John Galloway welcomes the new at London's key SEN event
It is always a pleasure to come across technology that genuinely offers something original. Often we find “new” means a more developed version of something we already appreciate.
So it was good to see Cosmo from Filisia Interfaces (see video below) making its debut at the recent TES SEN Show at Islington's Design Centre, one of the key fixtures in London's SEN and inclusion calendar.
Cosmo is a set of white 'buttons', like upturned sugar bowls, that connect to an iPad via Bluetooth. They are pressure sensitive and contain an LED (so they can become any colour you want), rechargeable and are robust enough to survive anything a child might do to them.
In the assistive technology world we would call them ‘switches'. While this sounds fairly mundane, the excitement lies in the things you can do with them, their flexibility, and their capacity to adapt to users' needs. These are switches very unlike those we are used to. If Apple made switches this is what they would look like.
They come in sets of five, with an associated suite of iPad apps, all connected through Bluetooth. There are exploratory games to play notes, tones and loops, and memory games where the user follows a pattern, and musical ones to get creative. They can be used singly or in groups, with colours for guidance, and adjusted for the pressure needed to trigger them. Being free of cables they can be placed anywhere around the room to encourage children to move around or, perhaps, positioned just out of reach so they need to stretch and flex to reach them — great for therapeutic or physio sessions.
But having Bluetooth means that they can connect with any other Bluetooth device. In a classroom this could be a laptop or the machine driving the whiteboard, so everyday activities using switches, such as cause-and-effect programs, or stopping and starting videos, could be operated by a child from anywhere in the room – in a seat or wheelchair. Currently this happens with wireless or cabled switches which can be unreliable, don’t change colour and are less easy to adjust to the force the user is able to apply. There are lots of possibilities.
'Clicker' apps now available for Chromebooks
In the category of new developments of old favourites there were a couple on show. Crick Software has now brought out the first of its Clicker apps for Chrome (the operating system for Chromebooks): Clicker Sentences and Clicker Docs. These work just as they do on an iPad, or as elements of the over-arching program Clicker 7. They provide a ranges of supports, including word grids, speech feedback and images, and can be tailored to the needs of individual learners. While resources are pretty straightforward to make, there are also hundreds, if not thousands, of them ready to be downloaded from the learninggrids.com website.
Elsewhere at the show a very welcome update was being launched. Communicate in Print is a perennial in special schools and mainstream learning support departments across this country, and beyond for writing with symbols, but it has always been thought of as a little 'clunky' to use. This has now been addressed by its publisher, Widgit, with the launch of the latest version, InPrint 3. The new iteration has a much improved interface and also features helpful templates.
As a desktop publisher this works much more like industry standards such as Microsoft's Publisher, so less effort is needed to work out what you want to do, and more can go into creating good quality, accessible materials for children and young people with a range of learning needs, including early literacy and EAL. As before, there are plenty of templates on offer, but starting from scratch is now easier than before.
A glimpse into autism: ‘Can you make it to the end?’
Among the surprises was one on the National Autistic Society stand with its campaign, "Too much information". This aims to raise awareness of the issue of sensory overload for those with autistic spectrum conditions. As part of this they have produced ‘Can you make it to the end?’ which provides a first-person perspective of a trip through a shopping centre with all its noises, sights, smells and unknown people.
Even more effective, though, is the 360-degree, virtual reality app version (see Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience – see video below) which can be experienced with an Android smartphone, or iPhone, and some cardboard goggles (£6.67 ex VAT). You experience the shopping trip from the point of view of the child and that can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience. You can feel your stress levels building. Fortunately it only lasts a couple of minutes: some people feel like this all the time.
It wasn’t only on the stands that there were new things to see. Wandering the aisles I met a couple of people keen to promote '4D', virtual-reality flashcards. These are a simple idea – a deck of cards with images that become 3D with the use of a free app. Created by Octagon Studios they currently have animals, dinosaurs and letters available. They might be a way to engage reluctant learners with a bit of technically generated wizardryand you can check out the Animal 4D+ Augmented Reality Flashcards on Amazon.
As always on the the Friday night, TeachMeetSEN16 had some entertaining ideas. A talking teddy bear controlled through an iPhone, myriad uses for a pair of cheap walkie talkies, and teaching coding through dance. Worth staying behind for (catch up on the tweets at #TMSEN16).
John Galloway is an expert in the use of technology to support teaching, learning and communication for children and young people with SEND. He is also a successful author. His latest book, Learning with Mobile and Handheld Technologies, co-authored with Merlin John and Maureen McTaggart, won the Book of the Year category in the Innovation and Technology Awards, 2016.