October 2, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans

Assistive technologies and academic support

Background – how I got here

I trained as an English teacher and taught abroad for several years before coming back to the UK and moving intoA-level and GCSE English teaching. Then I moved to West Wales and discovered that you can only really teach English if you can speak Welsh. I decided to train as a Specialist Teacher to work with the pupils and students who had always interested me, the ones who seemed to struggle in ways that were unexpected, often through dyslexia.

After training and working as a specialist in Wales, I got a job working for North Yorkshire County Council as an area lead for specific learning difficulties and led a small specialist team to support up to 90 schools. Then onto Derbyshire and into the HE sector, joined UoN and started doing quite a lot in the area of assistive technology. Basically, using technology to save time and effort, increasing productivity so that students with weaker lower order secretarial type skills, but strong higher-order thinking skills, can compete on a level playing field.


The staff Assistive Technology Champions project

I followed a suggestion from Richard Harris, an IS colleague,and established the “Staff AT Champions” subproject to both capturesome best practice and help spread the word amongst students about simple changes that can make a significant difference. A major advantage being that staff are typically here for much longer than the average student and, in the case of academics, this could potentially support inclusive teaching. It is, of course, a two-way process and begins with supporting members of staff to develop their own best ways of working with software and formalising this into a “Unique Design for Learning”.

Developing a Unique Design for Learning is the basis of my AT course for students and the same concept seems to work perfectly well for staff. The point is to step outside yourself, work out what you do well and what is more problematic, then apply your strengths from one area to your weaknesses in another, with the help of software. The intention is always for this process to be systematic to avoid losing track of what worked – it is so easy to forget and go back to your old habits.

Habits are difficult to break as we all know and this is particularly true for those people who feel overloaded, which definitely includes those with a profile of Specific Learning Difference like dyslexia or dyspraxia. The goal is to find better strategies and uses of software to produce a lot of work in a short time without getting so stuck on the lower order secretarial or mechanical skills.

I must say that the staff participants have been extremely positive and, although we are still in the early stages of the pilot, they are all very keen to make sure that there are real benefits for students. Currently,there are 8 participants and there is an absolute maximum of 10 based forthis one off project – we are mindful of having a student-facing only budget.

So far, what have I learned?

There appearto be two types of participant, those who were diagnosed a long time ago and had Access to Work grants, and those who are quite new to the whole idea of thinking about how they function in terms of their profile or patterns of SpLD. In both cases, we step back using a process of metacognition to look at strengths and weaknesses, which is quite a profound process and the feedback so far has been extremely positive. Participants have really welcomed the focus on strengths and what to do with them, rather than on limitations and difficulties.

What looks likely to help – some strategies

There have been some useful “tech-based solutions”, with strategies tailored to the needs of the participant, like the following:

  • Visualising and organising projects and other work using an electronic mind-mapping tool (MindView, on UoN Applications) or through creative use of OneNote.
  • Integrating the handwritten/print out and e-worlds through the (free MS) Office Lens app that saves directly to the Office 365 platform (OneDrive).
  • Support for web-based research by using programmes like TextHelp Read and Write (on UoN Applications) or Weava(free).

However, the holistic nature of the process has resulted in some much broader strategies that are not necessarily connected with software. This is not too surprising, it is very much the same in the course I do with students and it does mean that the project is at least as much about the specialist teaching skills as about knowledge of software and how it can assist.

For example, two participants have amazing visual memories and using this area of strength to systematically compensate for weak short term verbal memory works really well. Also, adapting to the general concept of chunking information and tasks, while being very conscious of why this works, has been successful. In another case, there was a need for a referral based on a co-occurring difficulty and that was only related to technology in the sense of specific difficulties in the area of visual disturbance. Deeper discussion around the nature of Specific Learning Difficulty has, as so often it does, given some participants a real boost.

Where next?

On 13/11/18, as part of the Week of Wellbeing, I will be running a session relating to this project. The plan is to deliver it at UP from 9.30 – 11.00 and at JC from 15.00 – 16.30. I expect it will be part explanation, part drop in. At this stage it looks like a 15 minute overview and the rest as question and answer. Please do come along if you are interested and apologies that the logistics won’t allow me to do SB. If you have any questions, then just email me on Gregory.jones@nottingham.ac.uk

Greg JonesAcademic Support Tutor

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