Eleanor Overland outlines ten key developments in technology that are being used to support learners with SEN and disabilities
10. Touch screens
There is nothing worse than having to use a fading projector, a board that doesn’t align, speakers that pop in and out, and interactive functions that are now a distant memory. For learners with SEN, such a setup can be highly problematic.
Interactive touch screens are the latest addition to classroom display and are a lot more robust. Many now support touch points from many fingers at the same time, allowing pupils to work collaboratively on interactive resources and software. They do not need aligning, so the touch points are far more accurate making it easier for pupils to use them to write and draw straight onto the screen.
Without the need of projectors, the clarity of the screens is much improved and the built in speakers make them ideal for showing video and other multimedia content. Most also have plug in points for headphones or additional speakers, should enhanced sound be required for hearing impaired learners. Trolley mounted screens allow use in different locations and many are also height adjustable, although the touch screen tables may be a better solution for learners with limited mobility.
9. Online classroom spaces
Many free platforms are available to share information tasks and homework with learners. For those who prefer to complete work digitally or struggle with organisation, these platforms can provide a real structure to organise lessons and resources, and submit tasks. They are also a great way to connect with parents and carers if the learners are accessing them away from the classroom.
The spaces are organised and controlled by the teachers themselves ensuring a secure space for learners to have discussions and peer assess work. There are many free platforms online and they are very simple to get started.
8. Block-based programming and plug-in devices
The move from ICT to computing can seem quite daunting for any non-specialist teacher but block-based programming is an accessible starting point for all types of learners. The bright colours, drag and drop approach, ability to zoom and interactivity with screen readers allows most learners to use such approaches. Mitch Resnick, the creator of “Scratch” has recorded an interesting TED talk on the reasons behind his invention and why it will always be free and accessible for all.
Free apps allow younger children to make use of block-based programming. Many make no use of text and so allow children, even with little or no literacy, to program animations and create games. Adding plug in devices, like the BBC Micro:Bits (provided free to all Year 7 pupils two years ago), allows children to develop tangible projects with physical results using block-based programming.
Put your Micro:Bit in a box, connect some wheels and you have an instant, programmable robot! This is just one affordable solution for bringing robots to the classrooms but there are now many kits available for learners. Being able to code something physical really brings computational thinking alive.
Robotics leads to important discussions around how robots are going to impact the future. There are many inspiring videos online of robots running whole warehouses, driving cars and even carrying out brain surgery. This may open up a whole world of freedoms or career aspirations that may otherwise be closed to some learners with SEN and disabilities.
6. Online rewards and celebrations of success
Many apps and new software features allow teachers to reward learners with praise and digital points in recognition of progress. These are easy to share with families and the wider school community, and social media is a great way to share good work and great achievements.
Digital badges are one such way to recognise achievements. Where pupils may not be completing formal qualifications, digital badges are a wonderful opportunity to recognise skills and award pupils for their achievements. For older learners, the Duke of York has launched IDEA (Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award) to recognise digital skills without the formality of examinations; IDEA badges can be added to a student’s “digital backpack” or social media pages and are a valuable addition to any CV.
5. Bring your own device (BYOD)
Changes to funding have resulted in very little money being available for education settings to spend on purchasing technology and renewing ageing computing equipment. The Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG, 2014) support the idea of a BYOD program in schools. It is more cost efficient for schools to provide equipment for the small number of pupils who do not have their own devices rather than trying to fund provision for all.
Whilst this is a challenging notion to start to introduce, it is certainly one that can have many benefits for pupils with SEN and disabilities. Where leaners need technology to support a range of subjects, require specialist software to help them in their work and benefit from specific settings to improve accessibility, it would seem obvious to formalise an arrangement where pupils can use this equipment consistently between home and school. Many schools are now developing this approach and different policies and discussions of BYOD implementation are available to explore online.
4. Adaptive computing products
Both established educational suppliers and start-ups are realising the importance of ensuring that new computing products cater for all types of learners. Products such as tactile blocks to allow visually impaired learners to code are coming new to the market alongside older but still useful products such as lowercase keyboards and pen sized text readers.
At the same time, mainstream software and products are now including a greater number of tools to increase the accessibility of their products. For example, the latest word processing software all includes some level of voice recognition dictation tools and screen readers. The accuracy is quite impressive so it is worth exploring the functionality with any mainstream products first and then investing in adaptive products only when necessary.
3. Computing unplugged!
Away from restraints of computers, how do you engage learners and encourage computational thinking? Computing At School (CAS) is the subject association for computing and it is free for anyone to join. They have a wonderful series of resources and CPD to get you started with unplugged activities (“Barefoot” for primary pupils and “Tenderfoot” for secondary age) and have developed a specific pack for pupils with SEN and disabilities.
CAS #include are the branch of the organisation dedicated to inclusive computing education. They have a range of toolkits, resources, videos and role model posters to celebrate computing being accessible for everyone. Some regions also have specific CAS hub meetings for those working with learners with SEN and disabilities.
2. Virtual reality
Take your learners for a walk on the moon or swimming with sharks! All of this is now possible with virtual reality (VR) headsets and phone apps. Simple trips to museums can be done through VR with teachers even able to act as a guide pointing out particular features. Platforms are now freely available for learners to create their own VR environments, for example adding their own artwork to a gallery.
VR headsets can be purchased very cheaply, particularly if you are just wanting to view VR content rather than interact using controllers. Whilst cardboard VR glasses are inexpensive, they are not the most comfortable and plastic ones with padding around the eyes are now almost as cheap. Some are also adjustable to accommodate the wearer’s own glasses and most will take any size of phone.
Some of the largest companies investing in VR are developing the most incredible VR solutions to help the visually impaired, digitally enhancing images and recreating aspects that may actually be in the user’s “blind spot”. There is hope that this technology will soon be built into everyday glasses to continually enhance the experience of visual impaired people.
1. Voice recognition
My daughter received a voice activated digital assistant for Christmas. “Play my music!” “Set my alarm for 7.30.” “What is the weather going to be like today?” “What is 386 divided by 4?” “Tell me a joke!” The power and access to information she has without even leaving her seat is amazing and it has improved her pronunciation immeasurably (don’t worry, we do have a pin number so the house is not full of shopping only an eight-year-old would desire). So I started using one in the classroom.
It is fabulous for timers, selecting random numbers, adding names to lists, calculations, spelling, translations and playing audiobooks. For those who struggle spelling keywords in a search engine it can make finding information online much easier. As the assistants continually have updates they gather even more functionality and accuracy so limitations become fewer and the students always think of far more uses for it than I ever could.
Eleanor Overland is a senior lecturer in Computing Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is subject coordinator for the PGCE in Computing and the undergraduate BSc in Computing with Education. She also is the hub leader for the Computing At School Manchester hub and runs CPD sessions for local multi-academy trusts: