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Online Learning & Assistive Technology 

by | Aug 31, 2022

Online Learning & Assistive Technology

(For context – this blog was first written during the initial Covid lockdowns and references the shift to online provision.)

Let’s talk about online learning and assistive technology.  There is a need to define the different types of online learning since whenever we say it at the moment there is an automatic assumption, we mean virtual teaching or live conferencing.

What is online learning?  (Warning images are missing – I will add later!)

1. Providing a website or app for a child to access a program such as MathsFocus TT Rockstars, Nessy, Emile, KazType.  The program provides feedback and teachers may have admin accounts where they can see progress and even send a message, but generally there is no teacher/student contact.  Usually, the child needs to complete something before the parent or teacher gets a message – it is not ‘live’ feedback.

2. Providing content for the lesson via what is a messaging service; e.g Classcharts, Show My Homework, email, school text message…this isn’t online learning as such – the resources might be provided or uploaded, or it could be something as simple as an instruction to draw a tree.  There might be student/parent/teacher messaging but there is no ‘live’ delivery and the exchanges are recorded therefore monitored by admin holders.  It is delayed feedback, just like when a child hands in homework or classwork at the end of the lesson.

3. Providing a virtual classroom with pre-recorded content; similar to watching the TV and videos, YouTube channel, Oak National Academy will fall under this heading since there is no direct interaction with students.  There is little opportunity for teachers to monitor use or to provide support and input or to monitor how well their students are able to access.  A slight twist on this is those online CPD sessions we get to attend where to progress to the next unit you have to pass a multiple-choice test with an accuracy greater than 70%.  Not many of us have the time to set up and program something like this at the moment.  However, some schools are being creative with Google forms and the Microsoft equivalent or Survey Monkey and Kahoot to get some idea of how their students are doing.

4. Providing live conferencing, with the students and the teacher in the ‘room’ at the same time.  This is the only option which provides live feedback and monitoring – but is also the one that seems to be fraught with the most concerns.  Yet we are allowed in classrooms with the door closed on a daily basis!  All of these live conferencing options have the option for other staff to drop in and out the lesson, just as they might on a learning walk around a school and the host controls allow for the video and audio sharing to be cut quickly if necessary (when the Y3 child decides to take their device to the toilet with them.)

Only the last one of these allows for ‘real teacher feedback’ immediately.  Whilst programs might tell students whether they have something right or wrong and even offer advice on ‘how it should have been answered’ they are not giving individualised feedback based on knowledge of the student and the errors we know they make. 

There is also lot to be said for providing children with the opportunity to see and hear familiar adult voices and those of their peers regardless of whether they sit on our SEN register or not.

Whilst all of these methods have their relative merits they can be incredibly difficult to ensure they are adjusted for our SEN learners to access.  I was quite happily exploring my son’s Doodle math’s account and playing the games, only to discover that it then reset the level meaning the questions were far too difficult for him.

Grouping our learners…

So, assuming we are delivering some form of online learning we then have categories of learners and I bet you can name a child for every one of my scenarios. 

Let’s explore what we can do for each group in a little more detail.

First, we also need to remember safe working conditions for computer users.  We can’t expect children to spend hours in front of a computer screen (or whatever device they’re using) and assume that they won’t then turn the channel over to Netflix or TikTok and give themselves a break from the screen.  (The same applies to staff!)

Office employees are only supposed to undertake 2 hours of screen work followed by a 15 minute break.  We can’t check, but parents need to be made aware that equipment should be set at the right height, the child sat correctly, and make sure the laptop isn’t burning their knees!

For the first group we have found their way of working.  It works for them, they love it, they’re engaging with it, they are experiencing success…yay!

If this applies to our SEN pupils then we need to make sure it is something built into their educational provision when they are in school as we may have found the key to unlock their learning potential here.

The second group hate it and won’t access it.  This group reminds me of the question posed on Facebook: “How can I engage, dare I say it boys, where I am battling for their attention with Fortnite and the PS4?”

In the classroom, we face similar battles but can exercise more control on pulling back the focus.  With the virtual teaching method, we still have an element of this control, whereas the other suggestions are very…uncontrolled.

This will rely on finding their hook and using the context, getting parents on side, suggesting routines and making sure there are rewards but not sanctions.  As families, they have too much going on and if playing Fortnite for an hour rather than answering questions on fronted adverbials gives the parent the chance to get their own work completed and keep a wage coming in, we can’t really argue with it.

I always remember when I first started teaching and a young man named Callum…he’d be in his mid-30s now.  He would not do maths unless it was presented in the form of JCB diggers and tractors.  This was his hook. 

I’m not saying we need to redesign our online delivery of Fractions to fit the niche content of Fortnite, Hello Kitty and Batman for every session – but if the opportunity presents itself, then why not make the most of it?

We can reward students who complete their work – but be wary of whole school processes that issue sanctions.  It is not just our SEN pupils that may be struggling with the content and unable to access their usual support, but the environments for many of our students are not conducive to continuous online learning.

Again, I’ll return to my 9-year old who has currently been kicked out of the room and off the tablet so that I can work without interruption and without my bandwidth on the internet being affected.  We are asking a lot of parents and pupils and we shouldn’t offer punitive measures where they are unable to complete work.

The third group is different to the have it, won’t access it group.  They have it and would dearly love to participate but are unable to do so because it’s not pitched at their level or simply inaccessible.  They have it but can’t access it

As a parent – this is the angle I am coming from.  My 9-year-old is a VI child, and there is an assumption that he can access everything as he doesn’t need anything in school.

That would be true of a pack of printed materials – but online, we are working with a 9” tablet screen and a variety of links that don’t allow for enlarging.

I don’t think this is any different to the groups we find in school when teaching – they have access to our classroom lessons, but they can’t always access them.  It is our duty as teachers to ensure that the reasonable adjustments and measures are put in place so that all children can access those lessons.  Please note I did say teachers and not just SENCOs…I’ll come back to assistive technology in a moment.

Finally, we have a fourth group.  Those that don’t have access to online learning.  There was a direct question from social media to answer here too: How can I help primary aged pupils with no internet access, no English and poor housing?

I’m afraid, I don’t have the magic solution to this.  A community plea for old devices has been successful in one area, whereas another HT tells of contacting 19 big name companies who all flat out refused to support a request for 8 tablets.

Government grants were given to provide access for certain groups of students although those in Y10 seemed to get more of a priority look in than those in primary, possibly because of a presumption that they have more time to catch up.  The allocation of laptops seemed to be a little hit and miss and I’m not entirely clear what happened to them on the return to in-school teaching.  I think a few sprouted legs whilst lots of others have been subsumed into the replacing the IT already in schools that was essentially dying.  I’m afraid I don’t have a magic solution to this.  

There are relatively few households in the UK without access to a TV and there is always a recommendation of series of programs available to watch.  It is known that some families may not have a TV license so do be aware of this when recommending access to the BBC provision!
I suggest the skills audit on return because having watched my own son’s dire mouse skills and knowing that I don’t have a spare PC lying around for him (hence the tablet) he will behind his peers who have adapted to that way of working.  I think the technological divide will have widened as much as skills in reading, maths and social abilities. 

Assistive Technology

This is where we can really work towards using some of those assistive technology features that we often don’t have time to explore properly.  
Not many teachers will have access to every possible type of device or operating system, however between us we probably have.  I think of Facebook at this point and the files held in groups.  I can guarantee at least two or three times a week someone will ask how to access the files to receive a detailed explanation of someone’s laptop to be given and the person responds with – I can’t see that on my phone!
Most modern devices have assistive technology built in, and most of it is free.  From the simple controls of making the screen dimmer or brighter, to using speech to text or text to speech.  Office Lens will take a photo of any text and then read it out loud.  And some paid for programs are offered for free for home use when the school has a user licence.

Below is a list of things we can do to support children with using technology.  It always amazes me how often individuals do not play about with their settings to enable the best visuals.  It irritates me about as much as the individual who opens a new window or program and then proceeds to work in it without maximising the screen.  Or someone pressing the caps lock key for ONE capital letter.  I suppose it’s up there with keyboard shortcuts or not knowing that a triple click highlights the whole sentence or paragraph (depending which operating system you are working in!

  • Screen readers
  • Screen magnification/zoom
  • Text Readers/Text to speech (read aloud, speak screen)
  • Speech input software/Speech to text
  • Alternative input (OK special schools are more likely to be aware of these: head pointers, eye tracking, single switch entry)
  • Audio description for videos
  • Captions on videos
  • Voice over on Powerpoints
  • Changing the mouse/tracker settings to be slower or less sensitive
  • Programming shortcuts
  • Brightness and colour settings, invert colour or removing transparency
  • Coloured overlays (yes you can get physical plastic sheets – or use programs to adjust the contrast and colours)
  • Sticky keys
  • Predictive text (typing assistant)
  • Spell checkers and grammar checkers
  • Office Lens (take a photo of anything and have the text read aloud to you)
  • for a visual dictionary (online or app)
  • Changing the background colour or adding a tint to the screen (use colour overlay on Google Chrome)

This website has advice on the different features and how to set them up for the different types of devices (Windows, Android and iOS)

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