Incorporating assistive technology to support every learner – FE Week

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Assistive technology can improve access to learning and drive attainment, says Faye McLaughlin, and the best thing is you probably already have it at your fingertips
Assistive technology can improve access to learning and drive attainment, says Faye McLaughlin, and the best thing is you probably already have it at your fingertips
Faye McLaughlin
assistive technologist, Oldham College
12 Dec 2022, 5:00
Oldham College recently won the nasen award for teacher development in digital accessibility, but the real winners are our students. We have seen first-hand the benefits that assistive technology (AT) can bring:  Students are more confident and empowered, accessing learning with the skills they need to thrive in and outside the college gates. And yet, I find myself teaching in one of the few colleges that offers a range of AT to all staff and students.
Some teachers find the technology daunting and believe it will be too hard to incorporate. Many leadership teams feel it is too expensive, especially with continuously squeezed budgets. Of course, it isn’t something that can be embedded successfully and work for all overnight. And yes, the technology isn’t overly cheap. But with time, students will reap the rewards.
If you are thinking of investing in AT software, or planning to use the built-in accessibility features on your current devices, here are five considerations that have been key to incorporating more assistive tools within our classrooms.
There are so many devices out there, so it’s important that you and your leadership team invest in the right tools for you and your students. You will find many reviews online and  feedback in teacher forums, but our students heavily influence our decisions too.
Most AT providers will allow you to trial their software and equipment, so give your students time to explore and feed back their own opinions. This will help you build an even more solid case for use of funds in the budget. Our students have helped us choose software to support memory recall and creating mind maps and – something I feel has particularly helped many students – text-to-speech software that can read text aloud to students online or in documents.
One of the biggest barriers to students embracing AT is confidence, so it’s vital to have the time and space for them to try out what’s available. Give students total access to the various AT tools and let them explore their learning potential.
I also find taking the time to listen to parents and carers is hugely beneficial to make sure they are aware of the AT being trialled, its potential benefits, and to help plan any interventions.
Most computers and laptops have built-in accessibility tools, so check what devices you have and see what tools there are in their settings options. Chromebooks have text-to-speech, dictation and display- and screen-changing options in their settings menu. iPads have assistive touch and guided access, while Microsoft Office has ‘Immersive Reader’ (a free tool that helps improve reading) as well as the dictation tool. If your class uses Google Docs, all your students will have access to dictation there too.
It’s important that every teacher is on board and understands and appreciates what is available to them in their classroom. We have monthly sessions where we go through any AT that is currently being trialled as wells as any new AT that has been incorporated and feed back on how we and our students have found working with it in class. This is a great way to learn from one another.
Technology is constantly evolving so it’s important to keep up to date with what is available or any updates to the technology you already have in place. I’m always on the lookout for CPD on what technology is out there and working for others to help improve my general knowledge and that of my fellow teachers.
Having access to AT has made many of our learners more determined and ambitious and it’s wonderful to see them grow. I know I am extremely lucky to work for a college that invests so heavily in AT, but by exploring the tools you already have within your devices, and with some research and trials on external AT, your students could be reaping the benefits before you know it.
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