Using technology to support learners with additional needs

The number of disabled students – or students with additional support needs – is rising. There may be many reasons, but the best reason is that we are becoming more aware of the issues. But ‘more aware’ of the problems doesn’t mean more aware of the answers. In this blog, Alistair McNaught gives some advice for people new to using technology to support learners with disabilities or additional needs.

Disability statistics are stark:

Government statistics show that Disabled people are around 3 times as likely not to hold any qualifications compared to non-disabled people, and around half as likely to hold a degree-level qualification. 19.2% of working age disabled people do not hold any formal qualification, compared to 6.5% of working age non-disabled people.

Research shows that technology can be a significant enabler for this group but also concludes that “restricted knowledge and inaccessible IT … construct new forms of barriers.” (p15).

This blog post provides an overview of how managers and practitioners can ensure that learners can avoid both “restricted knowledge” and “inaccessible IT”. To do so requires knowledge of the best ways of employing technology.

The BEST use of technology

To make it easier we created a simple model of BEST practice and an infographic to go with it.

The BEST use of technology involves considering:

  • Barriers – do you understand what barriers to learning the student faces and how technology can help to avoid them?
  • Engagement – do you know how simple technologies can maximise engagement using evidence-based research on learning?
  • Support – do you know how to use everyday technologies in ways that maximise student autonomy and independence?
  • Transformation – can you use simple technologies to transform the learning experience, reducing barriers whilst improving creativity and confidence?

The model is summarised in the image below and then each part of it unpacked in the subsequent sections.

NB: Jisc members (most FE and HE institutions) are entitled to an accessibility evaluation and signposting service as part of their subscription. Please contact your Jisc account manager or customerservices@jisc.ac.uk for more details.

Infographic summarising the BEST model (see following text for details)

Graphical summary of BEST model of inclusive teaching (click on image for full sized version).

Unpacking the model 1 – Barriers

Learners with different disabilities may be supported by different teaching approaches but there are certain good practices all staff should employ. Jisc has advice and guidance on basic good practices in using technology to support learning as well as detailed guidance for different types of disabilities.

Unpacking the model 2 – Engagement

Screenshot of part of Brain Based Learning infographic. See text for links and details.

Download infographic PDF from link in adjacent text.

We know a lot about how the brain works and technology provides ways of tapping into opportunities to exploit the ways the brain likes to learn (also available as Brain Based Infographic).

You can start simply. From drag and drop activities to pop up screen-tips on text, Microsoft Office gives interactivity opportunities that most people never realise. Tutors often complain that they have difficulties in getting hold of technology but it’s often simple things that make a difference. Jisc contributed to an interactive resource to support tutors working in prisons – arguably the most challenging technology environment in the UK! The Pick and Mix training (Slide 2) of the Inclusive Virtual Campus resource has a Staff skills section. It has a wealth of ideas on how to go beyond the basics and ensure your resources genuinely improve your teaching approaches. And if you are lucky enough to work outside a prison environment (!) you can extend these ideas. Technology can help learners create rich media, collaborate with one another or interact through quizzes.

Unpacking the model 3 – Support

Technology can play a big role in enthusing learners but at some point they will need to independently

  • access resources (for example reading instructions or researching topics),
  • evidence learning (for example by writing or otherwise demonstrating understanding).

There are many ways to support learners in being independent. Jisc’s guide to assistive technology in teaching and learning gives an excellent starting point. Other websites give more detail on commercial products. Also look at the Learner need section of the virtual campus resource mentioned above.

Unpacking the model 4 – Transformation

The transformation stage of the model takes place when the other three are in place. Here’s an example: a Dyslexic student with poor reading skills and short term memory issues resulting in easy distraction and poor achievement.

  • You tackle the Barrier stage by ensuring the handout with background information for the task is available on the learning platform and structured using inbuilt heading levels. The student accesses it on their laptop or mobile phone via the learning platform or a short url or QR code..
  • To engage the learners, you link to their prior knowledge with an open ended question they respond to using free text. The responses appear on the screen and generate a short discussion. You then make some predictions and take a vote, recording the results.
  • To support the dyslexic student you quietly check he’s is ok accessing the assignment instructions. With short texts he’ll use text to speech on his phone but with longer texts he’ll open Word and use the Navigation pane to get an overview of the task. With really long assignments, he exports to MindMapping software to create a graphical map.
  • Part way through the session you revisit the earlier predictions and ask the students to vote again. The pattern of responses is changing. You ask them to explain why.
  • For their hand-in they have to produce two of the following – a written assignment; a podcast; a detailed mindmap. You’ve set up a google form with the mark scheme and they use it to award (and justify) their marks before submitting the assignments via DropBox.
  • When you mark the assignment you check the GoogleForm spreadsheet to see how their metacognition is developing. When you use technology to transform teaching and learning the process benefits everyone.

Jisc subject specialists can support each stage of the process – from advising on the IT infrastructure required to make it happen seamlessly through to high quality blended learning as well as inclusive practices. Contact your Jisc account manager or customerservices@jisc.ac.uk

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