Media and Learning 2011

Can media make a difference in supporting early and special needs education?

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Media and Learning Circle

Given the power of audiovisual and social media it is hardly surprising that many practitioners have adopted media-based tools and services to support early and special needs education. What is the role of these types of services and can they have an impact where more traditional methods fail?

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Moderator: Deborah Arnold, Vidéoscop, Université Nancy 2, France


Deborah Arnold

Welcome to this online discussion on the topic of media in support of early and special needs education. There are many great examples of media-based resources being developed and used in this field, and many of us have the 'gut feeling' that they are more effective than traditional methods. But what is it that makes the difference? Is visual media more accessible, in all senses of the word? Does it support the development of alternative and relevant learning strategies?

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce our panellists Jolanta Galecka from Young Digital Planet, Poland, Jan Dekelver of K-Point, Katholieke Hogeschool Kempen, Belgium, Els Janssens from BEDNET, Belgium and Greet Decin from KHLeuven, Belgium. It would be nice if you could kick off the discussion with a few words about yourselves and share your thoughts, experiences and questions on how media can make a difference in early and special needs education.

Jolanta Galecka

Thank you Deborah very much for this introduction and a chance to take part in the discussion :)
Let me be the first to introduce myself: I come from a legal background having been an attorney for some years. Due to some life circumstances I was thrown into the educational world and since I had my own kids I decided to take the matter seriously and find out how (and if) I can help them develop in the best possible way. I did not realize the gravity of the challenge. At first I was swayed in different directions. Whatever was introduced to me I thought it to be the answer to all my problems. Only later on did a bigger picture appear and I started to understand the complexities of the human development and the education process. I taught with very traditional materials and with technology. I was in an immersion school, in Waldorf school and in Montessori and I found out that they share one thing in common (when they are successful) - fun and engagement. Well, that's two things but fun usually brings engagement. Children are very curious and they love to learn and they are extrememly good at it. They are able to sieve through tons of incomprehensible data and figure it out eventually. They test their hypothesis and hunches about the reality and its meaning. They are very good at decyphering clues and draw conclusions from examples. What we do to them when we provide them with standarized education is killing that natural curiosity. We need education that is not pushed. Children will ask for it, be sure about it. Just make it attractive and relevant and they will want it. We only need to make it available. And here multimedia is a great opportunity as it provides a chance to bring reality onto the student desk and make it accessible on demand. It is better than a textbook, because it is more real and interesting, it is better than a movie because you can interact with it. It is almost like the real life experience and that is how the kids have always been learning.

Jan Dekelver

A short introduction: With an engineering background, I got involved in projects and research with a focus on ICT and Inclusion at K-point ( at the K.H.Kempen ( and at K.U.Leuven. One of the projects we are involved in is WAI-NOT (,, a portal that offers ICT to people with intellectual disabilities. Other research looks at accessibility of websites for people with intellectual disabilities, serious gaming, ICT competences and training of people with intellectual disabilities and their support staff.
What is the role of media-based tools and services and can they have an impact where more traditional methods fail?
A major motivation to introduce media-based tools and services is that a lot of young people ask for them. They want to ‘be a part of it’ as any other people. This is a legitimate question and they have the right to it. Do we need more arguments? Should we take the discussion any further?
Besides this, there are more positive aspects that we distilled from working with new media with young people with intellectual disabilities. Media-based tools can bring empowerment, the feeling on control and positive feedback to personal development. A computer is very structured and patient, which can make the learning experience more positive. It can help to overcome some of the disabilities if the tools are carefully chosen well supported. Differentiation and attractiveness of content and tools offer great possibilities. Communication and expression can be supported in alternative ways.
Tools are just tools and there is no “one-fits-all” solution for education. Media-based tools don’t make an exception and so they should be carefully explored before introduction and matched against the educational goals that are at stake.
But there are a lot of thresholds. Compared to the huge amount of educational content that exists for traditional education, very little is available for special education. Websites and services are mostly not accessible and too complicated to use. Safety and privacy issues scare parents and teachers. Special education schools are often not sufficiently equipped and teachers are not ready to take on board all these new developments due to a lack of competences, time, methods and support.
EU-statistics show that the digital gap of the first generation (availability of computers and access to the internet) is getting smaller, the second digital gap (skills, use for personal development) is still there. People with intellectual disabilities tend to fall into this second digital gap as a part society moves towards the online world. They have a hard time acquiring the right skills to join in. So the question is not only: do media-based tools and services have a positive impact? Added to this, there is a straightforward obligation for the educational system to provide all young people the necessary skills so that, if they want, they can be a part of this society that is going digital.

Jolanta Galecka

I agree completely. And I like the division of the digital gaps. That is why it is so important to start early and to let the kids grow into this new environment. The applications should be designed with this in mind - the introduction of new technology. We still tend to judge everybody based on the few we have around us. It is true that the city communities, bussines centers, etc. tend to be equipped well in the digital tools and they use it on everyday bases. But there is a whole another world out there that is not so familiar with it. When we were designing eduSensus we used one of the skills - the cause and effect - to introduce children to the most basic apsects of the computer: pressing the button and having an effect of that action. We also took their skills into consideration when designing the whole navigation of the programme. The Internet is far too big to just throw a child into it and hope for the best. At first the environmnet needs to be structured and separated. It needs to be safe.

Els Janssens

From the Bednet part I introduce Bednet as a non-profit organization founded to serve children and adolescents aged from 6 to 18 years in the Flemish region (Belgium) who suffer from long –term and/or chronic illness. The service wants to decrease learning gap caused by the illness and to re-establish / maintain social contact of sick children with the “outside world”, in particular their friends and teacher(s).
Bednet enables the child to attend classes and educational activities of the own mainstream school through broadband internet links. An adapted computer configuration and specific developed software with intuitive user interface simulates the class situation at the child’s site. A broadband internet connection enables two-way communication and is also used to keep contact with the classmates during and outside class time.

Since our first experiments in March 2007 we helped more than 400 ill children. The success of our service depends on the motivation of the teachers on the one hand, the child (and his parents) on the other hand. Our project is a technological project, but more than this it needs to be coached, not by a technician (is also necessary to solve technical problems), but by a guide that creates a bridge between the situation at home and the classroom. Without this help, there's no safe feeling and there is no guarantee of involving the ill pupil in a normal class situation.

Jolanta Galecka

This sounds really good! I am looking forward to seeing it live. When you say guide, do you mean a digital guide or a real person? How much is he or she involved in the whole process?

Els Janssens

When I say a guide, I mean a real person. Bringing a child virtually into the classroom or bringing this technology into the a learning setting, can only work with a human coach. This coach is involved from the beginning of the process: at the start. When parents or the home school ask for Bednet service, the coach plans an intake, both at school and both at home. The decision to work with the Bednet system is based upon an agreement of all parties. The coach follows up (internet, installation by ICT-support, evaluation, ..). It's a go-between which is necessary to cope with resistance, motivation, pedagogical issues, f.e. how do I plan exams and tests with the Bednet system, how do I involve the ill pupil in groupwork, ...

Jan Dekelver

The service Bednet provides is really of great value to a lot of children. Delivering additional services to specific target groups like children suffering from long –term and/or chronic illness or children with special needs should be a part of the right every child has to education.
But here is a problem: is society ready to cover the costs this represents?
The convention on the rights of persons with disabilities ( as adopted by the United Nations in 2006, signed by 153 countries and with 106 ratifications to date clearly states in article 26 on habilitation and rehabilitation:
States Parties shall take effective and appropriate measures, including through peer support, to enable persons with disabilities to attain and maintain maximum independence, full physical, mental, social and vocational ability, and full inclusion and participation in all aspects of life. To that end, States Parties shall organize, strengthen and extend comprehensive habilitation and rehabilitation services and programmes, particularly in the areas of health, employment, education and social services, in such a way that these services and programmes:

  • Begin at the earliest possible stage, and are based on the multidisciplinary assessment of individual needs and strengths;
  • Support participation and inclusion in the community and all aspects of society, are voluntary, and are available to persons with disabilities as close as possible to their own communities, including in rural areas.

This fits into the general recognitions of the UN of the importance of accessibility to the physical, social, economic and cultural environment, to health and education and to information and communication, in enabling persons with disabilities to fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
While this is a very positive convention, the question remains if and how a person with disabilities can claim this right. In the Bednet case this could mean: who pays for the service Bednet delivers? While Bednet has well proven its case in Flanders, I wonder how it will/can survive after the initial period of project funding. The same question goes for a lot of initiatives that deliver media services in supporting early and special needs education. The business-case is difficult as the end users often cannot or afford the service. The WAI-NOT project ( is in the same position. There are costs for support staff, infrastructure, further development and so on, to deliver a service that answers to what the UN calls a “right”. In general, society looks at this right more as a nice favour, which will be granted if there is enough pressure and financial space. So the question remains: how do we shift this general feeling in society that agrees to give access on terms of affordability to a new paradigm that sees this inclusion as a basic right for all?

Greet Decin

A short introduction: I'm working at the department of teacher education at the Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven (Belgium). More specific I'm teaching maths, ICT and multimedia to student-teachers who wants to work in preschool (2.5 - 6 years old).
One of our research topics is "Multimedia in preschool: an additional opportunity towards equal opportunities in education". The objectives of this practice-based project are fourfold. Firstly, it investigates how multimedia literacy of preschool children (3 to 5 year olds) can be stimulated. Secondly, it aims at understanding the influence of multimedia literacy on their world exploration. Thirdly, the potential of multimedia to support the children’s personal development is assessed, with particular emphasis on young children with extra needs. Finally, the project aims to reduce the technological fear experienced by preschool teachers, as well as students and lecturers in preschool teacher education, through increasing their understanding of multimedia literacy. In accordance to Bottelberghs (2010), the project doesn’t focus on the technology of audiovisual materials, but rather on the creative processes and the development of talents achievable by using a multimedia setting. During an initial test phase of several weeks, more multimedia rich activities were offered to a group of children with different needs. Even though the children are quite young, they are very handy and careful with these materials. Some children with extra needs do well in exploring these materials. Some children exhibit a high level of wellbeing, involvement, initiative, creativity, language skills and artistic expressivity. The research isn't finished yet, but already illustrates the necessity for different means in the classroom in order to offer each child a proper way to express himself. Also the digital gap is contested from the beginning.
The question Jan arose above about the costs of these materials also arises in these research: how can we offer these young kids the materials they need to develop in a proper way so they find a way to express themselves, to show who they are

24 - 25 November 2011 Flemish Ministry of Education Headquarters, Brussels