For learners with SEND, the benefits of assistive technology can be profound and transformational, writes Catherine Manning.

In 2018 the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) published the outputs of a project led by Fil McIntyre of Beaumont College that explored both how assistive technology can be utilised to support learners’ progression on study programmes, and the role it can play in aiding their independence as they transition out of a specialist college environment. Although the project may now be more than five years old, its outputs remain relevant today.

It was carried out across four different settings—Beaumont College, Activate, Henshaw’s and Langdon—with each examining different aspects of the utilisation or adaptation of technology for learners with complex disabilities. The variety in the nature of the projects underlines the breadth of considerations there are to think about.

At Activate, with its focus on study programmes building vocational and independent living skills for 19–24-year-olds, project activity sought to ensure that learners were gaining maximum impact from the assistive technology tools and techniques they were accessing to listen to music and undertake screen-based activities. It considered factors such as the placement of switches to make them easy to use, and the nurturing of an understanding of cause and effect and the environment in which assistive technology was deployed.

At Henshaw’s, activity concentrated on the availability of appropriate equipment, assessing both what was already available—cataloguing what was in place and identifying irreparable, outdated and unused items—and what could be added to make it more comprehensive and ensure the changing needs of current learners, and those of new students who might join the college, could be met.

■ Making sure learners gaining maximum impact from assistive technology.

At Langdon, the potential for a voice output communication aid (VOCA) to be used with Amazon Echo (Alexa) was trialled with a largely non-verbal student, developing and motivating her spontaneous use of social communication.

And at Beaumont activity focused on trialling apps and websites that had been marketed to mainstream education settings—Book Creator, Ed Puzzle and Explain Everything—to assess their potential to create personalised evidence of achievement.

Before beginning the work, participants met to discuss their current models for assessment, producing an ‘Assessment Process’ document setting out the stages for assessing learners.

  • The process begins with background information, understanding a learner’s previous use of technology and taking information from intake assessments, and looking at their educational goals at college.
  • The next stage—an initial face-to-face assessment—involves working through an IT access assessment for the devices the individual will use, observing and talking to the student about their current and previous access to tech, and ensuring that all staff working with a learner are equipped with their setup protocols.
  • Input from Occupational Therapy (OT) will depend on the kind of technology a learner uses. For users of switches, their use may be assessed; for those who use keyboards and mice, positioning, effort and the potential benefits of a wheelchair tray may be considered; and for eyegaze users, positioning and mounting will need to be looked at
  • Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) colleagues will be able to help with users of communication aids, symbols and augmentative and alternative communication.

Importantly, the process includes, where necessary, further referrals back to OT and SLT. Perhaps even more importantly, and as the introduction to the document emphasised, the process should not be seen as a single assessment. In fact, for many students, especially those with the most complex needs, the process can take months and will be revisited during their time in education. That ongoing assessment will include observations, checks on protocols, and feedback from staff.

To aid staff in performing these assessments an ‘Assessment Proforma’ document was produced. Intended as a guide, it helps to ensure that relevant elements are considered for the individual learner assessed. Although it is not exhaustive, it features both tick lists to ensure important aspects are considered, and, more importantly, large spaces which invite the recording of qualitative comments about individuals.

The project resulted in outcomes which, although impacting in the term of the project on very small numbers of learners, or even single learners, made a very real difference on the individuals concerned and provided pointers that may help others. Those impacts ranged from relocating learners into less distracting spaces to give them a better opportunity to make a connection between their interactions with technology and the effect they caused, to producing a photo guide of the placements of a learner’s tech so that all staff could replicate it easily, and the engagement of learners in creating books using the Book Creator tool.

These results testify to the power of experts close to the learners being given the time and support necessary to drive improvement through action research-type activity. They also remind us that technology is about much more than the headline-grabbing innovations we see on the news. While tech’s frontiers may have continued to expand since the project was conducted, the project’s demonstration of the power of understanding and thoughtfully applying assistive technology remains as relevant now as it was then.

Catherine Manning
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Dr Catherine Manning Deputy Director for Design and Development, Education and Training Foundation. Further details of the project, including the Assessment Process document and Assessment Proforma, are available on the SEND pages of the Education and Training Foundation website at:


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