This article is part 4 of a 4 part series previously hosted on BBC.
From robots to smart pens, tech can help teachers create an inclusive classroom.
At Ulladulla High School, close to the ocean in New South Wales, Year 7 student Jacob dreams of being a coder. That might not seem so unusual, yet he lives with a rare condition called oculocutaneous albinism, which makes it hard for him to see images and objects – as well as read.
But thanks to his support teacher and the accessibility tools embedded in Office 365, Jacob can now participate fully in class and even join group projects. “If everyone creates accessible documents using styles and the ‘check accessibility’ feature, I can work really easily with them,” he said. “With Immersive Reader, I’m able to change the way I read text to suit me so I don’t hold anyone up. It’s really, really cool”
The rights of children with special needs to an inclusive education have been emphasised by UNESCO since as far back as 1994, and leading an inclusive classroom is a moral imperative for teachers today. At least in the developed world, creating an inclusive classroom is easier than ever before. Technical innovations span the gamut from bespoke apparatus to help students vocalise through to everyday platforms by way of robots, smart pens and laser projectors.
Children with conspicuous learning difficulties, who would previously have been segregated from their peers now are often part of the standard learning system. Students with more hidden conditions, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, can also see their needs met.
Best practice, explained Dianne Chambers, a special education specialist at the University of Notre Dame in Perth, focuses on needs, not labels. “If I get a child with a disability in my classroom, regardless of what disability label they have I’m looking at what their functional needs are,” she said.
Chambers trains teachers not always to turn to hi-tech solutions in their own classrooms. A ruler with a handle might help pupils with dexterity issues more than an expensive piece of electronics, while a card holder made from two coffee cup lids can enable children with weak muscles to participate in games. But she does feel that technological solutions have been a game changer within the special education field.
Tech titans such as Microsoft are increasingly aware of the needs of individuals with disabilities, in the classroom and beyond, and are building different modes of expression and representation into their software.
“The aim is to set students up for life and watch them grow,” said Troy Waller, a former teacher who is now a learning delivery specialist at Microsoft in Melbourne. “Kenny Johar Singh, a colleague at Microsoft, is legally blind and yet, thanks to assistive technologies, he’s working as a cloud solutions specialist architect. The same is true for students: they shouldn’t be locked out of their potential just because they have a disability.”
When it comes to unlocking potential, Microsoft holds a suite of accessibility tools in its everyday Office 365 software and Windows 10 platform, including tools that read text out loud, break words into syllables and identify parts of speech, resize space between lines, letters and words, as well as a character recognition app called Office Lens. The Ease of Access centre offers features to help with visual issues, hearing problems, mobility and cognitive functioning.
“All sorts of accessibility tools are now native to Windows 10 and Office 365 and that’s great because it means the productivity software is now more accessible,” Waller said. “And the student won’t just use that in the classroom, they can take it forward into the workplace.”
But Microsoft also offers tools that help support students with specific learning disabilities. The maths function in One Note can break down equations and find different types of averages, opening up the world of science and maths to students with dyscalculia.
Immersive Reader helps students with all sorts of reading challenges, not just the visual issues that Jacob faces. “It has a read-aloud function, but they can also very easily increase text size, increase spacing between words – which is a really important feature for students who are dyslexic,” Waller said. “We can highlight parts of speech to help them deconstruct the sentence, and we can have a line focus that removes a lot of the distractions from the text.”
Yet despite the efforts of trainers and special needs educators, there is still, Chambers feels, a general lack of awareness as to what tools are out there. “I think teachers are aware that assistive technologies can help, but I don’t know how aware they are of what they can actually get,” she said. “I get that a lot. I’ll talk to people and say, ‘Have you thought of this?’ and they’ve just never heard of it.”
Back in Ulladulla, Jacob hopes the assistive technology industry will continue to grow – not only to meet his own needs, but to secure his future career. “I’m hoping one day to be able to create apps like that so I can make it easier for people like me to go about their work,” he said.