National Star empowers students

Seán Holland spoke to staff at National Star about how easily available smart technologies are being harnessed to let their students live a full life.

National Star is a UK charity providing education, personal development, care and support for young people with complex disabilities and learning difficulties. It has a campus near Cheltenham which supports residential students and day students. It also provides day education in Hereford and in Wales and runs four long-term living communities which are home to 32 adults with disabilities.

It recently completed a smart technology project, part of the Ingram Discovery Rooms, based in a new £6.2 million specialist residence which opened at the Cheltenham campus in September 2023. The project is used by potential new students for assessments before they come to college and by current students who want to explore how to use smart technology. A public appeal and funding from trusts, organisations and foundations helped pay for the 13-bedroom residence.

National Star aims to teach the students to teach themselves, they want students to be as independent as possible. The technology used in the Ingram Discovery Rooms is a way of giving students this independence. National Star has 57 years of experience helping young people through a multidisciplinary approach. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, tutors and an emotional well-being team co-operate to create an environment of growth and learning and provide strong life skills for when students leave the college.

The Alexa Project

The Alexa Project is a smart technology project within National Star to use off-the-shelf technology to benefit the students. The look of the rooms is similar to any college campus dorm room, with the appearance of a typical living room or kitchen. The rooms do not appear to be filled with specialist equipment for people with disabilities, this is especially important for young people at the college, who are aged between 16 and 25 and want to feel the same as their peers.

This project aims to be affordable and accessible while fostering students’ creativity. Using Alexa, and other off-the-shelf products, has kept the costs down. A lot of the students can or want to be able to use environmental controls, such as turning on the lights or opening the curtains. The technology that usually aids this is expensive and hard to get a hold of. The project aims to use off-the-shelf products to allow students to experience things they have never been able to experience before.

Alexa can set a ‘routine’, where a student can have the curtains opened and the radio on in the morning to give students control. A robotic hoover is an example of something that is compatible with Alexa and can be used autonomously by the students.  Students who may never have been able to boil a kettle before, can tell Alexa to turn the kettle on; even if they are not physically able to make a cup of tea, they have a level of input into everyday tasks. This technology gives students the opportunity to be an active part of their own lives.

Shannon is in her third year at National Star and uses an iPad to speak, she said: “I was hit by a car 10 years ago and had a brain injury. I can no longer use my voice to speak so have to use an iPad so speak to people and share my thoughts. My iPad is my voice and without it I would have no independence at college.”

An advantage of the off-the-shelf approach is that when students leave the college they can have a very similar set up wherever they live, whether it be in the family home or in supported living. Families and carers have a finite budget and when students leave the college this technology can be supported by families who may already know how to troubleshoot Alexa, this allows students never lose their independence. Alexa has made the IoT available for the young people to engage with and experiment with and has allowed them freedom to explore things that they are passionate about.  

This technology does not always run smoothly. Sometimes the equipment can lose connection on the large Wi-Fi network at the college. This can cause issues as students may have problems troubleshooting and fixing it themselves.

There is also a long way to go with this technology. Major brands are making technology for the mainstream and there is potential for these products to be more aware of the different capabilities of users. For example, when Alexa is asked a command, there is a pause, and some students need a longer time to give their command. By the time they are about to say their command Alexa has turned off on them. Other students may be verbal but can have unclear speech and Alexa may have trouble recognising their commands. This can be disheartening as this technology could be greatly beneficial to students and they can see it working for their tutors but not for them. On the flip side of this, students can practise on their own with Alexa and learn to speak more clearly so that Alexa responds to them, aiding their clarity for general conversations.

Active participation

The staff at National Star have integrated the technology and make sure the Ingram Discovery Rooms run smoothly. Two of the key members of staff are Kayleigh Hunt, the technology innovation manager, and Maizie Morgan, the assistive technology technician. Morgan is completing her masters in Dundee and notes: “My responsibility is to assess for and maintain the assistive technology, and voice output devices.”

Morgan’s training enhances the projects the college wants to do, and her skills allow the college to learn how to fail quickly. She works with therapists in the college to learn what is possible. The college is committed to not just developing the students and the technology but also empowering the staff to develop their careers as well.

Morgan and Hunt both explained how students want to learn, and they also want to share. When a student is taught something individually by Morgan, they will go on to share that in the classroom, and this will have a rebound effect as more students will then want to learn and students can then teach each other. This shared learning makes a real community at National Star.

Morgan said that the technology “fosters curiosity for the students and staff”. Students want to be active in their education and in their everyday lives. Staff also want to be educated in how they are trained and how they support the students.

Morgan also spoke about the difference between incidental learning versus personalised learning and said “the challenge is how to make it bespoke for each student”. Alexa promotes problem-solving and allows studying or learning to continue independently outside of the classroom. Hunt added: “Anything that gives students autonomy, motivates them”. The technology at the college allows the students and staff to learn together.

Opportunities to learn

National Star welcomes opportunities to trial equipment of any type that may help the students in any way. The staff at National Star are very open to ideas and speaking to companies and engaging with their ideas on how technology can be improved or targeted at people with disabilities.

The belief at National Star is that technology is a powerful tool to add to the students’ lives.  

The students are constantly asking the staff about technology they have seen online and the possibilities it could offer. One student wanted to be able to drive her own wheelchair but did not have any physical capability to do so. She did, however, know that she was very effective in communicating with her eyes. This led to trialling new technology that gave her the ability to drive her wheelchair unassisted.

The project has showed how technology can give autonomy to anyone’s life. Mainstream technology can be as effective in helping people with disabilities as the specialist equipment.

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