Control at their fingertips

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Information technology is giving disabled students more choice and independence in their learning. Martin Whittaker reports from a customised college

Georgina Cottingham comes into the room, draws back the curtains, turns off the light and turns on the television. All by touching a keyboard on her computer.

Georgina, 20, is in a special room at her college. She has cerebral palsy and is studying skills for working life and entry level health and social care.

Once inside the room, disabled students can control everything about their environment using wheelchair-mounted communication aids. They can work a TV, a phone, or a music system and turn a voice-activated computer on and off to access course work. Everything can be controlled with the touch of one finger or even a head movement.

For disabled learners to have this level of accessibility may seem the stuff of science fiction. But it is already happening at the National Star College, a specialist college of further education in the Cotswolds. The college is piloting what it calls the NEAT room - NEAT stands for NatStar Electronic Assistive Technology. Students who live on campus already use the room to make phone calls home, and eventually the college hopes to offer such facilities throughout its buildings.

Jon Brough, the college's head of speech and language therapy, has researched assistive technology and found that using such technology improved students' communication skills. "The fact that they can use a communicator to operate their TV or telephone is quite motivating," he said.

It is eight years since the influential Tomlinson committee report criticised FE for its poor record on inclusion for disabled people. The report declared that learning, assessment and organisation all had to be redesigned to fit the needs and learning styles of students - an approach very different from offering courses and simply giving students with disabilities extra support.

Since the report, advances in new technology have opened up great opportunities for this kind of culture change, giving disabled people real access to learning. The National Star College is leading the field in this area of inclusion. It has 161 students - most of them living on site - with a range of disabilities and learning requirements.

The college opened 37 years ago to cater for disabled young people from across the UK. Based on 35 acres of rolling country estate in Ullenwood near Cheltenham, it takes students with a wide range of physical disabilities and with acquired brain injuries. The college employs a small team of specialist staff who run programmes to help its students develop daily living skills, mobility and communication, as well as helping them become more employable. And it runs vocational programmes up to level 3, including business, leisure and tourism, health and social care and IT, and offers work placements, key skills, and optional subjects such as photography and cookery.

Simon Slatter, who has an acquired brain injury, is in his fourth year at the college. For him, voice-activated software has opened up a wealth of learning possibilities which would otherwise be beyond his reach. He has passed a diploma in IT, learning word-processing and spreadsheets as well as how to use e-mail. Simon, 24, now intends to move on to study computer-aided design and then into employment. "Without this technology my job prospects would go down a lot," he says.

An Office for Standards in Education inspection of the college two years ago praised its excellent ICT facilities, highlighting the range of assistive and adaptive devices it makes available for the students and which allow them to work independently.

Over the past five years it has made the most of the growth in communication and access technology. Where a communication device was once simply for communicating with someone standing in front of you, now it allows you to send and receive e-mail from a wheelchair and to use infra-red to control an environment, as in the NEAT room. Last year the college wrote a three-year information learning technology strategy which set out its vision to become a recognised centre of excellence in this field.

David Finch, director of college development, says: "It's not a matter of catching up - we are saying this is the requirement - how can we adapt things? We have been talking with the software manufacturers and telling them these are the people who require this particular service or access.

What can be done to facilitate that? We are often invited to drive the software."

All its students have one-to-one access to PCs and they can also access wireless technology in their own rooms. Classrooms use projectors, remote-control equipment or interactive whiteboards. And they use a range of hardware such as modified keyboards and joysticks to help them learn.

The college also takes great care in assessing students, so that the courses they do and the support they receive constantly match their individual ability. Each student is given a comprehensive IT assessment when they arrive, which checks, for example, their hand-eye co-ordination, the text size they need to overcome any sight problems or whether they can use a computer mouse. This along with other information such as desk height required, or any changes in Windows, such as enlarged cursor or menus, is entered into students' individual learning profiles, which support staff then use to match their needs.

The college also uses "roaming profiles" which allow students to use any computer on the campus and have it tailored to their needs. Software is also constantly being developed, with the college feeding back to its developers, including voice recognition software and hands-off, onscreen keyboards.

Meanwhile the college's management information system, Star Data, carries a mass of home-grown information, including a system which produces customised timetables. Students on the Skills for Adult Life programme, for example, have timetables with photographs of their tutors, symbols for each subject and colour-coded rooms.

"Holding and being able to access information has been the big revolution for our students and staff," says David Finch. "We have developed learning plans for different courses, tracking and monitoring the progress of learners, and developed very individualised programmes."

The college's IT strategy focuses on the people who use the technology as much as the technology itself. One student, Bernard, became paraplegic after an accident in his teens and has no limb movement. He was using a voice-recognition system to input text into a computer, but grew frustrated with its poor accuracy and limited ability. The college then introduced him to the latest version of the software and he was given intensive tutoring so that he could train the software to suit his voice. Bernard managed to hone his skills with this software by playing an on-screen pool game with his friends.

One departing student, Sarah, said: "College has primed me for the rest of my life by giving me a qualification which can help me progress to university. I feel ready for the trials and tribulations life can throw at me."

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