Digital technology can help pupils with severe intellectual disabilities

The Happy Stacky app designed by Dr Zelda Botha instructs the pupils to stack cups and lids.

The use of digital technology in special schools for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities can help them develop important life skills.

This is the view of the deputy principal of the Rusthof School for Learners with Special Educational Needs, Dr Zelda Botha, who recently obtained her doctorate in Educational Support at Stellenbosch University.

Her research focused on the role that digital technology can play in promoting skills development for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities.

Dr Botha has been an educator for 29 years, of which 24 years have been in special education. She is passionate about the development of pupils with severe intellectual disabilities and says digital technology should be considered a priority in special schools.

As part of her study, Dr Botha requested teaching staff and a speech therapist at a Western Cape school for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities to complete an online questionnaire.

She also held focus group discussions and individual interviews with them to determine how often they use digital technology in the classroom and how many years of experience they have in using such technology.

Dr Botha says she chose the specific school because it is the only school for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities in the Western Cape where teaching staff and learners use digital technology.

It is one of five special schools for these learners that the Western Cape Education Department has equipped with basic digital technology as part of the Smart Classroom Project.

A smart classroom has wide area internet access and technological aids such as a data projector, a visualiser, an interactive whiteboard, Beamz, Mimio/eBeam devices and a laptop for educators.

Dr Botha mentions that in addition to these digital aids, the teaching staff at the school also used a computer tablet/iPad (for downloading applications) and an X-box in the classroom.

She says her research has shown that digital technology in the teaching of pupils with severe intellectual disabilities in a special school helps with the development of skills they need to function optimally in the workplace, at home and in society, and also to be independent and spend their free time meaningfully.

“Digital technology with visual illustrations, actions and movements makes skills development attractive and interesting for these learners. The use of interesting and interactive software leads to a higher level of involvement (active participation) in various activities and skills learned.

“Because digital technology accommodates learners’ different learning styles such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles, learners can be more successful. They are less anxious and frustrated and experience a greater sense of accomplishment and enjoyment.

“The application of digital technology in the classroom improves their thinking skills, creativity and their ability to solve and communicate problems.”

Dr Botha also adds that on a more personal level, they will be able to apply their functional skills in their everyday routines, household tasks, work routines, productivity and partially independent functioning (limited independence).

She says the pupils’ successes and curiosity when digital technology is used have drastically changed the educators’ view of this technology in the classroom, especially with regard to skills development.

“Although some educators were initially sceptical about the use of digital technology for learners with severe intellectual disabilities, they became more confident through the regular use of the devices and applications and were enthusiastic about sharing the success of the learners.”

Dr Botha believes educators should be encouraged to develop their own digital literacy skills and their use thereof in order to support pupils.

“Educators need ongoing training and support to be able to use digital technology effectively and to fully support learners’ participation. The use of digital technology as a tool for teaching and learning should be part of pre-service and in-service training programmes because it will equip teachers in special schools to teach with confidence.

“Adequate and sustained support as well as an understanding of the challenge that exposure to digital technology as a new tool holds for educators, can lead to educators developing a positive attitude towards the use of digital technology. To fully integrate digital technology into education, educators need to be comfortable with the use of digital technology as a pedagogical tool.

“Educators who teach learners with severe intellectual disabilities on a daily basis are invaluable. Thanks to their knowledge and experience, they can make a special contribution to establishing guidelines for the application of digital technology in skills development.”

According to Dr Botha, one of the vocational skills that learners are equipped with is the ability to pack various objects and articles – a task that they will have to be able to perform in sheltered work environments when they leave school.

Dr Botha says the teaching staff mentioned that they did not have a digital app that the pupils could use to practise the packaging of containers and lids electronically.

She then developed a packaging app (Happy Stacky) in the form of a game so that the pupils could practice the above activity on the whiteboard before performing it practically. She also built a time element into the game to make it more challenging for the pupil.

Dr Botha says she hopes the findings of her research study will help broaden educators’ perspectives on digital technology, raise awareness of the benefits and success of digital technology for learners with severe intellectual disabilities, and make technology part of appropriate policies that affect learners with severe intellectual disabilities.

The app will be made available worldwide on the Google Play Store.