Mick Archer takes a first look at what BETT 2016 has to offer SEN students who need help with reading and writingBETT is a conundrum. How does an educational technology show held in London’s wind-swept Docklands in the grey depths of January become the biggest event of its kind?
Convenience has to be part of the answer: its huge exhibition space includes seven on-site hotels, parking for almost 4,000 cars and rapid rail links to London’s underground. Factor in London City Airport, which is only five minutes away, and you can see that for visitors and exhibitors alike it’s as hassle-free as shows get.
Then there is the technology. Okay, like any responsible adult I frequently repeat the mantra ‘Technology is a tool, not a panacea’. But that said, have you seen what some of these tools can do for children with special educational needs (SEN)? Who five years ago would have predicted eye-gaze systems costing less than £1,000; tablets and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) apps displacing dedicated communication devices; or robots helping autistic children develop their social skills?
So, like thousands of others, I will make the annual pilgrimage to BETT come what may. Last year a staggering 35,000 visitors from 128 countries did the same. Like them I go expecting to have my horizons lifted and my technology craving met. Of course I won’t see everything: with almost 700 exhibitors listed and just 30 hours of show time over four days who could? And that’s without allowing time to rest my weary feet while listening to some of BETT’s imposing list of guest speakers. Which is why I am already sifting through the exhibitors’ list, deciding who and what to see.
Here then are my first recommendations. They primarily cover products designed to help students read and write but I’ll be covering other areas over the coming weeks. If I have missed anything important do let me know and I will try to give it a mention.
So where to start? I usually begin by filtering the Exhibitors List for all those companies who say their products are relevant to the SEN sector. This immediately makes the choice more manageable, cutting this year’s list to a little over 225. Next, I group these into some logical order. A typical list might include a mixture of categories ranging from Assessment to Touch Screens and will inevitably reflect whether you’re a browser or on a laser-guided mission to fill a critical gap in your school’s provision. Either way it helps to have a clear idea of what it is you want to see, shaped in part by how much time you can spend at the show. Even better, you can now pre-plan your visit using the BETT app. and take it all with you. Just watch where you’re going when fixed on your smartphone screen.
My own preliminary list always starts with the products that have been shortlisted in the SEN category of the BETT Awards. This year that consists of six products from five companies, two of whom have stands at the Show (another tells me it is trying to secure a stand so check for late bookings). This in itself reflects the fact that not all companies can afford to exhibit at BETT and that others, including many in the SEN sector, feel their marketing budgets are better spent elsewhere. The two that will definitely be there are Crick Software (D240) and Mike Ayres Design (SN86).
For Crick this will be their 21st BETT Show since they launched their flagship product Clicker in 1995. While they have been shortlisted in the BETT Awards for Clicker Communicator and SuperKeys it’s also the first real chance to see Clicker 7, the latest version of Clicker itself, which the company showcased to an invited audience earlier this month. Special World will carry a detailed review of Clicker 7 in the near future but be assured it is feature rich and well worth checking out for those looking for a comprehensive tool to support pupils struggling with a wide range of literacy difficulties.
Clicker Communicator, on the other hand, enters the competitive field of AAC apps designed for the iPad but with the important advantage that its user interface is immediately familiar to existing Clicker users. Three ready-made vocabulary sets are provided, all using core communication words, which means the first-time user can jump right in at an appropriate ability level. Vocabulary sets can be edited, downloaded from Crick’s online library or created from scratch. Clicker Communicator comes with over 24,000 fully indexed SymbolStix symbols and an in-built image library. For those who prefer Widgit or PCS symbol sets these are available as in-app purchases.
Significantly Clicker Communicator also includes Crick’s other shortlisted product, SuperKeys. This tackles the familiar problem of keyboard keys or grid cells being too small for some users to easily tap. SuperKeys overcomes this by grouping the 30+ keys or cells into seven clusters. Tap the cluster containing the target key or cell and the cluster expands to fill the iPad screen. SuperKeys includes word prediction, short cuts and customisable features, all of which help make it easier and quicker to use.
Mike Ayres Design has been shortlisted for Switch4, an iPad app that provides touch-screen control of Mike Ayres Design sensory equipment, such as bubble tubes, fibre optic lights and LED colour-control lighting systems. It will also work with other equipment, such as projectors and spotlights, that can be plugged into a Switch2 control unit. Described as simple, intuitive, flexible and adaptable, Switch4 allows a range of equipment in a sensory room or studio to be controlled in a variety of ways, from using the iPad as a simple switch to programming it with more complex ‘Setups’. These activate pre-selected equipment and scenarios for individual users, themes or lessons.
The presence of Crick Software at BETT reflects the fact that its products support a large swathe of students with literacy and communication needs. These bridge the categories of Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD); Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN); and Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD). If these are areas that are of interest to you then there are several other stands worth adding to your list. Here are a few suggestions.
Sonocent (B140) is the company behind Audio Notetaker, which allows students to record presentations; colour-code important sections; add additional information in the form of slides and other visuals; annotate; and export audio as text or vice versa. The latest version comes with an audio clean-up kit, to remove those irritating background noises, and an audio replace tool, should you want to swap an initial live recording for a higher quality one that becomes available at a later stage. It does this by matching identical sections of audio while retaining the relevant notes, images and annotations from your original recording. Another useful feature for PC users is Scribe, which allows you to dictate into Audio Notetaker and then transcribe your recording with Dragon NaturallySpeaking versions 11, 12 or 13, Premium or Professional. Great for students who want to get their ideas down before starting an assignment but who lack the writing skills to do so quickly.
Texthelp (C141) is best known for Browsealoud and Read&Write. The former adds speech, reading, and translation to websites, making them more accessible for those with literacy difficulties, while the latter is an intuitive toolbar that provides support for reading, writing and research. As well as text to speech, Read&Write includes a spell checker, customisable word prediction, text and picture dictionaries, homophone checker and more. Another great plus is that there are versions for almost every platform and device, whether it be Windows, Mac or Google Chrome, on a desktop, iPad or Android tablet.
A further reading-and-writing option is ClaroRead from Claro Software (H410). Like Texthelp it’s a multi-featured program that includes everything from a high-quality screen reader to a writing aid designed to works alongside Microsoft Word. I especially like that its word prediction tool includes phonetic prediction, to help with words whose spellings are different to how they sound, and a range of subject-specific dictionaries. ClaroRead Plus and ClaroRead Pro also offer Omnipage optical character recognition (OCR) to convert printed documents and image files into PDF, Word and many other formats for reading and annotating later. There’s also a range of related iOS apps, which includes ClaroPDF, ClaroSpeak and Claro ScanPen.
Also worth a visit is MV-Nordic (C274), the Scandinavian company behind IntoWords. This program boasts several of the features of its competitors – including a screen reader, word prediction with sound, and OCR – and is also cross platform, with versions for Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android tablets and Chrome.
Sticking with the Literacy theme I also hope to visit the stand of Assistive Solutions and Dyslexia Action (SN28). The former will be demonstrating the latest version of WordQSpeakQ while the latter will be showing the online version of Units of Sound. This ‘second chance’ literacy software provides flexible, individualised support to help build the skills of students who, for whatever reason, have fallen behind with their reading. Also on my list is Conversor (G83), a company focused on improving the listening environment in schools through its Soundfield systems and assistive listening devices. What I have yet to see is its Notetalker for Android or Apple devices, which appears to offer similar features to Audio Notetaker.
I’ll also be catching up with ReadingWise (E60), who I first saw at BETT 2015. Originally developed in India in 2006 to help tackle the country’s high level of functional illiteracy, the program was introduced into the UK earlier this year. It contains almost 2,000 lessons that address every aspect of letter recognition, phonics, sight words, chunking and all the other potential obstacles to fluent reading. If you are interested in knowing more about it then check out Linda Evans’ article for Special World and this ReadingWise video showcasing the impressive results achieved using the program at Calmore Junior School.
New for me this year will be WizKids (B232). Its AppWriter is another all-inclusive, cross-platform solution for reading and writing that includes text-to-speech, context-based word suggestions, an integrated PDF-reader and OCR – all using the specially designed Dyslexie font. AppWriter also employs cloud-based user profiles, which mean a user can customise the set-up and content and access it on any device.
Finally, I should mention Jolly Learning (F361), the publisher of Jolly Phonics, one of the first phonics-based early reading programmes that gained widespread use in the UK. Over the years it has expanded overseas and integrated digital resources into its media mix. Now you can download an Apple or Android version of its Jolly Phonics Letter Sounds app, confirming that even young children embarking on learning to read are now comfortably doing so with the aid of new technology.
takes place at Excel, London on 20-23 January 2016. Entry is free and visitors can pre-register on the BETT website.