Apr 9, 2011
nookMuch has been made of the value of the iPad as an education device. Some believe it to be the salvation of education, while others are taking a more balanced perspective. While I have already made my opinion well known, I do believe that tablet devices in general hold particular promise for special needs students. Expensive, highly specialized, single purpose devices have long been in use in this space, in an effort to overcome issues with fine motor skills and other cognitive challenges for which traditional computing interfaces are simply ineffective. When compared to those devices, I believe the low cost and high flexibility of a tablet device brings with it the potential to bring significant benefits to special needs students.

Until recently, the only choice for such an application has been the iPad. While the iPad is an excellent tool, it is still big, expensive, and brings with it a raft of associated costs, restrictions, and management headaches that can be challenging for an already over-burdened special education teacher. Size and costs lead to fewer devices being deployed and less than continuous access for students.

But the iPad is no longer the only game in town. A number of Android devices are on the horizon, many of which bring with them greater portability and lower costs than their larger cousins. Here at Saugus, we decided to give one such option a try - Barnes & Noble's Nook Color.

The Nook Color is, for all intents and purposes, an Android tablet disguised as an e-reader. Its 7 inch screen size makes it significantly smaller, lighter, and generally more portable than larger tablets, which, coupled with its lack of edge-to-edge glass, makes it less prone to breakage in the event of an accidental drop. In addition, it has a fast processor, plenty of memory, and expandable storage through a built-in, microSD slot. On the software side you'll find an easy to use, multi-touch interface with a web browser, a powerful e-reader with access to Barnes & Noble's huge library, and (with a little massaging) access to over 200,000 apps in the Android Market. And it costs less than half the cost of the least expensive iPad. (For further details on Nook Color vs. iPad, see Could the Nook Color be the Tablet Surprise of 2011?)

We recently added 6 units to our moderate-to-severe autism program. Six teachers in the program were already making use of two shared iPads, so they were familiar with the capabilities of tablets and their application in the special needs classroom. This naturally gave us a great foundation for working with the Nooks and figuring out which applications were necessary to meet their needs. At present, the following applications are in active use:
  • Kid Shape Puzzle HD - Puzzle/game where kids slide puzzle pieces into place to reveal one of 90 different shapes. Works on cognitive and fine-motor skills.
  • Monkey Preschool Lunchbox - 6 games that teach kids ages about colors, letters, counting, shapes, differences, and matching
  • Play with Sammy - Playing with Sammy the penguin, kids guess colors of common objects, identify animal sounds, and recognize shapes of objects.
  • Smart Turtle - Smart Turtle develops motor skills & hand eye coordination as well fundamentally develops mental aptitude.
  • Sign Language Dictionary - Teaches the 300 ASL signs needed for clear communication.
  • AAC Speech Buddy - Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) application featuring an image repository you have access to over 2000+ images from the Mulberry Symbols collection by Paxtoncrafts Charitable Trust and sharable (online) speech sets.
  • First Words ABC: Fill the Gap - Excellent elementary spelling program that goes beyond taking away a letter at a time from the words.
  • Preschool Basics - A colorful set of flash cards with sound for the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, and vocabulary.
  • Bird Book - Bird illustrations, sounds and bird name pronunciation, with a quiz to recognize the birds from their sounds
  • Xylophone - Music app
  • Kids Piano Lite - Eight tone piano/xylophone/games that help kids develop latent art cell by playing music
  • Learn Letters - Classical matching cards memory game, training memory and learning letters simultaneously.
  • Bubbles - Blow bubbles by dragging your finger and then tap to pop.
  • Learn Cards (Animals) - Explore the world of animals, learn their names and memorize the sounds they make. Includes learning mode, animal recognition test and a fun animal puzzle.
  • Alexicom AAC - Augmentative communication system
  • Days/Months - Calendar flash cards combine audio and visual cues to teach children the calendar.
  • Numbers 50 - Teaches numbers and pre-math skills
  • Shapes - Teaches shapes and colors. Customizable with edit mode enables users to create their own cards and add their own voice
  • Sight Words - Teaches sight words with editable decks, favorites, audio, random letters, multiple colors.
  • TapToTalk - Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tool. Tap a picture - TapToTalk speaks.
  • Kids Connect the Dots - Teaches kids to recognize and pronounce numbers and letters of the alphabet in a kid-friendly way
Installing these apps is actually quite simple. Teachers use the Android Market web site to select the apps they want to try, and they automagically download and install on all six devices with one click. No plugging in, syncing, gifting, etc., etc. as is required on iPads. In fact, the Nooks NEVER have to be plugged in to a computer - they work as completely independent devices.

So far, the results have been quite positive. Comments from the teachers often include the words, "that's it?" in reference to how easy the device is to manage. Other comments have included:

"We are simply ecstatic over the NOOKS! After just a few minutes with it I can see many possibilities!"
"Everyone can do it, even the 3 year olds in the program are making use of them."
"The kids are not interested in doing the traditional wooden puzzles and card matching, but the activities on these devices they would do for hours if we let them."
"The kids are amazing problem solvers with these."
"The Nooks bring all the traits/responses we often talk about in special ed: attention, motivation, reward, etc."
Needless to say, after a month with the Nooks we are quite pleased with them. We are impressed with the pace at which they have been adopted and the amount of use they are getting. And there's nothing quite like seeing an autistic student with one of them in their hands.


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  1. I can't wait to get Ipads - hopefully this year. Thank you for sharing your experience and apps. As there was no place to share my url below, here it is for a blog I am just starting if anyone is interested. www.myspecialneedsclassroom.com

  2. What have you done about security....did you lock them down so that students cannot get into the internet ? Just books only

  3. I have 25 Color Nooks arriving in 3 weeks. What apps do you suggest? I am working with 5th grade students who read 2 or 3 years below grade level.

  4. Great Article! I am testing 2 nooks for our school. It seems that we must put a credit card in to even get free apps. How to you ensure other teachers and the kids arent buying any books or apps? Help!

  5. christine you can required a password every time that you purchase.

  6. Amazing review!I msloty read on my bed at night and I just realized you can't read on Kindle with no light! I always wanted Kindle because I knew the weight difference between Kindle and Nook Color. For me it makes a huge difference knowing you'd want to rest your Nook on something after feeling its weight. I like the fact that Nook is touchscreen but I don't dislike Kindle's keyboard. Oh and ofcourse Eyestrain is an issue! Reading on an EInk display is pleasing to my eyes!What should I get?

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