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Workshop: using technology for communication and to support learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 10 Apr 2015, 17:03

On 26 March, I went to two seminars: one about the history of computing, and another one about augmentative and alternative communication.  This is a quick blog summary about the latter event (which can be viewed through YouTube); it’s not a subject I know too much about (and I thought it might be of interest to anyone who might be taking the H810 Accessible on-line learning module which is a part of the MA degree in on-line and distance education).

This event also relates to an internal project called SeGA, which is short for Securing Greater Accessbility.  SeGA is a university initiative that aims to thoroughly embed accessibility practice within the Open University.

Assistive technology

The seminar (or workshop) was presented Marion Stanton from Candle AAC (website). As far as I understood things, Candle AAC a not for profit organisation that offers help and advice about communication technologies for people who have difficulty with movement and communication.  Her talk was focused on technology and approaches that could help people (primarily those who are aged 5 through 18) who have complex needs.  Also, her focus was on general technology rather than the capabilities of specific products.

One of her early presentation slides presented a range of different tools and technologies.  These ranged from low tech communication aids, eye gaze technology, alternative pointing devices (which could be used to replace a mouse), alternative keyboards, optical character recognition, voice recognition, idea mapping software, word prediction and software that can offer support to people who have dyslexia.

An important point that I noted is that everyone is different.  This reminded me of a phrase I heard at another Open University event, that ‘when you’ve met one person who has autism, you’ve met one person who has autism’.

A significant area of focus of the morning was the subject of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Wikipedia), or AAC for short.  Augmentative means that a technology can be used as well as (or to supplement) speech, and alternative means that a technology can be used instead of speech.  AAC can also be sometimes used as an alternative to writing.

Marion exposed an interesting (and misplaced) assumption, which was, ‘if you give someone an alternative way of communicating, then surely there will be less incentive to use other forms of communication?’ Research suggests that this certainly isn’t the case.  In fact, we were told that it can actually help and can encourage other forms of communication.

During this section of the workshop, we were given what amounted to a brief history of AAC.  (In H810, there is also a section where students are told something about the history of assistive technologies).  We were told about really low tech approaches and shown photographs of incredibly bulky technology. 

Activity and links

We were all asked a seemingly simple question: what is communication?  After some debate in our workshop (sharing views that it was about connection and emotion), we were told that, essentially, there is an expressive side and there is a receptive side.

A related question is: what does someone actually need?  This was a question that connected to the earlier point that everyone is different.  This led us to being briefly introduced to Makaton (Makaton charity website), Signalong (Signalong website), and Paget Gormon (Paget Gorman Society).  It was also interesting to hear about the different levels of technology, i.e. there are low, medium and high technology aids.  High technology aids, we were told, were invariably computing devices or PC based.  An another dimension to high technology aids is that they might be potentially linked to environmental control systems, such as systems within a ‘smart house’, to assist with independent living.  One example might be an interface to open and close curtains, or to control and to set heating levels.

Another links I made a note of was Talking Mats, which has now become an app, Minspeak, Sensory Software, and Widgit.

Choosing the right technology

Given such a wide variety of tools and technologies a difficult question to address is: which one should we choose, or which one is the most appropriate?  Not only does the choice of tools matter, but also how tools are set up and configured for individual users.  A tool might be very suitable but configured inappropriately.  Uncovering the correct settings (and choosing the right tools) requires experienced and expert assessors not making assumptions.

The choice of technology is, of course very dependent upon individual circumstances, and different experts may well give different recommendations.  An important point was that it’s not possible to be an expert in everything.

During the session, we were told about AAC technologies, but also the importance of subject specific learning was also briefly addressed.  One company was mentioned, Splash Software which developed software to help with the learning of mathematics.  (The accessibility of mathematics is also a topic that is briefly covered in H810).  This implicitly points to the complexities inherent in making the important details of academic subjects accessible.  Technology isn’t going be solve everything.  Pedagogy and the selection of appropriate support are important too.

Time is also very important.  A task that might take someone an hour to complete might take another person, using an assistive technology, a whole day to complete.  Assistive technologies permit access and aim to ‘level the playing field’, but all students have to work according to the same module calendar.  This also relates to a point that I picked from colleagues who used to work in JISC TechDIS.  The point was that even if something is technically access, the usability constraints might cause something to become practically inaccessible.

Final thoughts

At the start of the workshop, tablet computers were mentioned.  A point was made that although they’re very useful, tablet computers (or ‘apps’) don’t solve everything: it very much depends on the needs of an individual.  Towards the end of the session, I made a note of another website:  Apps for AAC. 

I found the time to have a quick look at this site and I found it pretty astonishing since it describes a total of over two hundred and sixty different apps of different types.  This, in some way, highlights the challenge.  There are loads of choices, and making a choice (and being aware of what is out there), isn’t easy.  Although I have known of this as a subject (and research) area for quite some time, it is clearly one that is a lot bigger and more wide ranging than I had ever imagined.

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