Perspectives on technology and vulnerable young people (4/4)
In this brief series, Terry Waller talks with four leading researchers to gain some personal perspectives on the role of technology in the education of vulnerable young people. The interviews aimed to provide an insight into existing practice, research gaps and potential future areas of investigation, highlighting the challenges and opportunities provided by the internet.
Q: What are the key barriers for young people with SEND to move into education employment or training after formal education?
“A key barrier for young people with special educational needs and disabilities moving on from school to education, employment or training, is that they are likely to have few qualifications, gained either in mainstream or special schools, and this has an impact on their future outcomes. Due to the kind of qualifications offered by the system there is a suspicion that there may be some young people capable of employment but who do not have formal qualifications.”
Q. Areas from the review of the literature highlight the need for development of employability skills, the need for good careers information, advice and guidance, and the problem of qualifications being offered to young people that are not ‘valued’ by employers. Do you have any observations on these from the perspective of inclusive learning, and use of technology to support it?
“What are the basic skills for employability? It might not be what employers think are basic skills. I want people to be literate enough to make their views known, and to communicate with others and take a full part in society. While if I was an employer I might want them to be able to spell as well. So there is a vast difference in emphasis there. To do some jobs you may need the people skills that are not examined by most qualifications anyway.
We need clearer guidance from employers on what skills they really want from young people in order to address and help in developing those skills. The general pattern seems to be that we don’t have people entering the job market with the skills we want. So rather than saying the skills we want are ‘this, this and this,’ it would be a really useful thing for a neutral umbrella organisation to clearly articulate ‘this is what employers are looking for’. However, I suspect that every employer would come up with different things. ‘Soft skills’ are currently not examined and therefore not rated by schools, because schools are judged so much by exam outcomes: they are hinted at in frameworks such as Ofsted, but again they are not high on schools’ agendas. If we want schools to take those sorts of skills seriously, for all young people – because there wouldn’t be any point providing them for a subset – we need to reflect that in the way we assess schools, examinations, and the way in which we inspect. The review of the curriculum may be the way forward. If something was included in the curriculum that reflected those skills, that would then lead to something that is being measured and inspected.
Reinstate Connexions! The whole careers service element was supporting parents and young people and this kind of service is needed, even it is gets reinvented as something else, as it supports the child, family, and hopefully the employer – a valuable two-way approach which employers would use as well.”
Q: Technology is recognised as a great enabler for young people with SEND, but it can also be a barrier to their achieving. From your research and studies, what are the ways in which the use/application of technology can benefit young people with disabilities or SEN/LLD and what are the current barriers?
“Can technology make a difference? It is, as far as I’m aware, still unproven that technology makes a difference in terms of educational attainment, and even though there have been research projects to try to measure the learning gain, the general answer is ‘It depends!’. Technology is one of the many valuable tools that can provide support for teachers and learners. For example, a learner with special needs years ago would typically produce a poor looking CV, but now has a better chance it will look good using software: it is a helpful presentational tool.
There is, however, evidence of the link between technology and motivation, but it is some years ago, and I wonder if was partly due to novelty and the state of the technology as it then was. I would be interested to see large-scale research examining this and I would hope that the technology would still be motivating, but I think about me as a writer, I don’t write because I’ve got the technology – it doesn’t motivate me to write – but it makes it easier compared with how I used to do so without technology. Motivation was easy in the early days because students didn’t have computers at home – they came to school and they could use a computer, so that was highly motivating, about 20 years ago. Now we are back to where we always were, which is that it is teachers that need to motivate pupils to learn and one of the tools they use for that is technology.
It comes down to what you do with the technology, and I’ve seen lots of IT lessons that are very un-motivating, not because of the technology but because of the tasks required by the exam syllabus. Conversely, I’ve seen other lessons where the young people were incredibly motivated by the technology, because a very clever student teacher has come up with a novel and very interesting way of delivering that same syllabus. So the crucial factor is not what technology they’ve got but what the teacher had come up with as a motivating way of using it! ICT is just a tool and a sympathetic, knowledgeable adult is even more important, who will guide that person – and that might be a parent or a carer or a teacher or counsellor or a careers adviser. I think it is unlikely the technology alone is going to do that by itself.”
Q: Does the Internet offer benefits or challenges for young people with SEND and if so, what are they? In the case of challenges, what needs to be done to address them, both within education and training and in services provided by the voluntary and community sector?
“The Internet on its own does nothing! It can, however, provide support through the content of a particular site. What people use the Internet to transmit or communicate or raise awareness of, is the part that is interesting for young people: it opens up horizons. So pre-Internet young people, including those with special needs, would only have resources where they are based, but now, given the helpful intervention of an adult, parent, carer or whoever is providing support, the potential is there to have access to a much wider range. The other issue is the communications one, not just resources. There is now the potential to communicate with people that sit behind these resources, so in addition to being able to have access to a much wider range of resources in many cases you can now also communicate with the people responsible for creating them. In the context of employability this can help if you want to find out what is involved in a particular job. You can go online and see the current requirement for that job, which might have been updated just a day or two ago, and you can then search for vacancies. To pick up the point about communication, you could contact someone who is not currently advertising and ask what they are looking for from people doing that kind of job. These are two valuable aspects of networked information.
Accessibility is also an issue for web-based content and interaction. If you struggle with reading, is the site still accessible? What is needed is a range of ways into the site rather than trying to apply universal learning design. I would rather see that as a differentiation, and to offer a plain text version, simplified versions or symbolised version, rather than have one version that is supposed to be for everybody, because that is fairly unachievable. I haven’t yet seen a site that really delivers universal design, and it would be lovely if it could be achieved, although there are sites that are vastly more accessible that was previously the case. So if we are talking universal access, then we mean everybody: including people with no understanding of text or no physical movement whatsoever.
I believe we should be talking about more accessible learning design, which is different. For example I’m currently trying to help a young person who wants to get a job in computer maintenance and doesn’t have the required qualifications. The government website, DirectGov, is for example very accessible and the information makes it very clear what the options are for people in that position. However, from looking elsewhere I haven’t found anything from the corporate sector that is accessible to him about what he needs to do, while you might think that that is where there might be job opportunities. It depends on how genuinely employers want those jobs to be accessible for people with special needs. The young adult I’m trying to help is active in the gaming world and obviously finds that an engrossing world in which to interact. It seems to be a positive experience for him.”