Tom Starkey's world of ed tech

19th December 2014 at 00:00

In the ed-tech world, there is a tendency for its promoters to get a tad evangelical about what the shiny stuff can do. I've never shared that faith. I think that what is done with the technology by educators and learners is infinitely more important than the technology itself.

Having said that, I started my career as a teaching assistant working with young people with profound learning and physical difficulties. For them, technology can be a game-changer.

When I started, equipment often came in the form of unreliable, clunky add-ons. Such hugely obvious devices served only to further ostracise students who wanted nothing more than to fit in.

As time has gone on, however, innovations have become smaller, more discreet and often integrated into existing tech in the form of apps. A number of these are even free.

There are text-to-speech apps that allow documents, PDFs and web pages to be read aloud to students with poor vision (a wealth of these is available, but NaturalReader continues to be a popular choice). There are speech-to-text apps for students whose motor-skills problems make typing a challenge (Google and Microsoft's native accessibility tools in this area are surprisingly accurate).

Then there are tools for students who have complex needs, such as SoundingBoard (free for Apple products from the App Store), which turns tablets and iPhones into communication boards for non-verbal learners - these once cost a fortune and were as heavy as hell. There are magnifiers; trackers designed to keep up-to-date records of important patterns for students on the autistic spectrum (Autism Tracker Pro or SymTrend, available on iTunes); sign-language translators (Mimix, on Google Play); remote-learning tools for those who suffer from social anxiety.

OK, now I'm starting to sound like those I teased at the start of this column; I'm evangelising about the possibilities. But, for students with special educational needs, this is just what the technology offers: possibilities.

Hopefully I am preaching to the converted and a staff member where you work is responsible for assistive technology. Or perhaps you are allowed CPD time to assess some of the products on offer. Resources are readily available out there and all it takes is a bit of time and effort to start applying them effectively.

It would be interesting to hear from you good folk about the part that assistive technology plays in your school, or if a particular tool has made a difference. Please shoot me an email if so because, although I don't see tech as a cure-all, it is probably worth getting evangelical if a bit of kit enables students to access their potential.

Tom Starkey is a teacher based in Leeds. Email or find him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212


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