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Giorgia Migliaresi

Technology For Students With Special Educational Needs (SEN)

John Galloway is a consultant on ICT (Information and Communications Technology), SEN (Special Education Needs) and inclusion. He works with Tower Hamlets Council in London as well as freelancing, and here he shares his insights on how technology can help learners with SEN, as well as how to adapt teaching practices for students with additional needs. You can follow John on Twitter

What is your background?

I am a specialist in the use of technology to support the learning of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN).

I enjoy the job because it’s about problem-solving, and every situation is different.  How do you help this pupil with a particular set of challenges learn what they need to know, and what is the range of technology that can do that?

I have been doing this for around 20 years, and in that time there have been changes in the curriculum, the technology and the range of learning needs. Which helps to keep it interesting. There are very few people in this role, yet it can make a significant difference and be literally life-changing for some.

How did you get involved in education?

I developed a specialism in challenging behaviour, working with adolescents in care, Pupil Referral Units and mainstream schools. Throughout this time I used technology with learners. It provides challenges, engagement and support in a way that nothing else does. I also came to understand that difficult behaviour is often a symptom rather than a cause. There may be underlying SEN that has never been properly recognised, including dyslexia, autism, and even hearing impairments. So in order to be effective in dealing with behaviour problems I had to know a lot about SEN generally. From there I developed expertise in using technology to provide curriculum access for learners with SEN. As well as looking at ways to make the curriculum generally more engaging and inclusive for all learners.

What role does technology have with learners with SEN?

For all learners it offers the opportunity to learn in different ways, visually, aurally, kinaesthetically, but also it can provide information in ways that make it more accessible, and provide experiences, such as simulations, virtual reality and point-of-view videos, that would be difficult to achieve in other ways.

Children and young people with special educational needs will benefit from all of this, plus it can enable them to work in ways that would otherwise be very difficult. For instance; the use of communication aids, like Stephen Hawking used, to literally get a voice; touch screens if you find a mouse hard to use; screen readers and dictation software if you find typing or spelling challenging; switches, the big buttons with which you can control a computer; eye-gaze technology which means even a paraplegic can take control of what ‘s on a screen. It can have a game-changing impact on possibilities and opportunities for those that need it.

How do learners use tangible coding within the classroom?

Computer coding on a screen can seem an abstract concept. The outcome from entering code might not seem immediately obvious, or exciting. When you use devices, such as programmable toys and robots, the connection between devising a sequence of events and having them executed by the device is much more immediate. It is easier to experiment, explore and play with devices than on-screen.

Tangible coding, that is, physically taking blocks and placing them in an order to make something happen – as with Cubetto – is both a good starting point for all learners, and a useful bridge to on-screen coding for many.  

I’ve always used ‘unplugged’ approaches – that is, activities not involving computers or electronic devices – to teach the concepts of computing, such as spotting patterns, creating sequences, understanding algorithms, and I see tangibles as a logical next step on from this.

Active participation is crucial to student learning.  In what ways do students interact with Cubetto that you find different from other coding tools?

One of the first things I do with learners of all ages and stages, is to create a simple 2×2 grid on the floor and ask them to navigate between different points on it, some using one-step-at-a-time commands, others giving sequences of instructions. Then we write these down and begin to build rudimentary algorithms.

When we move on to use tangible coding, such as with Cubetto, we can talk about the blocks we need to use to create a particular path and the order we put them in. The lights on the board indicate each step of the program so we can follow the sequence and make the connection between the code and the action. Some learners will be able to use the function option and begin to see how repeating commands creates patterns. Debugging happens by following through the steps as Cubetto moves and working out at what point it is going wrong.

It also works very well for group work, giving pupils the opportunity to discuss what they are doing, address learning challenges collectively, and to interact with each other. This can develop skills beyond computing, such as language skills, turn-taking, and cooperation.

In what ways do you modify the use of Cubetto to meet the needs of your learners?

Like many good ideas the simplicity of Cubetto can actually lead to a degree of complexity, so it can offer challenges to learners with a wide range of abilities. Even a simple activity such as navigating a 2×2 grid can become more complex if you add caveats such as using exactly six blocks, or finding the shortest route without using the same blocks consecutively, or even what is the longest route you can find.

You can also restrict choices. You can give learners just the blocks they need for a particular task, so their job becomes finding the order rather than deciding the directions. There is a lot of flexibility available.

I like active learning, and trying to make concepts concrete for children, along with learning through our different channels of perception, and Cubetto fits in with all of these. I have used it with learners of all ages and with a wide range of learning difficulties. Having something you can hold, and programming with physical pieces has offered something to all of them.

What does computing offer to students with SEN?

For children and young people with special educational needs I think computing as a subject offers something unique in the timetable. It provides challenges and opportunities to achieve that no other subject offers.  The expectations of writing and recording are different, the need for exploration and trying things out is encouraged, and problem-solving is a core element of it, giving rise to satisfaction as challenges are overcome.

However, teachers in all settings, but mainstream in particular, can struggle with creating learning opportunities at an appropriate level for all the learners in their class. My involvement with groups such as CAS (Computing At School) is to try to make the subject more inclusive so that increasing numbers of children and young people can benefit from it.  

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