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e-learning for students with special needs

Cluster Type – Central Region Special Schools ICT PD Cluster

Year level – 5 -21 year old special needs students

Context - School progress towards achieving Goals 1& 3

What is important to us and why?

The teachers in the CRSSC Cluster provide educational opportunities for students with a wide range of special needs. The cluster consists of six special needs schools stretching the lower North Island. It is important for teachers to be innovative in integrating e-learning into their classroom programme, so that the students throughout the CRSSC Cluster can access and experience a range of technologies with appropriate levels of support.

Innovative adaptations often need to be made, as the physical and cognitive disabilities of our students can limit their access to many ICT tools. Identifying the true abilities of our students and motivating them to learn has its difficulties. The major challenge for the cluster has been to improve the confidence and competence of teachers to enable them to explore opportunities that will help their students experience e-learning. It is therefore crucial for staff to continually develop their skills and integrate the effective use of  e-learning with their students.

What did we do?

The following examples show how teachers and specialists have used e-learning to motivate students and how student learning opportunities have been enhanced with the introduction of new technologies.


New Technologies

Intention: Students will access new resources using interactive whiteboards

Context: As 2011 unfolds, many breakthroughs are being made in the use of ICT in our schools. Two of our cluster schools have opened on brand new sites where access to e-learning has been carefully considered in their design.

  • Touch interactive whiteboards have been installed in the new classrooms sitting out from the wall. Students in wheelchairs, standing frames or XY hoists, can easily access them.
  • Teachers are excited about the new technology and are sourcing a range of resources that inspire their students.
  • Sharing of resources is at an all time high and the benefits for students with cause and effect programmes is highly beneficial for their personal development.
  • Students with visual impairments can use the touch boards with cause and effect programmes that play sounds when they touch the board.

Impact: One teacher told of a student who would regularly refuse to walk in her pacer. “It takes a lot to get her motivated and is easily distracted.” Being a typical teenage girl (regardless of her very high needs), she is obsessed with Justin Bieber. The teacher called this particular student into the room because they were about to play a clip off the Ellen Show featuring Justin Bieber on the interactive whiteboard. The teacher reports that this student practically ran into the room to touch the screen to start the clip. “It was an amazing, motivating experience for all involved”

A non-verbal student with Autism who is reluctant to write, was working on a literacy activity on the interactive whiteboard. To the surprise of his teacher he independently sorted the capital Es from the lower case es. As this student is non-verbal and reluctant, his literacy levels are difficult to assess accurately. With the use of the interactive whiteboard this student is motivated and able to communicate his comprehension to his teacher.

Next steps: The high level of reaction and motivation to learn is becoming more evident as students are accessing new technologies. Teachers with brand new technologies are extremely keen. They are looking forward to getting set up fully and using them within their classroom programmes with the support from the lead teacher.

Connecting Worldwide

Intention: For staff to access KnowledgeNet and transition students to experience e-learning in their classroom

Context: In one school, only office staff and residential carers were using KnowledgeNet. The teaching staff had not used KnowledgeNet until recent events made a very big impact. The principal and her husband (H) took a trip overseas and he is currently returning home by container ship. A blog was set up on KnowledgeNet so that he could communicate with the students and staff while he was away. One teacher was very excited by the prospect of her students communicating with ‘H’ while he made his way around the world.

Impact: The ICT representative from this school reports: “Exciting times, particularly with Teacher C and her class who are following the trip online.

  • The teacher is applying lots of ICT skills like setting up her log-in to the website, saving it into favourites and a link to a live interactive map of the ship's current position and progress. She has learnt to change her profile to a class photo for the trip forum.
  • She and her class have been posting messages and asking questions about the trip and are keenly awaiting the arrival at the ports so ‘H’ can respond.
  • At a staff meeting Teacher C shared how they are following the trip through the Knowledge Net website and also via e-mail.
  • There is high interest from the students about the countries, continents and oceans that ‘H’ has traveled and it has opened up the concept of the wider world for them.
  • Teacher C also shared how she is making further links with the curriculum by doing a statistical investigation with the students. She has set an inquiry question about How many days does it take between ports? Then collecting information and designing a class graph to display data.
  • The reaction from the students has been of high value. They have posted questions about the food and the ship on the blog. An email from ‘H’ about a storm his ship sailed through created an absolutely spellbound reaction from some of the students who then posed more questions.
  • The principal, who flew home, is now keen to learn how to put photos up on the forum. She is also enjoying the interactive map so she can follow the ship's progress.”

Next steps: This project has given a realistic purpose for using KnowledgeNet and in turn has helped prepare staff for the establishment of e-portfolios for their students. With the establishment of e-portfolios for students, teachers will transfer technical knowledge from the overseas trip blog to e-portfolios. Individual student pages have been set up and progress is being made with teachers accessing Knowledge Net. Individual student pages have been set up for one teacher who is keen to trial it for her class.

Sensory Atmosphere

Intention: For students to access a wide range of technologies.

Context: Sensory rooms are common in special needs schools, and the recent addition of data projectors to these rooms has created a whole new atmosphere for students with very high needs.

Two learning experiences were videoed to compare the impact of e-learning for one particular student with visual impairment and very high needs. Both experiences had a similar learning context, however the reaction from the student couldn’t be more distinct.


Experience A:

  • A switching activity in the classroom
  • Topic - Migration
  • The head switch turned on a voice recording that contained verbal information on the migration topic.
  • Motivation to activate the switch was low and the student needed to be prompted.
  • He reacted with some eye movement and a slight lean towards the sound.

Experience B:

  • The data projector set up in the dark sensory room.
  • Topic - Migration
  • A You Tube clip about migration was projected onto a wall in the sensory room and was activated by the teacher. The projection was then moved to shine up onto the roof.
  • This experience created much more evident reactions like smiles, turning of his head towards the picture and vocalizations. When the projector was moved, the student eye tracked up to where the picture was and followed it across the ceiling as it moved.

Next steps: The teacher is highly motivated by this experience and is excited by the extent of resources that she now has to use with this group of students. I cant believe how much more alert the students are! For my science next term I will use sounds and visuals on the data projector, there is so much out there to use.”

Key Lessons for the cluster

  • For the students, their experiences are opening up to entire new worlds and their parents are excited by the new learning opportunities their children are involved with.
  • E-learning is more accessible when students can use big screens. Interactive whiteboards help to include students who find laptops hard to see and virtually impossible to use. Students who are motivated by interactive whiteboards can also show their true ability, particularly students who cannot verbalize their understanding of a concept.
  • The culture of sharing is improving. Exploration of cause and effect e-learning resources and sensory learning experiences are the major focus. When teachers see the opportunities for their students, and are motivated to try new things, they share it with others.
  • Teachers are beginning to see the value in enhancing curriculum areas by integrating them with their e-learning projects. There is great importance in exploring opportunities as they arise and adapting them for integration.
  • Projects with a functional purpose inspire the use of new systems, like Knowledge Net, Blogger or wiki. Without a realistic purpose, these systems are not used. Initiatives like the overseas blog on Knowledge Net inspired a group of teachers to start using a system that they had never logged onto and then share their success with other staff.

Next Steps for the cluster

Moving forward, lead teachers will implement & establish individual school initiatives. Each lead teacher is working towards specified goals on their action plan for their school. As a collective group the cluster will be:

  • Developing resources and sharing examples of e-learning experiences on the cluster wiki for all teachers to access. These resources will be aligned to the CRSSC Expanded Level One Frameworks in Literacy and Numeracy for Fuel and Launch students.
  • A collection of resources for multi-sensory rooms will feature in this package with switching activities that students can activate. There will also be further exploration of communication strategies for non-verbal students using ICT. These links share the
  • Exploring of the e-competencies within the cluster and how they apply to our students and staff. From this the lead teachers will develop SOLO rubrics around best practice use of the e-learning environment to guide student's next steps and teacher competency.
  • All schools within the cluster are developing e-portfolios.  Individual pages for students include areas for Literacy and Numeracy goals – based on the CRSSC Frameworks, IEP goals – based on the Key Competencies, photos, videos and comments as evidence that supports the progress towards personal goals. E-portfolios are at various stages of development in each school.

The focus this year has moved from upskilling the lead teachers to planning strategies that enhance the e-learning experiences for all students. There has been a shift in thinking away from emphasizing teacher PD on the 'how to' model, to looking more deeply at the pedagogy and ultimate outcomes for students.

Lead teachers are building on their knowledge continually and working hard behind the scenes to get initiatives established in their respective schools. The support and expertise within the cluster lead teachers group is most valuable for working towards collective goals and inspire progress towards individual school goals. There have been many breakthroughs with ICT throughout the cluster, as little successes are celebrated the direction of initiatives gain momentum.