"Click on a pink country," says Ruth Jones, and her students take their first steps into a new world. With the help of a software atlas, the teenagers are learning how to use a computer mouse. And thanks to Ruth and her inspired use of ICT, they will go on to make the most of learning opportunities that once might have been deemed off-limits.
A lecturer and team leader at Wirral Metropolitan College in Birkenhead, Ruth is responsible for the Independent Options course, designed for young adults with moderate or severe learning difficulties who are unable to sign up for mainstream courses. Typical students arrive from special schools at the age of 19, having led sheltered lives. "College is a huge culture shock," says Ruth. "They may never have had to make choices and they need a lot of help with social skills such as sharing and taking turns. ICT is a prime tool for helping develop these skills."
Each student has a learning plan with learning goals; a target might be to hang up a coat or follow a two-step set of instructions. Everything is recorded online in a simple but effective system of interlinked Word files designed by Ruth to help her team of tutors track achievements - and help students work through the inevitable bad days. Ruth says: "If I discover someone has had to take medication and is finding it difficult to focus, I can immediately look at his goals for the day and alter them in the system.
For example, a two-step instruction might be reduced to a single step."
The down-to-earth Ruth is driven by the desire to bring out each student's potential and she is renowned for her ability to turn mainstream ICT tools to new advantage. "Use what you've got," is her motto. A colleague says:
"Ruth employs software in ways the manufacturers could never have envisaged." Ruth realised that clicking on an Encarta World Atlas map would provide excellent mouse practice for everyone, including those who cannot read. Clipart images of faces - happy, angry, sad - are used to encourage troubled students to indicate how they are feeling and explore what tutors can do to help. Almost everyone has a mobile phone and Ruth urges pupils to make the most of them, setting alarms and reminders to help everyday life:
"Even students with severe learning difficulties can recognise a number and ring home. Mobiles are an excellent resource."
Given a choice of tools, Ruth will shun the sophisticated in favour of a simple solution that makes every student feel part of the team. "We had a digital camera here that was so hi-tech only I could use it," she says. She replaced it with five of the most straightforward models she could find and now students volunteer to pop to the shops, taking pictures and publishing them so everyone can make their shopping lists before they set out on a buying expedition. "That takes a lot of anxiety out of shopping," says Ruth.
Although some of her students employ assistive technology to make computers more accessible, Ruth warns that using something different from the rest of the class can leave a student feeling excluded. For one young man who had been reluctant to use anything "special", the breakthrough came thanks to an on-screen keyboard - he was happy to click on the keys, which looked exactly the same as everyone else's. Ruth says: "He saw this as equality and it was a great motivator. For the first time he was able to work independently and demonstrate his basic skills, which were good."
Ruth shares ICT news and views with families and believes in encouraging students to have an opinion on the tools they use. When they realised recently they had difficulty recognising famous people in black-and-white photographs - colour versions were fine - they drew up an action plan.
Their efforts were rewarded with a beautiful new colour printer.
Tips for teachers
* Get to know students' individual needs and assess how you can meet them using the tools you already have.
* Find out what students are doing at home and what they want to learn.
* Mass-market software can be used in ways never envisaged by its makers to make ICT more accessible.
* When putting forward a proposal, strengthen the case by including students' views.
* Share good practice with others, including students' families.