Assistive Technology with Tom Starkey – Universal Learning with Saj Mohammad
Please Note: This transcript has been slightly edited to improve readability.
Saj Mohammad: In this series, I’ll be talking to professionals inside and outside education, as well as parents, carers, and learners themselves about their experiences of inclusive practice.
I’m on a mission to discover as much as possible about inclusion, because I’ve been a learning support practitioner for over six years and I’ve come to realise that many of the adjustments we make for students with additional needs could benefit all learners. For example, making things easy to read helps dyslexic students, while using clear language can benefit autistic learners. So, shouldn’t inclusive practice be part of our normal routine when planning teaching, learning, and assessment?
In an ideal world, I’d like educators to stop thinking about inclusive practices as another chore to be added to an ever-expanding workload. In actual fact, I believe that inclusive practice can ultimately make life easier by making learning more accessible for all of our students.
In this edition of Universal Learning, I’m talking to Tom Starkey, an assistive technology adviser working in higher education. And by assistive technology, I mean devices or software that help to maintain or improve a person’s ability to do things in everyday life including work and study. Before working in a university, Tom had a varied career which included working as a teacher in schools and pupil referral units or PRUs, as well as writing about teaching in a variety of publications, and consulting for educational technology companies.
We begin our conversation by talking about his career and look at the debate around exclusion in schools and what role alternative provision such as PRUs could have in keeping children and young people in education. We also talk about the role that parent and carers have in education and how things like family learning can support them to improve their own skills as well as allowing parents and carers to help children and young people more with their learning.
Tom has also worked in further education and we discuss the issues around compulsory maths and English resits in colleges for under-19 learners. These came about as a result of the Wolf Report which came out in 2011 and recommended that college students under 19 who had not achieved a passing grade in English or maths at school would have to retake them alongside their main college course. While the policy may have had good intentions, it’s debatable how successful it has been and it’s a topic that I’d like to cover more in a future edition.
Speaking of future editions, I am planning to answer any questions that listeners might have about inclusion in an upcoming episode. So do feel free to get in touch with your questions via our website at UniversalLearning.education
Another topic we look at briefly is how our own early experiences of education can shape our approach to our practice today and not always for the better.
We conclude by looking at how even a time-pressured educator can get started with assistive technology. Tom also makes a really important point about the role of management in giving their staff the time to explore new ideas and methods.
Tom mentions a website that you can look at to get started with assistive technology and he mistakenly refers to it as ‘Anynet’, but he meant to say AbilityNet. This is a great organisation and you can find their website at abilitynet.org.uk
So, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not always the best. However, you can read a transcript of this episode on our website UniversalLearning.education where you can also find links relating to each episode to help you discover how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners.
It was a real pleasure to talk to Tom as he shared his depth of knowledge and experience in both an entertaining and informative way. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Tom: My name is Tom Starkey. I am the assistive technology advisor for the University of Leeds. That means that I help students primarily with their assistive technologies such as screen to text, text to screen, ergonomic adaptations of furniture and things like that. I try to find them apps that will help them in their day to day, and I liaise with other stakeholders in the institution, trying to ensure that we are making things both in the physical world and online as accessible as possible to every single one of our students. That’s what I’m up to at the moment. I have a history in education. I was an English teacher, oh no, actually from the start I was a TA. That was when I started in education and then from that I didn’t learn a damn thing. So I became an English teacher in secondary schools.
Usually the modern parlance is challenging secondary schools, and then I did that for round about seven years. Then I got into adult education and I was an English tutor, as well as a tutor of lots of other subjects in a further education college for 10 years. As I was doing those things, I was also dabbling in education consultancy when it comes to technology and I was also doing a bit of writing for various places about issues, about education. I say writing, wasn’t really writing, it was just kind of like me ranting and then writing some of it down. And then some strange editor just said yeah, okay, we’ll print that. Yeah, that’s about 20 years in education. Only two years in higher education, but it’s means that I’ve had a kind of good overview of quite a lot of sectors.
Saj:When you were younger, did you have education in mind as a career, or did you have other plans before you entered education?
Tom: My mum is a teacher or was a teacher and from a very early age, I looked at my mum’s life and the kind of teaching environment and I was like, oh I don’t know, I’m not too sure about that! But as time went on, it turned out that I was I was quite good at communicating with younger people. I really enjoyed work. I did charity work with a charity that gave respite to parents of young people who had severe disability, and it just kind of ended up being a fairly natural progression, although a tiny little bit before I decided on a teaching career, I was going to join the army and then I’m I met my future wife and my future wife says , nah you’re not doing that army thing. Find something else. So teaching was the kind of the natural next step for me.
Saj: Okay, so she didn’t fancy the life of being an army wife and moving around.
Tom: She did not, no and also I’m a massive physical coward so I don’t really know how that would have gone.And to be honest, some of the places that I thought… akin to a battlefield anyway, so you know, I learnt some close combat techniques regardless, so it’s fine.
Saj: So you started off as a TA and then you became an English teacher. And you’ve worked in quite a few different kind of phases and different types of provision as well. So I think you worked into alternative provision.
Tom: That’s right? Yeah. I worked in alternative provision for roundabout four years in total in my career, as a wandering supply teacher I had quite long stints in alternative provision and then in the last two years of my teaching career I was I was in one of the first one of the first alternative provisions provided by an FE college actually at Leeds City College and I was the English teacher there.
Saj: So things like alternative provision are quite ahot topic at the moment because there’s adebate about exclusions and some people think that alternative provision may be like an alternative to exclusion. So as somebody who’s done their time in the trenches, as it were, what’s your kind of point of view on the current debate that’s raging around this in education?
Tom: The current debate, it’s so emotive, especially since a lot of the people involved have experience first hand, whether it is their students, whether it’s their children, whether it’s their former lives in alternative provision.
I am of the opinion that having worked in lots of alternative provision and actually talking to many, many more in my kind of like journalist role that I had for a little while, alternative provision I think is a viable, perhaps one of the only viable alternatives, but with this caveat. It has to be quality provision. It has to be quality. In fact it has to be better than quality. It has to be the best of the best. The best teaching, the best funding, the best thinking, because that is a lot to do with it. I mean the students that are in alternative provision, generally, are there for a range of reasons, but basically the primary reason is that they do not fit in the model of mainstream education that we have.
Now, whether that in itself is a wider issue, to be honest, it probably is, you know, But the transformation of a whole mainstream or a whole institution like education is a massive undertaking and to be honest I don’t think it’s particularly realistic. Also, there’s an issue of safety. Some of the students, well around about 90% of students who I saw in alternative provision were there due to some form or some instances of violence or continued abuse.
Terrible back stories as as well. You know a lot of the time, these kids had got home lives like horror stories. Sometimes they didn’t, let’s not generalise. Not every student who I saw in AP was destitute or abused or anything like that. But there was a tendency for these kids – because you have to remember they are children – there was a tendency for these kids to have it rough already, and you know you have to strike that balance between empathising with the student, but also trying to teach the student, and I think alternative provision has to be a place where a student can be concentrated on, you know, a student at the focus.
People talk about student focused and teacher focused provision and all that kind of stuff , I think that’s nonsense man. Everything is everything focused. Otherwise you know, if it was just teacher focused, my teaching career would be me sat with my feet up, smoking a cigarette in class for 20 years. It didn’t get to that point, came close often. So alternative provision for me is the only viable alternative because for any number of reasons, mainstream education doesn’t fit and sometimes because of that misfit, because of that students will strike out in lots of different ways.
But as I said, the alternative provision has to be quality. I have viewed some fantastic alternative provision that has had thought, care, community work. Community work is really important. People have this separation of education and home life and they don’t often think well wy not take a more holistic approach and try home education? Try family education. A lot of these children have families who are struggling in a number of ways. And I mean when I was when I became a father, I was heavily involved in our local Sure Start centre. Early years family based education to try and counter some of the issues that these children may face later on.
But alternative provision for me has to be special. It has to be better than what they would be getting in mainstream education. It has to be focused. It has to be highly personalised. I mean it like seriously, highly personalised. The best institutions do that, because they see the student, but they also see the surrounding environment for the student, not just in the provision but outside the provision community as well.
It has to be about community and family education as well. If that’s an option, sometimes it isn’t. It also has to have the best educators. The problem for me when it comes to alternative provision, not that it is not that it exists, but it has been fairly wantonly ignored in the kind of overall conversation about exclusion, about how do we educate students who are acting out? How do we?
It’s been the sin bin of education for the longest time. What it should be, it should be the opposite. It should be the fact that we should have mainstream schools looking at alternative provision, PRUs, and looking at them for best practice. They should be beacons of teaching practice in my opinion, because that’s what the students who attend often need. They need the best of the best.
It’s very difficult to give the best of the best of someone who’s calling you allsorts or trying to stab you with a protector, but that’s just that’s just the thing. It needs a special kind of focus on a special kind of kid. Whether that happens all the time, I’m highly doubtful. Highly doubtful. Like I said, I’ve worked in a range of alternative provisions. The ones that I’ve worked with happily and luckily have been of a really good standard because I was I was in the very privileged position of being able to pick and choose where I worked and if I didn’t like somewhere I wouldn’t stay. Because, you know, why would you stay somewhere where you think that it might be doing harm to certain people? So yeah, I don’t understand… I started teaching in the 2000s and the Naughties were the age of inclusion, not actual real inclusion. You know it became a misnomer, the word inclusion. Inclusion just meant, right, you’re teaching this range of students in one place. Deal with it.
Usually through differentiation, but it’s very difficult to differentiate in a class where a student has reading age of four and a half years old and another student is looking at A Level texts. So I am all for alternative provision. I don’t see as an evil, but it does have to be high quality and to achieve that high quality, it has to be monitored to a greater extent than it is at the moment.
Saj: What’s going on there? When you say that it’s not being monitored? Is it just being overlooked? Is it being ignored or is there actually a wilful neglect going on here at the top of provision?
Tom: When it comes to a wider political landscape and education, I try to steer clear because I have my own opinions about governments and how they view and how they treat people who are already at the bottom of the heap.
Alternative provision can and has been in my experience, used as a way to gain funding. Because of the nature of the students and the nature of the needs and the nature of the funding behind them, I’ve been in contact and interviewed people that perhaps weren’t fairly scrupulous when it came to creating these centres for students who probably wouldn’t be taken anywhere else. That doesn’t mean that I’m massively cynical about it. What that does mean is that and as I say, if alternative provision is going to work and it’s a big if. You know I’m not romantic.
I’m not massively romantic when it comes to education and the transformative qualities that education can have. I believe that we can have some input into a young person’s life, but their home life is the biggest kind of push or pull or trigger or whatever you want to call it in their lives. I think we can have, maybe drop like a spoonful of sugar in the general tea of their life. But you know, if the tea is awful, the tea is awful regardless.
But nature of the students in AP socio-economically are fairly invisible anyway. You know these are not people… You have low economic status. You have low social status and with that comes a load of baggage when it comes to visibility. Working in FE, you know our model of student is different, for instance, to the model of student in higher education. And because of that, and because of the nature of the educational trajectory and perhaps career path, so the people in charge, places like further education are seemingly ignored, or in fact not even considered. And I think that is the case with alternative provision. It is somewhat of an other in the educational landscape. And that can often lead to it being ignored or can lead to people being so grateful that some form of provision exists, but it doesn’t matter what the quality that provision takes. Well, it does matter. It matters to the kids and it matters to the parents and it matters to the people already in there. But when it comes to things like funding streams or when it comes to visibility, when it comes to allowing students to have a voice within these kind of centres, I think that is perhaps lacking.
Saj: It’s interesting that you mentioned that you’ve worked in AP and FE, so these are both areas that you could almost say are on the kind of margins or on the fringes of the education debate if you like. So obviously that that has negatives when things aren’t funded properly or monitored properly. But conversely, what do you think are the positives of working in those types of settings where there isn’t as much focus and scrutiny?
Tom: Well, you learn to dodge stuff a lot easier. No, I’m joking, I’m joking! I tell you what there is – creative practice blossoms in these places. Not creative as in the kind of middle-class version of creative arts and crafts, we’ll do this, everything through music, all that kind of palaver. What I’m talking about is actual creative practice, trying to think of different ways to educate people. You’re on the margins in alternative provision in as much as psychologically and cognitively, some of these students are different. They are different and you have to adapt to that. You have to adapt your practices to that, you have to adapt your persona in some cases. In lots of cases, you can’t take things particularly personally or in other cases you have to display that it’s right to take these things personally. I never really understood the underlying kind of, I can’t remember what the philosophy is. Oh, unlimited positive regard.
I understand the kind of facets of unlimited positive regard, but I also think that you also have to model realistic response. So if the student called me a certain name, I would you know if I think, oh okay. But if a student called me a particular certain name, or if a student did something, or if a student threatened me with violence, I think teaching creatively, you have to make sure that the students know that in the wider world these things are unacceptable. That takes some thought, you know. That takes some thought, that’s not just linear subject based education, its holistic community modelling and that in itself is a real is a real burden. Number one because it might be the case that you’re not part of these children’s communities. You don’t live where they live.
A lot of the time, you wouldn’t want to live where they live, because you know it’s a frigging dump. So what you need to do is you try and always think about different ways of doing things because they’ve done the normal way, they’ve done the way that it’s going on, and it’s not quite worked. So different approaches have to be taken. So in AP, you see lots of creative people are doing lots of creative things. The only issue is that a lot of the time they’re not given enough time or resources to work on these seeds of ideas. A lor of this stuff can be very reactive, but then something works and you see a practitioner says right that works with that person and then that’s it. You know, that’s it, it’s either forgotten about or it applies to that one student. What I think AP needs to do and what I’m seeing a lot through social media is that there needs to be a kind of a communication network that shares practice, because although every student is an individual, there are generalities and there are kind of there are similarities between lots of students when it comes to things like behaviour, trigger behaviour, emotional response, all these different types of things.
But in AP especially, I think there is a real a real kind of creativity when it comes to how to deal with challenging situations. Something that strangely enough to put everything on its head, something that doesn’t really seem to be addressed when it comes to mainstream. You know, the mainstream kind of initial teacher training doesn’t really look at things like how to deal with this particular emotional response if it becomes a problem in the classroom. Well, as far as I know, to be honest I talked to some teacher trainers. Some people do touch on these kind of things. Some people don’t.
You know, perhaps if AP could kind of or perhaps if the attitude towards EPI could shift slightly, so it becomes instead of the kind of lesser cousin of mainstream it,so that it becomes the stately uncle of mainstream and people look up to AP and try to take practice away from that sector. Yeah, creativity is a funny thing. It’s funny to pin down. But in some ways you have to be more creative in alternative provision. Definitely because you’re coming in contact with a much more neurodiverse range of people.
Saj: I think what you’re saying resonates with me a lot in as somebody works in FE because if you take something like English and maths resits for example, in many settings they take the view that well, this is a revision year, you know, and we just need to revise what they’ve been learning over the last eleven, twelve years or whatever. And then we put them through the exams. And my point of view is well if that had worked, then they probably would have passed.
And there may be a very small cohort who were a few points off, you know getting their Grade 4 or whatever and maybe though they will benefit from revision year. But your vast majority of your learners, you start talking to them and they say things like, well, you know we had supply teachers and they used to go with the same areas over again and you realise very quickly that there are these huge holes in there in their learning. They have just haven’t got that that that full schema that will enable them to work with the subjects and I think especially for maths and English to a lesser extent, I mean it can actually be quite anxiety inducing to have that that deficit focused upon.
Tom: Yeah, I mean going back a couple of years when I was in FE. In open days at college, you used to get the kids coming in and sitting down and what grades do I need and stuff? Oh it’s like, oh yeah you can, so hair and beauty you have to have this and you have to do GCSE English and maths and their faces used to drop. It was what? Why? Well because, well, you know there’s an inherent good about learning and that. you know. But yeah, it was massively off putting. I’m not sure if it still is, but it was massively off putting for a lot of students and yeah you’re right. There were lots of borderline students and it gave that extra jump to. But like you say, numbers wise, it wasn’t great. I remember one year, I think it was the first year of the retakes, which was about four or five, oh God knows it was a long time ago now.
Saj: I think Wolf came in about 2014.
Tom: Yeah, so it’s the first year of the retakes and we had two students out of a cohort of 60, reaching level 4. And you know? And it’s like, okay, so it’s great for those two students. And I don’t begrudge those two students you know, because they were able to go on and do whatever they want, but it does seem to be… I don’t know. I mean I used to be and I’ve written about it before, I used to be kind of on the fence about GCSE resits because you know it gives you an extra chance,. But the form that that chance is in is just kind of, it’s just more of the same. Like you say, it’s more of the same. It’s like shoving another piece of cake in after you’ve eaten 15 pieces of cake and the cake’s horrible. A cake made of worms. Yeah, so yeah no it’s it’s funny.
I mean in FE especially, you know the focus is very much on work and it’s very much on employment and employability, and I’ve never been able to figure out what the middle ground is when it comes to making sure that people have the baseline English and maths skills that they need. I’m not sure it’s GCSE, but I’m also not sure if it’s functional skills either, but there’s been so many different qualifications that people have tried to kind of fill this gap forever, and it’s not worked. And of course that like you say, it leads to an attitude, at least to an attitude for learners that, ah you know I can’t do English and maths and I’m thick. I think it goes back to one of the reasons why is glossed over or unknown, especially when it comes to policy, and especially when it comes to thought.
Like the exams thing, you know the exams things this year is like FE’s information, it was almost like a minister somewhere says oh God, oh yeah, there’s these colleges as well isn’t there? Oh man, hang on, I’ll just make amendments to the secondary school thing. No you won’t. It’s completely different. It’s just yeah, it was ridiculous, but I honestly believe that the reason behind that is because it’s not an accepted trajectory for those in power. I think that’s what it comes down to. FE looks at skilled technical vocations, but you don’t see many prime ministers’ sons taking a BTEC in social care and I think that’s the issue.
Not to get too heavily political about it, but if the ruling parties, the ruling classes don’t have personal stakes in sectors then you know it’s just, oh it’s just the bin men and the gas men, we’ll just leave them to it. Which is awful and that might not necessarily be true. That might just be kind of like my rampant paranoia coming through. But you do get the feeling you get that it’s only certain accepted educational narratives that count, which means the places like alternative provision, places like further education are often left out in the cold when it comes to the wider discussion. That’s not good enough.
Saj: Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, because I can only think of one politician who’s probably come up through the vocational route and that’s Angela Rayner, who is the deputy leader of the Labour Party. She worked in care and she did an NVQ.
Tom: Yeah, like I said without that kind of thing without those personal stakes, it’s very difficult to know anything about it. You know, it’s very difficult to know anything about it. Yeah, not great.
Saj: I think it also links to my pet theory about education ministers, which is that they tend to ignore the evidence with the current situation and tend to refer back to their own education. So if you look at someone say like David Blunkett for example, he went to a specialist provision when he was a kid and he hated it. He hated blind school as it would have been called in those days.
So he comes in and he brings in that that inclusion agenda that you were talking about, which in a lot of schools really meant that you had mainstream classrooms. and then you had students that had additional needs being shoved into one classroom and being forgotten about, for example. And then you have the Gove – we won’t dwell on him too much – but again, suddenly the 19th century novel is what the kids today need to be studying. We need get rid of coursework and come back to high stakes final exams, which worked out really well last year during the pandemic.
Tom: I don’t think it’s just ministers. I think it’s everyone. I think people’s main reference when it comes to ideas around education is their own schooling. So therefore everybody is coloured by the experience that they themselves had at school and you see it in more progressive approaches, you know, I, you know I felt imprisoned at school. I felt like I was trapped in school. So therefore schools should be this. Or I felt like I was ignored at school because I was clever, so schools should be more like this. Or I was disabled and this happened to me at school, so schools should be more like this.
If I’m going to be horrible about it, it’s a very ego-centric attitude to take. If you are the educator or the person involved in education that you are because of what happened to you when you were a kid in schoola, then you need to broaden your horizons. That’s one of the issues is that everybody experience, everybody’s viewpoint, even everybody’s pedagogical approaches is to an extent coloured or mired, if I’m going to be cruel about it, in their own personal experience of school. This is where I hit my anecdote. But my school… ! My own schooling, it was fairly arduous. I did not enjoy school at all. I did not enjoy school at all, but I don’t go around saying all schools must change.
For a start, the school that I went to and the idea of schooling that I was involved in, it doesn’t exist anymore. History happens and things progress and so it wasn’t all people pulling knives at lunchtime and it’s not anymore like that. I hope not, especially in mainstream. I haven’t been mainstream for years, so I hope it’s a bit less Mad Max. So there’s that, but I don’t necessarily think that my school experiences was everybody’s school experience and therefore everything should change in this. It’s like the issues I have with people who want to become teachers, because they didn’t like their teachers at school.
So what kind of personal philosophy is that that you’re basing your basing your entire career on hate? You’re basing your entire career on a reactionary stance or something that you didn’t like. Look, I’m not one to say what… anything is viable or not. I mean, I started teaching pretty much because I needed to get paid. That’s basically was my bottom line at the time. But you do wonder how much people’s own experience or in fact lack of experience colours their viewpoints with anything to do with education from the top to ministers to educators themselves. I think it’s an approach that can lead you to very good things. It can empower you, but it can also mean that you have a very tunnel vision view of education, of children sometimes, that is not perhaps the most accurate to everybody. I try and keep an open mind apart from when I hear complete BS.
And then I’m like argh, somebody’s wrong on the Internet and that person’s working in the school. I will let that person know, because obviously I know so much more about everything in education than anybody else in, apart from primary school. Primary school’s a mystery to me. The reason why people do primary School is a mystery to me. Especially this pandemic has shown me that primary school teachers are basically saints. They’re basically saints with magical powers and can do everything. Absolutely everything. Props to the primary school teachers out there because I could not do it.
Saj: I totally agree with you and I speak as somebody who comes from an overlooked sector in FE. I think early years and primary, they’re doing so much good work, so much important work. All the focus seems to land on secondary to the detriment of other phases I think.
Tom: For AP, that’s because that’s generally where the behave when behaviour goes off the rails or when behaviour starts. For whatever reason, whether it be hormonal, whether it’s because the environment is too constrictive, or whether it’s because the student’s decided to be a bit of a dick. It’s these things that rear their head in secondary. They should be addressed in early years, in my opinion, not just by early years practitioners in an early years educational setting. I’m talking about a more wide ranging educational drive that looks at home education, looks at family education, both within the home and the family unit being bought into the educational sphere.
‘Cause that’s where it starts. I mentioned Sure Start, you know, I relied on Sure Start when I was with my first. I went to parenting classes. I’m not a natural parent, I’m not, ‘m like an unnatural parent. I’m like what is this? What is this about, this nonsense? What did you say? That’s rubbish? Sure Start, it’s going to a place to learn about something, but then of course people come to you as well in your own home environment and I was so impressed with that model that I ended up being on the board of my local centre because, you know, it’s a great model. And of course, that model benefited a certain socio-economic group. It benefited people who didn’t have the support anywhere else. But lo and behold, it’s been given the kybosh, because it was a progressive movement that cost a bit of money and so therefore boom! Knocked it on the head. No, don’t need that anymore. Don’t need anybody to help. Don’t need anybody to teach you how to look after your kid. Of course you don’t. Yeah yeah, yeah.
That’s duplicated across all different sectors at all different times, but I think early years, family education, community education it has to be that way. Because it’s the child learns a very small amount at nursery school. They learn in the home, so that education has to come from the home. So if it’s lacking at the home, let’s go into the home and help people.
Saj: I totally agree with you, because I think there’s a fact that often gets overlooked when we’re talking about education and thinking about all the different phases and the development of children and young people is that parents and carers are effectively the first teachers, before they get anywhere near any kind of setting.
Tom: And I think in our wonderful modern times, I think that’s become more prevalent than ever. The kind of outcry of desperation from parents having to teach their own children and having to keep up with the curriculum and having all the shenanigans when it comes to remote learning and technology and all those different things. You know, it makes it apparent that even if it’s not in a formal way, parents, carers, doesn’t necessarily have to be parents of course, you know they are the teachers.
In a more traditional sense, we’ve always known this. We know that parents are the ones that set the standard and who model behaviour, who communicate and I think it’s a wonderful thing. But sometimes it goes wrong. You know, sometimes it goes wrong, so you know help people to help children. I don’t really see… I got accused of being a hippy last time, and I know I look like it today. But I got accused of being a hippie by someone when I said that last and it’s not really… I think people see me as this kind of hard-nosed authoritarian traditionalist kind of thing and in lots of things I am.
But if you’re going to have an effect, you have to have an effect with the people who have the most effect. And that for me is parents, it’s not teachers, it’s parents. And that informal education, if you can improve that informal education, I think that can be nothing but benefit. How you do that, I’m not even going to begin to say, because I don’t know, but you know, I don’t need to. I can be a provocateur and just throw these things out here without any kind of plan.
Saj: So having worked in various phases of of education and worked in APs and PRUs, you’re now working in HE. Why did you decide to work in HE to begin with?
Tom: It wasn’t so much decision to work in HE, it was a decision about the job role. I had basically and it’s a well-worn story, I had come to the end of my tether when it came to teaching. It was taking a toll on my mental health. It was taking a toll on lots of different things and so I thought I need to try and find something different to you know reenergise myself, try and get back some of the passion, that kind of thing.
And so I left my teaching role and I’ve always had an interest in technology when it comes to teaching. Primarily because in lots of different ways it’s made things easier for me. I’m a horrendously lazy person and if I can find a shortcut to something, that means that I don’t have to duplicate 14 different forms or I can find a way to jump the queue with the printer in a school so that I go first and nobody else does, I will. I don’t care. I’ll walk over your dead body if it means that I get out at 3:30, you know, so technology doesn’t make that easier.
I’ve had a stint of being a consultant working with EdTech companies about trying to make sure that their offers to schools and things were useful and kind of valid. And so I saw this job going at a iniversity for an assistive technology adviso. It was a new role because of certain things and it basically involved helping students with special educational needs, sometimes not, with technologies that might help them. And I thought, yeah, I can bring my lazy ass philosophy to people who might actually find it really, really useful. Yeah, and I love it. I love the job role. I am still teaching to an extent. I’m not a teacher by the way, I’m not. I know there’s this funny thing that once a teacher, always a teacher. Nah, it’s rubbish. I don’t get paid to be a teacher.
But I do workshops, I do classes, I’ve even done lectures in lecture halls. That was an experience and a half. That was fun, because I’ve never been in a classroom where everybody just is silent and listens to you for the whole time. I was like, hang on!
Saj: Well, what you don’t know is that their they’re all watching anime, Japanese anime on their phones. You couldn’t see that.
Tom: Yeah, they were watching TikTok dances. That’s the thing man. My general job role has become quite a strange one due to this situation. I started off as an assistive technology advisor, which means that I would help students who had disabilities find technology that they could use to help them in their studies. Pimarily their academic studies, sometimes the pastoral side of things, because you know, those two things are inevitably linked. However, once we all boarded the Coronacoaster, it has got to the point that I now advise students on remote access and how best to make use of the tools that we and many other institutions have to use, especially when it comes to things like accessibility.
I think I mentioned before we started recording that remote learning and remote access is something that disabled students have been begging for the last 20 odd years, ever since it became a viable alternative to physical presence in the lecture theatre or so on and so forth. And to no avail, because of the incredible hurdles that have the remote learning entailed. But once it becomes a problem for everybody, oh everybody’s on remote learning! And there’s also this attitude that remote learning means that accessibility is solved. It’s not the case. It sometimes makes lots of things better, but for students who struggle with using technology for various reasons it can be a hindrance, it can be an extra hurdle. So one of my job roles is trying to smooth the path over it to as much of an extent as is possible when it comes to a range of different technologies.
Saj: I think what’s interesting for me when we’re talking about digital technology, especially in view of the last year, it’s something that’s been rumbling on for a few years is that people use this phrase ‘digital natives’. And they assume that that children and young people have grown up with this stuff along with their milk, so it’s second nature to them and they can use all the stuff and they’re really comfortable with it. And then you know you confront them with, I don’t know, Microsoft Office 365 and they’re like, you know, what’s this Grandad? It’d be like when I was I young, someone giving me some double entry book-keeping to do. What the hell is this?!
Tom: The digital native myth has been an incredible hindrance ever since I entered the fore, because what it means is that it’s an assumption of knowledge where there isn’t any, and that’s massively dangerous for any kind of educational endeavour, for any endeavour anyway if people think that you know about something and you don’t. I’ve taught students how to use keyboard commands to do basic tasks to allow them an easier way of doing straightforward things. I had students who would delete whole sections of writing because of one mistake and all they needed to do is press control-Z. I’ve had students who have had to have training on using a mouse. I had a member of staff the other day who I had to help navigate a browser, not for the first time, but to get to the place that they want to be.
Tell you what, browser navigation that needs to be 101 in in primary, you know back to early years. Get those four-year-olds putting decent questions into Google. You know Google’s got the answers to all the questions, not if you can’t type the bloody question properly it doesn’t. It’s got no answers for you. But yeah, it is a myth. It’s an absolute myth. There will be, as there is always been, people who know a bit more about computers and know a bit less about a technology and so on and so forth. And that’s even when it comes to assistive technology with students with disabilities.
Ten years ago there were kind of one or two or three industry leaders when it came to accessibility and accessibility programmes. When it came to speech to text, text to speech, all those different thing. Now it’s a complete buyers market. You know, there’s I think there’s something like 200,000 apps on Google Play and the App Store combined linked to accessability.
So a lot of the students that have been using particular technology for a long time don’t know that there’s other stuff out there and it’s the same process as the general process. It’s about pointing people in the right direction, seeing if they think that that’s a better fit and just trying to move people along to something that they feel comfortable with and that works for them.
Saj: I think what’s fascinating for me as well is that this used to be seen as quite a niche area and not many companies were involved in it a few years ago. But now, the big vendors, the big providers like your Microsofts and your Googles increasingly are kind of building… I think Apple’s actually always been pretty good at building this stuff into their software. Microsoft and Google in the last few years have really upped their game and there’s amazing features built in. Like with speech, you know, speech to text and the student have them on their devices, but they just don’t know where they live and how to use them effectively.
Tom: And it’s a question that you don’t know what you don’t know. Basically that’s kind of one of my roles, I’m kind of a bit like a human encyclopaedia when it comes to technology choice. But, there’s a reason there’s a reason why assistive technology is become has become mainstream for large companies. It’s a wonderful thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you know my. You know Windows has now a dictate feature in Word, built in and PowerPoint, so you can speak into it, and it’s fairly accurate, especially if you use 365. It’s fairly accurate off the bat. You know, it’s great that you can just use Chrome browsers – Read Aloud can read pages on the web to you straight away without any downloads or anything like that. These are fantastic things.
But one of the biggest reasons why the larger companies are now concentrating on accessibility is due to certain decrees in law. Here, it was the European Union so institutions like schools, colleges, universities, public institutions have to have accessibility now in their digital provision. I am all for it, me, I’m all for a bit of stick to go with the carrot. You know it shouldn’t be the case that the fear of litigation actually is the moving forward point for people to actually concentrate and focus on this for the first time, well, ever in my opinion. But if it’s there, I’m definitely going to use it, you know. Philosophically, accessible practice is best practice. Accessibility features such as being able to use assistive technology with your front-facing systems. Being able to or being aware that you are labelling your web pages properly. Even down to the simplest things, so screen readers do not really read larger text with any emphasis. You have to actually label it as a heading or it doesn’t work okay.
So you know these things they’re sometimes quite complicated, sometimes quite difficult, but essential for equality. That until very recently was more of a philosophical position, but now it’s like a legal position, and that’s why we see this. It’s a good drive. It’s a great drive by Microsoft, it’s a great drive by Google and other companies to install and make the accessibility technology almost invisible when it comes to that. But that has the downside that no bugger knows where it is, and so I do spend a lot of my time saying to students, if you press this button, you can talk into your computer. And they’re like, yeah, great, you know, brilliant.
Saj: I think one of my greatest victories was with a student who was really struggling to get what they wanted to say onto the page as it were. They had an iPad. I was like, oh you do realise that you can do speech text. Oh, ok. And I showed them how to use it and then they went away for Christmas and I think they were supposed to write a 2000 word essay and over Christmas they did 8000 words worth of work. A lot of editing to do! It’s not as easy as just showing them how to use it. It’s using it judiciously as well.
Tom: But that’s the thing, there are tools that exist now that can help in a multitude of educational situations, and I’m all for taking the donkey work out with some of the things that not just students in HE or FE do, some are secondary students. Readability apps that allow for easy reading of documents, conversion apps that allow people to take PDFs and turn them into audio books. These things are available now and they work, they are robust. One of my jobs is trying to make as many people as aware in the institution where I work that they do exist and then on the other hand is trying to make people aware of how to make things and create things that are accessible and the reasons behind doing that. Not just the litigation reasons of course, but kind of the moral obligation that educators have to reach everybody.
You may have a student with visual impairment on your course. So you make the entire course accessible for students with visual impairment. Because if even if it is just one person… and what people will find is if you do that, or if you concentrate on that and you make sure that you do it right and you do it well, that it benefits everybody.
Saj: I totally agree with you, and that’s really the philosophy behind this series of podcasts. What do we take from the practice of inclusion and reuse that to open up learning for all? So, for the educators listening, what kind of things do you think that they need to have in mind when they’re in the normal routine of planning, teaching and learning and assessment to make things as inclusive and accessible as possible?
Tom: It’s so difficult because as much as I am pretty much an evangelist when it comes to accessibility, I do understand that there are daily pressures. So what I always tend to do is when I’m asked questions like this is put me in front of the people who are responsible for the timetable. Put me in front of the people responsible that designate where people are working, how long they’re working. You’ve got to give people time, and you can’t expect or you shouldn’t expect people to go searching for these things themselves in their own time that they don’t have already. You know, 20 years as a teacher, in this current role, I have never had more time to think.
It’s literally in my timetable that I have a certain amount of time in the week just to research the technology that I am promoting and you don’t get that in many educational environments. You don’t, and it’s a sad state of affairs, so if I would say don’t, I’m not going to give any advice to anybody on the floor. I’ll give advice to people higher up and say you have to designate time to be able to help these people train in some of the things that they may find useful. If they don’t have that, don’t be surprised that when you say oh, there’s this wonderful thing, nobody picks it up. Don’t be surprised if oh, there’s a wonderful speech to text tool that will allow you to mark the 78 pages of work from every student that you’ve got much more quickly. That’s great when the people have the time to learn that.
However, as I say to many of my students, a small term outlay in time could lead to gains that are astronomical. For instance, this a personal anecdote. I do a little bit of writing on the side. I’ve got it under control. You know it’s not got the best of me yet. My typing speed is atrocious. Always has been. Never learnt how to touch type or anything like that, although I’ve been using keyboards my entire life. It used to take me around about an hour and a half to kind of bash out a 700 word first draft of an article. I now use a speech to text based mobile app where I speak into the phone and it automatically and instantly transcribes these words, it’s taken me four minutes.
If you are expecting people to use technology, number one, you have to give them primary examples of how it’s going to be useful. Number two, you have to make sure that it works, because you could have the best program in the world, it could literally be a red button that does your marking for you. But if somebody presses that red button and nothing happens the first time, they will never use it again, ever. So it has to have a benefit, a visible benefit. It has to be robust and work.
People have to be given time to try these things out. Without these things, it’s very difficult, it’s very difficult. That sounds horribly kind of cynical and kind of defeatist. Almost nihilist to an extent, doesn’t it? But I’m always of the opinion that teachers and educators are merely parts of a larger ecosystem. They have to have the optimal conditions to be able to use some of this stuff, to be able to try some of this stuff out.
I started getting into it because as I say, because I was looking for shortcuts for stupid things that I had to do in my day-to-day life as an educator. Duplication of paperwork materials, can I do anything that’s going to make me write this faster, can I use drop down menus in my reports, so if I have if I have the same kind of comments, can I just use the same kind? And it’s from there that I got to, oh, actually there’s ways that if you are not able bodied, that you can still use the equipment that other people use that or if you have a visual impairment, there’s technology that’s mobile based that can identify people’s faces for you. It’s all shortcuts, that’s the thing, it’s all shortcuts, but not shortcuts because ,well in my case it was shortcuts because I’m lazy, but it’s shortcuts to be able to function better. That kind of better functionality, I think is a benefit for everyone.
Saj: So, for the time poor or time pressured educator, if people want to get started looking at these kinds of technologies, are there any particular websites or other sources of information that you would recommend.
Tom: Yeah, there really are. There’s Anynet [AbilityNet] I believe is the name of website that looks at assistive technology for people with a range of disabilities. Really good people, really good resources for information. I would really suggest just looking at the native accessibility features of the technology that you have either in your hand or in front of you at the moment. Microsoft’s Ease of Access Centre. Just put access or ease of access into your search bar. It’s all there already. Screen masking, colour changes, background changing. The amount of time you spend trying to find different colour paper for students. Not necessarily for any particular reason, just because of preference. Word has the change background button now, you know, boom.
Check the Accessibility features of the stuff that you’re using already. It’s really, really impressive. Ease of Access for Microsoft, Google Accessibility Suite for Android. And also, we’re not just talking about PC’s. Mobile apps and mobile technology is one of the primary sources of assistive technology for lots of people who I work with. People get kind of like, oh, you know how you going to do that. They don’t need to know what they’re going to do in front of the screen while they’re sat down. They need to know what they’re going to do when they’re on the street.
So lots of my students who who are blind or visually impaired use Voiceover to access their phone on Apple. Really, really good function, really good functionality. Have a look at it. Have a look and see what’s out there with the technology that you have, because undoubtedly there will be assistive technology on the phone that you use or on the computer that you’re working on. Have a look. It’s there in front of you and then start from that small little seed and then branch out. It’s that classic: is there an app for that? When it comes to assistive technology at the moment, chances are yeah there is, but you have to do a little bit of searching. So, if you have a particular student or if you have a particular issue, do a fairly refined Google search, you’ll find something. And then you’ll find videos on that thing to work for. Then you’ll find reviews on that thing from disabled people saying does it work? Does it not work?
I am an assistive technology advisor, but I’m in this, I mean a fairly hypocritical position where I do not have a disability. I have mental health issues. I’ve got mental health issues up the ying yang, but I don’t have a physical disability like a visual impairment or I don’t have anything to do with cognitive function or anything like that. We all we have to be led when it comes to assistive technology. We have to be led by the people that use it.
It’s not for me to, although it’s my job to suggest certain things, it’s not for me to enforce my opinions about certain technologies on disabled students. It’s up to disabled students to try these things. See if they work for them, see if they are valuable for them as both learners and human beings in general and then go from there. So the other tip, when it comes to accessibility and things, if you have disabled students, talk to them about what they already use.
Saj: I think that is a fantastic point, probably, to end our discussion on.
Tom: That’s fair enough. Actually Saj, this is great. I’ve had a lovely time. Once again one of these conversations where nobody is like throwing stuff at me.
Saj: I was watching Attack on Titan under the table.
Tom: Oh man, that’s a show and a half. I watched the entirety of that show, the first series on Netflix, when my second child was born and he didn’t sleep for three months. So I have crazy memories about that show. I’m not too sure if they’re real or not.
Saj: Wonderful. Tom Starkey, it’s been a fantastic pleasure speaking to you.
Tom: Ah mate, it’s been brilliant. Thank you very much for having me. It’s been an honour.
Saj: Thanks to Tom for a really enjoyable and interesting conversation around a variety of topics relating to inclusive practice. Hopefully you’ve got one or two ideas now about how to begin exploring the assistive technology that you may already have, but didn’t know about.
If you’ve enjoyed this episode, subscribe now to Universal Learning wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you very much for listening and I hope you can join me for the next edition of Universal Learning.
Visit our website UniversalLearning.education to read transcripts of each edition and find out more about how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners. The music you’ve heard in this edition is Sinara by Blear Moon, and sound FX are by New Age Soup, both licensed under Creative Commons. Visit UniversalLearning.education for more information.