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It's the big picture that helps to put the jigsaw together

Alison Cox reports on the latest initiative to support dyslexic students

I AM reminded of a dialogue with a student who came to me last year for advice about study strategies. The student, a young man who described his recent diagnosis of "severe dyslexia" as "a bit like struggling to do a jigsaw for years and then being handed the lid of the box with the picture on it", wanted guidance.

"To be honest", he said, "I only need to know how I can make the words that end up on paper sound as good as they did when they were still in my head."

As if to strengthen his case, he added: "Dad said I'm lucky compared with him because he didn't have computers to help him when he was at school. All his teachers thought he was a waster - but I bet if he went to be tested now, they'd find he out he's dyslexic, too. I know he's not thick."

One could not help but be struck by this 19-year-old's frank and insightful description of his situation - and challenged by his expectation that, having found out what was wrong, putting it right would be easy.

"By the way", he asked, "what does everyone mean when they say new technology? And when does new technology turn into old technology?" Resisting the temptation to say, "At the same rate as you and me", I shared my perspective on the ageing of technology.

In my view, an item of technology stops being new when the majority of people have heard of it, lots of people have tried it and, significantly, when many people use it so regularly that they could not imagine life without it. "Like a microwave," came the response.

Conscious of my very restricted microwave repertoire (I tend only to use the appliance for steaming rice and baking potatoes), it struck me that there was a huge gap between the potential of the appliance (as expounded by the manual that came with it) and the reality in my kitchen. We spent the rest of our meeting exploring the extent to which technology might enable this student to unlock his potential.

One month later, the same student came back to see me again. His college course was clearly going quite well. "You've convinced me," he affirmed. "But I haven't got time to keep explaining it to everyone else. All my lecturers want to know how the dyslexia software works. Don't you do that as part of your job?" I did say he was frank.

This anecdotal description of my encounter with Joe (not his real name) probably highlights the reason behind the BRITE Initiative more effectively than any of the other drafts I have penned en route to this page. BRITE (short for Beattie Resources for Inclusiveness in Technology and Education) is one of the activities being supported by the Scottish Executive and Scottish Further Education Funding Council in response to the Beattie committee report, Implementing Inclusiveness: Realising Potential.

This report, commissioned by the Scottish Executive and published in September 1999, set out a challenging agenda for all agencies providing education, training and employment opportunities for young people (with an emphasis on those in the 16-24 age range) in Scotland - especially individuals for whom considerable support may be needed along the way.

The BRITE initiative comprises a new base at Stevenson College in Edinburgh, an innovative virtual staffroom to facilitate communication between staff in all colleges, four regional training facilities linked to the Scottish Access centres and partnership activities with most of the Scottish colleges.

When it is launched this month, it will be striving to do exactly what Joe suggested. It will provide a staff development resource for the Scottish FE sector, focused on supporting colleges' attempts to unlock students' potential and broaden their horizons.

At the heart of the initiative is the belief that inclusive colleges are founded on the premise that the learning environment should offer a good fit with what students want or need - rather than expecting students merely to fit in with what is available.

BRITE's key role is to demonstrate what can help to turn the commendable aspirations of college strategic plans into reality on the ground. In particular, the focus will be on the appropriate use of "enabling technologies" (hardware, software, study aids) to level the playing-field for students with additional support needs arising from disability, learning difficulties or fragile health.

* After the launch event on February 7, which is being hosted by IBM (UK), further information about the BRITE initiative can be obtained at www.brite.ac.uk.

Alison Cox is the national co-ordinator and centre manager, BRITE.

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