For those looking to enhance the learning experience of children with Special Educational Needs, the technology sector offers an ever-expanding range of developments from everyday apps that can be played on an iPad, to stunning developments in VR and robotics.
There are a terrific range of programmes on offer for children with a variety of needs, and Inclusive Technology is a company at the forefront of this delivery. For pre-literacy and early literacy level SEN, their HelpKidzLearn Games & Activities pack provides over 100 skill-developing games at the user’s disposal. From Memory Pairs to Five Little Rock Stars and Hurdle Champion, each game is specifically designed to hone a particular set of skills, be they tracking, cause and effect, timing or turn-taking.
These games are as much a platform as an end product and can be customised for maximum user appeal. Inclusive’s ChooseIt! Maker software allows the parent or teacher to create and customise activities with their own choice of symbols and images. As well as 30,000 stock images, users can upload their own photos to use in the games and quizzes, allowing activities to be tailored to the child in hand: holiday photos, family members and familiar objects can be incorporated into the games.
The success of companies such as Inclusive Technology is down to their embrace of a range of hardware. Their packages can be played online using a mouse and keyboard, tablet or interactive whiteboard, and can even be downloaded as apps for offline use. Switches have been a mainstay of SEN technology for a while, and both the HelpKidzLearn suite and ThinkSmartBox’s Look to Learn programme can be used with these too: ideal for making a selection in a game without engaging in mouse or keyboard interaction that can be difficult for those with less-refined motor skills.
However, switches are being increasingly outpaced by a new wave of hardware, both sector-specific and sector-adopted. For instance, Eye Gaze technology has had a tremendous impact. This is a tracking device that follows the user’s eye movements to move the cursor around the screen and click on icons by retaining eye contact with them. Many of these highly accurate, low-latency pieces of hardware can simply be plugged in by USB. Some can even be used universally on any software or web browser. In so doing they open up a great many programs and websites to users who may not be able to access them with a mouse and keyboard. The implications for this are huge: computer access can be made easier and more intuitive for students who, up until now, may have had to rely on switches or teaching assistants to access a computer. For companies like Inclusive Technology and ThinkSmartBox, their software’s compatibility with this hardware ensures it is accessible to users across the SEN spectrum.
Such technology enables advances in software, too. Inclusive Technology’s Eyegaze Attention & Looking can track these skills with extreme accuracy, and Insight can provide an ongoing assessment of vision behaviours, as can Look to Learn.
It’s not just SEN-specific technology that is exciting, but advances in gaming and other areas have been used by developers to create programmes for the sector to provide a whole new avenue of opportunity. Gesture-controlled hardware is one such area. Devices such as the Kinect have numerous third-party software available for use in an SEN environment. Developed for the Xbox but compatible with any PC, the Kinect is a camera that allows users to control the screen with their arms. Apps such as Somability provide simple activities that pupils can use to develop reaching, environmental engagement and multi-player communication, whilst apps such as Boris teach Makaton sign language. Reacticles, Visikords, Snowbells and Fluid Wall have been reported to provide great opportunities for pupils to explore and effect their environment, improving motor skills in the process. Many of these apps do not have a specific task with a pass/fail aspect, but hinge on the software’s different graphic reactions to user’s movement. Expect the number of apps to grow as developers explore the Kinect’s educational possibilities.
Another exciting development is the Leap Motion. This is essentially a scaled-down Kinect: it’s a small camera peripheral which tracks finger and hand movements to control the screen. It has its own app store with over 200,000 developers. Apps such as AirHarp and Cause and Effect Sensory Light Box are excellent for developing sensory interaction on a visual and auditory level. Both the Leap and Kinect provide exciting opportunities for children with SLD and PMLD to explore a range of fun developmental software. Expect these motion and eye-sensing technologies to inspire more software for use in a Special Needs environment, and such software in turn to be pushed further by advances in hardware.
If today’s tech is exciting, then tomorrow’s is approaching the extraordinary. Every area of life is set to be impacted by VR and the SEN sector is no different. VR has demonstrated its capabilities in this field as far back as 2002, when Oregon School for the Blind began using headsets to teach its students how to cross the road safely. VR’s ability to conjure virtual humans has been reported to help children on the autistic spectrum adjust to certain social situations. Passive experiences such as Sightline: The Chair and Over the Alps provide enhanced sensory experiences far beyond anything available in the current market. Active experiences such as Tuscany and Dinosaurs give the pupil a chance to develop head movements to control in-world motion. These experiences are available on the ever-expanding Oculus Rift App Store and are just the tip of the iceberg of what this medium will become in the classroom.
If there is anything to rival VR for sheer dynamism in the tech sector it is surely the rise of robotics. And here we meet KASPAR, a robot created by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire to help ASD children develop their social skills. KASPAR is a minimally expressive robot whose features can be touched and investigated by children in a safe environment. It can mediate child-child or child-adult interaction and join in with shared games. Robokind’s Milo and SoftBank Robotics’ NAO – an autonomous robot that converses freely – demonstrate that KASPAR is no flash in the pan. As Artificial Intelligence develops, so does its implications for use in SEN, particularly with children on the autistic spectrum. AI is one of today’s most hotly debated issues, and it is set to establish itself as a vital part of Special Education in the years to come.