May 2021 archive

Technology is only part of the story when assessing ICT needs

At one level, determining the technology necessary to improve curriculum access and communication for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) might seem fairly straightforward. Once you have an appreciation of what the learner finds challenging you simply find the technology that can help them meet that challenge.

For instance, if a learner is dyslexic they might benefit from a screen reader to help them decode, maybe a predictor to help with spelling, and possibly a dictation app so they don’t have to use a keyboard. However, each of these comes with a range of variables.

First of all there is the device – or even devices – the learner will be using. This might be determined by what is available in school, or perhaps provided from home, or even purchased by a charity, so might fall short of what would be ideal. Otherwise factors that come into consideration might include whether it needs to be carried around all day (wherein size becomes a factor), or if it needs a particular quality of screen or sound system due to sensory needs. It might also be that more than one machine is needed, perhaps an iPad as a communication aid, a laptop to connect to the school network for academic work, and a mobile phone to help with organisation.

And the device will have an operating system, Windows, Apple or Android. Each of which offer different built in options for improving accessibility. Then there are considerations of whether an app or program needs to be installed, or if it can be web-based and run online. Some schools like to tightly manage internet access, so resources that rely on the internet might not be viable. Whereas the most appropriate software might not be available for the operating system involved. Or even that it is not sufficiently up to date to run it. There are also times when a school will have an earlier version of a programme, or something similar that they have already invested in, so they may be reluctant to invest in anything new.

The age and capabilities of the learner is crucial. There are several resources that will support dyslexic learners, including those built in to operating systems, browser and apps, such as the dictate function in MSWord, or Voice Typing in Google Docs. However, some of these have layers of sophistication that are great for students taking qualifications, but unnecessary for primary pupils.

It is always valuable to get an understanding of how well the learner can navigate a keyboard, or operate a touch screen, and whether they have skills learnt from home use of devices that aren’t evident in school. Parents are similarly important for appreciating wider uses of technology, such as keeping in touch with family and friends, pursuing hobbies, or following particular interests. In school the learner might only exhibit a limited skill set and understanding compared to what they actually know.

Curriculum content, and individual learning objectives for pupils, also make a difference, guiding decisions around aspects like the degree of content that is available, such as differentiated resources, or subject specific vocabulary support. What is it that is going to be taught, and learnt, and what technology will best support this?

It is not only the child or young person’s capabilities with technology that need to be considered. For it to be effective there needs to be a number of elements of support including maintaining it, creating and loading materials, updating it, and operating it. Any technology is only effective if people know how to use it, and learners will often need to rely on the adults around them – both at school and at home – to help them make good use of it.

Even when we have a good grasp of what a child or young person’s learning needs are, and a wide knowledge of all the technological options, the factors we need to consider when making provision for them are much broader. We also need to remember that all of these aspects will change over time, so assessment is seldom a one-time event.

The last factor we should consider is cost. When it comes to a enabling a child or young person to learn there should not be a price tag attached.











Communication aids – technology is only the start

When a child or young person has difficulty with speaking technology can step in and quickly provide a means of communication. There are simple, dedicated, devices, like Big Macs and GoTalks , which are designed solely for the purpose of providing a voice, or there are apps to install on iPads and PCs. The first of these take short, recorded messages that are replayed when a button is pushed. The latter are more sophisticated and can be developed to do much more than provide speech, including controlling aspects of the environment, such as lighting and heating, or to operate the device, opening and closing apps, running searches and sending messages.

So there can be many factors involved in determining just what provision to make. Whilst these will include other functions we might want it to perform, there is also the language level of the user, and their capability, not just with words.

For instance, does the learner understand cause and effect, that their action, whether pressing a button or resting their eyes on part of the screen (if they are using eye gaze hardware) has made something happen?

Perhaps more fundamentally than that, do they have a cause to communicate, a reason to push the button and broadcast a message in the first place? For those with more challenging and complex needs they may be in a situation of having the people who care for them speaking on their behalf, making choices and guiding their lives. This is most probably for practical reasons, rather than a desire to take control. However, this can lead to a situation where the learner has learnt that other people do this so they don’t have the imperative to do it for themselves – sometimes referred to as ‘learnt helplessness.’

It might be that it is the learner themselves who is driving the shift to AAC by showing frustration that they can’t communicate effectively, perhaps they are becoming stressed, or acting up, because they are unable to let you know what they want.

Do they have the means to operate a device, whether by touching the screen, typing on the keyboard, operating a switch or a button of some sort, or using eyegaze? There is always some way that can be found to get control, perhaps through sipping and blowing through a mouthpiece, or even through electrodes attached to the skin that pick up electrical signals from the nervous system when an action is thought about, not just when it is actually carried out. Once this operation is found, the user has to be able to understand it and regulate it. Sometimes it may prove not be durable or inconsistent. An eyegaze user, for instance, may get very tired quite quickly due to the degree of concentration involved, or a part of the body may have involuntary tics. So there need be supporters around who understand this and who can make adjustments.

Can they take turns? Do they understand the process of communication whereby it is an interaction, not simply a request or a response? Is their communication a dialogue?

Often AAC is a next step, so has the learner already used communication methods such as signing, or a communication book, providing a base on which to build? If they have this often means they have an understanding of symbols, and of categorisation, both of which can be integral to its use. The first because they may not be fluent with text, the second in order to find the words and phrases they want to use, whether that is ‘food,’ or associated with ‘home,’ or perhaps ‘colours.’

They will also need to be able to navigate the system, moving between screens, using swipes and taps, and understanding where a ‘back button’ or ‘home icon’ might take them.

Crucially there is also the need for a support network around the child or young person. Central to this should be a speech and language therapist, just as when a child is learning to use their voice, because that is what this technology is, and to develop their skills they need expert support.

Others in the network will include school staff, not only teachers, teaching assistants, and technicians, but also lunchtime supervisors to help encourage its use. As it is the learner’s voice the device will need to be with them at all times – home, school, and out and about. Whilst this might not happen immediately, that should be the plan, so everyone will need to know how to maintain it, and update it. There might be grids of words specific to home, or certain situations such as a weekend football, so these may need to be developed as the users’ needs change.

It is also going to be important to plan reviews of its use, as  the learners needs might change and the provision has to continue to meet them.

Determining the resources a learner needs can often be fairly straightforward, it is making sure they are used effectively, and that they remain up to date, that can be the challenge.






Multimedia Authoring, with Shakespeare…

Year 5  were studying Romeo and Juliet.  There was a small group of children in the class who were really struggling to get  their ideas, responses and their words onto paper alongside the rest of the class. The class teacher thought we might make podcasts with this group eg: interviews with characters, “What is the most tragic thing about this story?”  or video diary entries from the Montagues and Capulet families; but in the end we thought it would work better with multimedia authoring using either Book Creator or Glogster.We decided to use Book Creator.

Book Creator is an app on Windows and iPads which allows the user to include sound files, videos, images, drawings and text  as well as shapes and speech bubbles in their work and is excellent for using across the curriculum. It is  also great for science reports, research journals and comic adventures.

The children enacted and filmed the scenes, and then we interviewed the characters themselves, and interviewed onlookers who “witnessed” the fight between Benvolio and Mercutio. We gave our opinions about why this was almost inevitable, how this could have been avoided, and what the repercussions of the family feud might be.

We edited sound files (voice recordings of the interviews) using Audacity to create news reports of the events in Verona.

Our completed book included the “mobile ‘phone camera footage” of the deadly sword fight, the empassioned appeals for calm from innocent bystanders, interviews with people who knew both families and an official announcment from the Duke of Verona.

If you are doing something like this, also have a look at Glogster which is a cloud-based platform (app and website) for creating presentations and interactive learning. Glogster also allows users to combine text, images, video, and audio to create an interactive, Web-based poster called glogs on a virtual canvas.