ICT can enhance opportunities for inclusive learning. However, getting the right ICT tools in place to support this process can be a daunting prospect. In this article Gerald Haigh, in conversation with SENCOs, shows what is possible and argues that simple innovations tailored to individual needs often work best.

Quite often, you’ll hear a famous writer explain that he or she always writes in longhand, with a fountain pen. To someone who touch types and for whom the arrival of word processing was manna from heaven, writing with a pen seems a bizarre idea, a self-imposed limitation. And yet Stephen King, for one claims, in an interview, to have written Dreamcatcher like that: ‘…it brought the act of writing back to this very basic level, where you actually have to take something in your fist and make the letters on the page. So that instead of flying over the story, you know, I was forced to kind of get down and be infantry again.’

You read that, and you think, ‘It’s fine for him. He’s a zillionaire. He can afford to take his time.’ The point is, though, that the pen is what he’s chosen, for whatever reason. We respect that, and wouldn’t dream of persuading him to use a keyboard or a predictive text package.

You see what this is don’t you? When we work hard to find the best ICT equipment and software to help a child cope with the demands of the classroom, we can’t assume that what seems obvious is also right. And, most important of all, we shouldn’t forget to consider what the child wants to do, as well as what we judge to be his or her needs. There are many, many children who prefer to struggle in class rather than be seen using a piece of kit that signals, ‘This kid is different.’ We ride roughshod over that at our peril. And in any case, who are we to suggest that a child may not be gaining, like Stephen King, some real creative benefit from the slow and tactile nature of the manual process?

That out of the way – or not, because it really needs to rumble away in the background of this whole discussion – what can SENCOs do when it comes to using ICT to further their drive towards inclusion? That’s a huge question, all we can do here, is pass, from advisory groups and experienced people in school one or two helpful thoughts and ideas. Some will be familiar, but no less valid for that. Some might even be new, especially to those who are just starting out as SENCOs.

 The first thing, always, is to start at the cheap end of the spectrum. And that means, simply, making sure that each child’s computer – and that includes every child, if we’re true to our inclusive values – is ‘tuned’ to his or her individual needs, using features that are already sitting on the machines if we only know how to find them. Do you know, for example, that it’s the work of minutes, requiring no additional software, to:

  • tailor the size of screen text (including web pages) to individual children
  • slow or speed up the action of the mouse
  • change the mouse to left handed.
  • change the double-click speed of the mouse
  • enlarge the mouse cursor.
  • make the cursor leave a trail on the screen
  • dispense with the mouse and do everything from the keyboard; alternatively, use the number pad as a mouse
  • change your preferred screen and text colours.

Cheap and cheerful

None of these changes costs anything other than a little well-spent time. They’re all there, and you can use them to find each child’s best way of working. (AbilityNet’s My Computer My Way web pages tell you what you need to know. But be watchful. There’s evidence from some SENCOs that a few network managers don’t like standard settings interfered with. You may have to tackle this.) If you do this for everyone, not just those labelled as SEN then the more emphatic changes you make for someone with particular needs (very large text for example) won’t seem different.

Here’s one example of how children find their own best ways of working. Some schools across the West Midlands have class sets of hand-held computers – personal digital assistants or PDAs – which will take text either through handwriting recognition or by using a stylus on a screen keyboard. These two methods are very different from each other in concept and in the skills they use, and yet children quickly develop a preference for one or the other. Walk round a class and you’ll see both methods in use. Nobody says, ‘No dear, do it like James.’ It’s evidence of how important is that kind of guided freedom of choice.

While we’re on the realm of the cheap and cheerful, here’s a gadget used, and recommended, by two secondary SENCOs, independently of each other. So presumably others out there are having the same experience. It’s a small portable computer called AlphaSmart (www.alphasmart.co.uk). It’s been around a long time, and it seems surprising that you don’t see it in schools more often. Essentially, it’s a lightweight, stripped down laptop, with a standard keyboard and a built-in LCD screen, but without a hard drive. It’ll carry most of the features you need in class – and above all, it’s very cheap at about £150 a time, depending on the model and the particular deal.

They’re very simple to use, and although you can easily download work to a ‘proper’ computer at home or at school, they lack some of the distractions of a laptop – you can’t go off exploring games or the internet, and the basic save and print operations are clear and easy. Helen Brace, SENCO at Melbourn Village College in Cambridgeshire, swears by AlphaSmart.

‘The kids love them,’ she says. ‘They can stick them in their bags, and they’re particularly popular with a group of boys at KS3 who have specific literacy difficulties. If they have a computer at home they can download their work.’

Another Cambridgeshire SENCO, Louise Barrell at Impington Village College says much the same. ‘They’re the most economical quick way whereby students with physical or literacy difficulties can do quick, neat work. They are fantastic. They’re reliable, they bounce if you drop them, and because they’re not as fancy as laptops nobody steals them.’

Louise has about 30 AlphaSmarts in her department. ‘We issue them to individual students, who have their own files on them. They’re superb for a student whose work would otherwise be messy and illegible.’

For some children, though, as Louise Barrell explains, the fully fledged laptop is the solution to aim at. ‘We have 25 children with physical disabilities. They all have personalised laptops – colours, size of the font, peripherals, appropriate software. It’s a package for each individual.’

Helen Brace introduced a laptop for a boy with Asperger’s, to tackle the frustrations he was experiencing with hand written work. ‘It was terrible,’ she says. ‘He was forever ripping out pages because they weren’t perfect, and of course with the laptop he can just change the work instantly and make it look better.’

Gadgets and machines are nothing without software of course, and it’s interesting that, if these two experienced SENCOs are typical, the preference is always for just one or two well-tried software products; Crick Software’s ubiquitous talking word-processor, ‘Clicker’ (www.cricksoft.com), is well-known in primary and is also invaluable in the secondary learning support area. Other products they mention are ‘Wordbar’, also from Crick, that sits at the bottom of the pupils’ screen, offering a choice of words to be uplifted into the text, and ‘Co:writer’, a very clever word predictor from Don Johnston (www.donjohnston.co.uk) that you can have pre-loaded on to AlphaSmart machines.

Always, though – and it’s back to Stephen King and the fountain pen here – it’s necessary to talk to the students and be aware of what they want to do. Louise Barrell says, ‘You always have to be sensitive – some children want to take the extra time and go the laborious way.’

Helen Brace echoes this: ‘We had a visually impaired student who hated using a magnifier on the screen. We can enlarge all the text, but in the modern languages package she was using we can’t enlarge the pictures. So the main thing is you have to talk to the student about the equipment and its management.’

Both these Cambridgeshire SENCOs emphasise the need for sensitivity on the part of mainstream subject teachers when children come in with devices that might set them apart from the rest of the class. Says Helen Brace, ‘The teachers need to be positive and ready with the practicalities, reducing the barriers – knowing where the plugs are for example. They need to work with the SEN team, so that the way the child works is built seamlessly into the teaching plan.’

Get it right, though, and the effect of the right sort of technology can be liberating. Helen describes the scenario like this: ‘The TA sets things up and once he’s up and running he can be left to do his own thing, where once he’d have always had an adult helping him, something that impedes on his friendships.’

Help and Advice

Both our Cambridgeshire SENCOs, although very experienced, rely heavily on advice and support – ‘You can feel quite isolated,’ says Louise. They are particular fans of AbilityNet (www.abilitynet.org.uk) particularly for issues around customising ICT support for individual children (or adults) in school. AbilityNet’s specialist ‘tailoring the computer’ web pages – My Computer My Way – ought to be required reading for network managers as well as teachers.

It’s vital to seek that kind of specialist advice, because even the most experienced SENCO or ICT specialist can’t easily keep up with developments, and in any school right now there may be a child who can be helped by a device or a piece of software, or just a simple adjustment that the teachers don’t know about.

Becta is also a valuable source of information(www.schools.becta.org.uk). Their pages on SEN and inclusion have lots of case studies, including examples of hardware and software in action in the classroom.

A note about voice recognition

Voice recognition or speech recognition (both terms are used), where you talk to your computer and the words come up on the screen correctly spelled, seems at first to be the complete answer to a whole raft of SEN issues.

SENCOs, though, are more guarded. It was initially designed for business users, and in its early days required a great deal of patience, consistency and application to get it working – qualities that are not always present in some of the children that you’d like to help. On the other hand, the software’s moved on now, and once it gets going, in the right circumstances, it really is capable of delivering what it says on the tin.

It’s entirely non-judgmental about the voice that it tunes into, too, so a child whose speech is almost unintelligible can use voice recognition, because provided he or always makes the same sounds for the same letters, words and phrases – the system will ‘learn’ it.

Clearly, though, there are limitations about using it in the school environment. More schools have tried it and given up than have carried on. ‘You’ve still got to train it to your voice,’ says Helen Brace, ‘and it’s intrusive in the classroom.’

So, she goes on, although it’s not a panacea, it is right for some specific needs. ‘We use it mainly for children with physical difficulties, for whom it’s the only way of recording their work – it makes it easy to access their email and so on, and can give tremendous freedom.’

So VR – once expensive magic, now something that’s almost cheap and cheerful – is fine so long as it’s seen as one possibility that’s on the menu when you’re looking at a child’s needs. The most popular version (Helen Brace’s department uses it) is ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’ (www.nuance.co.uk).