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New research partnership aims to remove barriers to education for neurodivergent students

The University of Melbourne is partnering with SMART Technologies on a research project aimed at removing barriers to education for neurodivergent students.

The one-year study will focus on how to ensure education is more inclusive and accessible for all students. It will investigate what role technology can play in ensuring that students with neurodiversity – including autism and ADHD – have access to inclusive learning experiences.

The Australia-wide year-long study will partner with schools across the country to investigate the barriers to education faced by students with complex learning needs, and how classroom technology can help to support inclusive access.

The announcement comes three weeks after findings from the Disability Royal Commission triggered debate over phasing out segregated classrooms and ‘special schools’ in Australia.

Dr Matthew Harrison, senior lecturer and lead researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne), will spearhead the project, which has been developed in partnership with SMART Technologies. The research will in-part explore how classroom technology can be utilised to better allow more students to participate academically and socially.

“There is currently limited research that shares the voices of young students, as well as the challenges and barriers they face at school and in classrooms, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not,” Dr Harrison said.

“This type of research needs input from people who have lived experience with neurodivergent differences. The research study has been developed in partnership with a team of researchers who have experience living with autism and ADHD, they have also come through the Australian school system, and will be able to relate to a lot of the findings we uncover and share their own insights, which will be paramount to the outcomes of the project.”

Dr Harrison said the goal of the research is to help remove barriers and create pathways for students with disabilities and learning difficulties by better understanding the different aspects of how they learn, using technology in classrooms.

“We hope that the research will help build out practices that schools can put in place to improve student outcomes both academically, and socially. We also hope that the research provides insights to teachers, to gain a better understanding of student needs and help to eradicate some longstanding challenges in education by providing an outlook into the future of teaching,” he said.

Together with the University of Melbourne, SMART Technologies will provide support on the project, including suppling the latest in digital technologies and interactive displays in the classrooms involved in the research.

Mr Jeff Lowe, Chief Commercial Officer at SMART Technologies, visited the University of Melbourne to announce the research collaboration.

“The end goal in mind for us is to get real insights as to how teachers and students can make the most of technology in classrooms, and to remove any barriers so that everyone has access to learning,” Mr Lowe said.

“We focus on building connections that matter for schools, students, and teachers – and it’s so important that inclusive learning environments are at the heart of that.”

Mr Jeff Lowe, chief commercial officer at SMART Technologies, with a member of the University of Melbourne research team.

“Dr Harrison and his fellow researchers have a rich background in this area and a deep understanding of the importance of inclusive classrooms and pedagogy. We are committed to helping to build inclusive learning spaces, and the outcomes of this research will be a valued catalyst for educators and our own technology,” Mr Lowe said.

Research fills a void

Dr Harrison said specific recommendations from the Disability Royal Commission focused on promoting genuine inclusion across social, employment, and educational settings through building teacher capacity.

“For students with disability, this means ensuring they have the same opportunities to access learning as students without disability. By understanding the experiences of students with disability at school, this research will help us learn how we can use digital technologies to create inclusive learning environments that help make education accessible for everyone,” he said.

“There are also important connections to the recent Senate inquiry into school refusal. We know that neurodivergent children are over-represented in terms of the growing number of children and young adults who stop going to school. We want to understand what these students need and to explore how we can remove barriers for them feeling safe, happy and to be learning at their local school.”

Dr Harrison, who is a former teacher, said that while technology has played an increasingly larger role in education, research on the use of technology in classrooms hasn’t necessarily moved at the same pace.

“The range of digital technologies and assistive devices available is now greater than ever, and this research will specifically focus on how they can be used in education settings to support inclusive learning,” he said.

“Likewise, it is only relatively recently through the disability rights movement that researchers have valued the opinions and lived experiences of children with disability in the teaching-learning relationship. Disappointingly, very few studies exploring the use of technologies to create the conditions for inclusion ask the children themselves what they think helps them to learn and fully participate in their classrooms.”

For University of Melbourne researcher Ms Jess Rowlings, who has autism and ADHD, being involved in the project provides an opportunity to help improve outcomes for students in the classroom now and in the future.

“I found both primary and secondary schooling challenging in different ways. I did very well academically, but found it harder to make friends and didn’t always ‘fit in.’ I was not diagnosed with autism or ADHD until adulthood so I didn’t really understand why I found it hard to stay focused and process information in class, and I had to use a lot of compensatory strategies to help my academic learning,” she said.

“Digital technology is constantly evolving, so I hope that this research will help us better understand how technology can be used to support neurodivergent students in the classroom. Every child has the right to feel safe and happy at school, and I hope the outcomes of this research help improve our ability to create inclusive learning environments that support and celebrate diversity.”

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