Apple in Education Profiles

Mac inspires special learners at Mary Elliot

At Mary Elliot School, Apple solutions help children with the most challenging and complex learning difficulties. Easy-to-use tools boost confidence and communication. Simple apps make learning fun. Built-in recording supports teachers in tracking each child’s progress.

“We help our students prepare for life as individuals,” explains Deputy Head Mark Ayles. “Apple plays an increasingly important role in that aim — inspiring young people with major learning problems to want to learn, and gaining basic familiarity with technologies that will be essential for their independent living in the years ahead.”

Reliability is a must

Mary Elliot School is in Walsall, in the West Midlands in England. It provides for about 100 students between 11 and 19 years of age. The students have a range of severe, profound, and multiple learning difficulties, as well as autistic spectrum disorders, and many of them also have severe communication difficulties. The school employs more than 100 staff to ensure individual learning and good support across Key Stages 3, 4, and 5.

The school’s facilities are state of the art, designed to meet the students’ diverse needs. Large grounds provide good leisure and learning opportunities. Every classroom is spacious and light. And the school has its own hydrotherapy pool, multi-sensory room, lifts, and overhead hoists, as well as the standard school facilities.

Preparing for life after school is a big part of the students’ experience at Mary Elliot. Plans are in place two years before they are due to leave, parents are fully involved, visits to possible colleges are arranged, and students learn to live independently.

The school’s ICT strategy was based on Windows PCs for years, but the experience was frustrating for teachers and students alike, according to Head of Music, David Pearce.

“The PCs failed too often,” he says. “Our learning regime here has to be very structured and planned, because the students can get seriously upset if they don’t know what is happening to them. Finding the computer has crashed midway through a carefully prepared lesson is a nightmare. It discourages teachers from using technology innovatively, because that will only increase the risk of something going wrong.”

Mac is a channel for new ideas

David Pearce believed the students could get much better support from digital tools. He had used Mac and iLife in the past, and persuaded the school to buy its first Mac for music and art lessons. It was a watershed moment, he says. Four years on, the school has a flexible Apple platform for learning, with iMac, MacBook, iPod touch, and iPad available across the curriculum. No Mac has crashed in that time, and the school expects a six-year life from iMac and MacBook compared with four years for their PC equivalents.

“We realized straightaway that Apple technology fitted what we were trying to do in school,” he says. “We don’t have to build our lessons around a computer. As teachers, the tools give us a channel to experiment with new ideas, and to make learning a really exciting experience for the students.”

David now uses GarageBand to extend the children’s musical discoveries and Logic Pro to create Apple loops of recordings. He particularly values the plug-ins that come with Logic Pro, such as Delay Designer, and the ability it gives him to multi-track output. iMovie is the tool he uses for documenting the students’ performances.

In the art room, teaching assistant Mary Fellows helps students create stop-motion animation movies using Apple’s iLife software suite. The children are fascinated by the medium, but it is not just the filmmaking itself that is important, says Mary. It provides an end-point for the students to develop an array of other skills.

“We work on storylines for the film projects together,” Mary says. “The students can then use a MacBook or iPod touch to take pictures. They make the props themselves, and choose the music they want on GarageBand.”

Mapping students’ progress

For some of the students, learning is at a very basic sensory level. Built-in accessibility features — touchscreen keyboard, magnification, and ‘instant on’ for iPad, for example — make Apple tools particularly attractive for children with physical disabilities.

The Apple tools sometimes provide quite simple responses to the school’s many learning challenges. Among the most successful ideas has been a static point in the school hall — named ‘Voice of the Student’ by David — where Photo Booth on a MacBook encourages students to express themselves as they pass by, with just one click of the camera. The children can view the images they create, and that has multiple benefits, says David Pearce.

“First of all, viewing themselves on film really inspires the students,” David says. “Sometimes they are seeing what they can achieve for the very first time. The boost to their confidence is almost instant, and you can see it in their faces as they look at the images.

“Secondly, teachers can see the student’s progression. With the Photo Booth station, sometimes the same child comes back and refines what he or she was trying to communicate. That ability to learn from experience is very difficult to teach unless the students are motivated to improve.

“Thirdly, we can use images and films to assess the students for P levels, which is for attainment below level 1 of the National Curriculum. So Apple’s in-built cameras make it easy to record what individual students are doing at any time, to help us track their progress, provide evidence to exam boards, and keep parents up to speed with what the students are achieving.”

Apple bridges students to the outside world

Deputy Head Mark Ayles says that the Apple devices have made a significant contribution to developing new skills for students at Mary Elliot. One of the most important reasons is that the children feel happy using them.

“There is something very simple and engaging about all Apple tools, and you can see from the students’ faces how much they enjoy them,” he says. “Learning for fun is a requirement everywhere, but is particularly important for our students. These tools are making them want to learn and giving them the self-confidence and self-respect to improve. That is the basis we need on which to structure appealing learning programs.”

Beyond the school experience, Mark Ayles sees familiarity with technology as a prerequisite for the students’ ability to live independently in the future. “We don’t know what form technology will take in their lives, but we can be sure it will be even more pervasive than it is now — in work and in leisure. We must give them a starting point, and Apple is the ideal bridge between education and the outside world.

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