Using everyday tech to support learners with additional needs

Teaching learners with additional needs how to make use of the tools at their disposal supports their learning and so much more

Teaching learners with additional needs how to make use of the tools at their disposal supports their learning and so much more

12 Feb 2024, 5:00

Despite the digital age, mobile phones continue to be a rare sight in both mainstream and specialist classrooms. Here at The Oaks, a specialist college for 18-to-25-year-olds with additional learning needs in Kent, East Sussex and surrounding areas, we are embracing mobile phone technology to support our learners.

We are actively fostering an environment where every-day, readily-accessible smart technology rather than expensive, specialist software or hardware bridges barriers to engagement and participation in learning and daily tasks.  We aim to create digitally empowered young people who have autonomy over their independence.

Personalising user settings and practising skills on learners’ own mobile devices increases the likelihood that they will generalise skills to activities beyond the college day. We are therefore building a curriculum where learners are supported to access the incredible power of their own smartphone, irrespective of their learning profile.

The power in their pocket

By using a phone’s read-aloud features, or apps such as Microsoft or Google Lens, a learner can overcome difficulties with literacy by listening to text rather than reading it, choosing a speaking rate that they are best able to understand.

Exploring text size as well as screen brightness, colour and contrast increases the opportunity for learners with visual differences to engage.

Enabling dictation on the device allows a learner’s speech to be converted to text and reduces literacy difficulties related to spelling as well as fine motor difficulties which may be a barrier to typing. 

Practising the use of alarms, calendars and reminders increases responsibility and reduces reliance on other adults for those who experience memory challenges. 

Translation apps reduce barriers for those for whom English isn’t their first language. 

Using QR codes within learning tasks demystifies them when seen in the wider community.

While it may appear common-sense that these features can support a wide range of different learning profiles, our observation is that learners do not typically have experience of using them before arriving with us.

By exposing our learners to them and demonstrating their practical application, we enable them to make autonomous informed decisions about which skills will be helpful to them.

A learning jounrey

Our curriculum is influenced by the unique needs of our community and is developed by teaching and therapeutic staff working in close partnership to ensure the content is relevant within the college and beyond. 

We introduce learners who are newer to these skills in fun ways: cheating at quizzes, accessing jokes through QR codes, exploring our on-site smart flat to use the automatic vacuum cleaner, the smart doorbell and smart speaker.

And we support those who are closer to the end of their college journey to practise these skills in the community or in work placements, for example by using bus apps to plan journeys, reading ready-meal labels in a shop or accessing a customer feedback form via a QR code and dictating their responses.

This approach delivers meaningful outcomes which increase our learners’ confidence and independent living skills: reading a menu independently rather than have it read aloud by others at the table, communicating confidently with a member of the public in another language and sharing the skill of digital translation with new colleagues, checking the allergens in the small print of food packaging in spite of a visual impairment, or reading a bedtime story to a younger sibling for the first time.

We have learners who choose to dictate their college work and those who prefer to type. Some use smart assistants to take responsibility for checking spellings and key information. Others have overcome their reduced literacy to engage and contribute to social media conversations with their friends.

Skills for life

Our vision is to ensure that every learner makes clear progress and they are respected and valued in their community, confident and able to contribute to society. By actively shaping a curriculum and community that harnesses the use of smartphone assistive and accessibility technology, we are ensuring our learners are equipped to overcome potential barriers for life.

We use free apps and accessibility features embedded within smartphones and laptops.  These features have applications far beyond the specialist education sector and are available to anyone who has a smartphone or laptop. 

Each class group is a unique community of differing learning profiles, needs and preferences; consider how adopting some of the accessibility features may enhance learner experience within your classroom.

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