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Computing and SEN

As the dust starts to settle on the proposed National Curriculum changes, I have observed and read many blogs on how the change from ICT to Computing presents many challenges. I agree with the thinking behind the changes, in that we need to teach students how to use different hardware so that they can be the next generation of developers etc. rather than just consumers. However I feel that many teachers are already doing this by adapting the existing curriculum, by incorporating programming elements. I also feel that computing is not the be all or end or and that there are many other elements of ICT that should be taught to enable students to create various forms of digital media and become responsible digital citizens. If you have not already done so, read Matt Britland’s Guardian blog post ‘There is room for both computing and ICT in schools’this sums up brilliantly the needs and benefits to teaching both ICT and Computing together.

So moving on to our challenge as a school, I teach in a generic secondary special school for learning difficulties, with almost all the students operating at well below average NC level for English and Maths (they would not be at our school, if they were working at expected levels!!). The school caters for students working at P1 up to NC 5 so a huge range in terms of abilities. In KS3, the new curriculum states:

‘use two or more programming languages, one of which is textual, each used to solve a variety of computational problems; use data structures such as tables or arrays; use procedures to write modular programs; for each procedure, be able to explain how it works and how to test it’

DFE, 2013

Now with many of our students having severe literacy difficulties, they are expected to learn two other programming languages. I have done some coding myself and understand that different computer languages are similar, but still feel this is quite a challenging target for our students. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important that students learn to use computers for much more than viewing the latest YouTube video on their smartphone and look forward to adapting the curriculum to meet their needs. I have already seen my colleague Keith Manville (@open_sen) work with students at NC 1-2, coding simple sketches using Processing. The way in which he adapted this was to give the students different chunks of code to play around with and they soon picked up the understanding of the changes they made to the code was having effects on the what they saw on the screen.  This is certainly one way in which we will have to adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of our students.

As far as a curriculum for SEN, over the last few weeks I have been thinking about the tools we could use to deliver this. The tools listed below are based on own experience and researching what others on Twitter and the web are using. They are listed in order of progression (obliviously more thought will need to be put in to make sure we meet all subject content for each Key Stage) This list is no where near complete and as I write there is a Google Doc being put together by Sheli BLackburn (@SheliBB) called Computing KS1-KS4 , which is collating all the tools you could use to meet the requirements of the curriculum.

Kodu – is a simple visual programming language created by Microsoft. It uses simple sequencing to allow students to program their own worlds and create  games, stories etc. Have used this successfully with a range of students and are amazed how easy they picked this up.

Scratch – is a programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art. Again it uses simple blocks of predefined code that students can build up and change the variables.

Greenfoot – teaches object orientation with Java.  it is visual and interactive and visualisation and interaction tools are built into the environment.

visual (1)

Raspberry Pi /Arduino/Processing/Python – there has been lots written about the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino is a similar concept. This encourages students to look at the hardware as well as the software and involves them in creating coding software for the hardware. The nice thing about the Arduino is that it lends itself to robotics projects. It uses an IDE (integrated development environment ) written in Java derived from the Processing IDE. Like Processing, it was designed to introduce programming to artists and other newcomers unfamiliar with software development and hardware integration.

There will be few students at present who would be able to reach the Raspberry Pi / Python stage, but we need to have this progression in place to allow students to work their way towards being able to code using hardware like the Pi, especially when they reach KS4 and move into the Sixth Form.  In addition, looking at the student cohort who are likely to access the Computing curriculum, they range from P7-NC5. This is a large range to differentiate for and we will have to ensure that the tools used are individulised to meet their needs and abilities, in order to allow them to access the subject areas and make progress.

The new curriculum certainly presents a challenge for our setting, though feel that by incorporating Computer Science with ICT allows the students to learn creativity skills alongside digital literacy and media skills, ensuring that are students are well-equipped for the digital world that they will be entering.  I would be very interested in what other special schools are planning in terms of a curriculum for Computing so please add your comments.

KinectSEN – exploring gesture based technology to engage all learners

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure to be invited to be part of the professional learning community (PLC) looking into gesture based technology and the impact it can have on special needs learners. Gesture Based Technology (GBT) includes technology that involves a natural user interface for its input. This can be the Kinect, iPads, Eyegaze, mobile floor projectors to name a few of the technologies and is mainly used at present in gaming consoles at home. The power of natural user interfaces is that is allows students with SEN to be included in sessions and enable them to explore movement, creativity and engagement. From the evidence that I have seen so far, it gives students an opportunity to be actively involved in effecting their environment and allows them to do things that they simply could not do before. What is great to see is the instant effect that students have using this technology and this achieved by them moving in whatever way they can.

One of the mobile interactive floor projectors

The PLC is co-ordinated by the fantastic Anthony Rhys (@trinityfieldsit) and from looking around Trinity Fields School it was amazing to see the progress the school had made in enabling students to interact in their lessons using GBT. The day focused on how this technology can be used to enable students who are often withdrawn and shy to engage in various activities. It was great to see the evidence of other students using this technology to encourage creativity, movement, engagement and exploration.

kinect flow.JPG

Over the next few months, I will be hoping to blog the progress that has been made in incorporating GBT into our schools and present evidence for this. I came away from the day even more enthused to make this happen and it was great to meet other practitioners just as interested in the technology to help engage thise student with severe learning difficulties. We are currently looking into adding this to our sensory room so that we have an interactive floor and wall display at the fraction of the cost that some SEN companies would charge.

If you are interested in GBT and the use of the Kinect and would like to find out more about how different schools are incorporating this technology please visit the Kinect Wiki site at


Using Innovative Technologies in the Classroom – Big Trak

This post will be the first of a series of posts on the Festival of Social Sciences- Using Innovative Technologies in the Classroom event that took place in Birmingham on Thursday 8th November. The festival showcased a variety of technology that was being used to enhance learning. The original focus for the technology was aimed at students on the Autistic Spectrum, but the researchers and schools trialling the technology have seen benefits for all students. A big thank you goes out to Anthony Rhys of Trinity Fields School who put us in contact with Dr Wendy Keay-Bright of University of Wales Institute, Cardiff who invited my colleague Keith Manville and myself to the event. Lastly, a thank you needs to go to Dr Karen Guldberg from The Autism Centre for Research and Education, University of Birmingham for organising the event and Ian Lowe head teacher of Topcliffe Primary School for hosting us at his school.

One of the purposes of the event was to showcase the SHAPE project. The SHAPE project is where researchers and practitioners are working closely together to identify ways of using four different technologies in innovative and exploratory ways. Technology enhanced learning (TEL) can offer significant benefits for children on the Autistic Spectrum and the project looks at conducting research in the classroom focusing on social interaction and communication. The technologies involved are

  3. Reactikles

In addition, Aldebaren-Robotics were showcasing their NAO robots and you can read more about these in the BBC report here.

For this first post however, I decided to actually write about something that is not that innovative (first released in the 80s) but has a lot of uses for teaching students some important skills.

Big Trak – Control technology

The Big Trak was a toy from the 1980's that has been re-released for a new generation. Bigtrak has a 23 button keypad that can remember up to 16 commands which are programmed into the control panel on it's back; press go and it will perform them in sequence. The students use simple programming skills to direct the vehicle in different directions. This also taught the students the importance of learning to sequence their instructions to ensure the Big Trak moved where they wanted. From the brief demonstration, we saw I could already see other uses for it for example, teaching students basic understanding of directional language, co-ordinate work and shape recognition. At £20 each I think this is a very cost effective way of introducing some basic programming and sequencing skills and from what I saw students were really engaged using these tools.

This is something that I feel students with SEN could easily learn to use and is a useful piece of technology to enhance their learning.

Next Post: COSPATIAL – Collaborative Virtual Environments.

Links –

Keith Manville @open_sen has also written up about the event and you can read his excellent post here.


Big Draw Day – Taking a line for a walk!!

One of the pictures shown to the students at the beginning of the day to give them an idea of Keith Haring’s work.

On Wednesday 24th November, our school took part in the national Big Draw Day. The day focuses on a particular artist and their work and it gives the opportunity for students to participate in a range of cross-curricular lessons based on the artists work. This year the focus was on the work of graffiti and visual artist Keith Haring. Based around Haring’s work, students were encouraged to take a line for a walk and this was the main focus for the day.

An example of the art that can be created using the Line Sketch application.

My colleague Keith Manville (@open_sen) had been working with on a application based around generative art and between us we looked at the possibility of running this as a workshop for the day. The aim would be for the student to create their own art using ICT and this would be achieved by taking a line for a walk. An example of how the sketch runs is shown in the video below:

The program runs automatically and the user controls the change of colour by either pressing the ‘space bar’ for a random colour choice, ‘m’ for monochrome and ‘b’ for black. In addition the user can pause the sketch at any time and the application allows for the user to export their image as a jpeg. This application was coded in Processing which you can read more about in an earlier post here.

We found that the simplicity of the program meant that a wide range of students could access the application and create some beautiful pieces of art.

Alongside this, we decided to run a kinect session based on some of the applications that we have found, which have been coded in Processing. The programs we used were created by Amnon Owed and they are based around using the kinect to detect the user and interact with the images on-screen. More information on how these are coded can be found in his useful tutorial here.

The first one we used was the Kinect Flow application which turns the user into a wavy line polygon and will track the movement across the screen. What I noticed for this application was the instant attraction for some of our ASC students using it. They wanted to explore what happened to the image when they moved their body. This was really interesting as these students would shy away from taking part in physical activity, but were really active during this session.

Example image of what the user experiences on-screen from the Kinect Flow application

The second application, again created by Amnon Owed, pours shapes over you. The user can use their body to collect them and bat them away. The tracking is very good with this app and I found that it even worked for wheelchair users. Also the app would pick up two users so was good for collaborative teamwork between students.

Example image of the user collecting shapes in the Kinect Physics application

After we had run the sessions, we had some time to reflect on the day and overall we felt the students had enjoyed the different applications that they had experienced. In terms of the line art sketch app, we found that students enjoyed making the art and were putting thought into when they should change the colours. However some students found that they could exit the app by pressing the ESC key and this is something that we will disable in future versions of the app (reminded me of students exiting apps on the iPad before guided access was added)

The kinect applications we used were not specifically designed with SEN students in mind though the natural user interface of the kinect allowed the students to instantly pick up what they had to do. It has given me some food for thought when it comes to coding my own applications for the students and developed my understanding of how to code for the kinect. If you are interested in learning more about using the kinect with SEN visit the excellent wiki being developed by group of schools using this tech with their students :

I found Big Draw Day, motivated me to continue to code and make applications for our students. The sessions continued to show, how these application encourage creativity, movement, engagement and exploration. To finish I was going to leave you with a video of a application that I am currently coding – no where near the finished product but gives you a flavor of some of the applications we hope to create.

Switch Progression Road Map

Over the last year, I have looked at developing my knowledge of using switches for ICT with groups of students who are around P3- P7 on the P-Scales. (more info on P-scales found here) I had some basic knowledge of how switches enabled students to access computers but in terms of assessment and planning for progression I needed to do more research.

Thankfully, I came across Inclusive Technologies Switch Progression Road Map, which was written by Ian Bean (@SENICT) whilst he was working there. This free booklet details the different stages of switch acquisition from cause and effect to students scanning the screen and pressing the button at the right time.  Also it gives you a suitable progression route for learners to develop their skills and suggestion of activities to use. I found the document invaluable in helping me plan activities for the students that were meaningful for them.

One of the most important lessons that I have learnt using this software and from various webinars I have attended is that the motivation for accessing the activity has to be there.  It is no use using the same activity for different students as they may not be motivated by the same things.  For example, in my class last year, I had a student at P1ii in terms of baseline assessment of switch skills.  He loved spending time with his family,  so I created an activity that would play a video of his mum or dad saying hello to him. At first, it took him a while to understand that pressing the switch played the video, but over time he began to link the two together and even after the activity, he would walk to the smartboard to indicate that he wanted more. This was huge progress and we have added in a choice of videos so that he can choose which one he wants by selecting a picture first before using the switch to activate it.  In the course of two terms he was now proactively seeking out opportunities to use the switch and had moved to P3ii on the road-map.

Much can be said that motivation for all learners  is key and this experience  really brought home to me the importance of motivation. especially when working with low-level students. I know from speaking to lots of schools that they already use this road-map, I just wanted to share my experiences in using this.

If you want to use the progression road-map the link is below and I would recommend it to all who use switches with their students in a SEN setting.

Have also attached the Baseline Assessment Sheet which comes with the road-map but have put it into a word document for easily editing.

ICT Baseline Assessment Template

I am very much looking forward to the Touch Screen Progression Road-map being released as I feel this would really help in terms of planning for and assessing use of tablets with SEN learners on the P scales.

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