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ICT for Special Educational Needs Support

The Potential of ICT Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs

Chapter 1:


1.1 Background

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is the use of computers in education and offers enormous potential to teachers and pupils. There is a growing number of consistent evidence which shows that ICT can and does improve learning outcomes, particularly in the core subjects of English and Mathematics (Cox et al, 2003). Providing high quality software is matched to the specific needs of the individual, it can act as an effective and powerful tool in learning. While it cannot replace high quality teaching, it can enhance the learning process.

The application of ICT to teaching and learning can provide many benefits such as, facilitating communication, increase access to information, improve motivation, increase problem solving capabilities and enable deeper understanding of complex ideas. ICT can provide pupils with special educational needs improved access to learning and areas of the curriculum which may have been previously inaccessible.

According to Westwood (2003),

“The largest single group of students with special needs comprises those with general and specific learning difficulties that are not related to any disability or impairment. Estimates suggest that this may be close to 20 per cent of the school population. These learning difficulties most frequently manifest themselves as problems in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills’ which impact adversely on a child’s ability to learn in most subjects across the curriculum.”

(Westwood, 2003, P5)

The Audit Commission reports that one in five children in England and Wales has Special Educational Needs (SEN). This includes students with serious physical or learning difficulties but also many students whose reading, writing and numeracy skills develop slowly. Special needs include conditions such as dyslexia, physical disabilities, speech and language disorders, visual impairment, hearing loss, difficulties in communication, and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In recent years, there has been an increase in evidence that technology can help these children overcome their communication and physical difficulties, so that they can be included in lesson activities and access a wider curriculum, as suggested by the Irish body, the Education of Science Department (ESD) in The Learning-Support Guidelines (2000),

“‘Interactive computer-based systems allow the possibility of individualising the educational process to accommodate the needs, interests and learning styles of individual pupils. Individualised planning is fundamental to the successful use of ICT in supplementary teaching as it is to other forms of Learning Support. The planning process would include identifying a pupil’s individual learning needs and considering how ICT might be used to meet those needs.”

(ESD, 2000, P86-87)

Every learner has an entitlement to all the elements of cognitive, literacy and cultural learning. This belief is generally shared by all working with learners who experience any kind of difficulty, for whatever reason. The introduction of the national Curriculum and the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs (DfE, 1994), superseded by the new Code of Practice (2002), have given teachers the opportunity to put this clearly into practice because they provide and support a curriculum for all. It is explicit in the National Curriculum that all learners have a right to a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum, which makes it difficult to exclude any learners from this entitlement. Stansfield (2001) believes that incorporating ICT support strategies can be advantageous in making this occur.

“For learners with Special Educational Needs (SEN), the use of ICT can convert this entitlement to reality. The National Curriculum makes clear in each subject document that ICT should be used where appropriate, to support this process.”

(Stansfield, 2001, P5)

The National Curriculum (1999) identifies with this and makes clear in each subject document that ICT should be used where appropriate, to support this process.

Appropriate provision should be made for pupils who need to use:

  • Means of communication other than speech, including computers, technological aids, signing, symbols or lip-reading;
  • Technological aids in practical and written work;
  • Aids or adapted equipment to allow access to practical activities with and beyond school

(National Curriculum, 1999)

In Wales, the government have recently put forward their vision for education for Wales in the 21st Century, with a far stronger emphasis on including all learners and the use of ICT to support this. The Learning Country: Vision into Action, (DELLS, 2006) highlights the need for a learner-centred curriculum if standards are to be raised and all learners’ experiences of education improved. The document makes clear that all learners means just that – including pupils with learning difficulties, specific disabilities and motivation problems; those who are gifted and talented, from different ethnic/cultural groups and looked after children.

This vision was further realised and put into place through the National Curriculum for Wales 2008, further emphasising the importance of these key issues that are central to my research. The document Making the Most of Learning (2008a) clarifies this, suggesting that the…

“…development and application of thinking, communication and skills across the curriculum for all learners, schools should choose material that will:

  • provide a meaningful, relevant and motivating curriculum
  • meet the specific needs of learners and further their all-round development.

So that the revised national curriculum subject orders and frameworks are truly learner-centred,”

(DELLS, 2008a, P4)

Legislation promotes the notion that students with SEN should have access to ICT. ICT is incorporated into the National Curriculum and therefore access should be made to a range of devices to promote inclusion. Access devices, such as switches, keyboard alternatives, key-guards and joy-sticks can help learners with physical difficulties to use a computer, and enable them to access the same curriculum as their peers.

Pupils, who have literacy difficulties or an impaired visual disability, should also have access to enlarged texts or speech devices and equipment in order that it is possible to hear the words and text in the way that children who do not have SEN, can read without encountering any problems. For some students technology may be the only way to ensure they can make their thoughts and needs known. For them, access to appropriate ICT-based solutions possibly provides the only chance of participating in society and realising their full potential.

Given the vital role that ICT can play in helping children with special needs to communicate and be involved in learning, it is disappointing that there is relatively little research published in academic journals regarding the use of ICT to support inclusive practice. Many sources of information include reports from charities and policy organisations with expertise in the area of special needs. Amongst these groups there are a growing number of small-scale case studies being undertaken (BECTA, BDA), showing the difference that ICT can make to individuals both at school and at home. Many of these case studies are powerful evidence of the potential that technology has in making a profound difference for students. Such studies may also provide teachers with examples of the use of different types of ICT in varying circumstances, some of which may be applicable to their own students. Hence even though these case studies may be small-scale, they can be of significant value.

The promise that technology brings to education has yet to be truly implemented across all schools successfully which is perplexing due to the strong evidence that permeates throughout educational research and government policy, even though minimal. There are clearly many obstacles or barriers for schools to progress with the successful application of ICT for supporting their learners, whether this is due to financial support, time, misguidance or even technology overload it is unclear. Therefore I needed to carry out my own research to investigate the potential of ICT supporting pupils with SEN and share my findings with others to support the development of ICT based pedagogy.

1.2 The Research Organisation and Aims

This research will set out to investigate the potential of implementing an ICT intervention strategy to support the learning and development of pupils with special educational needs. This will be carried out by undertaking an extensive literature review of the current research and recommendations within this field. This will then be reflected upon, in order to acquire a clear understanding of the possibilities, features and problems related to such an intervention approach. The information gathered through the literature review will be used to inform a Case Study, focusing on how the implementation of various ICT support techniques could provide an individual pupil, with specific learning needs, improved access to the National Curriculum.

In consultation with the school’s SEN team, it was decided that Pupil A would benefit from the intervention strategies, a child with mild/moderate learning difficulties who was receiving one-to-one support 15 hours a week with a Teaching Assistant. However, shortly after initiating participant training, pupil discussion and implementation of the intervention strategies adopted, an unexpected problem occurred with the whole Case Study. The parent of Pupil A had been offered a new job which meant that the family had to move out of the area and the school – the research site. Therefore, the discussion process got underway once more, in the search for a pupil who would benefit from such an intervention process, while being supportive to the research study.

I finally decided upon inviting Pupil B to take part in my study, due to the similarities in the difficulties experiencing access to the curriculum as with Pupil A. Pupil B has been diagnosed with Dyslexia and is currently receiving 15 hours of support per week and is located in the same class as pupil A, therefore the class teacher could still participate. Coupled with this similarity of circumstance for selection, was a point made within Pupil B’s Occupational Therapy Assessment Report (Appendix 10), specifying the recommendation for an ICT intervention strategy in order to support the recording of his thinking and learning.

“As a Year 5 pupil it is important for ****** ‘s long-term recording needs to be developed to permit speed and endurance in order for him to devote his attention to content of work i.e. sentence construction, punctuation, etc. Development of IT skills and a measured approach to written recording is therefore recommended.”

(Appendix 11)

This proved to be an ideal solution for the research, though more importantly for the pupil’s needs. The Pupil Profile section within Chapter 4 highlights the main issues regarding Pupil B’s learning difficulties and the nature of support he requires due to his dyslexia. Keates (2000) explains that one of the main groups of people with Special Educational Needs who could potentially obtain many benefits from ICT is those with dyslexia.

“Dyslexic pupils face some difficulties in the school including problems in the processing of sound and note-taking. ICT gives access to the curriculum of the subject being taught for dyslexic pupils. Dyslexic pupils often respond positively and quickly to using computer systems, fast realising the support, facilitation and access to a learning environment that ICT affords them.”

(Keates, 2000, P4)

These are the main reasons for the focus on Dyslexia within this research and the selection of a pupil for the Case Study who possesses this condition. Therefore, coupled with the time frame available and considering the nature of the research site, this selection was deemed the most feasible, in respect to gauging any effect on standards and ability levels through the inclusion of ICT intervention strategies. In order to measure any improvements a series of pre-test and post-tests will be carried out and comparison made. Through this approach, an analysis of reading, writing and spelling will be undertaken, which are the main concerns highlighted within his Individual Education Plan and SEN statement.

When considering all of these issues two questions were generated in my head which became the Key Research Questions, which act as a guide and focus.

Key Question 1: Why adopt ICT in Learning Support for pupils with Special Educational Needs?

Key Question 2: How can ICT encourage and facilitate teacher’s and peer’s engagement in supportive learning, in a more productive way than might otherwise happen?

These questions are considered throughout the whole research and are reflected on when considering recommendations from literature in the field, examined and discussed within the following Chapter 2. The research methodologies adopted throughout this inquiry are described in detail in Chapter 3. While Chapter 4 provides a detailed report of the Case Study carried out with specific reference to the overriding research questions.

Finally, Chapter 5 contains a presentation and analysis of the findings exposing the successful outcomes and issues arising from the Case Study. Conclusions are related and compared with that of claims made by literature within the field in order to justify inferences. The concluding chapter also offers recommendations for further research and intervention processes for implementing ICT strategies for supporting pupils with SEN.

The Potential of ICT Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs

Literary Review

Technology and Pedagogy

2.1 Introduction

Although the use of ICT in mainstream education has its origins in the 1970s, it has only been in recent years that the government has identified the importance of and paid special attention to the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Special Educational Needs (SEN). Investment in ICT and the development of policy and practice in meeting SEN requirements have created unprecedented opportunity for the inclusion of all pupils in meaningful learning experiences.

This recent and welcomed emphasis on inclusion, coupled with the ever-advancing technologies, have stimulated much interest in using various ICT applications for both individualised learning and for integrating pupils with disabilities into a mainstream school environment. This chapter provides an overview of some of the issues regarding teaching and learning with technology to support SEN, while exploring the polarized opinions that run through research and literature within this field and the possibilities which these two merging areas within education can provide an individual learner.

Davitt (2005), suggest that even though for many decades educationalists and ICT specialists have advocated the potential benefits of using ICT to support and extend learning opportunities, both in mainstream and special education, it is only in recent years that research in this field is beginning to gain substantial momentum. Underlying this faith in ICT, whether acknowledged or not, are clear assumptions about the way in which children learn and the attributes of ICT. The learning theories that are core to most ICT learning to date are considered by Jones and Mercer to,

“…embody a strongly individualistic conception of learning which has dominated learning theory and educational practice in this field”

(Jones and Mercer, 1993, P19)

Many writers have extolled the benefits of using ICT in a learning environment with SEN, suggesting that technology can act as a great equaliser in overcoming or compensating for differences among learners. See, for example, the Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs (DfEE, 1998a), the Green Paper on Special Educational Needs (DfEE, 1997) and the SEN action programme (DfEE, 1998b) which recommends that;

“There will be more effective and widespread use of Information and Communications Technology to support the education of children with special educational needs, both in mainstream and special schools”

(DfEE, 1998b, P26)

This idea has important implications for learners with disabilities and special educational needs because it suggests that technology can help create the conditions for equal opportunity to learn and equal access to the curriculum for all. The appeal of technology as an equaliser for learners with special educational needs is borne out in the many materials that have been developed to address special educational needs. In particular is the formerly National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) now British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), who provide a range of information to help identify technologies to aid the learning process of pupils with special needs. BECTA are the body advising the government on the use of technology in education and published a compendium of research findings entitled ‘IT works!’ (See Appendix: 1)

The report made as many as 27 assertions with supportive references from research, however, the assertions made here may need to be seen in the context of a government trying to re-affirm and justify a belief in the educational potential of new technologies. Nevertheless, they can offer a useful starting point for a discussion of the potential of ICT to enhance pupils’ learning.

Professional magazines and trade shows also offer a dazzling array of devices and programmes covering all areas of the curriculum and all types of learning difficulties. For example, the official magazine of the UK’s National Association for Special Educational Needs, ‘Special’, contains an ICT guide as a regular feature. This feature explores a range of issues from reviews of programmes to the skills that teaching assistants need to support learners.

It covers all types of learning with technology for all kinds of learners. Many ICT hardware and software developers such as the Semerc group currently provide training for teachers and support workers to develop their professional practice and provision for pupils with SEN requirements who use their product.

2.2 The Information Supermarket Highway

The plethora of available information, software titles and hardware strategies covered under the heading ICT and SEN can be daunting. In the pressurised world of teaching, there is little opportunity to think critically about what is available or how it should be used and would this best match an individual pupil. In a review of the instructional effectiveness of technology for pupils with SEN, Woodward et al. (2001) examined the research on software curriculum, specifically designed for pupils with such needs. They identified a number of design variables thought to affect academic outcomes for pupils with SEN, such as the type of feedback, visual quality, practice, strategy instruction, assessment and motivation. Woodward et al. found that there are no simple answers to the question of effectiveness:

“simply because a program or approach has been validated by research does not necessarily mean it will be used as intended in practice”

(Woodward, et al, 2001, P21)

The rhetoric accompanying new technological devices in education, and particularly special education, seems to have been very influential, confirming new ways of thinking and talking about teaching and learning. However, there still prevails a lack of clarity, understanding and application of technology being used to its full potential throughout the education system.

The culmination of grandiose and radical suggestions prominent in commercial slogan and catchy advertisements that are attractive to the educational eye, maybe responsible for our previous lack in informed purchasing, the appropriate matching of resources and effective teaching with the aid of technological resources to promote and maximise the learning of all pupils.

Many government papers are littered with the evidence of mismatched spending and resources for learning, that has resulted in missed opportunities, depleted tax payers finances, and a waste of genuinely keen practitioners time and efforts to provide improved services to their learners and an increased possibility of teachers becoming switched off from the possibilities of ICT enhancing teaching and learning. The Scottish Government’s paper on Education and Disability (2002) provides a perfect example of this detrimental situation within their plan to improve access to education for pupils with disabilities.

“Through the National Grid for Learning, new computers and networks are being installed in schools across Scotland to allow pupils to benefit from the use of ICT in learning. At the moment, various service providers are being contracted to install the network, but some pupils with disabilities are unable to use these computers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, as part of their accessibility strategies, responsible bodies should make certain that contracts for any future supply of computers or upgrade of existing stock ensure that the computers (and associated furniture) are accessible or can easily be modified to be accessible to pupils with disabilities.

(Scottish Executive, 2002, P 17, 47–48, www 12)

What is clear from this financial miscalculation and poor organisation is that the LEA services should be providing schools with the appropriate information for purchasing ICT software and hardware. Schools should make critical assessments on their ICT requirements in terms of what they want it do, who it is for and what are the expected outcomes from the resource. Merely placing a PC in a classroom is not going to improve the learning experience for pupils. Many factors have to be taken into consideration in order for the inclusion of technology to be successfully applied to pedagogy.

2.3 The Technological Pedagogical Debate

In early 1998, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) responded to the claims made for ICT by publishing a set of criteria to form an integral part of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses stating that:

“ICT is more than a teaching tool. Its potential for improving the quality and standards of pupils’ education is significant. Equally, its potential is considerable for supporting teachers, both in their everyday classroom role, for example by reducing the time occupied by the administration associated with it, and in their continuing training and development”

(DfEE 1998, P17)

This pressure on teachers to assimilate ICT in their work can, therefore, to some extent be seen to be predicated by an acceptance of the claims made in support of the educational potential of ICT. The potential of ICT to liberate users from routine tasks and empower them, for instance, to focus on the creative and cognitive rather than procedural aspects of writing or to make accessible vast amounts of information is to some extent reflected in the National Curriculum Orders for Information Technology, which emphasise the capabilities of communicating and handling information in various forms.

“Schools should provide opportunities, where appropriate, for learners to develop and apply their ICT skills across the curriculum by finding, developing, creating and presenting information and ideas and by using a wide range of equipment and software.”

(DELLS, 2008b, P6)

There are clearly strong claims to be made for ICT, but to view ICT as the solution to the educational challenges we face purely by virtue of its sheer existence, is misguided. The success of ICT use depends on our familiarity with good practice firmly rooted in an understanding of how pupils learn and our reflection on optimal environments of ICT use as bases for pedagogic innovation beyond the assimilation of new technologies into prevailing traditions of classroom practice. In view of the fundamental changes to our concept of knowledge, the learning process, the role of the teacher and human relations more widely brought about by ICT use, we need to go beyond doing the things we have always done, albeit with the help of new technologies.

The core aim of the 1998 DfEE – ITT for ICT was…

“…to equip every qualified teacher with the knowledge, skills and understanding to make sound decisions about when, when not, and how to use ICT effectively in teaching particular subjects”.

(DfEE 1998, p. 17)

In my view this aim requires a basic familiarity or relationship with learning theories and the findings from educational psychology as otherwise there is a real danger that the implementation of the computer activity may too easily encourage a distancing of teacher involvement; or as Crook (1994) suggests,

“…a dislocation from the normally rich context of class-based activity and discussion”.

(Crook , 1994, P18)

Whilst acknowledging the fundamental impact on traditional pedagogical modes, it is important to emphasise how the effectiveness of new technologies in the learning process depends on the ‘centrality’ of the role of the teacher in rendering pupils’ experiences with technology coherent, by embedding them in a context of interpersonal support. The role of the teacher, therefore, remains pivotal, such as in identifying appropriate learning outcomes, choosing appropriate activities and structuring the learning process.

In their analysis of the contribution new technologies can make to teaching and learning, Gregoire et al. (1996) provided the following with respect to student learning:

New technologies can stimulate the development of intellectual skills

New technologies can contribute to the ways of learning knowledge, skills and attitudes, although this is dependent on previously acquired knowledge and the type of learning activity

New technologies spur spontaneous interest more than traditional approaches

Students using new technologies concentrate more than students in traditional settings

These positive images are, however, balanced by two further observations of genuine significance:

The benefit to students of using new technologies is greatly dependent, at least for the moment, on the technological skill of the teacher and the teacher’s attitude to the presence of the technology in teaching.

The skill and this attitude in turn are largely dependent on the training staff have received in this area

(Gregoire et al., 1996, P18, www10)

Despite the over deterministic inference behind some of the statements, Gregoire et al. (1996) are sounding a warning that technology itself is not a panacea, and that without skilled application by the teacher its benefits may soon recede. The crucial element remains the way in which the technology is incorporated into pedagogical patterns and this is in turn dependent upon the impact it has on the personal theories of the teachers deploying the technology in their classrooms.

2.4 Scaffolding Learning Using ICT

Collis et al. (1997) argue that the within a technological approach to pedagogy, the ‘scaffolding’ role of the teacher is crucial, however the potential of ICT is exploited infrequently due to effective implementation of techniques being heavily reliant on the teacher providing the appropriate support for learning. Regardless of the suggested gains from any type of technological tool, it is when the teacher supports and guides learning that these benefits are maximised (Waller, 1999).

The computer does not enhance the learning experience unless teachers incorporate ICT very carefully into the curriculum. The role of the teacher is highly significant in the structure and outcomes of ICT based activities. The teacher guides and directs the pupil’s learning through structured planning, organising the activity, interventions during the learning process and the ways pupils apply their ICT skills within various contexts.

Mercer and Fisher discuss Bruner’s (1997) idea of ‘scaffolding’, where they suggest teachers need to be reflective and mindful of how they structure learning experience that require the use of technology to support pupil learning.

“If we can describe and evaluate the ways that teachers attempt to scaffold children’s learning with computers then we might be able to help teachers understand and perform their role in supporting children’s computer based activities. “

(Mercer and Fisher, 1997, P210)

Bruner (1978) suggests that the ‘Scaffolding’ process involves the adult guiding and supporting pupil learning by building on previous understanding and abilities. In assisting the development of pupils, educators require a clear view of learning objectives and understand that their role is to support learners enabling them to develop more independently. The amount and type of support required will vary depending on the pupil and the nature of the task. Tharp (1993) put forward a range of strategies that can be adopted to support pupil development through an instructional conversation, described as:


Contingency management



Cognitive structuring

Task Structuring


(Tharp, 1993, P272)

According to Tharp, the most productive strategy for support is providing feedback, as this enables pupils to assess their efforts to achieve set objectives, which will be taken into consideration during the planning and participant training phase of this research.

Mercer (1993) suggests that the quality of understanding, of which learners obtain through the application of ICT in the classroom, will not be controlled the quality of the technological tool applied; more accurately, it is determined by the approaches utilised to interact between the teacher, pupil and the ‘interface’. Cook and Finlayson (1999) concur with this idea and describe the application of ICT to support learning as a ‘joint activity’,

“…the way that learners and the learning support mechanisms of teachers, computer program and fellow group members work together so that the highest possible level of performance becomes achievable.”

(Cook and Finlayson, 1999, P100)

In support of this view, Labbo (2000) indicates that relying solely on technology to scaffold learning is not necessarily going to help or maximise the potential of the learner. Applying a model based exclusively on computer aided instruction is far from ‘authentic learning’; despite the fact that certain educationalists and politicians find this model appealing and the way forward.

I believe that before decisions are made to move forward within this field there is a great necessity for further research in order to realise that the combination of technology and how it can support the reciprocal roles of the teacher and child is far more significant than the technology itself. Arguably, it is this strong pupil-teacher relationship that requires attention and what should be central to the teaching and learning process, even when the technological tool is absent from any learning experience.

2.5 The Potential of ICT Supporting SEN

ICT been used to support learners with SEN within mainstream schools for some time, under the terms of assistive or enabling technology, adapting to developments in technology and educational policy changes for learners with different needs. In Blamires (1999) it is put forward that;


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