for a student or an adult that allows them to do something that they were not able to do before. So it might be as simple as putting a gripper on a pencil because they couldn’t hold a pencil in the classroom all the way up to a communication device that runs $25,000. It has a really broad range, but it’s finding those tools that will really make a difference for the student to allow them to access something that they weren’t able to access before.

J: I’m imagining the possibilities with technology are endless today?

M: And that’s the key term: possibilities. Because that’s what it allows us to be able to provide. I always say “us to provide.” It really isn’t “us.” It’s putting the tool in the hands of the kids and letting them do the things they want to do. It’s just finding out the right tool that opens up the world for them.

Coppin working with special needs kids using assistive technology (Photo: Anne Carlsen Center)

J: Because of ArtsEdTechNYC, I’m approached more often by people who are working with special needs populations and who are struggling to find technology that is appropriate, because with special needs, there are many ways in which our kids can learn, communicate and create. Why don’t we talk about some of the things that you’re working on with technology?

M: It doesn’t matter for me, when I start working with a student, what their disability is. It really is their ability. I always look at their ability first and finding what tools will allow us to be able to maximize their ability.

The [Anne Carlsen] Center where I work in North Dakota is a private non-profit and we work with kids across a broad range. I work with students on the autism spectrum all the way to kids that are severe medically fragile. They’re just one step out of the hospital. They can’t go home, they can’t go to their school district. But we can provide them with tools that will allow them to be able to access that curriculum, or make them feel safe.

Tablets offer access and possibility (Photo: Anne Carlsen Center)

I get to work with a wide range of just some pretty amazing kids. It would be very easy for them to let someone do something for them, but they want to do everything independently. It’s finding those tools that will allow them to be as independent as possible.

And that’s why I think it’s so exciting right now to be in education, in special education and assistive technology because these tools that allow kids to do those things are being built right into the operating systems. They’re being built right into our Mac laptops, our desktops, into the iPads and iPod Touches. So if you can’t access an iPad because of some physical motor difficulty, now I can because those supports are built right into the operating system.

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iOS7 that just came out has switch control. So if I can only use switches that I have mounted on either side of my head, I have access to the whole operating system to be able to do those things that kids have always wanted to do, like play Angry Birds. Right? Who’d of thought with one switch on the side of a head a student could play Angry Birds, or draw, or edit videos. It really is amazing.

J: What was the critical change point; was it the iPhone, the iPod? What was it that really pushed things forward so quickly?

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M: Probably the iPod Touch when it came out, especially with students that I work with on the autism spectrum all of a sudden we had a device that made sense for them. They could interact with it. It was visual. When they touched something on the screen they had control of it and started using it for communication or giving them access to things that they wanted to do, including the arts – the ability to express themselves. And of course, when the iPad came out it gave us so many more opportunities to use with so many kids.

Assistive technology and photography (Photo: Anne Carlsen Center)

Coppin continued to talk about his summer ACC Techno Camp (that has now gone international — to Turkey) and all the possibilities, especially in the arts (video and music editing/composition, visual art, photography), the role today’s technology can now provide kids with special needs furthering self-expression. The most inspiring and thought-provoking image of the night was Coppin’s photo while swimming at camp.

M: I was out in the lake taking pictures of the kids that were swimming. So they were out of their wheelchairs swimming in the lake, and I said, this really speaks to me of what we do and what assistive technology can do. It can free kids up from those things that are holding them back. Technology has the power to free kids up and give them the power to do what they want to do. They can be photographers, videographers, reporters. It was a moment that just gave me chills.

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Listening to Coppin speak about assistive technology with such passion and enthusiasm reminds us how technology is changing the lives of kids with special needs like Sady (captured in this amazing video) truly warmed my heart. Coppin’s an education gem and I feel so thankful to have had the opportunity to learn more about his work.

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