Sanja Denić describes the challenge of creating a website for a Belgrade elementary school for students with multiple and profound disabilities

Does the web presence of an elementary school have to be boring? Should it be  designed with just parents and future students in mind? Unfortunately, for many the answer seems to be yes: school websites are where we go to find a school’s address, view its online gallery, explore its history, discover how it works.

When I started working on the website of Miodrag Matić, the elementary school in Belgrade, Serbia where I teach, I started by researching the sites of other schools. I discovered that almost all school websites are similar: official looking with a history of the school, a description of its curriculum and details of its location.

But I also discovered that some school websites have forums or parts of their sites where children can download digital learning materials. This struck me as both stimulating and appropriate: school websites designed to support students and make learning easier. I realised that a school’s website should be used by its students and decided that Miodrag Matić’s website should take this form.

Miodrag Matić is a school for children with multiple and profound disabilities, so I couldn’t just create a forum or put learning materials on the site; I had to find a way to make the site truly accessible to our students.


Learning through play
The first question I asked was, ‘What can I put on the website that our students can use at home and at school?’ The answer seemed obvious: computer games.

The internet gives access to a multitude of free, accessible computer games that encourage learning through play. So I decided that as well as the essential boring, official stuff our school website would be a portal that provided access to free online learning games for our students. The goal or design solution would be to enable our students to learn while ‘playing’ on the computer.

So I searched for and found some free games available in full-screen mode that didn’t have any commercials or banners that might lead students to inappropriate and undesirable content. I also looked for games that didn’t rely on audio or on-screen text to direct users, as most online games assume a working knowledge of English. Instead, the games I found rely on visual cues. Through trial and error students arrive at the right answer; through animation they learn whether their initial answer is right or wrong and if it’s wrong they’re encouraged to try again.


Picture pathway
As mentioned previously, Miodrag Matić is a school for children with profound and multiple disabilities. But most of the students also have a further obstacle to overcome: they cannot read. This was the challenge: how to design a website so that students who cannot read can use it by themselves, can find games on their own and can search independently? Again, the answer seemed obvious: through the use of pictures.

So the final decision taken was to make a part of the website accessible to students who cannot read by providing a ‘picture pathway’ leading to their choice of computer games.

Miodrag Matić’s website

Miodrag Matić’s websiteAnd so we set about creating Miodrag Matić’s website, a site designed for our students that allows them to independently search for and play a selection of appropriate learning games.

And so we set about creating Miodrag Matić’s website, a site designed for our students that allows them to independently search for and play a selection of appropriate learning games.


Icons
Form the outset, all of the icons on our website were designed to support our students. For children with multiple and profound disabilities it is very hard to understand the link between the computer mouse and the on-screen cursor. Our icons are designed to change colour to help address this.

At first sight the website may appear anaemic: everything is grey and violet, and if you do not move the cursor nothing changes. Move the mouse/cursor, however, and the icon it hovers over will spring into life. The icon changes colour, differentiating it from the other icons, all of which remain grey/violet. In this way we help our students overcome the problem presented by the indirect link between mouse and cursor. Instead they learn to follow and control the cursor without thinking about the direction in which they are or should be moving the mouse.

The website of Miodrag Matić has two main parts:

  • The part designed for students.
  • The official part with traditional information about our school.

Students
The part of the site meant for students can be found behind the icon labelled УЧЕНИЦИ, which means Pupils. You will find it on the left-hand side of the Homepage. When you click on УЧЕНИЦИ it opens a page that has seven icons: one that takes you back to the Homepage and six representing the broad categories of free, online games that are available.

The six categories are:

  • Basics.
  • Music.
  • Painting.
  • Letters.
  • Numbers.
  • Puzzles.
Game Icons.

Game Icons.

The picture for each icon was chosen with two objectives in mind: it should clearly show the kind of games to be found behind the icon; it should arouse students’ interest and make them curious to see what will happen if they click on the icon.

Alongside the pictures are the names of the categories. This also stimulates indirect learning linking activity, picture and text.

Name icons.

Name icons.

And so we set about creating Miodrag Matić’s website, a site designed for our students that allows them to independently search for and play a selection of appropriate learning games.


Official
The official part of the site can be found behind the remaining 11 icons on the Homepage. Here you can learn about the school’s history, its curriculum, its location… all the key information essential for a successful website.

Remaining Icons

Remaining Icons

But there is also something different here that makes it easier for those working with children with multiple and profound disabilities. Behind the icon labelled ДИГИТАЛНИ ДИДАКТИЧКИ МАТЕРИЈАЛИ, which means Digital Didactic Materials, you will find PowerPoint presentations, created and used by Miodrag Matić’s teachers when working with our students.

Digital Didactic Materials

Digital Didactic Materials

Miodrag Matić’s website is a work in progress: it will change over time with new games added, as well as additional PowerPoint presentations created by our staff. So please do visit it and let us know what you think. You can link to it here.

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About Contributors

Sanja Denić is a special educator in Belgrade, Republic of Serbia and co-author of Obrazovanjem do digitalne inkluzije dece sa višestrukim smetnjama u razvoju (Education by digital inclusion of children with profound/multiple disabilities) published by the University of Belgrade.

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