Last September Microlink, the largest independent supplier of assistive technology in the UK, Claro, the developers of a range of assistive technologies and Nuance, the developers of Dragon Naturally Speaking, jointly announced Learing Access Suite for UK schools. The Suite provides seven indivdual assistive technology products, some initial training and on-going support, as a single package for an affordable per student licence fee.
Every school in the UK has a duty to support all their students; especially those with special educational needs, such as vision impairments, dyslexia, learning difficulties, inability to use a keyboard or mouse, or English as a second language.
Computer technology can provide considerable assistance to these pupils.
Unfortunately providing such technology has been difficult for schools as they had to go through a complex process of:
- Assessing the individual students.
- Choosing the most appropriate technology for each student.
- Finding the funding.
- Ordering and installation.
- Training the student and teacher.
- Administering and tracking the individual licences.
The process inevitably meant that students would not get the technology they required immediately; it also meant that borderline students would probably get no support at all. Much of the process would have to be repeated each year and whenever a new student was enrolled.
The programmes within the suite have been specially selected to support a wide variety of special educational needs. The pricing at under two pounds a head per student per year means they can be comfortably paid for from the standard SEN budget.
Once the suite has been chosen by the school, it can be installed and made available to all students. This universatility has considerable benefits, both direct and indirect:
- Most of the complexity, in the process described above, is removed.
- The individual student assessments need not be so rigorous. A student on the borderline of need can now be assessed as "may benefit from" rather than "will be able to cope without".
- A student with the need of the technology can now sit at any PC in the school rather than one that has been specially set up for him. This increases mobility within the school and also reduces any potential stigma related to using special technology.
- Students with English as a second language will benefit from having the ability to have individual words read to them, so they know the correct pronunciation and, if necessary, have it translated into their first language. This facility can be particularly important when the student has become relatively fluent and is not considered to need special help with his English.
- Students with dyslexia often find that typing it is too slow for them. They start with an excellent idea but by the time they have typed part of the sentence they have lost the thread, miss out words and produce a poor text. They can dictate as fast as they can think, and they dictate coherent and complete sentences. The quality of their work goes up dramatically and their level of frustration goes down at the same time.
- Many students will find dictation a fun alternative to typing or handwriting. It is also a good discipline because dictation works best when complete sentences or phrases have been thought out before the start of dictation.
- The text to speech and online dictionary facilities may allow students to read and understand more complicated texts than they could read themselves. Stretching students in this way should improve their learning and in the long-term their reading ability.
- Mind Mapping is included with the suite and this is a technique that should be taught to and used by all pupils.
- Pupils with no special educational needs, or those on the borderline, can experiment with the technologies and may find that some of them are of significant help.
- The IT operations costs will be reduced because they do not have to individualise the package for the student, nor do they have to count the licences.
- The administration is simpler because the sum payable is based purely on the cohort of the school.
To complement the suite in the school the same technology is available as a package for home installation. This means that the student can carry on using the same technology, and getting the same benefits, when preparing homework and course work out of school.
The early feedback on the suite has been very positive with benefits being seen by administration, IT, teachers, pupils and their parents.
The early success has shown that the suite is a good model and in the future it could be extended by including further technologies used extensively within schools, or providing alternative suites tailored for other environments such as prisons, old people's homes, or higher education