Changing technology and inclusion policy pressure SEN professionals to up their game, warns Carol Allen
Woodlawn Special SchoolTechnology for learning does not stand stillAt times of uncertainty, whether in technology or policy, people are prone to making odd decisions. Like the special school that bought 50 digital tablets and then asked what they should be doing with them.

With a new generation of technology blurring the traditional boundaries between home, work and education, and the Green Paper's intention of giving increased choice to students and parents, it's crucial that edtech professionals are on the case.

It has always been an aim of schools to work in partnership with parents and carers; for those working with students with additional needs, this is even more essential to ensure consistency and collaboration in order to give the student the best possible learning opportunities. Technology has aided this with: learning platforms offering anytime anywhere access to teaching and learning materials; the ability to use video and digital photography to capture elusive moments of success to celebrate and share; the amazing progress in using technology to support information sharing in alternative formats. These are just three examples.  

The boundaries between technology for home and for school are melting

At one time we had fairly clear boundaries between the hardware and software used in schools, at home and in the workplace. However the move towards handheld devices has driven a change in which personalisation and ownership has removed them.  With the iPad leading the way, but other tablet devices also in use, the concept of a personal device to take everywhere with you and loaded with ‘your’ apps has created a huge wave in the SEN world. And as with all waves, there is power but also the potential for indiscriminate soakings.

woodlawn extended reality'Extended reality' apps can enhance engagementAs these devices were not targeted at the education market, some of the early adopters were not schools but parents and individuals who bought the tablet themselves. As they had an intuitive touch interface, which was what was being used by their children in school, they tried it, often with great results.  The word spread; they are undoubtedly ‘cool’ and therefore engaging and motivating for some hard-to-reach students.  Some schools bought one or two devices and tested them. In those cases, on the whole, they worked out how they would add to their current ICT provision and then expanded gradually.  

However as the ‘buzz’ grew, others have joined in by purchasing first and then trying to work out what to do with them. E-mails arrive constantly in my inbox asking, “What are the top apps for SEN?” It’s a question that is as wide and vague as it could be. I always reply by asking what they want to teach, to achieve and what type of student will be using the device?

The beauty of apps are that there are so many, and gaining in numbers daily, so that a wise choice can indeed open new opportunities for many. However, educators should employ some criteria before purchasing and/or deploying in order to avoid random selection with no pedagogical thought underpinning the choice.

There are apps lists, apps publications to purchase and indeed a breed of “app-collectors”. The latter express surprise at the paucity of apps on my device and proudly display hundreds, many of which they have never used and cannot explain why they are useful or fun other than they saw them on a list somewhere.  One of the most powerful features of the iPad is, in fact the camera. You can use it to record events and work completed or in progress, and you can use it with FaceTime to promote creative communication work.

Some amazing apps are free

Some amazing apps are free, for example Dragon Dictate, and others have costs involved but it is excellent that some of the key companies in the SEN market (Inclusive Technology, Crick (see "Crick to launch 'Clicker' apps for iPad at BETT"), Widgit and Mayer-Johnson) have already developed their products as apps so that we can continue to use them on all the technology that we use with our students. The development of apps such as Assistiveware’s award-winning Proloquo2Go has also enabled further options in the field of AAC (augmentative and assistive communication) for some users. 

Woodlawn recordersSimple badge recorders to help communicationThe proposed changes to the Government’s view of support for students with SEN seeks to empower the parents and family by putting financial resources with them to source provision for their child(ren).  Some will research, investigate and try themselves and some will get information from support groups. However, many will still turn to educators as their first point of information and support. Whichever route they take, the key principles of consistency between home and school will remain and so it is vital that schools and educators are, at least, an equal partner in identifying and capturing the potential of such devices.

Pedagogy must be at the heart of the introduction of all technology in schools. To know what you want to teach and assess how best to deliver this, has to remain the effective route.  To purchase a large amount of any technology and then wonder what to do with is is more than worrying; I still see so many interactive whiteboards used purely for projection and display. Have we not learned from experience? If some educators still don't “get it” what will happen with parents who need our help?

Carol Allen is a school improvement advisrr for ICT and SEN/Inclusion for a local authority. She works in partnership with companies, charities and groups who have the desire to improve access to learning and life for all students.

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Carol Allen will be on the RM stand (C170) on Thursday and Friday of BETT 2013 and would be delighted to chat about inclusion and access in your home, school or workplace.
Photos from Woolawn Special School, Monkseaton

On Wednesday Carol Allen delivers a workshop at 10.15am with Ian Bean on "Autism and technology: support or distraction?"  and another at 15.15 on "Inclusive early years settings"

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