Nicolas Prono is a schoolteacher. Seven years ago, he began specialising in learning difficulties. Having obtained a degree in special education, he went to work at an Institut thérapeutique, éducatif et pédagogique (schools in France for children with psychological and behavioural problems). To facilitate the learning process for students and help them overcome their frustration, the school used digital tools. Later, in a classe pour l’inclusion scolaire (school for children with disabilities), Prono worked with touch screens to help Down syndrome children learn to write. Tablets are ideal for children with fine motor skill problems: it’s much easier to learn to write with their finger than to handle a pen.
Since the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, Nicolas Prono has been a member of the Alpes de Haute-Provence’s local mobile teaching team (a system in France whereby a team of mobile teachers with multimedia equipment and teaching materials travel around to schools in remote rural areas to offer support to students and staff –Ed). It’s his job to offer onsite support to disabled students with laptops and tablets.
So how can digital tools help students with learning difficulties? Nicolas Prono told us about his profession and explained how digital technology can facilitate inclusion in education.
digital: A DRIVER FOR INCLUSION
Tell us about your job
Nicolas Prono: With the mobile teaching team, we travel to schools using a vehicle provided by the departmental council and help teachers in remote rural areas. As I specialise in teaching students with disabilities, I work mainly with students supplied with digital equipment by the local council as part of a French government scheme. It’s my job to help them use these tools on a daily basis.
Most of the students I work with are dyslexic. For them, having a computer or tablet is a huge advantage as it allows them to join a “normal” class. But I also deal with pupils in unités localisées pour l’inclusion scolaire (ULIS), dedicated units within schools for students with learning difficulties or communication disabilities (such as autism). They are monitored by a coordinator who ensures that their particular educational needs are met. So, for example, when they can’t keep up with their lessons, they have extra coaching from the ULIS.
This morning, for example, I was at the ULIS in a small secondary junior school seeing a pupil who’s been given a laptop with speech synthesis software. I showed him how it works, helped him set it up, we did some tests and generally I helped him get the hang of it.
What sort of equipment do the students have?
It’s mostly laptops and tablets, depending on the student’s abilities, but also on factors such as their means of transport. For example, it’s not easy for a junior secondary student to carry a heavy laptop around in their satchel, and then there’s the issue of battery life. So some students prefer using tablets, as they’re lighter and better-suited to their uses.
“It’s still a problem for students to get used to being different from everyone else, and getting a laptop draws attention to them. Tablets, on the other hand, are more discreet, so the student doesn’t stand out as much.”
We’re lucky in our area as there are interactive whiteboards in nearly all the schools. They’re part of the standard equipment, and not just provided for special education. But we do find they’re very useful for facilitating the learning process. With interactive whiteboards, you can save any work done on the screen and then turn it into a podcast. That way, students who miss classes because they have their therapy sessions can catch up with their course work just by checking out the podcast on the school’s IT system.
What sort of help do you give the students?
Most of the time, it involves training and follow-up for the equipment. This isn’t always required though; some students already have occupational therapists or healthcare professionals to help them use the hardware, in which case, my role is minimal.
I also liaise between the teachers and therapists: we think about how to incorporate the equipment the students are used to in the classroom. We always try and get the students to become as familiar as possible with the devices. For example, they have to know how to scan a page of their textbook by themselves and use optical character recognition (OCR) software to enlarge the text or get their PC or tablet to read it. These are things that some students can do easily and which make their lives much easier.
For a dyslexic child who has difficulty reading and has to do some research in the school library media centre, it’s a great help being able to scan the back cover of a book with a tablet and have the synopsis read to him by OCR: he won’t have to spend ages deciphering the writing.
Little perks like this help the students on a daily basis and allow them to focus on their classwork.
“Digital empowers students: it boosts their self-esteem, which is very important for these students who often feel insecure and shunned. With a PC or tablet, they don’t have to ask a classmate to read an instruction or repeat what the teacher said.”
essentiAl TOOLs FOR STUDENTS WITH learning DIFFICULTIES
What sort of problems do you come across the most often and how can digital tools help overcome them?
A lot of the students I work with have specific learning difficulties (SpLD): dyslexia, dyscalculia or dysphasia. Digital is essential for helping them to read instructions, for example.
There are also writing aids, such as voice synthesizers on tablets or laptops. Students can dictate a text and the computer writes it out, which is really helpful. But it doesn’t work for dictations!
How long have these types of digital tools been used?
Dictation software has been around for over ten years and been widespread for seven or eight. The major advantage nowadays is that this software is now directly integrated into the operating systems, Windows and Mac OS. It hardly needs any configuration. It used to take ages: you would have to read the text to the student for the software to be able to adapt to their voice. Now, the student can start using it straight away, without having to set it up.
However, it doesn’t work with speech problems as the software struggles to interpret the voices of students who have difficulty expressing themselves. Also, with a tablet, it doesn’t work offline, so relies on having a stable, effective Internet connection. When there are problems with Wi-Fi coverage – or a complete lack of Wi-Fi – in schools, it’s difficult getting dictation software to work.
Where speech synthesis is concerned, i.e. using a machine to produce human speech, it’s not only extremely effective now but it works offline. Consequently, as soon as the student receives a digital document, he can have it read to him, which is really important.
“Students working on the classics can download them for free in digital format and have their tablet read them to them. I’ve met parents who were really relieved that they no longer have to read to their 14-year-old dyslexic child. It’s not easy for the students either: 14-year-olds don’t like being read to!”
NEW POSSIBILITIES FOR teachers
How do the teachers cope with digital?
It’s not always easy for teachers to make the digital transition, so part of my job involves assisting them in class. I don’t do any training as such but come into class with the teachers to see how they can incorporate the digitals tools into their everyday practices.
“You need to show teachers that digital tools won’t add to or replace their existing tools or methods but will open up new possibilities and offer a different approach to students with special needs.”
Teachers are sometimes afraid of losing control of their student. That’s why it’s easier for them to work with tablets: when students use laptops, the screen creates a barrier between them and the teacher. Whereas with a tablet, it’s different and the teacher can see what the student’s doing and be sure that they’re playing attention.
Nicolas Prono’s experiences have strengthened our conviction that schools should, more than ever, incorporate digital practices. In October 2014, we campaigned for mass deployment of digital technology in schools to offer students greater access to knowledge and support the teaching staff. In 2015, this need is more urgent than ever: in schools, digital can really make a difference. So, teachers, staff, parents, we need to act, NOW!