GUEST BLOG: Thoughts on Learning Tools for OneNote – by Gerald Haigh

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh, exploring Learning Tools for OneNote, and the broader topic of the spectrum of individual needs among students. In the piece he refers to an article in 'Forbes' by Dr Jordan Shapiro, who was recently the speaker and moderator for our #HackTheClassroom global online event.

Thoughts on Learning Tools for OneNote

by Gerald Haigh

For a large chunk of my teaching career, I worked with children who were labelled as having special needs, mainly in mainstream schools, but also briefly in a special school for children with profound learning difficulties.

I learned so much from this work. I could see, for example, that it may make some sense, in practical organisational terms, to categorise children under catch-all headings such as less able, learning difficulties -- theres a long list. I could always see very clearly, though, that at the level of the individual child, the boundary between has special needs and does not have special needs, begs so many questions as to be essentially meaningless. Tighten the focus, and the reality of the old cliché Every child has needs special to them, becomes clear.

This belief, which grows stronger with age, meant that when I came across a piece on Learning Tools for OneNote, in Forbes, by writer, psychologist, philosopher and practising educator Dr Jordan Shapiro, I found myself, if not quite punching the air, at least nodding to myself.

The title of Dr Shapiros article Learning Tools For Microsoft OneNote May Be One Of The Most Disruptive Education Technologies yet is effectively his mission statement. A little further on, in the first paragraph, he further explains;

When Jeff Petty, the accessibility lead for Windows for education, showed me the tools, I was blown away. Learning Tools for OneNote was originally created for dyslexics, but it is game changer for everybody. It illustrates just how powerful the education technologies of the future can and will be.. Learning Tools for an example of that rare piece of edtech that actually promises to bring something new to the learning experience.

HTC-Jordan-ShapiroAnd, yet, as he points out, it does so by making use of existing Microsoft technologies, such as speech recognition, audio text playback, the facility to change fonts and background colours. Most powerful of all, perhaps, is the Immersive Reader, which can effectively coach the reader -- thats any reader, not just one whos struggling towards greater fluency and understanding.

Theres no doubt that schools are quickly picking up on the idea of Learning Tools as an asset for special or additional needs departments, reflecting its original purpose as an aid for learners with specific literacy difficulties. Thats obviously to be welcomed, but whats really exciting about Learning Tools is its potential to be, in Dr Shapiros words, a game changer for everybody.

What that means, as I see it, is that if a class is working within OneNote Class Notebook on an assignment or a set of individual assignments each and every learner, with easy access via a simple toolbar, can use elements of integrated Learning Tools to iron out what may be entirely individual, perhaps unsuspected, obstacles to learning. Any person in the class may prefer to change the size of a font, or reach for headphones and hear a passage read aloud, at any speed, with any amount of repetition. To do so is not necessarily a sign of a defined difficulty. It may be they are simply finding the way thats more comfortable for them, just trying something out, in a way thats nobody elses business.

Dr Shapiro calls this attribute of Learning Tools, Universal Design and points to other examples, such as the dropped kerb at pedestrian crossings thats designed for people with mobility problems, but, unsurprisingly, is popular with everybody.

OneNote logoAs I see it, there are two lessons here. One is that if school leaders look at Learning Tools and immediately think of it as an asset for the special needs department, they may not be seeing the whole picture. Yes, it is a powerful supporter of early or struggling readers, but while there may be three dyslexic children in a class of thirty, a much larger number will have their own personal needs and preferences. The key is to encourage and help all children to explore and find the Learning Tools application that suits the way they want to work.

The other lesson is more strategic, to do with Shapiros Universal Design. Over the years Ive seen many techniques and resources targeted on the special needs sector, and Im not alone in concluding that the best examples deserve to reach a wider spectrum of learners in other words, If it works for SEN itll work for everybody.

OneNote Learning Tools, imaginatively used, have that principle beautifully covered. That Microsoft researchers and educators were so quick to realise this, once  the product was out, is a tribute to Microsoft’s ability both to respond to immediate needs and also look ahead to what is a rapidly changing classroom learning environment.

Further resources is home to many detailed descriptions of the components of Learning Tools for OneNote, and this video from Jeff Petty provides a great overview:

Im grateful, too, for a conversation with Paul Dredge, #MIEExpert and Technical Manager at EasiPC, who are highly experienced in the deployment of Microsoft technologies in schools and academies. Paul is currently working on a Learning Tools project which I hope to report on in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile, all the thoughts and opinions in this blog are mine.

~ Gerald Haigh

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