From education to employment

Technology to level the playing field for all learners

As many of you will know decreases in education budgets mean that local authorities are increasingly requiring mainstream learning providers to cater for learners with more severe learning impairments. However, official figures don’t make for pleasant reading, in 2012, only 46% of people with learning or physical impairment were in employment compared to 76% of those without. Those with learning impairments are also around three times as likely not to hold any qualifications. Is this an example of where we as educators may not be meeting inclusivity challenges? Does this suggest that many mainstream learning providers aren’t quite meeting expectations when it comes to providing an inclusive learning environment for all?

A group of learners with widely differing accessibility needs can be a challenging prospect for any teacher. I recently read that tutors often feel they are given disability awareness-raising training without advice and support on how to encompass inclusive teaching and learning in a practical context.

So, how can these needs be addressed? Technology can play a vital role in levelling the playing field between different groups of learners and can allow tutors to cater for all the needs of their students.

At our forthcoming event, ‘Technology to Support Autistic Learners’, we will be exploring examples where tutors are successfully using technology to help autistic learners achieve their learning goals and create an inclusive environment.

Julie Burns, counselling manager at Education and Services for People with Autism (ESPA) will be outlining how her organisation is using iPads with autistic learners to support development. A learner with autism may need support with communication, organisational and study skills. It is a spectrum condition so will affect people in differing ways and to different extents. Julie told me that iPads allow a degree of flexibility, help to personalise learning, create a level playing field and are cost effective too. They use iPads with learners throughout the whole autistic spectrum: non-verbal learners can use apps to help them identify objects or facial expressions, more able learners can use video editing software for presentations. Specialist devices, although effective, can be expensive and an organisation would have to assess the cost against the number of learners they can potentially benefit.

From speaking with tutors, it is obvious that technology is also a great way to improve learner engagement. Julie’s less able learners can be more involved in sessions and Jamie Caine, lecturer in iMedia and online learning at The Sheffield College, has some great ideas for using technology to engage and support all learners. He recognises that despite different intentions, learners with learning impairments or disabilities run the risk of being ‘ghettoised’ within a mainstream setting. I agree with him – you need to get different learners using the right technology for them and help them to use this to progress and engage with each other.

The work Jamie has undertaken is a great example of technology being used to boost inclusivity. The Game2Engage project invited a group of 20 students on a BTEC First and National Diploma in Creative Media to mentor 30 learners on a Practical Skills course. Practical Skills is a programme that supports learners with profound and multiple disabilities to learn life skills.

The project began with a session where the learners used a wiki to create a resource on personal identity, adding images, video and audio clips that demonstrated the individual and team interests. The aim was to get the Practical Skills learners handling the technology and the iMedia learners understanding the disabilities and interests of those they would be mentoring. The project wanted to use technology to break down social barriers and help learners to communicate and develop relationships. Following this, weekly lunchtime sessions with learners using technology such as iPads, Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Xbox helped all the learners to achieve. Jamie found that Practical Skills students gained digital skills, friendship, social integration and fun through games and technologies; iMedia students gained confidence, a heightened awareness of how disability impacts upon life, more relevant work experience through sourcing and examining gaming technologies and more finely honed team work skills. The college has produced a video highlighting the engagement and learning that is still taking place.

The project is a resounding success. Before the project began, Practical Skills students did not really integrate or participate in college mainstream culture or situations such as lunchtimes and breaktimes in the college refectory. Since the project there have been examples where learners have helped each other out socially and the Practical Skills students are more embedded in social activity. The project is now part of the iMedia course with a two hour timetable slot, rather than lunchtime sessions.

So, while cuts to budgets may never be a good thing, can these increased demands be a catalyst for providers to create a fully inclusive environment to benefit the people they serve and those that teach them? Can colleges learn how technology can help them support all their learners in a flexible and cost effective way?

Through Jisc TechDis we offer a wealth of advice and tools to help you on your way, from guidance on creating or adapting inclusive resources to signposting alternative methods. And for those practical hands-on demonstrations that tutors and managers say they need, Julie and Jamie are part of the growing bank of knowledge that can help learners with learning impairments and disabilities achieve their goals.

Christine Comrie is information officer at the Yorkshire & Humber regional support centre of Jisc, a charity that works on behalf of HE, FE and skills to champion the use of digital technologies

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