Does technology promote inclusion for students with SEN?
Today’s classroom is dramatically different from one of a decade ago, with interactive and assistive technologies now commonplace in learning environments.
From the early days of bulky workstations connected to a large projector via a tangle of cables, to pocket-sized PCs that power interactive whiteboards thinner than a pad of writing paper, technology has certainly been transformed in the last ten years.
Schools now employ bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies and have access to synchronised apps that work across each learner’s individual phone or tablet. The plethora of e-learning apps has given rise to dedicated teacher/student interaction systems, adaptive learning tools that challenge pupils, and concepts like augmented reality that are only just emerging.
But do these new technologies promote inclusion for students with SEN and support their learning and development? Or are they another opportunity for distraction?
The basics of e-learning and assistive technology
Just having basic technology in the classroom can encourage engagement and foster inclusion for pupils from a variety of SEN backgrounds.
As Denise Ainsworth, Second in Technology and member of the Digital Leader Team at LSA Technology and Performing Arts College, explains, offering a laptop to students who struggle with focusing in class can be more conducive to learning than any other tactic.
“There are always children in the class with some kind of special educational need; often letting them work on the computer to produce written work is more successful than asking them to use a pen and paper. It seems to help with disruptive behaviour and they become more focused.”
Using computers helps students with legibility difficulties, by taking away any stigma associated with poor handwriting and bad spelling. Word prediction tools support those who may have difficulty stringing sentences together, helping them understand when word structure doesn’t sound right and ultimately aiding their speech development as well.
The variety of applications and programmes available promotes further independence and prevents disruptive behaviour, with many targeted towards supporting those pupils with specific special educational needs. Examples of assistive technology include voice recognition apps that support those who may have limited mobility with their hands, speaking tools that read out content for those who have problems with their sight, and screens that allow text, images or video to be magnified.
Even well-established presentation software provides additional visual learning and support, helping to create an immersive environment for all students. Slides could feature animation, emphasis or “bouncing balls” to guide the attention of easily distracted pupils and help them focus on the important parts that need to be remembered.
Teachers could even wear small, simple microphones whilst discussing presentations; making no difference to other students, the sounds could be amplified into the ears of a pupil with hearing aids who has trouble hearing explanations and instructions.
Acceptance of technology
Jonathan Bishop, founder of the Centre for Research into Online Communities and E-Learning Systems, has conducted research into alternative computer interfaces, like touchscreen technology, and emphasises how they can “improve learner engagement and realise learning outcomes.”
From his experience, technology is helping with social inclusion more than ever because the majority of people now use smartphones and tablets in all kinds of circumstances, whether that’s in the playground, on the bus, at the dining table or in the classroom.
“As most people often disengage from a social situation by using their smartphone or tablet, a person with an SEN will be able to use their smart devices without looking out of place,” says Bishop.
These days, it is no longer rude, and doesn’t draw attention, if a student with SEN uses their assistive technology in front of others, and it is generally much more accepted without question.
In Ainsworth’s school, large touchscreens are now used extensively in every department, but more so with some specific subjects than others. This is largely due to the lack of confidence and expertise in teaching staff, rather than the technology not being suitable for particular pupils or certain subjects.
This widespread acceptance also has an impact in the home too, as parents understand and help with the technology. Students with SEN also have support for learning outside of school, with interactive programmes and video conferencing for those who cannot attend classes for one reason or another.
In the classroom, interactive whiteboards and touchscreen technologies are great tools for encouraging engagement, aiding motivation and promoting inclusion. This can work in a number of ways. For example, in encouraging every pupil to fully engage with the lesson, teachers could use gamification tactics and applications to promote learning through games, competition and achievements.
Students are motivated because they want to use and experience the technology. Rather than looking at a text book, they can stand in front a huge touchscreen and interact directly with the information, which prevents them from becoming distracted.
Even if a pupil doesn’t know the solution themselves, they can simply be the one who answers on the touchscreen, whilst the class in front guides the individual to the correct choice and helps them to feel like part of a team.
In particular, using large touchscreens in front of the whole class and working electronically in lessons like maths and technology helps to ensure “inclusion rates are at their optimum”, says Ainsworth.
“Students will often work better when they can see their peers solving problems on the touchscreen rather than the teacher, and the more capable students are often used as coaches in this respect, as those who struggle find it easier to work with them. Many students who would not always offer answers or solutions within a traditional classroom environment are more willing to use the touchscreen, creating a climate of inclusion.”
This approach ensures that no matter what the level of student ability and whether they have SEN or not, using large touchscreens allows the entire class to relate to the lesson. Each child has the ability to engage with the subject, in one way or another, and no-one is left out.
Both communication and social interaction skills are generally impaired by autism, for example, and immersive technology helps students communicate in different ways whilst enhancing their learning experience through the stimulation of senses.
Smartboards equipped with the internet can help explain and visualise problems for students with SEN, whilst touchscreen and trackpad technologies are ideal for refining fine motor skills. Even those with mobility issues can utilise interactive whiteboards with the support of assistive applications. There are now apps available that allow pupils to control a computer mouse or cursor with their eye movements, and can even be used to initiate keystrokes and clicks via facial movements.
Tactile learning has long aided students with SEN and, as Jonathan Bishop explains, interactive touchscreens can provide haptic feedback to pupils with vibration, force and motion responses to a user’s touch.
Similarly, motion detection in smart devices could support a variety of learning techniques as new applications are developed.
Just having large touchscreens in the classroom is prompting teachers to find new ways of teaching, as those pupils who are normally shy and withdrawn find more encouragement using this form of interaction, as Denise Ainsworth explains:
“During a life or citizenship lesson, for example, students are often asked for their opinions. Twenty-five students shouting out is not the best way to handle the situation, but this technology offers a better and clearer presentation format which allows all students to have a voice and add their perspectives to a group discussion in a constructive manner”.
Not only does this prevent disruptive behaviour in the classroom, it also builds an inclusive classroom ethos and encourages a fair contribution from each and every student.
Problems and limitations
Despite all the benefits of technology in the classroom, there are still limitations.
Different types of accessibility adaptations are required for students with different special educational needs. As Ainsworth explains, the same technology can be ideal for some students, but too complicated for others:
“I’ve seen dyslexic students really excel using the symbols or just having an intuitive flair for the workings of CAD (computer aided design) packages, but if their reading age is very low and their comprehension skills are weak, they can struggle with the complexity as they find it hard to read and understand the instructions to carry out the software tasks.”
Knowledge or understanding of the capability of computers and the different uses is often the main problem, according to Bishop, who is also a school governor. In his opinion, technology is often “oversold and underused”, because many classrooms do not have the training or expertise to use it effectively, something which needs to change.
This could be a particularly challenging problem for students with SEN, who often crave continuity in their lessons; they may find themselves moving from a subject where interactive technology is fully embraced to one where they’re not permitted to use any assistive technology due to a lack of understanding by the teacher.
Solutions to this will not come easy, even if the use of ICT equipment was made compulsory in every classroom. Costs remain prohibitive, especially where assistive technology specifically for students with SEN could put strains on budgets for the rest of the pupil population. And many of those schools that have held bring-your-own-device sessions have struggled with maintaining teaching permissions and preventing phones from becoming too intrusive. Strict rules are certainly vital.
However, technology certainly has its place in supporting pupils in the classroom. For those schools that cannot afford to provide devices for every pupil, large classroom touchscreens can be a viable alternative to facilitate group work rather than individual computer activities. In whatever forms it takes in the future, interactive and assistive technology will continue to play a vital role in education, especially for students with special educational needs.
Paul Mullen is Head of Sales and Marketing at Tiny Green PC, specialist providers of interactive technology for the classroom: