iPads in SEN – Some Strategies

A technology shift has taken place, with some schools not really paying attention. Most schools are eager to follow trends, and try to keep pace with technology advancements. The iPad is still relatively new to education (approximately being used over the last 28 months), with other tablets being used very successfully in many schools before its release in May 2010. The PC Windows based tablets were more expensive, prone to increased levels of abuse and damage and were not as inviting. Some students enjoyed using them whilst others were disadvantaged. Battery life was a concern as was virus and malware threats.

Some say that an iPad is a ‘disruptive technology in education’. I prefer to consider it a logical extension of portable computer devices and a synergy of technologies that culminate into an extremely easy to use, intuitive, practical device. Disruptive infers that work is not getting done – if students are engaged, exploring, searching, calculating, drawing, painting, composing, reading, writing, typing and using their voice, presenting and sharing files, then it is a powerful teaching and learning tool! They’re certainly not being disrupted! It might be disrupting to suffer through poorly planned lessons, content that is not being delivered appropriately or classes where materials and media are presented in printed handouts to students who cannot cope with reading and comprehension. Some educators need to re-evaluate what is being disrupted!

iPadsThe iPad, iPhone and other portable tablets work well for the majority of students as they are quickly replacing traditional textbooks, notes, handouts, tests and questionnaires. They are usually ideal for students with learning disabilities. Students with intellectual disabilities and cognitive needs as well as students with ASD are captivated by them and master them quickly.

An array of useful peripherals and accessories provide options for display and presentations on LCD, LED and Plasma TVs (HDMI adaptor), fixed and table top projectors and Interactive Whiteboards (RGB adaptor), access to USB keyboards as well as to SD card photos and media (camera adaptor). A range of stylus options cater to students who enjoy writing, drawing, scribbling or accessing the iPad with a pen. Bluetooth devices such as external keyboards provide opportunities to enter large amounts of text.

Students and teachers from special, primary through to Secondary schools and into higher education are enjoying the many diverse benefits in using the iPad to augment their lessons, navigate the web, store and retrieve data and be productive. Being a wireless device with almost instant “on” it delivers results, given appropriate Apps to negotiate and complete tasks. Used as a newspaper reader, eBook or eBook creation tool, they provide meaningful access to text. Art. Design, graphics, music composition, iPad hooked up to display on a flat screen panelphoto manipulation, video editing – the list goes on and on. Over 600000 Apps are available in other languages, for business, productivity, games, leisure options, utilities, entertainment and education. Many Apps cross over from one category to another.

The iPad is particularly relevant and helpful for students who have special communication and learning needs.

The beguiling touch interface and inbuilt access features and functions (including gyro movement, SIRI, voice over, text to speech, large fonts etc) help students with different abilities learn more independently, with increased levels of confidence and autonomy.

In sessions that I have delivered or attended, a few key issues are being raised:

  • What has been the impact on teaching, access, communication and learning for students with additional needs and different abilities?
  • Are school catering to students with sensory loss, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, ASD, ADD/ADHD, chronic illness and disadvantage with iPad Apps?
  • iPad screenshot showing 2 objectsAre mainstream educators including students with special needs in planning and provision of iPads and Apps, or treating them as a separate category of need?
  • Are schools evaluating Apps carefully and considering the best one or two in each genre?
  • Is time being devoted to Professional Learning for staff – and students?
  • Are acceptable User Policies fare and equitable and include students at risk or who have very specific needs?

What is your school doing about iPads and the new tablets and Smartphones?

  • Are you conducting action research
  • Has a planning committee, or a group of teachers playing and experimenting with a variety of Apps?
  • Have there been trials of Apps for curriculum outcomes or to meet planning and organisation?
  • Are teachers and trainers using Rubrics and evaluation protocols to determine the most appropriate and relevant Apps?
  • Are schools shunning and avoiding Apps that have Ads and links to web sites and marketing (I consider that Apple has to be more proactive and deter developers from including ANY external link to Ads in education based Apps and those directly marketed to young children)
  • Has the school decided on one or more productivity, presentation or data storage Apps?
  • Are students designated as mentors to student body and/or to the staff?

Professional Learning and Development

Many iPads in many hands

  • When does PL take place (morning ‘techie breakie’ sessions, PD days, and afternoons, one to one in the staff room, on weekends)?
  • Are all staff encouraged to attend PL sessions from Apple, other schools, or visit neighbouring or like schools
  • Are staff sessions conducted by preferred suppliers and education dealers?
  • Do students conduct training and PL on behalf of staff?
  • Are staff attending expos, seminars and conferences and then sharing notes, handouts Keynotes or PowerPoint presentations or adding resources to the Intranet?
  • Does the staff have access to and an awareness of online webinars
  • iPad with childrenAre staff encouraged to follow Twitter and Facebook feeds
  • Are staff using RSS apps and programs to keep track of iPad App and teaching and learning with portable devices

Inherent in an iPad are many different features and capabilities, yet people are slow to find and gainfully deploy them. A good start is to download the free iPad Users Guide from the App store. It’s free.

Also, by searching the web, there are documents, FAQs, YouTube videos and even Apps that help first time users master the many facets and functions that are built in to the device.

Ask students and interview them or allow them to present their favourite App of the week in the last 3-4 minutes of a lesson. They’ll constantly surprise (and delight) you!

Some useful strategies might include one or more of the following:

Using the Notification Centre

iPad on table

This is how a user accesses updates from Apps such as Twitter, Facebook or the increasingly popular Instagram or email App from a pull down list. To access it, slide a finger down from the top of the screen. A little tab will appear. Then pull it down to reveal the list. To clear the list, tap the small cross on the right.

Return to the Home Screen

Use all fingers to ‘pinch’ the screen – this will quit the current app quickly and reveal the Home Screen.

Multi Tasking

Whilst working (i.e. typing, playing a game, learning a new App) you can listen to your favourite music tracks (or Tunes). Double tap the home button and swipe right. The iTunes controls will be displayed, allowing the user to pause, skip or just see which app is playing the song.

Similarly, copy and paste text from one App to another. A student might be typing a note (or using SIRI to speak into the Notepad) and wish to send, publish or transfer the text to another App or device. He or she may wish to add the text to Evernote or to a mind mapping App. Locate some text, hold and then release. Select the Copy option. Double tap the Home button, locate the preferred App and hold down on the page/screen. Choose paste and the operation is complete.

Conserving Battery Life

Launching multiple Apps quickly drains battery time.  Listening to music or Podcasts, taking videos or  photos, accessing and commenting or searching through posts on  social media, researching on the web in Safari or Opera (or another favourite browser) and making and answering phone calls (on the iPhone) depletes battery life. To alleviate this hassle, shut down the apps not being used or ones that the user has been trialling or experimenting with that session, day or time period.

Simply double tap the home button and the bottom of the display will reveal Apps that have been recently launched and used. These are the Apps that have been used recently or regularly. Simply swipe left to show more. You can also achieve this by using four or five fingers to swipe up and ‘pull’ the screen up. By holding down on an App they will ‘wiggle’.  A user can then tap on the “x” and remove one or more from this display.

More Battery Life Tips

Make sure to label and use the charger that came with the iPad. It is definitely quicker than an iPhone charger as it was designed for the iPad and is more powerful.

iPad and iPhoneWhen charging the iPad through a USB port will be faster if the users locks the screen. To charge the new iPad3 model through a computer USB port, the user is strongly advised have to lock the screen. This is due to the power drain on the USB device connection. There’s not enough power to both charge the iPad and maintain the high resolution on the screen display.

Turning off all ‘Push’ notifications in the Settings will also help preserve battery power. Also if they are not required, turn off Bluetooth and wireless. If Apps are to be used without any Internet coverage, turn on Airplane Mode. The latter also stops students who are likely to inappropriately use the Internet or Apps downloading freebies or unwanted data.

Lock the Screen

Save battery life by locking the screen when not in use. Simply hit the small raised rectangle button at the top of the iDevice.

Lock the Screen Orientation

Back of iPads The iPhone and iPad screen orientation is very touchy and this can cause frustration and annoyance. If the iPad is lying down, or moved suddenly, the screen display will switch from portrait to landscape and then back again. By moving it in jerky or quick motions, it will just cycle!

Users can elect to lock it in a preferred setting by double tapping the home button and swiping right. Then just tap the icon (i.e. with the round arrow inside the box) whilst holding the screen the preferred way.

If this a preferred or long term setting, or one that will assist a  student, locate the Settings icon (it is a grey icon and looks like three interlinked cogs) choose the General option about half way down the left hand side (LHS)and look for the ‘Use Side Switch to’ option. Choose either mute or lock rotation. It

If the student then chooses to use the side switch as his or her screen lock option, the Mute will be available by double tapping the home button and swiping right.

Caps Lock

iPad and keyboardDouble tap the shift button on the keyboard. Use the Shift key for single upper case characters. The Shift keys are coloured blue and in Caps Lock, they appear solid with an upwards facing white arrow. Add the Emoji keyboard layout with sets of fun (and functional) icons from Settings, General, International, Keyboards and then Add New Keyboard. Choose Emoji or one of the many languages. Users can select multiple keyboards over and above their native tongue or preferred language (e.g. English or Spanish) and other languages being studied (e.g. German or Chinese).

Set iTunes to a Timer

Go to Clock and open the Timer. Select how long a student want iTunes to play. Open ‘When timer ends’ and scroll down – the bottom option is “Stop Playing”. This is ideal for Podcasts and talking/audio books

Quick Reboot

iPadiOS  devices can sometimes freeze or Apps suddenly stop, quit or close. To resolve one or more issues, hold down the round home button and the top lock/off button until you see the ‘apple’ symbol. This may can take anywhere from two to 10 seconds. Release and allow the device (iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad) to start again and relaunch. It should return to the Home Screen without having to touch another button.

To Quickly Access the Internet

Swipe right to find your search feature (one or more swipes) and use it to look for a term or search criteria. At the bottom of the search is a blue icon (it looks like a compass). To the right of it are two options – “Search Web” or “Search Wikipedia”. By opting to choose either one will take the student or user to a Google Search or Wiki entry.

Check to see where the photo link will take you, or just open another page without closing the one you are on, by tapping and holding a link. This is the small box that offers options such as ‘open’ ‘open in new tab’ and ‘add to reading list’. It will have the address to the link at the top of the pop-up box.

Add a website as an app on your home screen by hitting the icon on the top left hand side of the screen. This is the box with the arrow emerging from it when a student is browsing. That will offer a range of options, including ‘Add to home screen’. Tap it, name the icon and then that student will have quick access to his or her favourite websites.

Take a Screen Shot

A ‘screen dump’ or ‘screen shot’ has been one of THE most useful features on a MAC or Windows computer over the last 25 years – yet many educators still do not know about it, or how to accomplish it!  On an iPhone or iPad, hold down the lock/off button on the top of the iDevice and the round home button – at the same time. The screen will flash and a camera sound effect will play. The photo(s) can be located in the iPad’s camera roll in the Photos App.

Organise the Home Screen

Students and educators can group similar apps (e.g. music, talking books, Newspapers, Mind mapping Apps etc) together by tapping and holding down on one App, until it starts shaking. Drag it over to an app that the student wants to group it with and then hold it there until it appears to go inside the second App. This action will result in a new ‘half screen’ where the user can add up to 20 apps. Use keyboard characters to label and name this new folder. It is advised to keep the label to about 10-12 characters, including spaces. If the category has more than 40 Apps, use a consistent logical convention such as “Voice Notes1” and “Voice Notes2” etc.

To Rearrange Apps

Productivity appsTap the required App in a folder and hold it until it starts to shake or wiggle.  Swipe it up and out of the folder to settle back on the prevailing screen.
Leave it on that screen or drag and drop left or right to one of the other eleven screens. Move to the side of the screen and wait. The icon will move to a new screen image (left or right direction). There are ten screens maximum as well as the Home Screen and Search Screen.

Text to Speech and Vision Options

Turn on the Speak Selection and Speak Auto Text functions for anyone who is a poor or struggling reader or for students who are vision impaired. Go to Settings, General, and Accessibility and locate them fifth and sixth from the top right hand side (RHS). The Speak Auto-Text will automatically speak or voice any auto corrections and auto capitalisations.

A child using an iPadUnder the Vision heading is also VoiceOver that accommodates users who are blind or who wish to hear text globally throughout the device. Zoom accommodates users who are vision impaired as does changing the size of the text (globally) and having inverse video display. This means that white becomes black and vice versa with the colour palette ‘switching’. It provides high contrast and some students with ASD prefer this mode.

By setting the Triple-click Home, users can opt to have an immediate effect or toggling between VoiceOver, White on Black display, Zoom or Assistive Touch mode. Simply tap the Home button 3 times.

Multi Tasking Gestures

If turned on and activated, a user can use four or five fingers to control the iPad. It’s worth playing and experimenting with these options.

Picture Frame

This is one feature I think is terrific and very useful in Special Education classes. It allows the educator or student to create an animated picture frame with transition effects and time delays between each photo taken from a picture library or the Camera Roll. It can zoom in on faces and images can be shuffled so a 30 image presentation or show can be randomised. It’s quick to set up and modify, easy and very engaging.


There are so many wonderful features, many of which are not apparent. Due diligence in reading and researching iPad user guides and FAQs will reward users with tricks and strategies, not only for themselves but more importantly for students who have different needs, abilities and skills.

Tablet devices are here to stay and with competition, they will only mature, have higher memory capacity, operate faster and offer opportunities that make school classrooms exciting, inclusive and relevant. Our children master these devices effortlessly.

Catch up, have a play, take one home! Schools that restrict use to just school are limiting the scope and breadth of these portable devices, especially school leaders who restrict them to being ‘class sets’. Some schools restrict use by educators and staff just to school property.
Others don’t allow them to take them to in-service PD hands on training!

Be bold, be imaginative and be inclusive. Plan for all students, act for all students and plan for real equity and inclusion. Make technology work for all students and ensure that no one is left behind or excluded, compromised or disadvantaged.

References and Useful Resources

Weally Wonderful Apps V4.0 (MS Word document download)
Amanda Hartman’s Top ten iPad tips for people starting out!
Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs
iPad Apps for SEN – download a simple guide
iPad Apps for SEN
Resources from CALL Scotland
Understanding Multi Tasking on an iPad
iPad Users Guide iOS V5.1

Note: In some schools and centres, students may require administrator access name and password to the Wireless network or to a MAC OS server. At other schools staff members are not permitted to use the wireless network. Every school is different and has different protocols, user policies and expertise. 

Purchasing an Apple Server will provide far greater scope for automating syncing, performing updates and for ease of management. Discuss issues with a technician at your school. It will save someone (or numerous people) hours of extra work and unnecessary problems that eat into the school day and slow the progress – for everyone.

Red typewriterAllocate time for key staff to co-ordinate, sync and administer to the deployment of iPads. Provide opportunities for both formal and informal discussions regarding how they are being used. Purchase AV adaptors for HDMI and RGB inputs and use them with TVs and IWBs for presentations, reading eBooks in small or large groups, for staff meeting PD and for demonstrating new or exciting Apps.

Budget for accessories and build a resource where the iOS and other devices are used daily and moved about the campus and not kept in one classroom or area in the domain of one person. Permit them to go home with staff on holidays and let them be used!

Technology becomes obsolete – so quickly.

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About Gerry Kennedy

Gerry Kennedy is an Independent Information and Inclusive Technology Consultant, working in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. He has specialised in the areas of special needs, rehabilitation and assistive technology support in education and employment for over 27 years. A teacher of 31 years, he currently works at East Burwood SDS school part time, as an ICT Teacher.

Gerry has had experience working in all states in Australia and Territories. He advises from Early Education and Pre-school through to secondary schools, having lectured to TAFE and University to under and post graduates. He frequently publishes articles and software reviews on numerous web sites and in journals and magazines.

Gerry promotes leading practice in the implementation and deployment of innovative ICT and Inclusive Technology in education and training. He consults, trains and advises parents, therapists, and other education and therapy related professionals as well as school personnel in how best to utilise and harness the features and functions of mainstream and specialised software as well as assistive device implementation.

2 Responses to iPads in SEN – Some Strategies

  1. Hey, Thank you for the nice writing. It in fact was a nice short read.
    I will come back to enjoy more of your excellent work.
    By the way, how can we communicate? Very much appreciated!

  2. Gerry Kennedy says:

    If you think that it would assist others, please feel free to Tweet.
    My thanks and kind regards

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