When did you realise how tech could be used to improve the learning experience for young people and children with SEND? It was quite a big moment for me really. I met, I’m allowed to use his name because he always says it’s fine, a student called Craig. Craig could not read and write in the conventional sense so he couldn’t decode and he couldn’t spell or write but through an amazing mum who fought the system for him, he had all sorts of assistive technology. So he did all his work using Dragon, which was a speech recognition tool.
He would talk into it, and it would type and his work using Dragon was amazing but he wouldn’t use it in the classes so he’d often do it at home. We had this issue that lecturers didn’t believe it was his own work because his writing in the class was very different. That interested me; the fact that he was so empowered to be able to do amazing work using technology and he transformed, really, how I pictured and saw students. It’s funny you should say that… Well actually I went on to do a course teaching younger children to use Dragon and I used to call it, ‘Train your Dragon’.
You do absolutely have to train your own Dragon or any type of speech technology. That’s what I learned as well, you can’t just give a child a microphone and the equipment without teaching them how to use it properly. It’s interesting because one of our other interviewees was talking about reframing EdTech as a tool to aid learning and I’m just wondering, in terms of what you’re saying, teachers might be horrified if you said you were going to give a kid a textbook and disappear for a week and get on with it yourself so can you draw out parallels between what tech should be used for with regards to SEND learners and when it’s not good.
I think it’s a really good question because it’s part of planning almost. So to learn when is a good time to use tech and when not. Teachers are sometimes very nervous about using tech, particularly with regards to literacy; reading and writing if it’s replacing their own ability to read and write. Often you’ll hear, they’ll never learn to read and write if you use this technology so there are some barriers sometimes.
I think it’s looking at when you would use tech and why, so for instance if you want to do a spelling test with a child, you’re not going to use spellchecker but if you want a child to write a nice piece of writing with a wide vocabulary and they have dyslexia and they can’t spell then they’re not going to be able to do that so the spellchecker then will really improve their writing. I would argue for that sake then tech is a fantastic way of using things.
If you had a child with a visual impairment, I don’t think you would balk at the idea of them using technology but there seems to be a bit of a sticking place with more hidden disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia for tech. Why do you think that is? I think partly because it is hidden and partly, there’s still a belief that they can learn and to a certain extent, we know that their writing can improve if they’ve had early intervention but then I think of Craig who had all sorts of intervention and he had me, and I think I’m a really good phonics teacher, and he still didn’t get it.
When I said ‘str’ he couldn’t hear the ‘r’ in string so it was a real issue around his phonological awareness. For a student like that, to say to him, you have to do all your writing yourself when it looked like a 6 year old’d and yet when he was using Dragon he’s now doing a PhD. That, for me, lacks dignity for a child. You mentioned your background as a literacy teacher, how can tech support young children with literacy difficulties? This is interesting because I do a lot of phonics teaching as well so really keen on teaching children to read, but I don’t see that it is an either/or situation with technology.
There’s so many, Microsoft have immersive reader now, so if you’ve got Office 365 and OneNote, you can go into the immersive reader and it will read the text on the screen for you but it will simultaneously highlight it and so it’s almost like your grandparent using your finger so they’re following it. Now I’m convinced, and I think there is a very small amount of research but I think there is some, to show that actually that’s teaching them to read rather than stopping them from reading. You can put out the syllables so it will break up the syllables, it will break up the grammar so you can have adjectives and verbs, it will do it in different colours.
There’s so much that fits with literacy. I’ve always been around multi-sensory teaching as opposed to pigeon-holing people into being auditory or visual, obviously. Visual is so important for so many children; it’s important for all of us but probably more for children that struggle with language. I would always put a little picture or something when I was talking about a key concept. On OneNote now, they’ve got a picture dictionary so if you can hover over a word and a picture will come up so for those students with comprehension difficulties or language issues then a picture helps them understand what that word is. There’s so much that is available for free now if you’ve got either Microsoft or a Google School.
That accessible technology is in-built in all the technology now, which is fabulous. How I believe we should be working in schools is that we want to empower not disempower our children. If technology can help then absolutely, I’m all for technology and the more all sorts of different people are using it and the more variety we have around it then I think that empowers people.