Uncertain Times

    We're living in uncertain times. With the spread of COVID19 and the measures taken by governments around the world to keep people safe, many businesses are finding it difficult to keep going. My small business is no exception. With the government ordering schools to close and severe restrictions placed on travel both in this country and abroad, all of my work at least until September has either been cancelled or postponed to an unspecified date in the future. I'm not alone in this. Almost all of my friends and colleagues who work in this field have similar difficulties.

    Many of us are having to look for new ways to continue providing the services we offer. My priority right now is to secure enough income to be able to keep my website online. Each day 1000s of young people use the free activities on my website to help them build important access and communication skills. In the first week since the schools closed, I've seen a three-fold weekday increase in the amount of traffic to the website, ten-fold during the weekends, which clearly demonstrates that young people are continuing to use the website at home with their parents and carers. All of this comes at a cost. Keeping the activities online and advert free costs around £90.00 per month. That's around £20.00 per week. So I have to look for other ways to fund them.

    In recent days, I've started a Patreon. For those unfamiliar with Patreon, it's a service which allows individuals to offer ongoing financial support to projects like mine. By pledging a small amount each month, patrons help keep projects going through difficult times by providing some financial certainty. In return, they receive rewards. These rewards may be access to exclusive content, additional features or functionality on a website, sneak peeks of new programs or sometimes, the genuine, heartfelt thanks of the project owner. Patreon offers tiers of support. I've chosen two tiers.

    Patrons who pledge £2.00 per month gain access to new features on my website which enable them to download whole groups of accessible activities with a single click. For example they can download all of the 'music' themed activities in one single file. This can save a huge amount of time over downloading them one at a time especially considering there are now over 500 activities on the site. Each month I'll create a 'patch' which you can download to keep your collection of activities up to date.

    Patron Downloads Page

    There will be other benefits for this tier too, but importantly, you will be helping me to keep the activities I make for children with additional needs freely available to the many 1000s of young people in countries around the world who use them in their homes and classrooms each day.

    Patron Videos Page

    Patrons who join Tier Two and pledge £5.00 per month get all of the same benefits of tier one supporters but they also have access to my growing library of training and support videos. These include sessions on switch, touch, pointing device and eye gaze assessment and progression plus many other topics useful to those involved in the education or therapy of those young people with severe and complex additional support needs. Currently these are hosted on my Patreon Page but I do have plans to move them to this website in the near future. To find them quickly and easily, use the drop down page filter.

    You will be able to find and watch each of the videos as you scroll down the page. I am also making some of my other software for children with complex needs available for free my Tier Two patrons.

    This free software is for Windows PC and can be downloaded from the Patron Activities page. I'll be adding more exclusive free downloads to this list in the coming weeks and months.

    The next few months are going to be difficult for all us. In the last few weeks, we've resourceful educators, therapists, parents and carers embracing new teaching methods to help overcome the challenges we all face in these uncertain times. My business too needs to change at least in the short term if it is to survive and I have plans both for the website, where I plan to rewrite all of the activities in a format compatible with iPads and mobile devices and with my training and consultancy, providing more online workshops, webinars and support to schools through tools like Zoom. By becoming a patron you'll be helping to make all of that possible. If you're not able to support me, please be reassured that I will continue to provide free activities for as long as I am able. Thank you.

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    Unpacking Beanie in a Box

    We introduced our 'Beanie in a Box' training and consultancy support packages for schools in the summer of 2018. Since that time Ian has had the pleasure to deliver 'Beanie in a Box' to a number of schools around the country. We thought it may be useful to those who are considering a support package, to share a little about what a typical package might look like.

    Most 'Beanie in a Box' packages are for three days although some schools choose to extend this with additional days. The package is entirely flexible and schools can choose to take their days however they want. Most schools choose to take the days separately, usually one per term although some choose an initial visit of two days with a follow up day later in the year. Schools with a Beanie in Box package can add additional days at any time at a significant discount. Here's what a typical support package looks like.

    Day One - Initial Visit

    Day one usually starts with a learning walk around your school to help Ian better understand how you are using technology now and the resources you have available. A key priority for most schools is to make better use of the ICT resources they have already invested in. During this walk, Ian gets to meet and briefly chat with classroom staff and students.

    The day often  continues with Ian working closely with classroom staff looking specifically at the access needs of individual students. Our goal here is work together to identify sustainable access solutions and progression routes while training classroom staff to use the process to accurately assess students themselves. The day usually finishes with a feedback meeting with the classroom staff and school leaders.

    Between Visits - Reports, Resources and Skype

    Beanie in a Box support doesn't end when Ian leaves your school. After each visit, Ian will provide you with a summary of the visit and how we may move forward together. On some visits we work with students who may respond more positively to bespoke activities. Ian will make these resources and provide links for you to download and use them. We'll also schedule at least one Skype / Facetime meeting with staff between visits. This is to review progress and to identify and resolve any issues that classroom staff may have.

    Beanie in a Box is a fixed price service. There are no additional charges for report writing, resource making or online meetings.

    Day Two - Reviewing Progress and New Challenges

    Day two usually starts with a visit to classrooms to review progress from the previous visit, answering questions, resolving any issues and laying out where we go next.

    Many schools use the second day to tackle other pressing issues. For example one school had been experiencing a lack of progress with very complex students using eye gaze. Ian worked with classroom staff to help them develop their skills, showing them alternative ways to realistically assess and teach eye gaze skills to students with profound and complex additional support needs. In another he worked with staff to better utilise the resources in the multi-sensory room. The school had invested heavily in new multisensory resources following a training day, which were not being used. Ian shared realistic strategies for using the multi-sensory room to support the individual needs of students and to support curriculum themes and topics.

    Many schools opt to finish day two with a twilight session for school staff to share with them a little about what Ian has been doing in school and to deliver an exciting training session for the whole school. In one school, they arranged an after school session for parents looking at using ipads and sharing great apps and strategies to support school targets at home.

    Day Three - More challenges and moving forward.

    Some schools choose to use their third day to deliver whole school CPD. In recent months Ian has delivered CPD as part of a Beanie in a Box support package on topics including Computer Access for Everyone, Technology and Early Communication, iPads and Mobile Devices and much more. What makes these CPD days special is that they are bespoke. Over the period of the Beanie in Box support package, Ian learns about your school and the individual needs of your staff and students. The training is tailored to your specific needs and addresses issues unique to your school.

    Other schools may choose to work on a different area of ICT in much the same way as they did on day two. One of the strengths of Beanie in a Box is its flexibility. Whatever your needs, whatever your priorities, Ian will work with you to achieve your goals. Your Beanie in a Box is just that, YOUR Beanie in a Box. You can schedule your days, choose and work on your priorities in any way you wish. Mix and blend whole school, small group or individual training in whatever way works best for you.

    Beanie is a Box doesn't end with Ian's last visit. Schools receive ongoing support through email and Skype meetings and they can always schedule additional days at a significant discount. Whatever your needs, SENict is there to support you.

    More information about Beanie in a Box support packages.

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    Free... Now and Always

    I made my first online switch accessible activity over twenty years ago when I was teaching at Priory Woods School in Middlesbrough. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't that singing hippopotamus, it was an activity for a young girl with cerebral palsy in S1 class who loved the Cheeky Girls. She loved it and used it with her switch and in doing so, began her switch progression journey. Seeing the potential for student engagement, it was quickly followed by activities featuring other pop luminaries of the time... Gareth Gates, Will Young and many others.

    I wasn't alone in trying to make the internet a little bit more accessible for young people with learning difficulties. Richard Walter at Meldreth Manor School was also making accessible activities in Opus which could be downloaded from their website. He even devised a web page navigation system which used mouse rollovers to replace the need for accurate clicking. Or how about Simon Evans, who made the Kingsbury Special School website which had symbol integration and a collection of activities for students to use independently. Like the original Priory Woods website, both are now lost in the Recycle Bin of time.

    Those were heady days at the very dawn of the widespread use of assistive technology in schools. What connected us and others working around the country was a need to give our students as many opportunities to interact with the world around them. We wanted our students to be as independent as they were able. We wanted to help realise the potential of technology to support the learning, communication and leisure needs of our students. Access to the Internet was an important part of that. We didn't have much if any money. Back then and with very few exceptions, ICT spending wasn't a high priority for schools. We made do with what we had and we freely shared what we had with everyone.

    When I left Inclusive Technology in 2011 and began to set up the website for my training business, I decided to continue to freely share the accessible activities I make as part of my work, much to the exasperation of my accountant who regularly reminds me that without the free activities, my server costs would be less than one tenth of what I currently pay.

    I remind him that not every one of the many thousands of schools that use my activities has money to spend on software. Many are in parts of the world that are just beginning their journey towards inclusive teaching and assistive technology use. I remind him that on average, colleagues use around eight different activities with a student each session in an effort to provide them with a breadth of experience and that what motivates a child with complex needs this week may not be the same next week.

    The costs for hosting the free activities on my website are subsidised by my training and consultancy work and from paid subscriptions to my 'other' website SENict Software, together with donations from a few generous colleagues which help meet the server costs. The activities on my website are free and will remain free now and in the future. Thank you for your support.

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    What's in a name?

    I had an email this morning from a colleague asking about the 'games' on my website. Nothing unusual there, I receive about 40 emails every day from colleagues requesting advice about how best to use the activities on both of my websites. What was unusual was that they used the term 'games' to describe the activities on the website.

    I've never really thought about the activities I develop and share as games. I've always thought of them as teaching activities. Sure, I've tried to make them fun and engaging for students, and to be fair, some of them do look like games, but they are all underpinned by many years of careful research and follow long established, good practices in the development of early access skills. Feed Me, the activity featured in the image above looks like a fun game where you have to catch and eat various insects, however it was designed specifically to target two important skills a student will need to achieve success with single switch scanning.

    • Student can press the switch in response to an on-screen prompt.
    • Student can track an object as it moves across the screen, pressing a switch when the object is in a target area.

     

    The activity models the process of single switch scanning. Something moves left to right across the screen. The student presses the switch when the object is in the correct place. A visual and auditory cue is given to provide support. This models the automatic movement of the single switch scan box as it moves and across the screen and the action needed by the student to press the switch when the choice they wish to make is highlighted.

    On the surface, Feed Me looks and plays like a game but when you understand how the activity works and what it has been designed to do, it becomes an important and highly motivating teaching tool for young people at this stage of switch skills development. Now I understand that not everyone has or indeed wants specialist knowledge of switch skills development, but without at least a little knowledge of who the activity was designed for and why it works in the way it does, it just becomes another game that a student can play and the real educational value is lost.

    I never describe the activities that I develop as games. I want people to focus on the teaching opportunities afforded from their use, which is why, on both of my websites, you'll find heaps of information explaining how the activities contribute to skills development and many examples of how you can use them to help your students make progress.

    So what's in a name? I don't really care what people call the activities I develop, so long as they use them to engage and motivate their students to work on and practice their access skills. The skills a student learns catching insects in Feed Me directly mirror the skills they will need to make independent choices with single switch scanning and that's a skill that will have value to the student probably for their whole life.

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    ABC Maestro from E-Glas

    ABC Maestro is a keyboarding / early literacy program which provides motivating opportunities for students across a range of abilities to work on letter and number recognition and to begin to build short words on the computer. It's designed and published by E-Glas, an assistive technology company based in Croatia. If you follow my Facebook posts, you'll know that E-Glas organise the amazing ATAAC Conference each year in Zagreb and Belgrade, where in 2018, 1500 teachers and therapists came together to share experiences and learn about the use of assistive technology and AAC in education, therapy and rehabilitation. ABC Maestro was one of the stars of the show

    I downloaded the free seven day trial directly from the ABC Maestro web site where you can also read the manual, teaching guide and other support materials. Once installed you choose your language and the voice you wish to use. You can choose a boy or girl's voice. Both are very clear and easy to understand even in a noisy classroom.

    From the main menu, you can choose to work with letters, words or numbers. Selecting any of them opens up another menu where you can choose tasks such as finding a specific key on the keyboard, completing simple letter and number sequences and typing or completing short words, all supported by lovely graphics and clear speech.

    ABC Maestro displays a keyboard at the bottom of the screen which can be used to enter letters and numbers. This makes it really good for use with your interactive whiteboard. The on-screen keyboard matches the colours and layout of the Clevy Keyboard, one of the most popular and in my opinion, the best large key keyboard available. Don't worry if you don't have a Clevy Keyboard. The program will work with any keyboard that you have connected to your computer.

     I tried the program recently with some young people at a special school I'm working with and they really enjoyed it, especially the explore levels where they could choose an image and then try and type the associated word.

    ABC Maestro brings simple, structured keyboarding and letter recognition activities into the 21st century. Motivating graphics, clear voices and a large range of activities make this a really useful tool for any teacher or therapist working with students who are just beginning their journey with the keyboard.

    E-Glas have very kindly given us five lifetime licences for ABC Maestro which we're giving away in a free draw on my Facebook page. Simply like and comment on the post for your chance to win a copy. While you're waiting to see if you have won, download the free trial and take a look for yourself. If you're lucky enough to win, you can enter your licence code directly into the trial version.

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    Switch Adapted Toys

    Reading an excellent blog post from Allan Wilson at CALL Scotland this morning about switch adapted toys. The post details Allan's frustration at finding a toy suitable for a learner with visual impairment and severe physical difficulties. You can read Allan's blog post here: Simple Sensory Toys for Switches

    Like Allan, I sometimes have to question the reasons why a toy was chosen to be switch adapted. His blog highlights one such toy, the Tolo Tractor Set which, "A switch user has the joy of starting the tractor engine and seeing it disappear into the distance until it hits something, as there’s no way to stop it with the switch." I can see the student might enjoy sending the teacher or TA running after the tractor every time they press the switch. I can also see the opportunities for communication but I can't help but be reminded of older switch software which often had vehicles whizzing off the screen after a switch press, usually so fast that the learner missed the reward while they were shifting their focus from the switch to the screen.

    It's great that suppliers are introducing more switch adapted toys. Hopefully we can finally pension off the ubiquitous pigs, dogs and elephants we see in every special school.

    There's another issue here too though. When a student is developing their switch skills, they learn to press a switch a number of different ways in order to create a desired effect.

    • Press and hold a switch
    • Press and release a switch
    • Press to start, press again to stop

    When choosing toys for a student it's useful to know how the toy responds to the switch. Do you have to press and hold the switch to make the toy play, press and let go, or press to start it and press again to stop it?

    Allan's blog calls on the suppliers of switch adapted toys to look more closely at the range of toys they offer to ensure that there are toys to meet the needs of everyone, including those with the most complex needs. I'd like to add my my own request for suppliers to include switch activation methods in their catalogues and web shops. This will help schools make informed purchasing decisions to enable them to provide opportunities for switch use with toys across the full range of activation methods.

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