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When it comes to supporting the diversity of Special Educational Needs, is educational technology up to the challenge?
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‘There’s an app for that.’
That was the, now-trademarked, Apple slogan for its 2009 ad campaign.
Its premise: if you wanted to check snow conditions on the mountain or find out exactly where you parked, there was, indeed, an app for that, and for just about anything.
But what if you want to help a class full of children with a range of different needs to access learning? Is there an app for that?
Well, perhaps, but finding digital solutions for the many and varying needs of SEND pupils takes imagination, flexibility and perseverance.
“It’s sort of trial and error,” says Ruth Smith, lead teacher for computing and new technologies at Westmorland, a SEN school in Lancashire.
“We basically use any technology that engages the children, and adapt it for lessons. So rather than just thinking of a tablet as a portable word processor, for example, we encourage our teachers to look at the different tools that you can use, and the ways in which you can use them.”
At The Cedars Primary in Hounslow, IT coordinator and teacher Mary Farmar has a similar belief.
“In our case, it’s 100% the teacher using what’s already out there,” she says. “I can’t think of many programs I use that are specifically SEND-based. It’s about the skill of the teacher using the app, more than the app itself.”
At Oak Grove College, assistant head James Winchester uses Clicker, a word processor that can be adapted for individual students depending on where they are in their learning.
“We are a generic secondary school, which means we have a full range of needs here,” he says.
“Therefore we have a very bespoke curriculum too, because some students with profound and multiple learning difficulties are only working at a Y2 or 3 level. So it’s all about tools that help them to be more independent.”
In particular, tablets and apps that act as communication tools are a great benefit to children with SEND, specifically in terms of boosting literacy, which is where Clicker comes in at Oak Grove.
“It’s really useful for helping reluctant writers and promoting independent learning,” says James. “It comes up with prompts predicting the pupil’s next word, and if you spell something phonetically it will bring up a list of words from which they can choose the correct spelling.
A classic example is if they type ‘foto’ – the suggested words pop up to indicate the spelling is wrong, then they can click ‘photo’ from the list to correct it. It also reads words or sentences out loud, which makes it easier to recognise if something sounds wrong, compared to reading it back themselves.”
The majority of the students that Mary Farmer teaches also have difficulties with literacy, so she’s found storyboarding apps that use cartoon characters have been the perfect alternative for those who struggle to start writing or typing.
“They do the storyboard then verbally tell me what’s happening while I audio record them,” she explains.
“Then I can mesh the audio with each of the frames to create something like a mini-movie, which produces a much higher quality of work than what they might otherwise have done with pen and paper. I also use stop-motion animation on apps like iMovie. It’s another way for them to be creative. When you ask children to put something down on paper, they have to consider lots of different elements: handwriting, secretarial and spelling skills and the physical holding of the pen. But with the app, they can just talk.”
There are advancements and innovations that go far beyond basic literacy and maths tools. This is where edtech has really excelled in offering all students to access learning.
“We have an immersion room where one year group is studying the Blitz,” says James.
“As they are visual learners, they’re better able to understand what’s going on and use those stimuli as an impetus for their writing. Gesture-based technology has had a massive influence in promoting engagement, especially for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties. It allows them to affect the environment by making big, physical gestures. They can just lie on the floor and make things happen.”
Oak Grove has also found success with iGaze – eye-tracking technology that children can use as a cause-and-effect tool.
“What it does is twofold,” says James.
“Its basic function is to track where you’re looking on a monitor or device, so that you can make things happen. So, for example, using an on-screen keyboard you focus on the letters and words you want and it will type them out for you. We have a student with muscular dystrophy who is using it to be able to access a computer and do everyday things like going on Facebook. Eventually he’ll be able to control his environment and do things like turning off the lights and opening doors.”
The second element is that teachers can record where students are looking, which can be difficult with non-verbal pupils.
“We have a student who I always thought had the cognitive ability to quite clearly understand what we were talking about – but as they were non-verbal I couldn’t know for sure,” says James.
“But with iGaze I could see where they were focusing and talk about that. Straight away they’re smiling because they know you understand what they’re doing. Then I can ask them to look at their favourite part of the picture, and we were able to build up communication. People say, ‘The students are making so much progress now’, but for me that’s not quite it. They’ve always had that ability. What’s nice about the technology is that we now have the tools to release their potential and see what else they can do.”
Dan Heap, from Plymouth Grove in Manchester, explains how a simple app was a life-changer for one student…
“We had a boy who was on the autistic spectrum and needed there to be very little distraction. If too much was going on he would get quite anxious. But there’s an app, that was designed by someone with autism, that helps you calm down when you’re feeling overstimulated. It looks, essentially, like those 1990s screensavers where the lines flash across the screen in different ways, but it also has activities and memory games, and they helped focus his attention. It’s about trying to find those different things for the different needs in the class.”
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