Teaching children with autism brings a unique set of challenges to the classroom – which is why Matt Harrison encourages them to first defuse a bomb.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a co-operative virtual reality computer game where the player wearing the VR headset is trapped in a (virtual) room with a bomb they must defuse. The other players have the manual that explains how to do that – but they can’t see the bomb.
To succeed, everyone has to communicate clearly and swiftly what they see, interpret what they read, ask the right questions, provide the right advice and make informed decisions about what to do next – otherwise Kaboom!
Harrison has used Immersive Reader in OneNote to make the manual for the game accessible, so that students with literacy challenges can still participate. A lecturer in the Learning Intervention team at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Harrison is the co-ordinator of the Autism Intervention and Digital Thinking programs where he is focused on inclusive education and the creative use of digital technologies as teaching and learning tools.
He is also completing his PhD which examines how co-operative videogames can be used as spaces for developing social skills in children with autism and Down syndrome. “My interest and passion is using technology, particularly digital game-based learning, as a space for developing social skills for students with social and emotional challenges – kids with autism but also including children with trauma and other related conditions. “
“I teach teachers how to work with students with autism. When we talk about learning intervention we talk about teaching children with labels like autism and Down syndrome but it’s broader than that. All students benefit from the strategies we have for children with autism – it’s universally applicable,” according to Harrison.
According to Australian surveys, 10-16 per cent of school students experience learning difficulties of some sort and need additional support. Harrison is optimistic about the impact of the more open-minded and inclusive approach now found in most Australian classrooms – but acknowledges more work needs to be done.
As a former classroom teacher with a special interest in supporting children with high needs, Harrison segues his personal interest in gaming into solutions that help children collaborate, communicate and learn.
How do different schools approach the issue?
Matt Harrison (MH): Most teachers do the very best with their training and resources – but we do know there are things like equity gaps. I grew up in country Victoria and recognise the difference in resources and diagnosis between urban and rural populations, particularly in indigenous communities.
Our program is a Masters of Learning Intervention – for teachers going back to specialise in what we used to call special education – now learning intervention. How we can ensure we support those kids outside the norms of what we are taught to deal with?
How has technology made this game accessible?
MH: Some of the students didn’t have the literacy levels to read the instructions – I used the Immersive Reader in OneNote and picture communication cards so that everyone could participate. My work is about getting kids to use video games as spaces to create conditions for collaboration – talking to each other and interacting. Then use that opportunity to teach them the social skills they need to develop at the point of need. They can repeat scripts or tell you what negotiation means – but when they are having to perform that themselves it can be a real challenge. What the game does is make that meaningful so they understand why they need to do these things – it creates opportunities to teach social skills.
How can other teachers use this?
MH: My PhD research involved developing a set of principles and interventions for teachers to use games. We’re working now with the Department of Education on an independent study on the impact of Minecraft Education Edition in Victoria. Right now we are the biggest jurisdiction in the world using Minecraft and in the future we are looking at using it in schools for children with autism and in mainstream schools as a tool for developing collaboration.
What role does technology play?
MH: The whole idea is that we don’t use tech in isolation – it has got to have a purpose but it can create powerful experiences that allow people to access things. Using the Immersive Reader means people that could not play the game can play it now. My kids are so social – and gaming unites so many people around the world. I see this as a powerful tool to let kids be kids.
Is there a risk that they spend too much time online?
MH: Like the Cookie Monster says, “Cookies are a sometimes food”. Anything in excess is problematic – so everything should be in moderation. Gaming is a legitimate hobby and for these students it is an area of strength and part of their culture; the social skills they develop, the networks they develop. It’s like the playground – if there is inappropriate language or behaviour it’s our responsibility as teachers to guide them.