DigiLit Leicester

iPads as Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices

Using an iPad as a ACC device


Nether Hall School provides education for pupils with severe learning difficulties, profound and multiple learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. They’ve been working on a DigiLit Leicester innovation project, evaluating iPads as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) devices, to support communication for learners with speech impairment. The majority of students at the school have difficulties with speech and language, and many use AAC devices to help them to communicate. The school identified several issues with commercially available ACC devices: bulky design and look; limited functionality (for example, only supporting a few words); and cost (with many priced between £4,500 and £14,000), which limits the number of devices the school is able to afford to provide.

Helen Robinson, Head of sixth Form, and Heather Woods, Communication Specialist, discuss the final report and reflect on the project:

Project Process

The project began with identification of the students who would participate in the trial and the software that would be used. Through discussions with the school speech and language team, The Grid was chosen as the most appropriate software for the project as  it was seen to have more facilities and, most crucially, linked to the school’s current systems, for example Eyegaze and Communicate: in Print. Sensory Software, the makers of The Grid, provided staff training and have provided additional support throughout the project.

Initially, the team had intended to create a standard grid for use with all learners throughout the project. However, it became clear early on that with the diverse needs of their learners, and the capabilities of the software, bespoke grids could (and would need) to be created for each child. The training provided to the school was key in enabling them to create personalised communication grids for each of the students involved in the trial.

Working with Students

The first stage was to introduce the device as a tool, with a grid that was appropriate to each individual pupil. Serious consideration, based on assessment and experience, was given to deciding whether to use True Object Based Icons (TOBI[1]), photographs or symbols for each student.

One to one teaching sessions with the Communications Support Coordinator (CSC) were given to demonstrate to the pupils that if they touched the photograph or symbol, they would receive the item they had requested. In this way, a relationship of trust was built around the use of the device. For some pupils, simply recognising that they could interact and take control of the proceedings was sufficient to motivate them to use the device for communication.

Once the iPad was established as a communication device, the grid was developed.  This was bespoke to each individual pupil:

On the simplest level, the photo began true to size and gradually became smaller and moved to a different part of the screen after selection meaning that the pupil had to be more accurate to request the item or activity. Next, an item that was known to be disliked was added.  This was to test whether the pupil was selecting an item or simply pointing and touching the screen randomly. If this item was selected, the pupil had to hold it and interact with it. The next step was to make the icon move after it had been touched, again to check that this was not random.  The pupil had to look at the icon and touch accurately to make their choice.

On a more complex level, photos were the starting point; in some cases these were photos of the class and staff. Pupils would then use the device to participate in registration activities. This led quickly to adding symbols for lessons. Alternatively, the standard grid on ‘The Grid 2’ was used and simplified to the level that worked with the individual pupil.

Project Report

Since the beginning of the trial, the school have seen significant benefits to their learners through the use of the iPad as an AAC device. Learners have made improvements not only in their communication skills, but also in terms of behaviour and their relationships with staff and family. As the project progressed, it was decided that funding would be used to bring in Karen Cameron and Sarah Younie, researchers from De Montfort University, to work with the school to support the research element of the project; specifically the writing of the project report.


  • A device which can be tailored to an individual childs needs which can then grow and develop with the child.
  • Costs a fraction of other equal more expensive communication devices on the market.
  • Looks cool and appropriate for children, teenagers and young adults.
  • It’s high picture and sound quality reduces confusion compared to other communication devices.

Next Steps

  • To write use of iPads into the schools policy for devices as communication aids.
  • To train staff in supporting Pupils with AAC devices
  • To establish a Parents support group –  Promote wider  community  use of devices and bespoke for individuals home use.
  • Investigate bags for portability
  • Extend project to more students


An Evaluation of the use of iPads as Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (Word) (PDF)

Case Studies only (Word) (PDF)

[1] A T.O.B.I. can be a line drawing, scanned photograph, etc., which is cut out in the actual shape or outline of the item it represents.


Cross-posted from

e-Safety Guidance: Supporting Learners on the Autistic Spectrum


Yesterday saw the launch of the Childnet STAR Toolkit . The toolkit offers practical advice and teaching activities to help schools explore internet safety with young people on the autism spectrum. The launch took place at Leicester’s New Walk Museum, in the beautifully just-refurbished Victorian Art Gallery.

The STAR toolkit is one of Leicester City Council’s DigiLit Leicester projects, a professional  development approach designed to make sure that staff have the confidence and skills to get the most out of the investment being made in technology for schools through the city’s Building Schools for the Future ProgrammeChildnet worked closely with three of Leicester’s SEN schools – Ellesmere College, Nether Hall School and West Gate School, to design the resource.

Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet, said:

“The Childnet STAR toolkit is designed to give schools the building blocks they need to develop a tailored approach to online safety for their pupils with ASD. By working with Leicester City Council and three fantastic schools in Leicester we have been able to develop a practical online toolkit that addresses the online risks faced by young people living with autism spectrum disorder, such as cyberbullying, contact by strangers and exposure to inappropriate content. Importantly, this resource is available to all UK schools free online. Through the teaching activity ideas and forum we want to encourage educators across the country to use these resources, and also to feedback and share their ideas and materials so we can collectively and collaboratively provide excellent e-safety education for young people with ASD.”

The STAR Toolkit

The STAR Toolkit is designed to assist teachers in educating their pupils with ASD about the internet and support them in managing online risks.

The four sections –  Safe, Trust, Action and Respect – all feature the concept of friendship and emphasise the importance of finding the balance between online and offline interactions. At the same time, the resource promotes a positive, fun and safe experience for young people with ASD.

The online resource includes a forum to encourage educators to share their teaching ideas and how they have used and adapted the STAR Toolkit in their educational setting. This will provide a platform for sharing best practices in online safety for those working with young people with ASD.

The resource is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Launch event in Leicester

The event was opened by Councillor Vi Dempster, Leicester’s Assistant City Mayor with responsibility for children, young people and schools. Councillor Dempster said:

“I’m really pleased to be launching this innovative resource as part of our commitment to transform learning through the Building Schools for the Future Programme.

“It’s vitally important that we keep young people safe online. This resource will help to tackle some of the challenges involved in ensuring young learners who could be more vulnerable are aware of the risks.”

“It will help make sure that all our learners get the chance to benefit from the many positive learning opportunities the internet can offer.”

Leadership Briefings: Student Digital Leaders

The DigiLit Leicester team are currently running a series of briefings for school leaders. The briefings are designed to ensure school leaders are aware of and up to date with current, effective approaches to using technology to support learning, teaching and school community development.

Our second briefing was held in January at the Soar Valley Training Centre. Chris Sharples led the session which focused on school based Student Digital Leaders (SDL) programmes.

Chris defines Student Digital Leaders as “a team of enthusiastic students who work with teachers and students on regular or one-off projects to improve learning with digital technologies.”

SDL initiatives represent a creative and effective approach to supporting learners who are enthusiastic about technologies in playing an active role in school technology development and use. Programmes usually involve one or more students in each class being identified as digital leaders. At Chris’s school, there are 25 SDLs, across years 7 to 10, with a decrease in pupil involvement in year 10 as a result of GCSE commitments. SDLs were recruited from an open, year based call, with all pupils who wanted to be involved joining the group. Other schools have selected participants by interviews. SDLs are then responsible for supporting the school community in their use of technology. This could be through trialling of devices or techniques, making recommendations about the best technologies and apps to use for specific tasks, providing training to peers or staff members, or being able to provide basic technical support in the classroom.

Student Digital Leaders at Chris’s School have been involved with a range of projects this year, including creating resources, developing Open Badges, attending conferences, writing reviews, providing training and leading assemblies.

Chris provided us with a mind map of the kinds of activities SDL were involved with:

Digital Leaders Mind Map

Student Digital Leaders programmes are a great way to give responsibility to learners and a non-confrontational method of embedding enhanced technology use across the whole school.

Key take aways from the briefing were:

  • Student Digital Leaders can be integral to schools responding to the challenges of the new computing curriculum. They can can play an active part in the way that the school designs and delivers learning and teaching around computing.
  • Chris emphasised the importance of a student leadership opportunities in developing a culture of learner engagement. Student leadership provides opportunities for young people to take responsibility for actively supporting their communities and peers, fostering a community expectation that everyone has a contribution to make and will help others if they can. Chris’s school has active sports leadership and Duke of Edinburgh Award programmes for learners as well as a Digital Leaders programme.
  • Student Digital Leadership programmes actively support and promote learner voice – learners contribute to the decision-making process (which tools are best to use, surveying students about preference), provide an opportunity to develop communication skills (training  peers and staff, demonstrating tools, writing about their recommendations, activities and preparing support materials). Chris quoted David Hargreaves as saying “one of the most successful entry points into effecting change and transformation lies in the area of student voice, and the opportunities offered to students to share the leadership and redesign of learning with their teachers.”

Want to find out more? Download the resources sheet Chris produced:

Digital Leaders Briefing (Word)

Digital Leaders Briefing (PDF)

You can find even more resources and links on the Digital Leaders Network blog.

Winning! The DigiLit Leicester Project


The core project team – Lucy Atkins, Josie Fraser and Richard Hall -are all delighted theDigiLit Leicester project has been selected as one of the five winners of the Reclaim Open Learning innovation contest, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the Digital Media and Learning Hub, and the MIT Media Lab.

Being selected alongside other projects of such high caliber is a real honour:

It’s a great win, not just for the project, but for the city. Our project is a partnership between Leicester City Council, De Montfort University and the 23 Leicester Building Schools for the Future (BSF) mainstream and SEN secondary schools. It’s an important project in terms of the city, since it’s how the ICT strand of the BSF Programme is structuring, designing and delivering on staff development, to make sure learners in the city get the most benefit from the investment being made in technology.

The project is explicit about the important role open education plays within digital literacy  – particularly in terms of the ability to find, evaluate, create, build on and use open educational resources, and in connecting to, participating in and creating open learning networks. The framework and survey content is available under open licence for others to make use of, build on, or adjust for their own settings.

The project aims to improve learner outcomes and opportunities in Leicester by identifying the ways in which school staff are able to use technology to enhance their teaching practice and communities, and support development where gaps are identified. We’ve done this by developing a framework of digital literacy, in partnership with schools, situated in secondary school practice. We’ve developed a survey, again in partnership, mapped to the framework, from which we’ve collected information at the level of individual staff members, schools, and city wide. This month we have been busy meeting with schools to feed back their survey results, decide priorities and plan next steps. We’ll be releasing an external report on the initial findings at the beginning of October 2013. In the second year of the project, we’ll be working with schools on a range of initiatives to further increase staff digital literacy skills and confidence across the city.

You can read my interview for Reclaim Open Learning here.

Cross-posted from LCC’s SchoolTech blog.

DigiLit Leicester – Secondary School Digital Literacy Framework and Survey

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The DigiLit Leicester project has been up and running for nine months now. We’ve been incredibly busy, working with 23 schools across Leicester to design and implement a digital literacy framework situated in secondary (11-18 year olds) school practice. We’ve linked this to a survey open to all schools in the city’s Building Schools for the Future Programme – in order to capture where school staff are across the city in terms of their current practice. This will help us promote and share the innovative and effective work currently happening, and support staff of all levels of confidence to move forward.  

We’ll be using the survey results to work with schools to plan their next steps and to target activity where it will have the greatest impact.

There are three key project stages:

  • Investigate and define digital literacy, in the context of secondary school based practice
  • Identify current school staff confidence levels, and what the strengths and gaps across city schools are, in relation to this definition
  • Support staff in developing their digital literacy skills and knowledge – raising baseline skills and confidence levels across the city, and promoting existing effective and innovative practice

The project is designed to benefit schools both prior to and after the opening of their new school, and to be of relevance to staff working in secondary schools both old and new. It will help all school staff supporting learning and learners to develop their skills and confidence in using technology – from absolute beginner to advanced practitioner. It recognises that staff work in different environments and have different strengths and interests.

The project team are pleased to share our first project outputs – the development of a digital literacy framework situated in secondary school practice, and the creation of a survey tool designed to identify staff confidence levels in relation to the framework. We are releasing this report under an Open Licence, which means that others are free to share, adapt and use our work non-commercially – for the benefit of other secondary schools or other sectors. Please do get in touch if you make use of our work – I’d be delighted to hear from you!

Download the project report:

DigiLit Leicester – initial report June 2013 (Word)

DigiLit Leicester – initial report June 2013(PDF)