Thursday, 20 December 2012

Technology & SEN - the good, the bad and the light

I've read two articles recently that are worth sharing. The first is an interesting article about a piece of software / app to coach students with autistic-type difficulties in recognising emotion in others. It is called 'Training Faces' - designed by blogger Therese Wantuch with help from her son Jack, who has autism. What I think is appealing about it is the fact it is designed as a questing game, which as Sue Palmer notes in '21st Century Boys', is a big motivator for boys. The app has a Facebook page and a demonstration video can be viewed on Youtube - it is also available for download on the major app sharing sites.

In terms of technology for supporting literacy, particularly those students with dyslexic-type difficulties, in my setting we use both 'Word Shark' and 'Lexia' as a part of our intervention programmes. Again, these are appealing to students because they take on aspects of more traditional gaming with them having to complete timed tasks, progress through levels etc.

However, with any of these new technologies, we need to be careful they do not become the intervention out of a belief that 'computers = undying interest'. My experience of working with students on these programmes is they will persist with it for 20 - 30min sessions once or twice a week. And they will often be exhausted after it due to the intensity of working in front of a screen for this length of time. Anything more than this and they generally start to view it as a chore, and in turn will disengage over the longer-term.

Also, we should not get too seduced by the apparent cost-effectiveness of these programmes. Comparing a Toe-by-Toe or Paired Reading intervention which typically involves 1-to-1 tuition with a Lexia intervention where you can have a 1-to-25 staff-student ratio (and perhaps even more, I guess) might lead us into buying into the Lexia proclamation that they truly are "The Future of Reading Education". Particularly so during times of reduced funding. However, it is my belief students continue to require connection and interaction - a human relationship - with a teacher or mentor, not just a computerised voice. This principle goes right back to the Orton-Gillingham approach which emphasises the emotional aspect of learning.

This then leads to a second article I found interesting and informative this week about the detrimental impact of low-energy lighting on some people. Having recently completed training in Irlen Syndrome (also known as Visual Perceptual Difficulties or Scoptopic Sensitivity), I have become far more aware of and in-tune to the needs of a significant proportion of our students. These are typically students who have struggled to acquire reading and writing skills at the same rate of their peers, often carrying an official diagnosis of ADHD or reports of 'dyslexic tendencies'. My main teaching classroom has two sets of lights, so you can switch one set off to dim the room slightly. I've surveyed a number of 'lower ability' classes over the past few weeks on whether they prefer this and the response is an overwhelming yes. And in turn, I've noticed concentration improves, and irritability with one another decreases, in a slightly dimmed classroom that tends to mimic natural light more closely.

This sensitivity to light also appears to be linked in with computer screens with a number of students I work with often asking for the lights to be dimmed when they are using the computers - I question whether this again is them subconsciously trying to cope with the artificial light.

Fortunately, and what I found really encouraging, is that something such as sensitivity to light - which appears to have complex roots in the microscopic labrynth of nerve structures in the eye and brain - can be solved quite simply through use of coloured overlays and a basic level of teacher awareness.

At the end of a long term, I keep reminding myself of this - special educational needs is complicated in terms of causes, but often relatively simple in terms of solutions. To use one of my favourite Einstein quotes, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

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