Education Authority - Using Immersive Technology to Help Pupils with Autism

Immersive technology refers to the technology that is used to create a virtual world for its users. It is already extensively used in video-gaming and has begun to be used effectively in the fields of medicine, policing and therapy.

So, why not education? That was the question asked by Enda Cunningham and Aoibhe Kieran who are Educational Psychologists at the Education Authority (EA).

The benefits appear to be obvious, specifically in supporting pupils with autism. These students often struggle to interpret their feelings and the thoughts of others, leading to persistent and sometimes severe difficulties coping with the social and academic aspects of school life.

As Aoibhe Kieran explained,

"Many young people with autism are prone to intense feelings of anxiety. In the longer term, many of these children and young people find it difficult to establish careers that reflect their full academic potential. Any way to assist in lessening these difficulties would be highly valuable, both for the children, and their parents or carers.”

Small Business Research Initiative

Immersive Technology and Autism Small Business Research Initiative, a collaborative engagement between the Education Authority, the Department of Finance and the Strategic Investment Board knew immersive technology offered opportunities to improve education, social, emotional and behavioural outcomes of pupils with Autism. Challenges arose in how to access and develop the technology needed and this was where the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) was able to assist.

A UK-wide programme, SBRI brings together government challenges and ideas from business to create innovative solutions. SBRI enables the public sector to tap into new ideas and technologies through funding competitions to business, resulting in new opportunities for companies who can provide solutions to the tough challenges faced by the public sector. Managed by the Department for Economy, with project management support from the Strategic Investment Board, SBRI currently has more than ten active projects in Northern Ireland, including the Education Authority project.

As Economy Minister Diane Dodds explains,

“SBRI is a highly effective way of using the buying power of the public sector to encourage the development of new innovative solutions, helping businesses to bring forward their ideas and trial new solutions and projects that may not otherwise be brought to market helping to support emerging technology and start-up businesses.”

Launched in 2018 as part of EA’s Digital Transformation Programme, the EA SBRI competition received innovative ideas from across Northern Ireland, GB and the Republic of Ireland. Following a successful proof of concept phase, two companies progressed to receive further funding and support to develop their initial prototypes and to test their models at scale. What followed was an intensive period of listening. Listening to teachers, listening to pupils, to representatives from the EA’s Autism and Advisory Service, to specialists in educational technology and business development, the result of which was two new immersive technology solutions co-created and designed by and for schools and children and young people.

Neurotech, a London-based company, produced “Talkback” an individualised virtual learning system for teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to help develop reading comprehension, communication and social interaction skills. While Chester-based Cadscan, developed “Attain”, an augmented reality app that enables teachers to integrate immersive content into lessons for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, particularly targeting early literacy and maths skills.

Covid-19 intervened to prevent final tests to fully evaluate the effects of using these products however Neurotech was able to obtain qualitative results to establish initial findings on the use of Talkback at four post-primary schools.

Talkback specifically targets reading comprehension skills, an area of particular challenge for many pupils with autism. Teachers noted improved engagement and social confidence in young people taking part in the intervention.

Fidelma McKeever, Special Educational Needs Coordinator at St Patrick’s College Banbridge, described Talkback as an exciting and innovative approach to the improvement of literacy skills. She went on to comment that,

“The most rewarding part of the group sessions is listening to the pupils' animated discussions at the end, to see children who have difficulties with communication and social interaction so willingly contributing to the conversation is a positive event to witness”.

The Future

Due to challenges of Covid-19 both Neurotech and Cadscan have prioritised developing home-learning products based on the knowledge acquired through participating on this project with the SBRI project. The project has helped demonstrate how new immersive technologies can enable young people with autism to see the world from a different perspective and experience their education in a new and exciting way.

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