Students as Assistive Technology Experts: The Technology Advocate role at Barton Peveril
During conversations on the topic of assistive technology, I am often asked ‘how do you get students on board?’. A key element involves providing students with the time and opportunity to experiment with using a range of technologies, however peer support is essential through the role of the student technology advocate. Our advocates are a group of year 12 and 13 students who provide support and advice to their peers on how they use technology to support their academic studies and succeed on demanding courses. Their expertise is not exclusive to students, as they advise staff on how the technology functions, as well as suggesting ways that other students within their classes could use it.
At Barton Peveril, students with a declared learning need and exam access arrangements are timetabled for Learning Support lessons. During these lessons I have always drawn on the expertise of students who are able to provide subject specific support for their peers, but had not previously considered asking them to advise on assistive technology. As students are using these technologies every day, they become the experts and I wanted to establish a way that they could share their knowledge with not only other students, but staff as well.
This began in December 2019 with a ‘Technology Carousel’ - a series of lunchtime sessions where staff visited technology stations to experience using the technology and sought advice from the advocates. Staff experienced using Texthelp’s Read & Write on Chromebooks, Scanning Pens Reader Pens were trialed using past papers and QR codes were available around the space for instant links to free apps such as Quizlet, Todoist and Evernote. The student advocates were able to show staff the practicalities of using the technology within lessons, for their homework and also in examinations. This enabled staff to gain a better understanding of the technology available for their students, as well as themselves. One of the most notable impacts however was on the advocates’ confidence and self-esteem.
Although the advocate role has the main purpose of educating students and staff, the ability to support students’ wellbeing and self-image should not be overlooked. When talking with students after the technology carousel, they felt that not only did they have a clear impact on staff, but their confidence had grown in sharing their knowledge with others. This message of the student as expert benefits their own engagement with assistive technology as well as empowering them to share their expertise.
Assistive technology is an essential element of developing students’ independence and the topic occurs in the majority of our interactions, even more so during this extended period of online learning. Getting students involved can be as simple as having a 1:1 conversation, focusing on their skills and how they could have an impact on others. During online learning I also asked students to complete a Google Form to collate their responses, asking whether they would like to be involved and if so, in what capacity. Some students will hear about the role and volunteer to support, often when they have a clear description of what is involved. Student involvement is also impacted by the value we place on student feedback and how this is communicated in their first lesson with us in Learning Support. This year I asked year 13 students to collaborate on a Google Jamboard to inform new students what they wished they had known before starting college. One of our aims is for students to recognise that their opinions are valued and that my tutor role is supportive, but they are ultimately the experts in what works for their learning and success.
The pandemic has meant that we have had to adapt how the advocates offer advice. However, this has not had a detrimental effect on their impact and engagement with staff and students. When considering how the advocates could offer advice through an online format, we began to film a series of ‘Assistive Technology Chats’. Google Meet is used to record the chat between myself and one of our advocates to discuss the technology that they use, the impact this has on their studies and what advice they would give to others. One advocate said that they enjoyed the opportunity to encourage staff and students to harness their talents and use technology confidently and creatively. These videos are available to students through Google Classroom and to a wider audience on Twitter and YouTube.
The next steps for the advocate role will be to continue building a hub of assistive technology chat videos and screencastifies created by students. We have discussed doing another technology carousel, but this time it is likely to involve Google Meet and breakout rooms. Although the pandemic has had an impact on in-person events, our team of advocates have embraced what can be achieved online and the ability this gives them to engage with a wider audience within the college community and beyond.
Laura is the Learning Support Subject Leader and Tutor at Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, working at the college for the past four years. Having studied Film and Television Studies at Southampton Solent University, technology has been a key focus in helping to foster a culture of independence amongst the students she works with. Laura has developed a programme of study for students at Barton Peveril where individuals are empowered to use digital strategies to help reduce barriers to learning and increase confidence. She was part of an expert panel discussion at BETT 2020, exploring ways of supporting learners with dyslexia through using assistive technology and in September 2020 she won the Pearson Silver Award for Digital Innovator of the Year.