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ICT for Special Educational Needs Support

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The Potential of ICT Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs

Chapter 1:


1.1 Background

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is the use of computers in education and offers enormous potential to teachers and pupils. There is a growing number of consistent evidence which shows that ICT can and does improve learning outcomes, particularly in the core subjects of English and Mathematics (Cox et al, 2003). Providing high quality software is matched to the specific needs of the individual, it can act as an effective and powerful tool in learning. While it cannot replace high quality teaching, it can enhance the learning process.

The application of ICT to teaching and learning can provide many benefits such as, facilitating communication, increase access to information, improve motivation, increase problem solving capabilities and enable deeper understanding of complex ideas. ICT can provide pupils with special educational needs improved access to learning and areas of the curriculum which may have been previously inaccessible.

According to Westwood (2003),

“The largest single group of students with special needs comprises those with general and specific learning difficulties that are not related to any disability or impairment. Estimates suggest that this may be close to 20 per cent of the school population. These learning difficulties most frequently manifest themselves as problems in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills’ which impact adversely on a child’s ability to learn in most subjects across the curriculum.”

(Westwood, 2003, P5)

The Audit Commission reports that one in five children in England and Wales has Special Educational Needs (SEN). This includes students with serious physical or learning difficulties but also many students whose reading, writing and numeracy skills develop slowly. Special needs include conditions such as dyslexia, physical disabilities, speech and language disorders, visual impairment, hearing loss, difficulties in communication, and emotional and behavioural difficulties. 

In recent years, there has been an increase in evidence that technology can help these children overcome their communication and physical difficulties, so that they can be included in lesson activities and access a wider curriculum, as suggested by the Irish body, the Education of Science Department (ESD) in The Learning-Support Guidelines (2000),

“‘Interactive computer-based systems allow the possibility of individualising the educational process to accommodate the needs, interests and learning styles of individual pupils. Individualised planning is fundamental to the successful use of ICT in supplementary teaching as it is to other forms of Learning Support. The planning process would include identifying a pupil’s individual learning needs and considering how ICT might be used to meet those needs.”

(ESD, 2000, P86-87)

Every learner has an entitlement to all the elements of cognitive, literacy and cultural learning. This belief is generally shared by all working with learners who experience any kind of difficulty, for whatever reason. The introduction of the national Curriculum and the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs (DfE, 1994), superseded by the new Code of Practice (2002), have given teachers the opportunity to put this clearly into practice because they provide and support a curriculum for all. It is explicit in the National Curriculum that all learners have a right to a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum, which makes it difficult to exclude any learners from this entitlement. Stansfield (2001) believes that incorporating ICT support strategies can be advantageous in making this occur.

“For learners with Special Educational Needs (SEN), the use of ICT can convert this entitlement to reality. The National Curriculum makes clear in each subject document that ICT should be used where appropriate, to support this process.”

(Stansfield, 2001, P5)

The National Curriculum (1999) identifies with this and makes clear in each subject document that ICT should be used where appropriate, to support this process.

Appropriate provision should be made for pupils who need to use:

  • Means of communication other than speech, including computers, technological aids, signing, symbols or lip-reading;
  • Technological aids in practical and written work;
  • Aids or adapted equipment to allow access to practical activities with and beyond school

(National Curriculum, 1999)

In Wales, the government have recently put forward their vision for education for Wales in the 21st Century, with a far stronger emphasis on including all learners and the use of ICT to support this. The Learning Country: Vision into Action, (DELLS, 2006) highlights the need for a learner-centred curriculum if standards are to be raised and all learners’ experiences of education improved. The document makes clear that all learners means just that – including pupils with learning difficulties, specific disabilities and motivation problems; those who are gifted and talented, from different ethnic/cultural groups and looked after children. 

This vision was further realised and put into place through the National Curriculum for Wales 2008, further emphasising the importance of these key issues that are central to my research. The document Making the Most of Learning (2008a) clarifies this, suggesting that the…

“…development and application of thinking, communication and skills across the curriculum for all learners, schools should choose material that will:

  • provide a meaningful, relevant and motivating curriculum
  • meet the specific needs of learners and further their all-round development.

So that the revised national curriculum subject orders and frameworks are truly learner-centred,”

(DELLS, 2008a, P4)

Legislation promotes the notion that students with SEN should have access to ICT. ICT is incorporated into the National Curriculum and therefore access should be made to a range of devices to promote inclusion. Access devices, such as switches, keyboard alternatives, key-guards and joy-sticks can help learners with physical difficulties to use a computer, and enable them to access the same curriculum as their peers. 

Pupils, who have literacy difficulties or an impaired visual disability, should also have access to enlarged texts or speech devices and equipment in order that it is possible to hear the words and text in the way that children who do not have SEN, can read without encountering any problems. For some students technology may be the only way to ensure they can make their thoughts and needs known. For them, access to appropriate ICT-based solutions possibly provides the only chance of participating in society and realising their full potential.

Given the vital role that ICT can play in helping children with special needs to communicate and be involved in learning, it is disappointing that there is relatively little research published in academic journals regarding the use of ICT to support inclusive practice. Many sources of information include reports from charities and policy organisations with expertise in the area of special needs. Amongst these groups there are a growing number of small-scale case studies being undertaken (BECTA, BDA), showing the difference that ICT can make to individuals both at school and at home. Many of these case studies are powerful evidence of the potential that technology has in making a profound difference for students. Such studies may also provide teachers with examples of the use of different types of ICT in varying circumstances, some of which may be applicable to their own students. Hence even though these case studies may be small-scale, they can be of significant value.

The promise that technology brings to education has yet to be truly implemented across all schools successfully which is perplexing due to the strong evidence that permeates throughout educational research and government policy, even though minimal. There are clearly many obstacles or barriers for schools to progress with the successful application of ICT for supporting their learners, whether this is due to financial support, time, misguidance or even technology overload it is unclear. Therefore I needed to carry out my own research to investigate the potential of ICT supporting pupils with SEN and share my findings with others to support the development of ICT based pedagogy. 

1.2 The Research Organisation and Aims

This research will set out to investigate the potential of implementing an ICT intervention strategy to support the learning and development of pupils with special educational needs. This will be carried out by undertaking an extensive literature review of the current research and recommendations within this field. This will then be reflected upon, in order to acquire a clear understanding of the possibilities, features and problems related to such an intervention approach. The information gathered through the literature review will be used to inform a Case Study, focusing on how the implementation of various ICT support techniques could provide an individual pupil, with specific learning needs, improved access to the National Curriculum.

In consultation with the school’s SEN team, it was decided that Pupil A would benefit from the intervention strategies, a child with mild/moderate learning difficulties who was receiving one-to-one support 15 hours a week with a Teaching Assistant. However, shortly after initiating participant training, pupil discussion and implementation of the intervention strategies adopted, an unexpected problem occurred with the whole Case Study. The parent of Pupil A had been offered a new job which meant that the family had to move out of the area and the school – the research site. Therefore, the discussion process got underway once more, in the search for a pupil who would benefit from such an intervention process, while being supportive to the research study.

I finally decided upon inviting Pupil B to take part in my study, due to the similarities in the difficulties experiencing access to the curriculum as with Pupil A. Pupil B has been diagnosed with Dyslexia and is currently receiving 15 hours of support per week and is located in the same class as pupil A, therefore the class teacher could still participate. Coupled with this similarity of circumstance for selection, was a point made within Pupil B’s Occupational Therapy Assessment Report (Appendix 10), specifying the recommendation for an ICT intervention strategy in order to support the recording of his thinking and learning.

“As a Year 5 pupil it is important for ****** ‘s long-term recording needs to be developed to permit speed and endurance in order for him to devote his attention to content of work i.e. sentence construction, punctuation, etc. Development of IT skills and a measured approach to written recording is therefore recommended.”

(Appendix 11)

This proved to be an ideal solution for the research, though more importantly for the pupil’s needs. The Pupil Profile section within Chapter 4 highlights the main issues regarding Pupil B’s learning difficulties and the nature of support he requires due to his dyslexia. Keates (2000) explains that one of the main groups of people with Special Educational Needs who could potentially obtain many benefits from ICT is those with dyslexia.

“Dyslexic pupils face some difficulties in the school including problems in the processing of sound and note-taking. ICT gives access to the curriculum of the subject being taught for dyslexic pupils. Dyslexic pupils often respond positively and quickly to using computer systems, fast realising the support, facilitation and access to a learning environment that ICT affords them.”

(Keates, 2000, P4)

These are the main reasons for the focus on Dyslexia within this research and the selection of a pupil for the Case Study who possesses this condition. Therefore, coupled with the time frame available and considering the nature of the research site, this selection was deemed the most feasible, in respect to gauging any effect on standards and ability levels through the inclusion of ICT intervention strategies. In order to measure any improvements a series of pre-test and post-tests will be carried out and comparison made. Through this approach, an analysis of reading, writing and spelling will be undertaken, which are the main concerns highlighted within his Individual Education Plan and SEN statement.

When considering all of these issues two questions were generated in my head which became the Key Research Questions, which act as a guide and focus.

Key Question 1: Why adopt ICT in Learning Support for pupils with Special Educational Needs?

Key Question 2: How can ICT encourage and facilitate teacher's and peer's engagement in supportive learning, in a more productive way than might otherwise happen? 

These questions are considered throughout the whole research and are reflected on when considering recommendations from literature in the field, examined and discussed within the following Chapter 2. The research methodologies adopted throughout this inquiry are described in detail in Chapter 3. While Chapter 4 provides a detailed report of the Case Study carried out with specific reference to the overriding research questions.

Finally, Chapter 5 contains a presentation and analysis of the findings exposing the successful outcomes and issues arising from the Case Study. Conclusions are related and compared with that of claims made by literature within the field in order to justify inferences. The concluding chapter also offers recommendations for further research and intervention processes for implementing ICT strategies for supporting pupils with SEN.

The Potential of ICT Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs

Literary Review

Technology and Pedagogy

2.1 Introduction

Although the use of ICT in mainstream education has its origins in the 1970s, it has only been in recent years that the government has identified the importance of and paid special attention to the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Special Educational Needs (SEN). Investment in ICT and the development of policy and practice in meeting SEN requirements have created unprecedented opportunity for the inclusion of all pupils in meaningful learning experiences.

This recent and welcomed emphasis on inclusion, coupled with the ever-advancing technologies, have stimulated much interest in using various ICT applications for both individualised learning and for integrating pupils with disabilities into a mainstream school environment. This chapter provides an overview of some of the issues regarding teaching and learning with technology to support SEN, while exploring the polarized opinions that run through research and literature within this field and the possibilities which these two merging areas within education can provide an individual learner.

Davitt (2005), suggest that even though for many decades educationalists and ICT specialists have advocated the potential benefits of using ICT to support and extend learning opportunities, both in mainstream and special education, it is only in recent years that research in this field is beginning to gain substantial momentum. Underlying this faith in ICT, whether acknowledged or not, are clear assumptions about the way in which children learn and the attributes of ICT. The learning theories that are core to most ICT learning to date are considered by Jones and Mercer to,

“…embody a strongly individualistic conception of learning which has dominated learning theory and educational practice in this field”

(Jones and Mercer, 1993, P19)

Many writers have extolled the benefits of using ICT in a learning environment with SEN, suggesting that technology can act as a great equaliser in overcoming or compensating for differences among learners. See, for example, the Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs (DfEE, 1998a), the Green Paper on Special Educational Needs (DfEE, 1997) and the SEN action programme (DfEE, 1998b) which recommends that;

“There will be more effective and widespread use of Information and Communications Technology to support the education of children with special educational needs, both in mainstream and special schools”

(DfEE, 1998b, P26)

This idea has important implications for learners with disabilities and special educational needs because it suggests that technology can help create the conditions for equal opportunity to learn and equal access to the curriculum for all. The appeal of technology as an equaliser for learners with special educational needs is borne out in the many materials that have been developed to address special educational needs. In particular is the formerly National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) now British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), who provide a range of information to help identify technologies to aid the learning process of pupils with special needs. BECTA are the body advising the government on the use of technology in education and published a compendium of research findings entitled ‘IT works!’ (See Appendix: 1)

The report made as many as 27 assertions with supportive references from research, however, the assertions made here may need to be seen in the context of a government trying to re-affirm and justify a belief in the educational potential of new technologies. Nevertheless, they can offer a useful starting point for a discussion of the potential of ICT to enhance pupils’ learning.

Professional magazines and trade shows also offer a dazzling array of devices and programmes covering all areas of the curriculum and all types of learning difficulties. For example, the official magazine of the UK’s National Association for Special Educational Needs, ‘Special’, contains an ICT guide as a regular feature. This feature explores a range of issues from reviews of programmes to the skills that teaching assistants need to support learners. 

It covers all types of learning with technology for all kinds of learners. Many ICT hardware and software developers such as the Semerc group currently provide training for teachers and support workers to develop their professional practice and provision for pupils with SEN requirements who use their product.

2.2 The Information Supermarket Highway

The plethora of available information, software titles and hardware strategies covered under the heading ICT and SEN can be daunting. In the pressurised world of teaching, there is little opportunity to think critically about what is available or how it should be used and would this best match an individual pupil. In a review of the instructional effectiveness of technology for pupils with SEN, Woodward et al. (2001) examined the research on software curriculum, specifically designed for pupils with such needs. They identified a number of design variables thought to affect academic outcomes for pupils with SEN, such as the type of feedback, visual quality, practice, strategy instruction, assessment and motivation. Woodward et al. found that there are no simple answers to the question of effectiveness:

“simply because a program or approach has been validated by research does not necessarily mean it will be used as intended in practice”

(Woodward, et al, 2001, P21)

The rhetoric accompanying new technological devices in education, and particularly special education, seems to have been very influential, confirming new ways of thinking and talking about teaching and learning. However, there still prevails a lack of clarity, understanding and application of technology being used to its full potential throughout the education system. 

The culmination of grandiose and radical suggestions prominent in commercial slogan and catchy advertisements that are attractive to the educational eye, maybe responsible for our previous lack in informed purchasing, the appropriate matching of resources and effective teaching with the aid of technological resources to promote and maximise the learning of all pupils. 

Many government papers are littered with the evidence of mismatched spending and resources for learning, that has resulted in missed opportunities, depleted tax payers finances, and a waste of genuinely keen practitioners time and efforts to provide improved services to their learners and an increased possibility of teachers becoming switched off from the possibilities of ICT enhancing teaching and learning. The Scottish Government’s paper on Education and Disability (2002) provides a perfect example of this detrimental situation within their plan to improve access to education for pupils with disabilities.

“Through the National Grid for Learning, new computers and networks are being installed in schools across Scotland to allow pupils to benefit from the use of ICT in learning. At the moment, various service providers are being contracted to install the network, but some pupils with disabilities are unable to use these computers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, as part of their accessibility strategies, responsible bodies should make certain that contracts for any future supply of computers or upgrade of existing stock ensure that the computers (and associated furniture) are accessible or can easily be modified to be accessible to pupils with disabilities.

(Scottish Executive, 2002, P 17, 47–48, www 12)

What is clear from this financial miscalculation and poor organisation is that the LEA services should be providing schools with the appropriate information for purchasing ICT software and hardware. Schools should make critical assessments on their ICT requirements in terms of what they want it do, who it is for and what are the expected outcomes from the resource. Merely placing a PC in a classroom is not going to improve the learning experience for pupils. Many factors have to be taken into consideration in order for the inclusion of technology to be successfully applied to pedagogy.

2.3 The Technological Pedagogical Debate

In early 1998, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) responded to the claims made for ICT by publishing a set of criteria to form an integral part of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses stating that:

“ICT is more than a teaching tool. Its potential for improving the quality and standards of pupils’ education is significant. Equally, its potential is considerable for supporting teachers, both in their everyday classroom role, for example by reducing the time occupied by the administration associated with it, and in their continuing training and development”

(DfEE 1998, P17)

This pressure on teachers to assimilate ICT in their work can, therefore, to some extent be seen to be predicated by an acceptance of the claims made in support of the educational potential of ICT. The potential of ICT to liberate users from routine tasks and empower them, for instance, to focus on the creative and cognitive rather than procedural aspects of writing or to make accessible vast amounts of information is to some extent reflected in the National Curriculum Orders for Information Technology, which emphasise the capabilities of communicating and handling information in various forms.

“Schools should provide opportunities, where appropriate, for learners to develop and apply their ICT skills across the curriculum by finding, developing, creating and presenting information and ideas and by using a wide range of equipment and software.”

(DELLS, 2008b, P6)

There are clearly strong claims to be made for ICT, but to view ICT as the solution to the educational challenges we face purely by virtue of its sheer existence, is misguided. The success of ICT use depends on our familiarity with good practice firmly rooted in an understanding of how pupils learn and our reflection on optimal environments of ICT use as bases for pedagogic innovation beyond the assimilation of new technologies into prevailing traditions of classroom practice. In view of the fundamental changes to our concept of knowledge, the learning process, the role of the teacher and human relations more widely brought about by ICT use, we need to go beyond doing the things we have always done, albeit with the help of new technologies.

The core aim of the 1998 DfEE - ITT for ICT was…

“…to equip every qualified teacher with the knowledge, skills and understanding to make sound decisions about when, when not, and how to use ICT effectively in teaching particular subjects”.

(DfEE 1998, p. 17)

In my view this aim requires a basic familiarity or relationship with learning theories and the findings from educational psychology as otherwise there is a real danger that the implementation of the computer activity may too easily encourage a distancing of teacher involvement; or as Crook (1994) suggests, 

“…a dislocation from the normally rich context of class-based activity and discussion”.

(Crook , 1994, P18)

Whilst acknowledging the fundamental impact on traditional pedagogical modes, it is important to emphasise how the effectiveness of new technologies in the learning process depends on the ‘centrality’ of the role of the teacher in rendering pupils’ experiences with technology coherent, by embedding them in a context of interpersonal support. The role of the teacher, therefore, remains pivotal, such as in identifying appropriate learning outcomes, choosing appropriate activities and structuring the learning process. 

In their analysis of the contribution new technologies can make to teaching and learning, Gregoire et al. (1996) provided the following with respect to student learning:

New technologies can stimulate the development of intellectual skills

New technologies can contribute to the ways of learning knowledge, skills and attitudes, although this is dependent on previously acquired knowledge and the type of learning activity

New technologies spur spontaneous interest more than traditional approaches

Students using new technologies concentrate more than students in traditional settings

These positive images are, however, balanced by two further observations of genuine significance:

The benefit to students of using new technologies is greatly dependent, at least for the moment, on the technological skill of the teacher and the teacher’s attitude to the presence of the technology in teaching.

The skill and this attitude in turn are largely dependent on the training staff have received in this area

(Gregoire et al., 1996, P18, www10)

Despite the over deterministic inference behind some of the statements, Gregoire et al. (1996) are sounding a warning that technology itself is not a panacea, and that without skilled application by the teacher its benefits may soon recede. The crucial element remains the way in which the technology is incorporated into pedagogical patterns and this is in turn dependent upon the impact it has on the personal theories of the teachers deploying the technology in their classrooms. 

2.4 Scaffolding Learning Using ICT

Collis et al. (1997) argue that the within a technological approach to pedagogy, the 'scaffolding' role of the teacher is crucial, however the potential of ICT is exploited infrequently due to effective implementation of techniques being heavily reliant on the teacher providing the appropriate support for learning. Regardless of the suggested gains from any type of technological tool, it is when the teacher supports and guides learning that these benefits are maximised (Waller, 1999). 

The computer does not enhance the learning experience unless teachers incorporate ICT very carefully into the curriculum. The role of the teacher is highly significant in the structure and outcomes of ICT based activities. The teacher guides and directs the pupil's learning through structured planning, organising the activity, interventions during the learning process and the ways pupils apply their ICT skills within various contexts.

Mercer and Fisher discuss Bruner’s (1997) idea of ‘scaffolding’, where they suggest teachers need to be reflective and mindful of how they structure learning experience that require the use of technology to support pupil learning.

“If we can describe and evaluate the ways that teachers attempt to scaffold children's learning with computers then we might be able to help teachers understand and perform their role in supporting children's computer based activities. “

(Mercer and Fisher, 1997, P210)

Bruner (1978) suggests that the 'Scaffolding' process involves the adult guiding and supporting pupil learning by building on previous understanding and abilities. In assisting the development of pupils, educators require a clear view of learning objectives and understand that their role is to support learners enabling them to develop more independently. The amount and type of support required will vary depending on the pupil and the nature of the task. Tharp (1993) put forward a range of strategies that can be adopted to support pupil development through an instructional conversation, described as:


Contingency management



Cognitive structuring

Task Structuring


(Tharp, 1993, P272)

According to Tharp, the most productive strategy for support is providing feedback, as this enables pupils to assess their efforts to achieve set objectives, which will be taken into consideration during the planning and participant training phase of this research.

Mercer (1993) suggests that the quality of understanding, of which learners obtain through the application of ICT in the classroom, will not be controlled the quality of the technological tool applied; more accurately, it is determined by the approaches utilised to interact between the teacher, pupil and the ‘interface’. Cook and Finlayson (1999) concur with this idea and describe the application of ICT to support learning as a 'joint activity',

“…the way that learners and the learning support mechanisms of teachers, computer program and fellow group members work together so that the highest possible level of performance becomes achievable.”

(Cook and Finlayson, 1999, P100) 

In support of this view, Labbo (2000) indicates that relying solely on technology to scaffold learning is not necessarily going to help or maximise the potential of the learner. Applying a model based exclusively on computer aided instruction is far from ‘authentic learning’; despite the fact that certain educationalists and politicians find this model appealing and the way forward.

I believe that before decisions are made to move forward within this field there is a great necessity for further research in order to realise that the combination of technology and how it can support the reciprocal roles of the teacher and child is far more significant than the technology itself. Arguably, it is this strong pupil-teacher relationship that requires attention and what should be central to the teaching and learning process, even when the technological tool is absent from any learning experience.

2.5 The Potential of ICT Supporting SEN

ICT been used to support learners with SEN within mainstream schools for some time, under the terms of assistive or enabling technology, adapting to developments in technology and educational policy changes for learners with different needs. In Blamires (1999) it is put forward that;

“Enabling Technology is about being helped to achieve something that could not have been achieved at all without that aid or without great personal effort. An individual may be enabled to learn something, say something, do something, create something, go somewhere or join in some activity.”

(Blamires, 1999, P1)

In the 1970’s, some learners who could not use a pencil effectively because of physical difficulties were using the keyboards of electric typewriters and early computers. Hitting a key on a typewriter was easier that trying to form a letter with a pencil and paper, and electric typewriters required less strength to produce letters than manual models. Computers had the access benefits of electric typewriters and also had memory capacity. Software programmes were written to improve text output by offering word banks so that the writer could select a word, phrase or related image rather than type in every letter. 

Computers could also be adapted for input by a switch. Pupils who did not have the physical strength or control to use a keyboard could make something happen on the screen by pressing a switch. Writing became possible by watching a highlight pass over an array of letters presented on screen. 

The writer pressed a switch when the highlight reached the required letter and predictive software helped the process by offering wordlists based on initial letters, grammar and frequency of previous use. Most pupils using this technology attended special schools where the size of the equipment and its lack of portability were not problematic issues. 

In mainstream schools, SEN pupils would not often have the help of technology to support their writing. However, due to advance in technology in the 1980’s and 90’s, ICT equipment became smaller and more portable; therefore learners following the integration movement were able to use this resource. Small electronic typewriters and word processors (such as the Alpha-smart) powered by batteries were developed so there was no longer any need for pupils to sit next to mains electricity supply. This provided a positive step forward within inclusion, since SEN pupils could use their equipment in different learning environments and work alongside their peers. However, as Florian and Hegarty (2004) indicates;

“Often pupils with special educational needs were the only ones using technology, and this sometimes created problems for those who did not want to be seen as different or who could not be provided with the technical support they required.”

(Florian and Hegarty, 2004, P36)

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, modern computers are being brought into all schools to provide Internet access and software resources to support and extend all learners. Technology is transforming education and there is evidence of this in most classrooms, in most schools in the UK (seeTable2: The Pupil: Computer Ratio within UK Schools - Source: BECTA, 2005, and the Department for Education – www1). 

Table1: The Pupil: Computer Ratio Within UK Schools.

Potentially, pupils have access to a multimedia computer connected to the internet, delivering a world of unrivalled learning opportunities directly to the classroom. From the ubiquitous interactive whiteboard to the digital photographs that adorn every classroom, the evidence is clear – ICT has changed how we as teachers teach and how our pupils learn. 

There are still many challenges ahead for schools and special schools. As teachers, we are encouraged to extend our use of technology in the classroom beyond teaching specific ICT skills and towards embedding the use of technology across the whole school curriculum. Until recently, much of the research on learning with technology to support pupils with SEN requirements has focused on different types of software programmes. This research suggests that the effects are generally positive but that there are different effects for different types of programmes and different groups of learners. 

In an extensive review, Lou et al. (2001) found that learner characteristics have an effect on learning with technology. These characteristics include computer experience, gender, ability and age. While teachers may not profess expertise in the technical aspects of ICT, they are expert in teaching and learning and, therefore, in a good position to determine how technology can best be used to help pupils learn and participate in classroom life with the appropriate professional training and advice, as opposed to attractive advertisement claims.

Florian and Hegarty (2004) argues that the application of ICT, must start with the teacher and the kind of learning they want to foster, therefore suggest six broad categories in which ICT and their applications can offer support to learners with special educational needs:

Used to tutor

Used to explore

Applied as tools

Used to communicate

Used for assessment purposes

Used as a management tool

(Florian and Hagarty’s, 2004, P11-18)

Florian and Hagarty’s (2004) attempts at the classification of the ways in which teachers use ICT to support learners with specific learning needs resonates the perceptions and findings found in NCTE (2002), identifying seven categories of software that are suitable for pupils with special educational needs: Drill and Practice Software, Interactive Books, Content-free Software, Exploratory Software, Reference Software, Access Tools/Software and Assessment Software. They, as Florian and Hegarty (2004), also go onto described the possibility of another category described as ‘software for administration/ IEP (Individual Education Plans) writing’, which is used to assist teachers with planning programmes and writing IEPs. 

The following section considers a synergy of Florian and Hegarty’s (2004) and NCTE’s (2002) categories for the use of ICT software and hardware resources to support the learning of pupils with SEN within four separate elements.

Element 1 - Using a Facilitating Tutor Programme to Reinforce Learning

Element 2 - Improving Learning Experiences through Exploratory Learning

Element 3 - Accessing Life Long Learning through Communication Tools

Element 4 - Providing Assessment Opportunities

2.6 The Categories of ICT to Support SEN Pupils

2.6.1 ELEMENT 1:

Using a Facilitating Tutor Programme to Reinforce Learning

Tutor and Reinforcement programmes represent a longstanding type of teaching with technology. The earliest programmes were intended to help teachers individualise learning and learners to work at their own pace. Known as Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI), these programmes had a particular appeal to teachers of pupils with SEN because they offered a way of addressing what Woodward and Rieth (1997) called,

‘…one of the field’s most perplexing logistical and pedagogical dilemmas.’

(Woodward and Rieth, 1997, P507)

This ‘dilemma’, as Woodward and Rieth point out on how to individualise teaching to meet the particular needs of pupils who are experiencing difficulties in learning, is after all, what special needs education is all about.

Most early CAI programmes were based on a behavioural theory of learning. Typically, learners worked individually at a computer on tasks that tended to emphasise drill and practice, or the reinforcement of previously taught skills. This resource is thought to support the development of existing skills and to consolidate previously learned concepts and knowledge by providing immediate, consistent and impartial feedback to pupils. However, NCTE (2002) cautions that reinforcement software,

“…often presents skills in isolation and it may be difficult for students to transfer these skills to a meaningful and relevant context.”

(NTCE, 2002, P23)

Many programmes may have been delivered via computer software but, in terms of their design and content, they were no different than conventional materials for drill and practice. In other words, the medium (use of microcomputer as opposed to a workbook) was different but the content (basic skills) and the purpose (drill and practice) were the same as in conventional teaching.

The impracticality of one-to-one work at computer stations, changing views of teaching and learning, and advances in technology led to the development of more sophisticated and complex tutor programmes as well as group approaches to learning with technology. Researchers began to exploit the potential of ICT by incorporating more pedagogical principles into software design, notably in the use of feedback. In an extensive review of the literature on technology research in special education, Woodward and Rieth (1997) reported mixed results for the use of computer programmes to generate feedback to pupils with SEN. They concluded that, on its own, CAI was insufficient for teaching pupils with SEN.

These systems are extremely controversial since research has failed to establish conclusively whether they have any significant effect on children’s ability to read, however the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) strongly advices that,

“ILS could prove a powerful tool for the future classroom teachers…it is important that schools look carefully at the evaluation evidence when making a commitment to this form of learning.”

(DfEE, 1998, P150)

Ever since Skinner (1958) described the idea of a ‘teaching machine’, companies and software developers have been attempting to develop systems that can ‘interactively’ teach pupils. The teaching machine presents a pupil with some curriculum material, assesses their understanding of it and uses their responses to choose he next item. It provides instant feedback so pupils immediately know if they have responded correctly or not.

 This corresponded to how Skinner felt people learn, which was based on the idea that if the consequence of behaviour or action is positive, it is likely to occur again. If there is no response or consequence, the behaviour is less likely to occur again. So in Skinner’s Pavlovian-esque model, people learn something by trying it out and being positively rewarded. Modern ILS are derived from this concept and they always consist of three components (curricula, assessment and management), which together come close to Skinner’s notion of the ideal teaching machine. 

This ‘ideal’ teaching machine should provide instant feedback, present work that progresses in small, always achievable steps and allow a free choice of answer, however it is the latter requirement that most ILS fail to meet, along with the crucial exploration and explanation of mistakes and misconceptions.

The technology in this area must develop dramatically if it is to reach the ‘ideal teaching machine’ as Skinner describes. To date ILS developers have quickly, and irresponsibly, put out software using dated and unsatisfactory pedagogy. The ‘fill, test how full, show how un-full’ theory is ineffective, cold and in the ILS case, mechanical. We learn more effectively when the experience is collaborative, supportive, creative, communicative and (last but not least) fun! The inclusion of ICT into the learning process should also echo this; after all surely it’s a tool for learning within a learning experience.

2.6.2 ELEMENT 2:

Improving Learning Experiences through Exploratory Learning

Over time, as technology has become more powerful and accessible, exploratory learning environments have been developed. Whereas tutor programmes are about teaching, exploratory learning environments allow pupils to interact with the material and have more control over their learning. Exploratory environments represent an increasingly popular contemporary use of technology in education. 

They emphasize exploration as opposed to drill and practice. They are based on constructivist rather than the behavioural views of learning. The idea is to promote authentic learning with an emphasis on assisting learners to collaboratively construct knowledge (Reed and McNergney 2000). Exploratory learning environments include simulations and virtual environments. Such approaches to the use of technology are touted as tools that enable teachers and pupils to become co-learners who collaboratively construct knowledge.

Exploratory Software allows pupils to explore real life settings in a safe manner and of particular benefit to pupils with emotional and behavioural problems or mild learning difficulties. Pupils with more severe learning difficulties may have fewer opportunities to explore and control their environment, therefore exploratory environments such as simulations and virtual environments can offer opportunities for learning that might otherwise not be available. Pupils are presented with an authentic and challenging task and they control the activity. As Means has observed:

“Given complex tasks, students take a more active part in defining their own learning goals and regulating their own learning. They explore ideas and bodies of knowledge, not in order to repeat back verbal formulations on demand but to understand phenomena and find information they need for their project work. When students work on complex tasks, their work will often cross over the borders of academic disciplines, just as real world problems often demand the application of several kinds of expertise. In this multi-disciplinary context, instruction becomes interactive. The nature of the information and the support provided for students will change as the problems they work on change and evolve over time.”

(Means, 1994, P5)

The use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) can also offer the potential for users to explore social situations and “try out” different behaviour responses for a variety of simulated social interactions (Kerr et al., 2002). It has been suggested that VLE's are particularly useful for people with autism and may provide the ideal method for social skills training. One of the challenges for the VLE developers is how to allow freedom of exploration and flexibility in interactive behaviour, without the risk of users deliberately or inadvertently missing important learning goals.

“Scaffolding” embedded within the VLE software can aid the user's learning in different contexts, such as individual, tutored or group learning situations, using structuring activities by organised materials, clear instructions and a hierarchical system of prompts. Kerr et al. (2002) described two single-user VLE scenarios that were developed within an Asperger's Syndrome interactive project, and presents observation results from initial trials conducted at a user school. The VLEs were developed to promote social skills learning in adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome: the first taking place in a virtual café and the second on a virtual bus. In both scenarios the user's task was to find a seat and sit down.

Cromby et al. (1996), as cited in Standen and Brown (2004, p. 97) named three characteristics for VLEs regarding their application for people with learning difficulties.

“First, VLEs create the opportunity to learn by making mistakes but without suffering the real, humiliating or dangerous consequences. Second, the virtual world can be manipulated in ways the real world cannot be. And finally, in VLEs, rules and abstracts can be conveyed without the use of language or other symbol systems.”

(Cromby et al. 1996 - cited in Standen and Brown, 2004, P 97)

Rose et al. (2002) have undertaken many studies on the use of VLEs for people with cognitive disabilities and brain injuries. Results have shown that the learners are capable of using a virtual environment to aid learning and skills development in various areas with augmented motivation. Pupil exploration within a VLE was found to enhance memory and the ability to transfer virtual tasks to real life tasks with increased performances, suggesting the use of virtual environments can aid learning for real life scenarios.

The Internet offers yet another example of how ICT can be used to explore. The opportunities to do so are limitless, since information can be sent and explored in many mediums - text, pictures, movie, animation or sound. Banes and Walter (2002) offer useful guidelines for using the Internet as an exploratory environment for pupils with SEN in schools. Lessons using the Internet should:

Be incorporated into the total communication policy at the school.

Be rooted in the concrete experiences of pupils.

Promote individual educational aims in cross-curricula areas.

Promote access to English (speaking and listening, writing, reading) within the curriculum.

Support the application of the National Curriculum with pupils in various curriculum areas.

Promote communication with individuals and groups outside school.

(Banes and Walter, 2002, P25)

Paveley (2002) notes that, although the Internet would appear to be an ideal medium for teaching and learning for pupils with SEN, much of it is not accessible. She describes a range of practical ways that pupils with learning difficulties can be supported in accessing the Web. For example, she describes a project using graphics from pupils’ favourite websites to create links to websites on overlay keyboards. 

This was developed as an alternative for pupils who were unable to access Bookmarks or a Favourites list. Banes and Walter (2002) also go onto provide detailed information on the use of switches as adaptive devices for pupils who experience difficulties in accessing the Web.

Johnson and Hegarty (2003) also discussed web sites as educational motivators for people with learning disabilities. Based on the results of their study, they argued that web sites can be a valuable and motivating educational asset if quickly accessible, graphics-based and closely matched interests. They believe that these requirements do not mean that special web sites for people with disabilities need to be developed: design-for-all principles, applied to web sites, will in their view, improve accessibility and promote inclusion.

2.6.3 Element 3:

Accessing Life Long Learning through Communication Tools

The third type of learning with ICT is about the skills and, (for some) the adaptations involved in using the tools of technology, such as word-processing programmes, spreadsheets and hand-held computers; in other words, the tools found in non-educational environments such as the home or workplace. Indeed, acquiring technical skills is not only prerequisite to the other types of learning with technology, but is increasingly essential for life beyond school.

The use of hand-held computers provides a good example of how a new technology can affect classroom participation. Bauer and Ulrich (2002) found that the use of hand-held computers helped pupils with SEN to stay organized. Pupils with SEN in their study of the use of hand-held computers in Year 6 said that the computers reduced anxiety about knowing what they needed to do or losing papers. This was attributed to the portability of the technology. Bauer and Ulrich also suggest that hand-held computers offer social support, as pupils can share programmes with each other and send information to friends.

For some learners with special educational needs, skill is not only about the technical aspects of learning how to use hardware and software, but also about using the adaptations that are made to enable the learner to exercise the skill. Many assistive devices are available to overcome the barriers to learning posed by physical and sensory impairments. Access devices range from simple switches and touch screens to specialist keyboards and voice-activated software. But they are not in themselves a panacea: significant skill is needed to operate them successfully.

If children are to use ICT as a tool successfully, a comprehensive assessment of their strengths and needs is vital. Hardy (2000) suggests that such an assessment should include information on the following:

The learner, including ability across the curriculum, current ICT skills and a rationale for why ICT provision would be helpful;

Support available for the pupil;

Information about the school;

An evaluation including the goals set and a date for review; and

Financial considerations.

(Hardy, 2000, P24)

The use of peripherals may be required when considering the application of ICT to provide learning support for pupils with special needs. Peripherals are essentially computer additions, often literally added-on in a very visible fashion. Common peripherals include scanners, printers, cameras, microphones and speakers. 

Less common are the peripherals often classed as special needs peripherals or assistive/adaptive technology. Most of these are additional or alternative hardware devices, but some require complementary software. The list in Appendix 3 offers some example of such peripherals with their function and possible applications to a variety of situations.

Once access to the computer has been established, the next step is to choose appropriate software to run on the computer. Software is available for a whole range of needs – these include very simple programmes for stimulation, to encourage vocalisation and switch and mouse programmes which introduce ‘cause and effect’. More advanced programmes are available for numeracy and literacy, memory and cognition. 

The software needs to be stimulating and motivating and able to grab and hold the user’s attention. Colours, pictures, animation, large text, sounds and speech can all help. The software should also have appropriate and attractive rewards for good work and not be discouraging when the wrong answer is given. Appropriate matching of software to pupil should also be taken into account in terms of age or ability levels, as this is sometimes overlooked and can be the main factor in pupil engagement or disengagement.

Content-free Software allows teachers and students to enter their own content, (text, video, animations, images and graphics) manipulate information and are used to enhance learning in many different areas across the curriculum. For special educators, this type of software is a great tool for curriculum enhancement because it allows teachers to develop their own material to meet the individual needs of their students. Students also can use content free software to help them overcome barriers to learning and make certain reading and writing tasks much easier. NCTE (2002) suggests that most of this type of software will fall under one of the following categories:

Word Processing Programmes

Talking Word Processing Programmes

Word Prediction - Software

Word Bank Programmes

Planning and Organising

Desktop Publishing/ Art & Design Applications

Multimedia Authoring Systems

Presentation Software

Reference Software

Communication Media

(NCTE, 2002, P2)

Appendix 4 provides a detailed account of these packages. However, another software category the NCTE (2002) suggests are Access Tools. These are used most often by pupils with co-ordination, sensory or specific learning difficulties. They may be used in conjunction with or independently from peripheral accessories and are neither content-based nor subject-specific, but work alongside standard software. Access tools include:

OCR (Optical Character Recognition) Programmes

Screen Readers

Screen Magnification Systems

Voice Recognition Software

Switch Access Software

Software that enables the user to produce a wide range of products from basic text documents and newsletters, to calendars and posters, can be especially useful in a special needs context because it provides students with the opportunity to express themselves without being concerned with handwriting or the appearance of their work. Word processing programmes are reported to help pupils with writing difficulties, hearing impairments, emotional and behavioural problems and physical disabilities to develop reading and writing skills. 

They de-emphasise the mechanical aspects of the writing process and permit pupils to concentrate on generating ideas. A spell checker or word bank enables more fluent communication and concentration on content, rather than be hampered with concerns over spelling. However, assistance may be required still with the correction of incorrect spellings or with the selection of intended words from the suggestions supplied. A thesaurus provides alternative vocabulary. Clipart is available to enhance presentation. By combining a paired writing experience approach to writing, pupils can discuss existing content and propose improvements. Westwood (2003, 148) states;

‘Word processors can be used most effectively to help students acquire confidence in their own reading material. Creating and printing one’s own stories can enhance a child’s interest in books and at the same time develop skills in composing, editing, proofreading, spelling and design.’

(Westwood, 2003, P 148)

Word processing programmes can relieve many of the pressures that students with learning difficulties face and make the writing process a more enjoyable experience.

It is essential that educators develop an understanding and awareness of the potential of technology for teaching and learning and experienced in the use of the technology for teaching. The role of the teacher within an ICT assisted learning environment must maintain the good practice of guiding and helping students learn in the best way they can, recognising individual needs and supporting pupils to make sound choices about accessing new knowledge.

To ensure that teachers use the technology in appropriate ways, the different roles a computer can play in the classroom need to be considered together with how the teacher develops teaching strategies that support each role. Means (1994) reminds us that the tools and communication devices of technology do not have value in and of themselves. Rather, their;

“…instructional value lies in the educational activity that uses the tools and communication devices, an activity that must be planned by the teacher”.

(Means, 1994, P13)

2.6.4 Element 4:

Providing Assessment Opportunities

Teachers working with pupils who experience difficulties in learning are often called upon to assess the nature of the child’s learning difficulty. The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (DfES, 2002) stipulates that ongoing observation and assessment should be undertaken in the identification of pupils with SEN. Formative assessment procedures are not required; instead, schools are left to decide what procedures they should adopt for meeting the needs of all children. Although care must be taken to distinguish between statutory assessments, which lead to statements of special educational need, and formative assessments, which assist in pinpointing the specific difficulty a pupil may be experiencing in learning, there has been a great deal of research interest in the use of technology to assist in the diagnosis of learning difficulties. Woodward and Rieth (1997) argue that,

“…technology has come to be seen as a vehicle for orchestrating higher-quality assessment and reducing the amount of time humans manage the assessment process”

(Woodward and Rieth, 1997, P 517)

Computer programmes that offer curriculum-based assessment provide a means for systematic and cost-effective assessment, as they replace the labour-intensive procedures normally undertaken by teaching staff. Assessment software may be used both as screening and as diagnostic tools. It consists of a variety of tests designed to assess pupils’ attainment and to identify their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. 

Assessment results may be used both to plan individual programmes and to monitor ongoing progress. These programmes are often, but not exclusively, based on behavioural views of learning, although some applications are based on dynamic assessment techniques, which alert pupils to different types of errors, as well as those that use self-monitoring, which encourages pupils to monitor their own progress.

Although they are seen as teacher-friendly tools that are intended to help teachers work more efficiently, computer-based assessment systems can offer more than a means of recording and summarizing data. As Keates (2002) suggests;

“The ability of the computer to administer, precisely and objectively, testing materials that are sufficiently complex to yield acceptable degrees of accuracy, but in a manner that is efficient for teachers.”

(Keates, 2002, P84)

Recent versions of computer-based assessment systems incorporate expert systems that enable teachers to be provided with suggestions for intervention for specific learning or behavioural difficulties. This is especially important, as teachers often need support in generating new strategies when what they have tried does not work. 

2.7 Matching Technology Solutions to SEN

The types of learning and use of Information Communications Technology discussed above are not finite or fixed categories. Indeed, there are other ways of organizing a discussion around the aspects and varieties of ICT. In addition, one could argue that there is some overlap between the categories. The use of Florian and Hegarty’s (2004) types of learning with technology combined with software application from NTCE (2002) was applied simply as an organizational device within which broad issues of ICT and SEN might be considered.

Providing access to technology in schools is not the same as making sure every learner has access. Access might require adaptations to accommodate different learners. In addition, these adaptations might involve one or more of the types of learning with technology discussed above. The challenges include the adaptations that may have to be made for learners to acquire or use the tools of technology. The opportunities lie in the way that technology can then be used to improve the effects of what would otherwise create a barrier to learning or participation.

The overwhelming message is that most pupils and teachers have found the introduction of ICT into the classroom a positive development, motivating pupils and teachers alike and changing radically the learning experiences of both. There has been a shift in the views of teachers, in pa

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