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How classroom tech can support special needs

The number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is growing, with 1.3 million across schools in England not getting the support they need.

Those were the findings of a parliamentary report earlier this year, which claimed that these students, who represent nearly 15% of all pupils, were being failed by a system “riddled with unexplained inequalities”.

Committee Chair Meg Hillier MP said: “These children, already facing extra hurdles and challenges in this life, must not find themselves discriminated against several times over.” She pointed to the issues around identifying pupils with SEND and provision by schools.

Although it’s a varied picture around the country, the good news is that technology is finding its way into every classroom and has the power to change lives for the better.

Here, we look at what technology can offer and the reasons it’s not always fulfilling its potential.

The problems facing SEND pupils

Only 20% of pupils with special needs currently qualify for an education, health and care plan (EHCP), the status that legally ensures a certain level of support. That leaves nearly one million pupils with a range of needs – mostly in mainstream state primary and secondary schools – and no formal arrangement for their support.

The crisis in funding and lack of provision had been identified before the coronavirus outbreak, following years of cuts, but a promised government review has yet to be published.

How teachers are coping

In the meantime, teachers are increasingly finding ways to support their pupils’ learning with technology which has transformed the classroom for all pupils.

The National Curriculum’s statement on inclusion requires lessons to be “planned to ensure there are no barriers to every pupil achieving.” And technology is a key way for teachers to level the playing field for those who face challenges in their learning.

Assistive technology – any device, piece of equipment or system that helps compensate for a pupil’s specific learning difficulty – enables pupils with SEND to fully participate in lessons alongside their peers. In many cases, this means they can study the full curriculum, where previously this would have been impossible.

A changing world

Gone are the days of bulky projectors and tangled cables; today’s classroom offers pocket-sized PCs and paper-thin interactive whiteboards in addition to synchronised apps that work across pupils’ mobile phones or tablets.

From eye gaze systems – where the user’s eye becomes the cursor – voice recognition and augmented reality to touch screens and word prediction tools, there is a wealth of technological answers to the many challenges faced by pupils with special needs and disabilities.

Even the most basic technology in the classroom can encourage engagement and foster inclusion among pupils with a range of needs. Keyboards help pupils with writing and remove the stigma associated with poor handwriting and weak spelling. Predictive text supports those who struggle to string sentences together. Screens with bright graphics, movement and sound motivate and engage pupils’ interest, while the ability to magnify text or images helps those who have visual impairments.

“The iPad was a game changer,” claims John Galloway, consultant in technology and special educational needs in London’s east end. “Not so long ago, technology for special needs was very niche and very expensive. But now we all have a touchscreen that we carry around with us.”

From everyday use to the classroom

He points to the technology that has transformed our everyday lives and which is now transforming the classroom: things like Audible, which can read your book, is an example of text to speech; Alexa, which can open the curtains or turn on the TV, is an example of voice control which gives us speech to text.

Text to speech (TTS) apps read text aloud and can highlight words, allowing readers to keep track, improve their fluency and focus on meaning. Auditory and visual stimulation work together to deepen learning for pupils who struggle to read, have problems with their sight or are easily distracted.

TTS software can also benefit those who struggle to communicate with speech but are more capable of typing. Touch screen devices with large, clear keyboards and word prediction can give a voice to pupils with speech, language and communication needs, who make up nearly a quarter of all those with SEND.

Voice recognition and dictation software support pupils who have limited mobility with their hands or who have difficulties writing.

One key to technology’s success is in its power to give pupils a chance to try out things in their own way, in their own time, without fear of failure or ridicule.

Personalised learning

Galloway identifies the key advantages of the tech at every teacher’s fingertips as being the variety that’s possible – both in the way materials are presented to the pupil and the way that the pupil responds to those materials. In other words, learning is personalised.

From screen magnification to 3D models, “you can provide different kinds of stimuli, different kinds of resources and materials that are appropriate for the way that particular child will connect.”

In terms of their response, he explains, “If the teacher wants a written response and the pupil finds it difficult to write, or find the words, or spell the words, maybe they dictate a response or give a voice response instead.” He suggests a commentary-style presentation, for example, illustrated with images.

This allows pupils to show what they know – boosting their confidence and allowing teachers to assess their knowledge and understanding. As Galloway says, “Removing barriers is important.”

A case study

He gives the example of a Year 6 pupil he has worked with for the past four years. “She has an undiagnosed physical condition which makes handwriting painful. This affected her work generally and she lost motivation, resulting in her having a reputation for being awkward and having behavioural issues.

Behaviour is an important part of the picture, since almost half of all exclusions are pupils with SEND.

“We gave her a Chromebook and taught her not just how to use the keyboard but also a mouse. So, she had keyboard, mouse, trackpad, touchscreen. We also taught her how to dictate in Google Docs. When she was asked to do longer pieces of writing, she had a choice – she had control of the technology and how she approached the task.

“And the transformation was amazing: she was very soon producing one and a half pages of text whenever she was asked to write. She became much more amenable and engaged in learning, and her reputation as being a difficult child just disappeared.”

Technology is widely hailed by its supporters for its benefits in removing barriers; aiding inclusion and independence; helping engagement and motivation; and making learning interesting and accessible. And the costs are no longer prohibitive.

But in spite of this, there is resistance in some quarters.

The barriers to tech in every classroom

Many schools ban the use of mobile phones in classrooms. Some consider technology to be ‘cheating’. They see the use of laptops to be giving some students an unfair advantage.

The answer, according to Galloway? “Don’t deprive that child of the access tool they need. Give them all the same advantage. We need to teach children how to use the tools properly that we're putting in front of them.  And there's no longer just a pencil and paper.”

He claims the cost of class sets of Chromebooks is well worth the relatively low expenditure, especially given the savings in photocopying and text books.

It’s a view, shared by many, that the main barrier to widespread use of tech in the classroom is not funding but attitude.

But the picture is more complicated than bias and old-fashioned suspicion of innovation. 

There are many things that might prevent over-stretched teachers making the most of technology – not least a lack of technical expertise and time.

The Department for Education announced last year its aim to develop technology in education, promoting innovation to support all pupils, and developing the “digital capability and skills of teachers.”

What teachers think

The Literacy Trust’s report on teachers’ use of technology found that a high percentage of teachers feel technology is an effective tool. They appreciate its role in supporting students across the spectrum and in enabling a continuation of learning between school and home.

Teachers responding to the survey did not consider attitude, confidence or training as the main barriers to using technology. Most indicated practical and resource-related reasons, such as limited access to hardware, software and wifi – in addition to a lack of time and information.

Whatever the barriers, it’s important they’re overcome for the future success of pupils with SEND and for an entire generation of children growing up in a technological age.

Image: DavidFuentes/adobe.stock.com


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