How technology makes a difference for learners with SEND

I was very proud to be asked to provide the Foreword to

Technology for SEND in Primary Schools: A guide for best practice 

edited by Helen Caldwell and Steve Cullingford-Agnew (SAGE 2017)

Find it here

Technology can change lives. That’s what I like about it. Not how many gigabytes are in the box, what the clock speed is, or the name of the processor, but its capacity to change what we do, in part for ourselves, but most significantly for the children and young people we work with.

Take Louisa, a year 3 child who loved reading but hated writing because her hypermobility meant holding a pencil quickly became painful. At first she would write a few lines but later became very resistant to even starting to put anything on paper as she knew not only would it hurt, but she wouldn’t be able to complete the task. What was the point of even trying? She began to get a reputation for being ‘difficult.’

Then the school gave her a Chrome Book with a built-in touchscreen, a relatively cheap piece of equipment. Now not only could she type her work, but if that became bothersome she could dictate to the machine. Very quickly she became happier, more productive, and confidently independent in the classroom.

My indifference towards technology itself, is, I suspect, shared by most of the adults in classrooms. It may be paradoxical, then, that they are often "early adopters" of whatever the latest innovation is, mainly because they are constantly on the look out for ways to connect learners with learning. To give them the opportunities, the experiences and the skills to develop their abilities, and succeed at school, and in life, as best they can.

That early adoption saw much of what we take for granted in our own devices today first emerging in the SEND field. The speech to text, text to speech, touch screens and voice control we enjoy on our mobile phones, and many other gadgets, was once specialist, and costly, frequently requiring extensive assessments, explicit funding and specialist support and training to get into the hands of those who needed it. Now these tools are ubiquitous, benefiting learners with the whole gamut of learning difficulties, and none.

Eye-gaze is the next technology that will become mainstream. Whilst it started life as a tool for market research, observing whereabouts consumers looked in shop windows and supermarket aisles, it was quickly recognised as a means of computer access for those with limited mobility. Soon it will be standard in games consoles and, along with voice control, replacing our television remote controls.

Whilst it is a bug bear that technology is too often seen as a panacea for all learning needs, with, “Give him – or her - an iPad,” heard much too often, without any consideration for why, it is true that sometimes giving a child a device can make a big difference to them, both for learning and communication – as with Louisa. This is where technology can be life changing, literally giving a voice to those without one, or putting tools in pupils' hands for them to take control, or to understand and to express themselves in ways that would be impossible without it. It is helping to provide independence, access, choice, communication and increasing degrees of autonomy to learners with all and any challenges to learning.

At another level it is giving us insights into our pupils that would otherwise be unavailable. Eye-gaze, for instance, can help us ascertain what is important to learners with little other means of communication, what they find interesting, what they want to learn, what they are capable of, through the analytics available to track their gaze, what they look at, and for how long.

And technology is providing us, the adults, the practitioners, with additional, powerful, tools for teaching. Ones that can engage, stimulate, excite, enrich, assess, connect and generally enhance what we do in ways that would not be possible without them. Virtual reality, for instance, can place anyone in a realistic, three-dimensional, environment, taking us to places as diverse, perhaps, as a space station, the ocean bed, inside human blood vessels, on a formula one racetrack, in dire jeopardy on a cliff-edge, or tranquil seclusion on a white sanded beach, simply with a headset, some earphones, and a mobile phone. We can practice skills, rehearse responses, and experience emotional reactions in safe and secure environments, taking risks and making choices where they can be managed and supported.

The possibilities technology offers are embraced by SEND teachers. Whether in making a multi-sensory environment with a portable projector, an iPad and a white umbrella, collaborative writing through blogging, immersing learners in out-of-the-ordinary situations with green-screen videos, or simply creating presentations with images, symbols and sound, technology feeds the creativity of classroom staff. A creativity that underpins much of their practice. It now makes possible tasks that were once the domain of highly trained individuals, such as video making, composing music, and producing high-quality printed resources, often with additional elements to aid accessibility, like symbols, or Braille embossed print-outs.

It also supports another part of our practice: sharing, integral to teaching in developing knowledge, skills and understanding in our learners.

We also use it to share information, whether that’s a detailed report from one professional to another, or a photo sent to a parent to celebrate a particular goal being reached. And we share with each other, within classrooms and schools, as well as across our profession. We pass on ideas and information because teaching is essentially a collaborative, collegiate, and ultimately giving activity, one where we are always looking for different approaches and know that often the best source for ideas is our fellow practitioners. Once we have them they get adapted for different pupils in  different classrooms and become our own – ready to be passed on again.

Essentially this book is part of that process. There are a lot of good ideas here, taken from working with children and young people with a range of SEND in many different classrooms, which you will take, adapt, build on, and make your own, thus generating more good ideas. Because one thing education always needs, and is never short of, is fresh ideas.

There are trends in technology that will feed into that process. And we could argue that there are trends in SEND. Then there are the changing demands of the curriculum, assessment and accountability – perhaps following political trends. However, one thing that remains consistent is the creativity, generosity, and commitment of teachers in not only meeting the challenges that arise, but also in working for the best outcomes for the children and young people we work with.

John Galloway

August 2017