To our shame we sometimes observe the trickle-down effect at work within our colleges. The bright, shiny, new computers often go to the prestige courses while the old machines are passed down to the special needs department. A recent 10-month project managed by the National Council for Educational Technology and funded by the Department of Employment aimed to reverse this trend and examine the effect of providing good quality IT resources for learners with disabilities and learning difficulties.
Ten colleges across the country received state-of-the-art computers specifically for use by students with special needs. The Access to Learning through Technology project, as it was called, also provided a network for lecturers to share ideas and a final report on the project's findings is about to be published.
The report is likely to show that appropriate technology, introduced and mediated by skilled tutors, has a very positive effect on motivation which can result in considerable learning gains for students with a variety of special learning needs following vocational courses.
At Huntingdon College, lecturer Pat King received one multimedia PC, a machine which could play CD-Rom discs and provide good quality sound. "Before, we only had old BBC computers for special needs," she said. "This project has shown people that state of art equipment is especially important for students with learning difficulties. CD-Rom and multimedia hold enormous potential for learners who do not cope well with text alone, but we need new machines to run such software."
The computer is used daily with a variety of classes for areas as diverse as art-work and music. The college has a CD-Rom of musical instruments and students explore this, hearing the various sounds each instrument makes.
"The most effective resource is the concept keyboard," she said. This device replaces a conventional computer keyboard. Students enter information by pressing images on an overlay sheet and this is in turn converted to text on screen. "Students go home with a real sense of achievement carrying work that they have written with this device." Pat King has recruited other students on community care courses to provide new overlays for the concept keyboard. One group helps another and everyone is learning.
A competition was run as part of the project and Huntingdon College received one first and two third prizes. One was for a group of students expelled from schools who responded particularly well at producing a poster, menu and a letter using desktop publishing software. The project has also served to raise the profile of the special needs department and Pat King is hopeful for the future. "The college now realises the need and is supporting us."
Bozz Leach, a lecturer at Bolton College, was keen to support special needs in a variety of departments. "I used the money across college so that all students would benefit," she said.
One student, Anisa Ibraham, recently completed her NVQ level 1 spending most of her time in mainstream classes. Anisa, who has cerebral palsy, was assessed and given a specially-adapted computer with a slow keyboard rate so that she could type accurately. Now she is working for Bolton Council providing technical support and an interpreter service. Recently she has started to use a headset to amplify her voice on the telephone and leave her hands free for typing.
Bozz Leach sees this as proof of how technology can help academically able students to achieve their full potential. "Elsewhere we are seeing the computer help students with severe handwriting problems and we are now looking at the role of speaking word processors to help students with dyslexia," she said.
Another key resource the college received as part of the project was a still video camera. This device allows 50 images to be taken on to a disc for immediate playback on a television. "The camera is being used in all areas, especially in the catering department for recognition work. We have one camera on a booking system and it flies around college," said Bozz Leach.
The camera can also be connected to a computer and the images are then included in the students' written reports as another way of conveying information.
The catering department is now looking towards building visual resource banks using still images from the camera. One vocational consideration is that new machines allow students to use industry-standard software so that they will recognise the software on offer when they get to the workplace.
Most participating lecturers have noted that the allocation of IT has raised the status of special needs in their colleges. It seems that a PC is the modern equivalent of a large bunch of keys in medieval times. Key resources can provide a spark.
"Motivation is the key thing - the purposeful use of appropriate technology is great for motivating students," said Bozz Leach.
Further information and final report on the ALT project will be available next month from Sally McKeown at the NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry, CV4 7JJ.