By John Galloway
One of the pleasures of the BETT educational technology show is finding something that gives you a bit of a "wow". Something innovative and new that pushes the boundaries of how we can work with technology, particularly for pupils with special educational needs. Below are some ideas for where to start looking.
Although some don't carry a specific SEN label, they will all improve learning opportunities for pupils with many needs and of varying abilities - more evidence that good software is designed inclusively. One or two of the following were at Bett last year, others are upgrades or add-ons, but if you haven't seen them before, all are worth tracking down.
One product that certainly won't have been seen before is the Intel Reader (full review here), as it was only launched in the United States in autumn 2009. This is a portable device that takes a photo of a piece of text, then reads out what it says.
While this is not a totally new technology – a couple of software titles for use on high-quality mobile phones have been around for a year or two – the accuracy achieved is a significant improvement. This is technology for those with low access to the written word, but with high understanding of both meaning and technology. Their dependency on electronic resources demands a critical level of reliability – think fire notices and suchlike. With this device Intel has set a new standard; not quite 100 per cent, but near enough to provide a major challenge to others in the field. The Intel Reader can be seen on Inclusive Technology's stand (P2).
What price technology that changes lives?
On the same stand you can also find the MyTobii eye-tracking device. Again, controlling the computer through the eyes is not new, and this device was at BETT last year, but if you missed it try and give it a look, along with a couple of more portable off-shoots that are new this year (see George Cole's article here). What's different about it is how quickly users can get started. The speed with which it calibrates the position of the eyes then follows the gaze, coupled with an intuitive and highly configurable interface, mean you quickly get past the technology to get on with the task.
While neither of these is cheap – the Intel Reader is just short of £1,000, and MyTobii about £10,500 – this is technology that changes lives. What price is that? (Also check out these new products from Inclusive – a tilt-and-touch plasma screen where the screen can be angled or used flat as a table top, plus a huge 85-inch interactive plasma screen and a new One Touch all-in-one Touch PC.)
A comparative bargain at £45 (plus £10 for 381 labels) is the Recorder Pen from Mantra Lingua (Stand SW72). Shortlisted under the Digital Devices category for a BETT Award. this is a means to help those who are blind, or with very limited vision, to manage their lives more easily. You attach a re-recordable label on something – a tin of food, a date on the calendar, a CD – press the pen on it and then record a voice message. When you need a reminder of what the item is you point and click the pen again and it speaks it out. If the item changes you simply revise the message. (Incidentally, its £55 sister product, The Penfriend, is sold by the RNIB.)
Addressing a different area of need, are Texthelp's Read and Write Gold, and their Fluency Tutor. The first of these has been chosen to be pre-loaded on every machine going out under the Becta-managed Home Access initiative. It has been around for several years, gradually improving and becoming more reliable with each iteration, to the degree that it won the tender to provide an appropriate level of support for pupils with a range of literacy difficulties who will be receiving machines through this DCSF programme. The latter is new out. It offers an online means of tracking pupil progress, but also has a feature that allows children to record themselves reading out loud which they submit to their teacher for assessment, and then receive online feedback. Pricing for both are available from the company www.texthelp.com. Stand SN70.
As the title suggests Audio Notetaker 2 (£79.95), from Iansyst (Stand F119) is an upgrade. However, it is still worth seeking out (review here). This is a means of managing audio files visually. As they are recorded, or downloaded from a digital recorder, the recording is broken into segments, shown as bars across the screen, which can be further divided up, and colour coded. From this process the disparate parts can then be reformed as a new file, or sent to a portable device. In this way the pertinent sections, such as the key points, can be highlighted, pink perhaps, then drawn together to provide a concise version of a longer file. As well as providing space for text, such as notes or a transcription, other files – PowerPoint slides or images for instance – can be added too. Rather like a podcast. This is a straightforward but powerful way to work with sound files, and it will support students with a range of needs – visual impairment or dyslexia perhaps.
Crick's Workspace brings mind-mapping to online writing
What is new at BETT this year is Crick Software's latest development for its award-winning Write Online (Stand F40). Called Workspace, it is an integrated mind-mapping tool, that simply adds a new tab to the on-screen space. It will be free to all subscribers, and is a flexible tool that helps to get ideas down, then structure them for writing, and also create grids of words to aid the process further. Although intended to help individual students organise their thoughts, teachers can also provide maps for support or further development. It is also a tool that lends itself to collaborative working, both on the whiteboard with a whole class, and perhaps even through the internet, or a school's learning platform. It's the kind of resource that benefits a wide range of pupils, whether they have specific learning needs or not.
Similarly Noisy Things (£35) and Pretty Things (£45) from Q and D Multimedia (Stand A60) are not specifically designed for those with special needs, but they lend themselves brilliantly to that area of work. These are engaging, engrossing titles that quickly draw you in to explore, discover and enjoy. Working with sound, shapes and colour they could be used right across the curriculum, from sequencing in music, or maths, to learning about control in ICT, and creating images in art. Or just for the fun of them, like I do.
Another company that has been producing great tools for education, regardless of learning needs, for some years now is 2Simple (Stand F59), who just keep bringing out a seemingly endless stream of creative programs. The latest uses augmented reality, a system by which a virtual image, say a car a pupil has designed, is superimposed on a real-time video of a situation, the tabletop perhaps (see Max Wainewright's explanation, with video link, here). A great way to explore ideas in 3-D.
While this is a company that has not targeted the SEN market, it is one that has long been adopted by special needs teachers for use with their pupils because of the simplicity of its tools. They are always supportive of such use, and open to ideas for how their products could be made even more useful. Worth a visit to both see what they are up to, and to share some ideas with them.
January 13-16, Olympia, London
BETT has its own Special Needs Zone while the Olympia Hilton Hotel houses the Special Needs Fringe 2010 which is run by Inclusive Technology (also to be found in the main event)
Inclusive Technology – Stand P2
Intel – Stand E40
Becta (Home Access) – Stand J40
Mantra Lingua – Stand SW72
Texthelp – Stand SN70
Iansyst – Stand F119
Crick Software – Stand F40
Q and D Multimedia – Stand A60
2Simple – Stand F59
John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.
John is giving two seminars at BETT 2010; one, "Making Learning Platforms accessible for pupils with SEN; wherever they are, and whenever they want", at 12 midday on Thursday January 14 in the main BETT seminar programme; the other, "Learning to live with a learning platform – one year on", at 3pm on January 14 at the Special Needs Fringe 2010 seminars in the Olympia Hilton Hotel.