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Niel McLean looks at how new technology is revolutionising learning for children with SEN

Thirty years ago, I was a science teacher in a London comprehensive. The school was unusual. It had pupils from both a partial hearing unit and from a school for children and young people with physical and medical difficulties, who may have had additional learning or sensory needs, integrated into mainstream classrooms.

David was a student in my O Level physics class. His cerebral palsy prevented him from engaging directly in much of the practical work, though he was an active participant in group work, and he wrote using two footswitches connected to an early micro-computer.

One of the first pieces of software I wrote was a simple programme that allowed him to draw graphs and basic diagrams. He could now produce reports of his practical work that read well and looked professional, and he increasingly took on the role of group data recorder and analyst. He may not have lowered the thermometer into the beaker, but he read the scale, entered the date and produced the cooling curve graph that clearly showed the point when the ice was dropped into the warm water.

Of course, the examinations board were very clear that he could not use the programme in the examination itself, as if that would give him some sort of advantage over other pupils. I was to act as his scribe, with an extra hour being allowed for him to provide me with spoken instructions. Back then, I was unaware of the terms “augmentative and alternative communication” and “assistive technology”, but I remember the frustration we all felt and the feeling that there must be a better way.

Enabling technology

In the intervening years, we have seen an explosion in the use of technology to support learners with a diverse range of SEN, and an increasing recognition that hardware and software tools can level the playing field for learners. The Joint Council for Qualifications’ recent change in the regulations allows students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia to use text readers in examinations. New technologies offer a myriad of ways for educators and examiners to respond to the statutory requirement to make “reasonable adjustments”.

Technology is a powerful tool to support learning with others. Online collaborations can be particularly good for motivating children with SEN. Technology can create a safe distance between the user and the world, allowing children with emotional or behavioural difficulties to engage in group activity through online tools and social media.

Technology can create a safe distance between the user and the world.In the age of the Internet, learners can be continents apart or in close proximity, working together on an interactive whiteboard to solve a problem together. Touch screen tables, where a group sits round an interactive table-top screen, working together using touch to move onscreen objects, are a new development that offers huge potential to learners with special needs.

Technology helps those with SEN learn through exploration in a variety of ways. On the software side, it can help learners interact and experience the world in new ways. Many products exist that help learners access the written word. Words can be magnified on screen, text can be translated into speech and speech into text, and symbols can represent words and words symbols. The key common feature is that an aspect of the world that is not available to the learner, perhaps because of a sensory impairment, can be translated into an experience that is. 

Hands-on learning

Some software offers multi-sensory experiences. For example, many children with hearing difficulties experience music through touch. This can be complemented through an onscreen visualisation of a piece of music to provide a more expressive experience. Learners can also explore online environments, stories and simulations. Complex real world experiences can be modelled or broken down into simpler steps in a way that makes them more accessible. 

Technology is developing at such a pace that soon it will be possible to connect anything to the Internet. ICT specialists talk about the “Internet of things”, where your mobile phone can talk to your central heating system, or locate your lost car keys through the chip embedded in the key holder. Again, special needs education has been quick to innovate. There are objects that say what they are when they are touched, and others where a message can be recorded and activated by touch. Speaking tiles can be ordered to produce a sequence of words or sounds.

Learning by making has always been a key component of special needs education. The process of making aids understanding, and the accompanying sense of achievement increases motivation and engagement. Technology can put learners in control of their environment, as well as helping them express themselves and communicate their thoughts. Recent developments in eye controllers are bringing what was once highly specialised technology within everyday reach. The latest versions simply plug into the computer’s USB connection. Games controllers can also be modified to provide new ways for children to manipulate and control events.

The explosion in tablet PCs, where the user controls things by directly touching the screen, has transformed personal computing. The SEN world has always been at the cutting-edge in using touch technology. Even in the 1980s, touch screens were available for the BBC Micro. Now there are apps for tablet PCs that distinguish between intentional and non-intentional touch and provide feedback so that you know that you have touched the screen.

A bright future

Computer software can support and scaffold thinking. The potential is enormous, from simple software allowing events to be dragged and dropped into a time line, through to sophisticated programmes allowing learners to create onscreen mind-maps to capture their thoughts and visualise ideas as an aid to studying, problem solving, decision making and writing. The latest versions of these tools allow pictures, sounds and videos to be created and linked to the mind-maps. Once the ideas are captured, they can easily be transformed into stunning animated presentations, documents or even a complete website.

For all learners, the more that learning can be seamless, with connections between what happens in school and outside, the more effective the learning is. Experiences in school can be recorded as sound or video files to be played back or podcasted in other settings. Parents can become more involved and more supportive of their children’s learning, and children can practice what they are learning wherever they are.
These are exciting times in the development of technology, as devices become more personal, portable connected and interactive. As ever, creative teachers and developers continue to find innovative ways of harnessing the potential of these new technologies to help learners, and particularly those with SEN, experience, learn about and make their mark in the world.

Further information

Niel McLean is the Head of the Futurelab Research Centre at NFER, which is tasked with developing innovative approaches to education:
www.nfer.ac.uk

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