Assistive Technology

Technology Can Help Us Tackle the Void of Differentiation

Differentiation is a fabulous ‘buzz’ word, but with new technology we can differentiate in a more meaningful way to make challenging tasks fun and achievable
Enjoying experiences without leaving the classroom with VR headsets

Too many teachers still believe that they differentiate for their learners by providing three different forms of worksheets: one with very little text and a few images to the two-page, fully justified piece of prose which demands more than a single word answer to questions.

Frankly, this is criminal. Differentiation should focus more on the strengths of learners, rather than their weaknesses, and should take into account different learning styles.

These days there is so much technology out there that provides alternative ways of accessing and presenting information so that teachers can provide differentiation in a more meaningful way than ever before.

I am Head of eLearning at ESMS (Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools) in Edinburgh and we are one of the largest independent schools in Europe. In many ways, ESMS is a very traditional school, based on nine core values and a strong sense of family.

I often work with groups of children in Support for Learning workshops. It saddens me that children feel that being different is such a negative thing, rather than an opportunity to shine. We focus on how technology could be used to level the playing field for them and by providing real differentiation we given them the chance to shine.

I remember one example where dictation software was quite revolutionary for a child. He was tasked with writing an essay about Napoleon from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He did not know where to start and stared glumly at his laptop, quite in despair. He had a laptop because he struggled to hand write and there is no doubt about it, the device helped him to produce legible work of which he could be proud.

I found that he could tell me everything about Napoleon from having read the book alongside listening to the audio version and I realised that his strengths lay in his verbal communication. So, we explored the dictate function in Word and I showed him how to share this with me as a live document, so I could see what he created as he went along.

It provided him with a sense of independence to do the task but with the knowledge that I was there, if he needed me. We sat in the same room but he completed his 500 word essay in around ten minutes by speaking his essay into his laptop.

We proofread it together using the immersive reader tools available to us and his smile never left his face the entire time. It was as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. That boy has gone on to use that technology to help him utilise his strengths to overcome his learning challenges effectively ever since.

Offering options – differentiation by output

Some teachers think they are differentiating if they get students to do a PowerPoint presentation instead of an essay. They think they are ticking the box for visual learners too but real differentiation comes when pupils have a choice. Some children will prefer to use video, some will be confident to stand and talk and others may prefer to make a poster. In each approach, the children will use their strengths and areas of confidence and still achieve the same end result of imparting knowledge to someone else. This allows them the freedom to explore their own learning strengths.

Some children are reluctant to speak up in class. Now there are alternatives. Try using Padlet or any online bulletin board. Teachers, Teaching Assistants and students can post up questions and answers, everyone can contribute and the teacher can pause during the lesson to review and discuss contributions.

This is vey similar to the chat technology we have all become accustomed to on Teams and Zoom, during lockdown. It makes for more active learning, better engagement and lets listeners record queries or observations in the heat of the moment instead of at the end of a session so it puts less strain on memory.

So too, Flipgrid has been a fabulous medium through which students have been able to engage in lessons, contributing through video, to discussions and answering questions. I have enjoyed seeing examples of those shy ‘middle children’ suddenly becoming more visible in lessons and my hope is that they can build from this when schools return to ‘normal’.

What I hope for more is that teachers remember those lightbulb moments and develop those platforms effectively, which helped engage their students and allowed distance learning to work so effectively.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality offer access to experiences

At our school we expect that by the time children reach Primary 6 (Year 5) they will be using fountain pens to complete all their written work which will be proudly displayed on the classroom walls.  As in all schools, some children will not reach the dizzy height of legible blotch-free work, so ESMS has also invested in technology.

There are many engaging resources out there. Some come and go and, tragically, HPReveal is one of those which never lasted the course. It was fabulous AR app which gave many of our children an easy and engaging way to communicate their learning to an audience, without the focus on handwritten text.

Using augmentative reality to make books come to life at ESMS

ThingLink has stepped into the gap beautifully for us. It allows a multimedia interaction with learners and brings posters to life which would otherwise have been inaccessible to some for whom reading is difficult. We have used it brilliantly to create interactive site maps for new families and those in transition years.

I was privileged to showcase ThingLink at BETT 2019, alongside Avantis ClassVR, and presented to educators and school leaders from across the world. I talked about the benefits of enhancing learning and teaching through innovative use of technology like this.

All agreed this was a fabulous approach to education but some were nervous about how to implement the change, with so many teachers stuck in ‘traditional’ ways. One approach might be to step back from focusing quite so much on teaching the curriculum and think more about teaching children.

Because it inherently places learners directly into an environment, Virtual Reality (VR) is a wonderful resource to use in education. I have been a VR Pioneer for two years now and seen first-hand, the incredible enhancements to learning and teaching it can provide.

The key successes come from the fact it is multi-sensory and therefore can engage all visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners easily and in a fun and innovative way. To that end, it also creates an experience for the learner because they have felt immersed in the lesson. This makes it far more meaningful, memorable and engaging and that, ultimately, is what every teacher wishes to provide for their classes.

Virtual Reality lets us enhance the learning experience of every child in the school in a truly multi-sensory and immersive approach. This is particularly true for subjects such as History and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies where we often expect learners to describe conditions which others experienced.

By making learning a more meaningful experience, learners are less hindered by challenges and are more engaged in learning. I have created 360 Virtual Reality tours of Edinburgh which supported our study of the Jacobites in Primary 6 (Year 5). Video can be embedded into a 360 image (or video), along with websites, text and audio clips, as well as Microsoft Forms so learners can comment or answer questions on devices of their choice.

Pompeii is no longer a distant and expensive school trip, now that our children can stand on the edge of Vesuvius with lava tantalisingly close. In Primary 3 (Year 2) classes used to study Rainforests using images from textbooks, now they can ‘visit’ them with VR.  I have even explained the concept of psychosomatics when the children find themselves ‘feeling’ the heat and intense atmosphere of the Amazon.

It goes without saying that the children love the inclusion of VR in the classroom but it is not just about making learning more fun. A boy in Primary 3 told me once “…with photographs and TV screens I can see things in a rectangle in front of me but with VR I can choose to look wherever I want.” He captured the essence of ownership of learning and deepened my appreciation of flipped learning.

Virtual Reality for learning languages

I am currently working with the University of Glasgow and Dr Gabriella Rodolico on how to incorporate VR into the teacher training syllabus for PGDE students.  Most recently, one of Dr Rodolico’s PhD students contacted me to assist her in her research into how VR can assist with alleviating anxiety when learning languages. Her study focuses primarily on Chinese to English and this is an incredibly exciting area to develop.

Imagine using VR to immerse learners in an environment where they can experience the spoken language, not just hear it or read it from a textbook

I recall learning Spanish and French at school by listening to audio tapes. Clearly, audio was not my strength and I relied on visual input to reinforce this so, needless to say I did not learn well simply by listening to people talking.

However, when I was able to see people speaking and, albeit subliminally, take in their gestures and body language etc. I became quite a confident linguist and can happily get myself out of most situations in French, Spanish and now Arabic.

We all know that most language is supported by the accompanying gestures, inflection and facial accentuation which come with speech. Soon we will exploit this aspect of communication in lessons. If children struggle to recall the price of cheese on a market stall they don’t have to rely on auditory memory. They will be able to close their eyes, picture where they stood in the market and this can help to retrieve what they heard.

This is a whole new version of a differentiated, multi-sensory approach to teaching and learning languages because ‘anchors’ will help support the less dominant learning styles.

It is a well-known fact that the brain makes countless connections to make sense of its surroundings and to process information. Now, with new technology will we be able to exploit this as teachers?