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Technologies for Equal Education

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Amanda Watkins

European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education
amanda@european-agency.org
www.european-agency.org

     

Opening

This opening panel of presentations is focussed upon how technology can support equal education - or to use another term, more inclusive education. Educational inclusion is where pupils with a whole range of special educational needs (SEN) are educated within mainstream schools and their teachers are provided with varying degrees of support in terms of supplementary staff, materials, in-service training and equipment (European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, 2003).

The presentations for this panel offer four very different practical examples of developments that support learners with various sorts of special needs in inclusive settings. For more details on the presentations, please see the following papers on this website.
- L'accessibilité d'une encyclopédie en ligne Making accessible an on-line encyclopaedia Neil MINKLEY, Hachette-Multimédia, France
- La conception de manuels scolaires pour des médias multiples Designing textbooks for multiple media Patrick PIERRE, Infomedia, France
- Claroline, plate-forme Web pour la création de cours en ligne Claroline, a platform to create courses via the web Hugues PEETERS, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgique
- VICKIE, un projet IST pour l'intégration scolaire VICKIE, an IST project for Inclusive Education Dominique BURGER, INSERM, France

Background

My role as Chair of this panel and representative of the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education is to provide a synthesis of key points from these presentations and try and link these to some current debates regarding inclusive education.

I come from an educational, not technological background and am therefore looking, listening, learning and commenting through an educator's, not a researcher or developer's perspective. In preparing this synthesis, I see myself as a representative of educators from across Europe - I have an insight into some of the current issues in ICT applied to SNE through the work of the European Agency and its network of experts in the field.
The European Agency is supported by the Ministries of Education in 15 EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. The three Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and the Czech Republic participate as observers. The European Commission provides support through concrete projects.

At all times the Agency follows the principles laid down in the UN Standard Rules, the Salamanca Statement, the Luxembourg Charter, the Helios II Guide of Good Practices Towards Equal Opportunities for Disabled People and the EU Council Resolutions concerning "inclusive education" which are considered a major focal point for the Agency's work - the improvement of quality in special needs education within a framework of high quality education for everyone, respecting the fact that different policies and structures exist in the participating countries.

Synthesis

The key points for this synthesis of the presentations within this panel seem to me to reflect some of the key educational issues in relation to using ICT to support inclusion.

Whilst the particular focus of this Braillenet seminar is upon technology for people with various visual impairments, I think it is important to recognise that good technology developments and innovations benefit a range of learners with SENs. Obviously specifically targeted devices and adaptations maybe designed for a limited target group, but some of the good innovations in devices and software that allow users to access material in different ways can be (and are) used with people who have specific learning difficulties (dyslexia, dysgraphia) and intellectual disabilities. Whilst product development may have a particular user in mind, the possibilities for supporting other learners' needs should be a consideration for researchers.

The synthesis here then, takes a wider view of ICT supporting inclusion (or equal) education in that it covers issues that apply to a spectrum of potential learning needs that can be addressed through the application of appropriate ICT.
The first of these issues is accessibility. In relation to ICT we tend to think about learners' access to information as well as to appropriate hardware and software and maybe the Internet. On another level, we begin to think about access to appropriate training and developing understanding to use ICT as a personal tool. Maybe we need to take this issue a step further - perhaps access to appropriate ICT solutions is essentially a question of entitlement?

The Salamanca Statement (1994) states that: regular schools with (an) inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all. It goes further to state that: we must ensure that special needs education forms part of every discussion dealing with education for all in various forums.When ICT is being considered in relation to educational provision, then the needs of learners with SENs must be considered as a natural part of any discussion and developments.

The creativity possible with the endless opportunities presented by ICT needs to be used effectively to give learners with SENs full access to the digital society. An information society for all needs to consider and meet the needs of its least, as well as its most able citizens.

The second of the issues that is apparent for me in the panel presentations is that of awareness - of needs, of standards, of systems, policies and initiatives directing practice, but most importantly of other people's work! All of the presentations touch on this to one degree or another.

Inclusive by design principles need to be applied by all developers and researchers. However for this to be seriously and effectively applied, then developers need to be very aware of their users (pupils and teachers) in this area and work with them (user involvement) to apply inclusive by design principles.

Similarly, awareness needs to be raised amongst teachers in inclusive educational settings to the possibilities ICT may offer them in supporting their work. Such awareness leads to being open to new approaches to learning, but also being open to the possibility that good pedagogical approaches may not be changed by ICT. It could be that effective ICT usage to support learners' needs makes more use of the effective educational strategies successful teachers always use rather than teachers employing new ICT based pedagogy to their practice.
The third issue arises from that of awareness - networking, in the social and not technological sense! Networking and co-operation between different sectors of educational and ICT communities, particularly public and private (commercial) sectors is essential if the developments that can potentially be made in this field are to come to fruition. All the presentations are testaments to this.

It should also be recognised that there needs to be networking between different educational actors as well. The different developmental paths of communities of educational users of ICT has lead to compatibility issues that need to be accounted for and in the long term overcome. It could be argued that this will only happen when we can overcome some of the competitiveness in ICT development and develop more of a culture of co-operations.

A further issue that is very often overlooked in educational considerations of ICT usage is that of the social aspects of ICT. ICT has an impact and effect upon social systems and social relationships in learning environments. These need to be examined, considered and accounted for. In certain circumstances they need to be exploited more fully.
Adaptive technology can support educational (learning) inclusion, but it can also support social (affective, social relationships) inclusion as ICT can allow learners with SENs to interact with their non-SEN peers and to access the same learning materials as their peers. The potential for adaptive technology to be used to support the social aspects of learning environments is one that requires more active exploration and study.

The final issue for consideration in this short synthesis is that of questioning - questioning the use, benefit and actual impact of ICT is needed with respect to promoting inclusive education. We cannot take it for granted that the introduction of ICT does necessarily benefit earners. Within various forums, there must be more of a focus upon trying to identify what value ICT is to learning and how this benefit could be maximised.

This issue is now been considered at the European level in many contexts. What the actual educational value of ICT is within education is part of the work of the DG Education and Culture ICT Experts' group whose brief it is to try and identify Quality Indicators for Education related to ICT usage. These indicators are being prepared for the Council of Ministers to use as a benchmark for educational progress. ICT will be one area of indicators and ICT used to promote special needs education generally and inclusive education specifically will be included within these indicators.

The crucial question for everyone concerned with the use of ICT in inclusive settings is how can ICT promote inclusive education? This question was the focus an international conference on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Special Needs Education (SNE). The conference was attended by experts from the ICT in SNE field and specifically invited guests from the IST field presented the situation in their countries and fields. In relation to the future of research and development within the ICT in SNE field, the focus was seen as needing to be upon learning and how to improve it. The design and development of inclusive technology that will facilitate participation and take account of diverse user groups, their wide-ranging needs, users' roles, cultures and languages pripority. In order for inclusive technology to be developed however, educationalists should be active participants in shaping research and development and there should be a facilitation of greater interaction between all actors concerned.
Developments should be seen in terms of technology, but also in terms of information and an effective knowledge base. All new developments - both technological and educational - should be based on research outcomes; basic and applied research is needed, the latter being practical and realistic and common procedures, guidelines, evaluation criteria, standards and research policies should be developed. As a first step, all stakeholders whatever their level of involvement or interaction need to be involved in the development of a much broader and applicable knowledge base. They also need to be involved - either directly or indirectly via participatory approaches and/or experts - in the development of widely accepted guidelines regarding inclusiveness.
The panel presentations are extremely good examples of these principles being applied in the R & D practice.

Conclusions

In conclusion, I think it is important for us to return to the concept of right of access. Learners with SENs should have a right of access to ICT solutions that are tools to develop personal autonomy and support learning. They should also have access to ICT knowledge that is essential for participation in the information/knowledge society. They should have access to information their peers do using flexible interfaces and flexible forms of presentation.

ICT a wonderful tool for supporting inclusion in schools and society BUT there is potential for an increase in the digital divide that currently exists for learners in our education systems leading to increased discrimination and exclusion. The digital divide will only increase unless this right of access is seen as a principle by developers, researchers and educators.

There is a possible irony posed by the increased application of ICT within educational contexts. A school for all (as defined in the Charter of Luxembourg) has its basis in the functional integration of learners with SENs into the same educational setting as their non-SEN peers. However, the rise of the virtual school points towards the disassembling the physical location of schooling with learners engaging in more varied forms of educational presentation. The only way forward can be to maximise the flexibility (adaptability) of a continuum of possibilities based on using ICT to meet individual learning needs.

The use of ICT in inclusive settings could help to develop a new culture of learning in education as long as ICT developments do not exclude some learners from the thinking; we broaden the sphere of actors involved in research and development; we let pedagogy lead the development of technical tricks and we maximise the potential of ICT as a tool that can be truly adaptable and can be individualised to meet personal learning needs - for everyone.

A future where ICT truly promotes equal and inclusive education will have to be one where the principle of inclusive by design is applied during the planning and formation, implementation and evaluation of ICT policies, provisions and practices and where information is accessible to all. The foundation for this will be co-operation between all the different groups of ICT and SNE players. I think that the work of Braillenet is an excellent example of how this foundation can be built upon for everyone's benefit.


Sources

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Special Needs Education (SNE) project web database
http://www.european-agency.org/ict_sen_db/index.html

SEN-IST-Net: www.senist.net

EC, DG Education and Culture: http://europa.eu.int/comm/dgs/education_culture/index_en.htm

Higher Education Accessibility Guide: www.heagnet.org

Bibliography
European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education. Editor Watkins, A. (2001) Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Special Needs Education (SNE), Middelfart, Denmark.European Commission Communication (1999) Towards a Barrier-free Europe for People with Disabilities, a Roadmap to the Achievement of Greater Community Added Value. Brussels, Belgium

European Commission (2000) eEurope 2002 - An Information Society For All Prepared by the Council and the European Commission for the Feira European Council, Brussels, Belgium

European Commission Communication (2000) Towards a European Research Area Brussels, Belgium
European Disability Forum (2002) The Madrid Declaration Brussels. European Disability Forum.

European Experts' Network on Educational Technology publication How Learning is Changing (1998) British Educational Technology Agency (Becta), Coventry

Eurydice (2001) ICT@Europe.edu: Information and Communication Technology in European Education Systems Brussels, Belgium

SEN-IST-NET project consortium (2001) European Network of Excellence in Information Society Technologies for Special Educational Needs. Middelfart, Denmark

UNESCO (1994) World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality. Salamanca: UNESCO.


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