Myles Pilling reports on a recent project to develop iPad-based digital learning experiences for a group of students with highly individual needsIn September 2014 the Tablet Academy was approached by the Fonthill Foundation, an educational charity, to setup a learning and teaching project with St John’s, a special educational needs (SEN) school and specialist college in East Sussex, England. St John’s provides education, care and medical therapy to young people aged 7 to 25 and the project’s aim was to use iPads to develop digital learning experiences to engage and motivate its students.
The project began in October 2014 and ran until July 2015. It was based at the Fonthill Learning Adventure Centre (LAC), an exciting technology-driven space situated in Brighton Marina. LAC was created by the Fonthill Foundation and its partners to provide, among other things, a destination away from the traditional classroom for groups of children to come and enjoy exploring topics using the latest technology.
During the 10-month period groups from both the school and college attended sessions at the Centre where they worked with its bank of iPads.
As the SEN Consultant and Trainer with Tablet Academy assigned to the project I advised on suitable apps to purchase and use with the students. The recommendations focused on sensory, word and visual games, and multimedia. The facilities at LAC include a teaching room with an LCD projector and Apple TV as well as a green screen filming area. Both were used extensively in the project and a great deal was learnt about engaging and motivating these learners, all of whom have highly individual needs.
The students liked multimedia the most. Brighton Marina Village has a range of cafes and restaurants as well as leisure complexes with cinema, casino and bowling facilities. This provides ready material for a photo-walk to explore and record what is seen. The information captured was brought back to the Centre and combined into movies using iMovie (£3.99) or Green Screen by Do Ink (£2.29). Still and video were used and the apps’ inbuilt templates provided a professional framework for the students to view their work at the end of the session.
Those students who were non-verbal needed a different approach: more visual, more direct. Apps that form patterns as well as those that use the camera were very valuable in gaining and sustaining the attention of these students. Apps such as Kaleidoscope Drawing Pad (Free with ads) were great for making patterns. It was noticeable that students explored more, gained better fine-motor skills and showed innate ability to be more creative. Photomontage apps, such as Masterpiece Me! (Free), gave students a humorous outlet. Sensory iMeba (Free) allowed more than one touch, giving students the opportunity to try out cause-and-effect. Tiltoria (Free) uses the iPad’s built-in accelerometer to adjust the pattern when the iPad is moved. Koi Pond HD Lite (Free), with its calm musical background, had a cathartic effect on the students. Using the iPad’s camera and Photo Booth Connected (Free) students created a range of imaginative self-portraits that went into their Arts Award scheme folder. Green Screen by Do Ink (£2.29) allowed for sensory stories based on the students’ interests, such as being part of a football match.
These formed part of a literacy goal the school wanted the project to address, but they also proved useful as starter activities to engage the students before embarking on more detailed project work.
Apps like Words Up! (Free) were popular with students as well as staff. Futaba (Free) is a four-person game that enables co-operation and competition. 4 Pics 1 Word (Free) encourages visual skills to solve a word problem: four pictures are shown and have one word in common. Logos Quiz – UK Brands (Free) proved useful for students with good social sight vocabulary.
All these game apps are not designed for the special needs community but can be used to achieve engagement and motivation. Students would often ask the name of the app and then download them to their own iPads.
Visual games and puzzles
Also useful for starters and openers to a session were what I term visual games and puzzles. Flow Free (Free) engaged one hard-to-reach pupil for an entire term. He was enthralled by the hundreds of levels he could work through. His behaviour was disruptive at the beginning of the project but this app eliminated the need to correct him. The main difficulty was getting him to engage in the main activity! My own puzzle (Free) is great for making jigsaw puzzles from images captured on a camera – great for selfies! The puzzle level is 4, 6, 9… and has a transparent image of the photo you have taken so that students have a clue as to where each piece goes.
Art and music
Creativity is not always associated with autism as concrete thinking doesn’t engage imagination, but clearly that is not the whole story. Apps used as part of the project showed there was a creative aspect to the work of students with ASD.
Brushes 3 (Free), as used by the British artist David Hockney no less, has great pattern brushes so that exploration can be via using a few patterns or all of them. Paper by Fifty Three (Free) has a similar appeal, but includes some great water-colour effects that blend colours like the real painting technique. Also, the amount of pressure dictates the thickness of a pen line which allows the user to create Japanese-style images. For less able users Kaleidoscope Drawing Pad (Free) and Silk (£2.29) produce amazing patterns with every touch and swipe of the screen.
It was surprising how many of the students went straight to the music apps. Garageband (£3.99) provided most opportunities for group creativity along with Bebot (£1.49) and Musiyc (Free). Using Apple TV both as an amplifier and a large, on-screen keyboard, students were able to explore a wider range of sounds and fill the room with their final compositions. These were stored and were even used as soundtracks to some of the films they’d previously created.
Choice making and sequencing
ChooseIt! Maker 3 (£129 site licence) is an award-winning subscription-based program that offers a free iPad app. Its beauty is that you can use it to create your own resources and then distribute them at no extra cost to all of the iPads in your setting. This makes it a very powerful and effective tool for creating projects and meeting individual needs.
A whole bank of resources were created for the St John’s project and shared with students through a redeem code system. This enables work to be shared from different accounts. For those with budget constraints this is a very attractive software package!
Having the power to make a choice is a key life skill. ChooseIt! Maker 3 gives students a way to select and make a choice and during the length of the project a whole set of activities were created from photos and the program’s inbuilt image library.
First, we looked at self-recognition in-situ in the LAC. Next, we tested to see whether students could pick out fellow students they knew from the group. On both activities the students tested completed the task without hesitation. We found that clear, thick line drawings were easier for students to identify than complex photographs, so we created a series of odd-man-out activities. Finally, we looked at making choices to complete a task, e.g., finding which art app to use. This program has the power to demonstrate a pupil’s ability and helpfully provides feedback to the tutor on the pupil’s skill level.
It became clear towards the end of the project that while ChooseIt! Maker 3 helps develop matching skills it doesn’t help the sequencing of a process such as making a drink. Making Sequences (£3.99) does just that and allows a simple way for non-technical staff to create their own sequences. We visited and photographed using the self-service checkout at ASDA and ordering a sandwich at Subway. We then put our images into Making Sequences which even a novice to IT could do simply and quickly. This app clearly has potential for those working on community access and life skills.
Storage and evaluation
All the files and work created by the students were stored in Dropbox (Free up to 2Gb) and Google Drive (Free up to 15Gb). Both are easy to transfer to from an iPad. Dropbox is more user friendly but requires permissions for downloads. Google Drive was setup by St John’s to provide a place that both the college and Tablet Academy tutors could access. A running diary and log were created to show examples of students’ work as well as comments made by staff and students during sessions. Students reported they had enjoyed the sessions as did staff, with the added dimension that staff had learned a great deal about using iPads for teaching and learning.
The project ended this summer and the focus is now on succession and enabling staff from St John’s to transfer newly acquired skills to their settings. We have identified that they will need further sessions on how to use the iPads for teaching and learning and sample lesson plans are being made to support them.
This has been a unique project to work on, with resources made possible by the Fonthill Foundation working in partnership with the Tablet Academy and St John’s. It’s a fine example of how a charitable foundation can initiate projects of this kind and sustain them with careful support and planning.
Students have demonstrated a range of key skills while using iPads. Despite not having verbal speech, many non-verbal users were able to show their understanding, particularly when problem-solving and choice-making. Those students with more demanding behaviour co-operated and achieved when apps were simple and easy to use. Also, the spacious and calm environment of the Learning Adventure Centre was conducive to helping relax students who were more anxious. Extended projects didn’t work in this context so we always aimed to produce something of quality, e.g. an iMovie or green screen file, within the space of two ninety-minute sessions. Many students displayed a surprising ability to be creative, which is not normally associated with autism.
All in all this has been a successful and worthwhile project set in a great location. My thanks to all who took part in it and in particular to the staff and students of St John’s School & College, Fonthill Foundation and Tablet Academy.