Educators, academicians and researchers are now much more aware of the problems and difficulties faced by children with special needs and endorse the utilization of technology to support and assist them. Special education needs can refer to the individual requirements of children with learning difficulties and disabilities, including verbal, cognitive, sensory, developmental and neuropsychological handicaps. Special children require additional assistance from teachers and parents in order to perform well in academic settings and new educational trends for special children are emerging across the first world.
Advancements in technology, changes in policy and new researches have pushed ed-tech companies to craft new tools and practises to serve the needs of children with disabilities. Modern advancements such as virtual reality, early identification practises and open educational tools are being adopted in different segments education across the world to meet the learning needs of special children in mainstream education settings.
Pakistan still lags far behind in serving the needs of special children, who lack access to modern technologies such as audio-visual teaching aids and specialised support programmes for learning. According to an estimate, there are close to a million people who are disabled in Pakistan, however, the actual number may vary. These people with disabilities seriously lack educational facilities and opportunities that help them stand shoulder to shoulder with other members of the society.
But Pakistan can certainly take cues from the west and implement technological measures to provide education for special children – using a complex amalgam of modern technology, innovative practices and specialised support and learning programmes. Here are five popular trends that are changing the way special children are being educated in the west; and something Pakistani policymakers can take inspiration from.
- Elements of Personalised Communication
Personalised communication features can assist special students in performing well in academic settings. Personalised tools and devices such as Web-based Chromebook book and G Suite productivity tools are now becoming popular and have replaced the obsolete assistive technologies and features such as screen readers and high-contrast screen settings. These older methods were much time-consuming and frustrating, as new preferences were to be reset with every fresh start on a new computer and application. However, now profiles can follow you as you log into different devices, which is changing the face of personalized communication. These new Google products have a “select to speak feature” which allow users to highlight the written text which is then read back to them. Moreover, special users can get access to Braille displays via extensions to their Chrome web browser which can help them in reading as well as editing spreadsheets, slides and documents. Also, numerous artificially intelligent tools can assist children in word prediction and translation which are tied permanently to an individual user’s account, making the entire process easy and hassle-free.
- Early Identification and Intervention tools.
Early identification tools can help in screening the prevalence of any risk factors in children such as learning difficulties or disabilities. For example the Mclass software by Amplify allows schools and districts in the early identification of dyslexic children. Through this software, educators plan early intervention practices by employing various observational assessments, ultimately serving the needs of children who face learning difficulties in the early stages of their infancy.
Numerous other researchers are also initiating efforts to develop early-screening mobile apps that can work wonders in both home and health-care settings, particularly for dyslexic children. Apps such as Babynoggin assists pediatricians in monitoring child’s development and growth indicators; with early identification of delays in their motor skills, cognitive processes, social and emotional abilities and language skills.
- The Art of Virtual Reality.
Virtual reality or VR is an interactive computer-generated experience which takes place in a simulated setting. It integrates auditory, visual and sensory information or feedback, in order to create an immersive environment that is quite similar to the real-world settings. VR can assist educators and experts in creating special scenarios and can benefit special children to communicate effectively in challenging scenarios. It can help students with autism and learning disabilities to develop social competencies and skills and offers real-time experiences and reinforcements. VR technologies can polish the mental competencies of special children by allowing them to manipulate and play with objects in ways they can’t in the physical world. However, a few researchers have expressed their concerns over the VR technologies and have cautioned parents and educators about their unknown effect on brain development, which may trigger emotional and psychological distress in children.
- Computer Science Education For All.
Computer Science education has now become a pertinent part of the academic curricula. More than 100 companies, advocacy organizations, universities and NGO’s have signed an “accessibility pledge” for promoting inclusive computer science education for all; including special children. For instance, research projects like Bootstrap by Brown University have developed curriculum modules that inculcate computer science education in existing physics and maths classes at schools. This programme also caters to the needs of special users who face difficulties in using the computer mouse and incorporates a screen reader that can read the output of the programme created by the user. This toolkit aims to integrate multiple programming languages, to read the codes loudly, and to describe the structure and purpose of these codes in different languages, keeping in mind the reading levels for each age group.
- Making ‘Open Educational Resources ‘ More Accessible.
Open educational resources are freely accessible for learners and include licensed material, media or digital files that can assist in teaching and research purposes. These accessible materials can be used, improved and redistributed by users under certain licenses and there is no universal usage of open file formats in OER. Schools are now embracing OER, as a viable means for educating the special children. PDF files do not work well for students with visual impairments, dyslexia and autism and hence documents for special children need to be customised in accordance to their individual needs.
OER resources are helping to develop new authoring tools for special children that are assisting educators in creating content in adaptable formats such as EPub. Preference discovery tool enables special children to learn customized material that is tailored in accordance to their needs, while the OER player allows users to activate assistive supports such as the text-to-speech feature allowing them to open files easily on their devices.