Six colleagues from Learning Success and Student Counselling and Mental Health Services were the first to participate in a series of free Assistive Technology (AT) roadshows provided by TechEd Marketing. In anticipation of imminent changes (i.e. reductions) to Disabled Students Allowance, we have been
(1) exploring ways to make better use of AT to promote inclusive learning
(2) developing our awareness of (and skills in using) AT products targeted at DSA-funded students.
The session lasted 2 ½ hours. We were a small but perfectly formed group of co-workers from Dyslexia Support, Academic Learning Support, Disability Support and Student Counselling and Mental Health Services. The beauty of this cross department representation was that we were able to share our different experiences; dyslexia tutors often use AT within their study skills sessions with students, whereas disability and mental health specialists may be encouraging students to make use of DSA-funded AT but have no direct involvement with the products.
Our two trainers, Bob and Matt, introduced the session by saying students are accessing AT in different ways. Students with disabilities are looking for products that are user friendly, portable and discreet; the wider student population have seen the benefits of assistive (small ‘a’) technology, such as things like Siri, increasingly available on smartphones and other platforms. AT is not a one-size-fits-all solution that removes the need for reasonable adjustments, but when used strategically and driven by learner needs it can lead to greater autonomy and enable tutors to focus their efforts on those students who need more human interventions. Having recognised this, AT providers are keen to work with universities and other learning providers to demonstrate their products. The session covered three separate products: C-Pen Reader, Global AutoCorrect and Inspiration.
Students with reading difficulties may have been recommended a human reader or the use of text-to-speech software as part of their exam arrangements. Where this is the best solution, fine, however improvements in technology mean other options are available. One such product is the C-Pen Reader, a portable scanning pen that allows the user scan text and read it back.
Matt provided two versions of the pen (standard and exam-approved), enabling us to have a real hands-on session. The pen works by dragging the tip across the text which is read by an OCR scanner. It took a bit of getting used to at first and there was some discussion as to whether the pen would be suitable for students with visual impairments, but as we were able to hear text read back to us and went on to try out other functions like the built in MP3 player, we could see the potential – perhaps a student in the library who wants to scan a chapter from a reference book. A number of universities (we’ve been promised a list) have purchased scanning pens to loan to students through the library service and our own library service is working on a similar arrangement.
Global AutoCorrect is a spelling management program – a kind of spell-check on steroids! It was created by Neil Cottrell when he was a teenager struggling with writing due to his dyslexia. Neil wanted to develop a product that was simple and empowering – no more depressingly endless red wavy lines ala spellcheck! There are way too many features for me to remember let alone list (click on the video if you want to know what they are) but highlights for me include, a single activation key (F2) that carries out most actions, a choice of definitions to help you select the right spelling and record of misspellings which are then added to a personal database and can be used to help develop spelling skills. At the end of this session there were several “I want one of those” comments!
Having been so excited by all the possibilities of Global AutoCorrect we were a bit short on time for Inspiration. However, this was the product most of us were familiar with so Matt was able to cut straight to the chase. I should preface my comments by saying Inspiration is not without its critics (other products are available) but many students find it user friendly because it was specifically designed for education. And Matt stressed the point that Inspiration is much more than a ‘simple mind mapping tool’ (again, have a look at the clip below if you want to see the some key features).
This is important because while Inspiration appears to be the default program recommended for DSA, many students use it in a limited way. Given that Inspiration is installed on all student computers at City, there is universal access and students with disabilities may be more likely to use the software if they know the extent to which it can support their studies. Win-win.
Assistive Technology is moving from an intervention that is seen as a something for people with “special” needs to a mainstream solution that any student can opt to use. There is always a danger that AT is seen as a panacea to cure all ills – we know it isn’t – but I’m pleased this did not come across in the training. Even though we covered a lot of ground during the session it was relaxed and didn’t scare of those of us who are less tekkie. I feel I’ll be able to incorporate what I’ve learned into my study skills sessions. Our trainers were very experienced and tailored the content of the sessions to our interests and emerging questions. There was no hard sell and assuming we get the site licences and other goodies promised along with the free training, I can safely say it was good value for money.
What’s your experience of using assistive technology? Comments from the neuro-diverse and neuro-typical equally welcome!