Mark McCusker looks at how developments in assistive technology are changing the nature of education
The term assistive technology can cover a lot of different technologies, including both hardware and software. Hardware tends to refer to the actual equipment, such as adjustable monitors and large font keyboards, and software is the programs that run on computers, tablets and other mobile devices that allow them to perform specific tasks.
Broadly speaking, there are five categories of SEN that can benefit from the use of assistive technology:
Speaking and writing difficulties
Augmentative and alternate communication (AAC) is a communication method used to supplement speech or writing for users with impairments in these areas. Applications that use pictorial representation that can be downloaded to tablets are hugely popular in this area.
Today’s mobile technology for mainstream consumers increasingly incorporates many great functions for low vision users including text-to-speech and magnification.
There is a range of assistive technologies available for these users, from hardware, such as hearing aids, to signing software. Users can also make calls on video phones and communicate by signing. Some of these technologies are not perfect yet, but increasing processor power and bandwidth speeds are combining to create better and better products.
Those with profound physical and/or learning disabilities can benefit from a range of assistive technology. Often, a combination of different types of technology is used to enable users to communicate and learn. Some of these devices include alternative keyboards that present letters in a different order (ABC instead of QWERTY) with larger fonts and different colours, voice recognition software and screen readers. Students with limited mobility can use switches activated through body movement to operate computers or to access the web. Some educational settings are also using gesture based technology, such as eye-gaze or depth-sensing cameras, very effectively.
Specific learning difficulties
This is one of the biggest areas of assistive technology and many software and hardware options are available to support those with specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia), including text-to-speech programs, word prediction and screen masking.
Latest developments in technology
We need to remember that users with SEN are consumers, just like everybody else. And, like most consumers, they want to use the latest gadgets that their friends are using and not have something that could be seen as old or outdated. This is one of the factors that has driven the “bring your own device” (BYOD) revolution in schools.
It has been almost three years since schools in North America started to embrace BYOD in the classroom. It is now quite common for many students to have better technology at home, such as phones and tablets, compared with what is available in the classroom. Although most schools upgrade their ICT every few years, the pace at which consumer technology develops is considerably faster and it makes sense for students to access school materials on their own devices. Recession-induced budgetary pressures have also contributed to the expansion of BYOD in schools. What has resulted has, in many cases, been very empowering for students, as it has encouraged and abled them to learn outside the classroom more than ever before.
BYOD is a growing trend and it’s here to stay. However, it is important for schools to create and publicise an acceptable use policy, so that students understand the boundaries and how they should use their devices to help them make the most of their learning.
The Cloud is another trend that has been widely embraced by the education sector. Applications, software and storage can now be hosted in the Cloud (remotely) rather than on school servers, making it easier and faster than ever before to update and access applications anytime, anywhere and from any device.
There are several cloud-based applications that are ideal for the education sector and many of the world’s biggest corporations have been keen to enter this market and create powerful, yet user-friendly, platforms for schools. So far, the adoption of cloud-based technology in education has been much faster across North America than in the UK. However, many commentators are predicting that, eventually, everything will be cloud-based and that there will no longer be a need to hold applications or data on school servers.
Students who experience difficulties with learning can really benefit from BYOD and cloud-based application because they can access assistive technology on their own devices whenever and wherever they need to.
The Cloud is also enabling teachers to collaborate with their counterparts across the globe, to share ideas and work together in real time. Teachers can also use it to help monitor student progress.
Bridging the divide between SEN and mainstream technologies
Over the past five years, the technology development curve has been very steep and this has had a very positive impact on the assistive technology. The tablet is a great example of this because, although it was designed as a mainstream consumer tool, it can support a range of software for assistive technologies for AAC, low vision, hearing impairment, learning difficulties and profound disabilities.
Other developments have crossed over the other way. Voice recognition technology was originally developed as a tool to help those who struggle using keyboards, but has found its way into the mainstream consumer market on smartphones and tablets. Tablets can now be used to seek answers to spoken questions by running searches on the internet and interacting with other apps. Voice recognition software can also help users with SEN to run applications using spoken instructions.
Assistive technology developers and suppliers need to adapt to market changes and consumer expectations to provide technology that can be used on any or most devices. Essentially, good Assistive Technology is designed to enable users, so it is important that it works well with other applications. When it does, it helps students with disabilities and SEN to learn in the same environment as their mainstream peers.
While the adoption of BYOD and the Cloud is welcome, for these technologies to be effective, schools needs to ensure that they put in place an appropriate technology infrastructure, particularly with regard to security, hardware and bandwidth.
As we move forward, assistive technology developers will need to support multiple devices with a range of different operating systems and meet users’ ever changing expectations and demands. The assistive technology field seems set for rapid growth and the wider adoption of this technology in the mainstream could help to bring us closer to the truly inclusive classroom.