This chapter will discuss the background, scope and need for the proposed study, highlighting the main questions that the research will address. The research aims to explore how technology can be optimally used to support pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD). Focusing on the Apple iPad, the study will explore how technology might be used to augment the effective teaching of pupils with PMLD by investigating the factors that may contribute towards efficient implementation of such technologies.
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The field of special education and learning has advanced tremendously through the decades, and has led to the development of sub-branches of research allowing specialists to discover and understand more about various learning disabilities amongst children. Currently, children with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) present an ample challenge to modern teaching methods and teachers alike. However, advances in technology have been able to offer several solutions to effective teaching and learning as a part of effective teaching aid. Such technology has included in the invention of tablet devices such as Apple iPads, which are thought to promote more productive teaching and learning (Davis and Florian, 2004). Such pupils require one-to-one help and although plausibly iPads may have a role to play in such support, the factors that contribute to the effective use of iPads remain under researched in the empirical literature.
1.2. Scope of the Study
This section explores the scope of the study, detailing how the conclusions drawn from the findings will have practical implications that may improve teaching practices for teachers dealing with pupils with PMLD. At present, there exists a gap in the emerging literature surrounding the use of technology with pupils with PMLD. Although case studies detailing the utility of iPads in enabling more productive and effective teaching and learning amongst pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD) are beginning to emerge, the area remains under-researched. Little is known about the specific factors that contribute to the effective use of iPads with PMLD pupils. The findings and associated implications of the proposed study will allow teachers to develop and practice the most effective teaching strategies to improve learning and participation amongst PMLD pupils using iPads.
1.3. Research Question
The main research questions explored in the present study were:
Does the use of iPads enhance learning with PMLD pupils?
What are the factors that contribute to the effective use of iPads with PMLD pupils?
1.4. Study Limitations
At present the only predicted limitations will be concerned with the practicalities of conducting action research in tandem with normal teaching activities. In order to manage this effectively, a detailed timescale of this research has been formulated.
2. Literature Review
According to Boote and Beile (2005), the purpose of a literature review is to provide a theoretical underpinning to the area under discussion by critically examining the existing literature surrounding the topic under investigation. Following this rationale, the subsequent section will provide an evaluative report of the subject area, going beyond the descriptive to identify the questions that remain unanswered in the current literature, and provide a theoretical framework to approach the research question under study. The review will revolve around the theoretical perspectives regarding teaching pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD), the teaching strategies currently adopted based on existing research findings and developments and the recent technological developments and their relevance to the field of special education.
The literature review will indicate the need to investigate the scope and use of iPads in special education of pupils with PMLD, backed with a theoretical framework supporting the teaching strategies to be embedded in the effective use of iPads in classrooms. Furthermore, it will identify the effectiveness of iPads in the form of the applications that can be utilised in teaching and engaging PMLD pupils in classrooms. Following this plan of action for the literature review, the chapter will be sub-divided in the following sections:
1. Theoretical Perspectives on PMLD Teaching and Learning
According to the Schools’ Census Data (2004), pupils with PMLD are defined as “…(having) complex learning needs. In addition to very severe learning difficulties, pupils have other significant difficulties, such as physical disabilities, sensory impairment or a severe medical condition”. This definition highlights the complexity of PMLD; it is severe and multi-domain, characterised by the existence of two or more severe impairments that may be visual, physical or sensory, and include other complex medical needs (Healy & Noonan Walsh, 2007). In 2010, the Dfes identified a 29.7% increase in the prevalence of pupils with PMLD between 2002 and 2009, due in part to improved diagnosis and survival rates of pre-term infants with severe disabilities (Marlow, Wolke, Bracewell & Samara, 2005). Pupils with PMLD have greater difficulties in learning, and require a high degree of adult support to meet both their learning and physical needs (DfES, 2004). Practitioners and educators must be able to support such pupils to overcome these barriers to learning, by adapting the curriculum to meet their specific needs. According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2007), pupils with PMLD are likely to remain at an early stage of development, with attainment in the early P Scale between P1 to P3, with a focus on developing basic skills throughout the curriculum and across all subjects.
Flo Longhorn and Penny Lacey have been working with pupils with PMLD for over ten years, and both advocate a sensory approach to learning. Both authors emphasised the importance for children with PMLD to engage their senses from an early stage, and suggested that the role of practitioner is to stimulate; as effective learning can only take place when such sensory stimulation takes place:
“Without the stimulation and awakening of the senses, it would be difficult for a very special child to begin to make sense of the outside world and begin to learn.”
(Longhorn, 2004: p.6)
Similarly, Lacey (2009; 2011) suggested that the PMLD learner requires opportunities to understand, discover and explore through sound, touch, smell, taste and vision. To better understand why learning for PMLD pupils should be sensory requires an exploration of the cognitive processes that are at play. If we consider the early stages of development in normal children, learning is primarily concerned with children forging a connection to the world around them; making sense of it via exploration and investigation using their senses (Longhorn, 2004). This resonates closely with Piaget’s sensorimotor stage, the first stage of cognitive development in his influential theory (Piaget, 1977) whereby infants from birth to two years construct an understanding of the world by coordinating their physical actions with outcomes such as seeing and hearing. Across the two years, a child is expected to progress from reflexive action at birth, to the emergence of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage. According to Cunnigham (2010), PMLD learners at the most severe end of the spectrum function cognitively at six to twelve months of age, therefore an appropriate approach for such learners is to focus methods of teaching at sensory levels.
2. Effective Teaching Strategies and Tools for PMLD Pupils
All pupils learn best when they are fully engaged (Iovanne et al., 2003). According to Carpenter (2010), no meaningful learning or outcome will take place without pupil engagement; therefore it is vital that deep engagement from pupils is planned throughout the learning activity. In this sense student engagement can be conceptualised as a reciprocal process; a function of both the time and energy pupils devote to educationally purposeful activities, and the efforts made by schools to implement effective educational practices (Kuh et al. 2008). Given that engagement is so vital to the success of mainstream educational activities, it stands to reason that such engagement is similarly vital to the success of educational activities with pupils with PMLD. Indeed, Iovannone et al., (2003) stated that degree of engagement was the most important predictor of educational success for pupils with PMLD.
Following research conducted by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSATrust) into effective learning with children with complex learning difficulties, the Engagement Profile and Scale was developed. This is a classroom tool that allows teachers to focus on pupils’ engagement to learning to create personalised pathways of learning, and monitor the effectiveness of classroom interventions (SSATrust). The teacher is required to select an activity with which the pupil is usually highly engaged, and one to which the pupil demonstrates low engagement. During each task, the teacher records the extent to which the pupil demonstrates his or her engagement across a 5-point scale ranging from no engagement to fully sustained engagement across seven domains (awareness, curiosity, investigation, discovery, anticipation, initiation and persistence). Teachers are encouraged to look for small signs of early engagement such as changes in breathing, eye movement, facial expressions or movement. Although in its early stages of classroom intervention, forming part of ongoing research into best practice in classrooms with children with complex educational needs, early case study reports have indicated that the Educational Profile and Scale is an effective tool to devise strategic interventions to encourage re-engagement with learning (Carpenter, Egerton, Brookes & Durdle, 2011).
2.3. The Specific Use of Technology to Support Learners with PMLD
Information communication technology (ICT) has become a valuable tool for teaching and learning in specialist schools (Davis & Florian, 2004). Condie, Munro, Seagraves and Kenesson (2007) concluded that a substantial body of literature supported the notion that ICT can be a powerful tool to support pupils with educational needs, both in mainstream and specialist environments. Although the studies have tended towards the small scale, findings have elicited common themes included increased communication, improved participation and self-esteem. Ofsted have reported on a number of ways ICT has supported the learning of pupils with additional educational needs, noting improvements to attention p, attitude and motivation, whilst overcoming some of the barriers to learning therefore also increasing attainment (Ofsted 2005; 2004a). The Communications Aid Project (CAP), which was funded from 2002 – 2006 supplied technological aids to pupils with severe communication problems to allow them to more readily access the school curriculum. An evaluation of the project (Wright et al., 2004) noted that the initiative had been well received by parents and pupils alike, with pupils reporting a significant increase in both their abilities and quality of life.
The key advantage of ICT lies in its opportunity to provide a personalised learning environment, tailored individually to meet the specific needs of each pupil, but in order for this to be realised, there must be first be a comprehensive and accurate assessment of pupil needs, access and strengths (Handy, 2000). Practically speaking, although ICT can free pupils with limited motor skills or coordination from the problems of manipulating physical materials, physical access to the device itself must be simple to allow pupils to concentrate their efforts on the cognitive task being performed. (Williams, 2005; NOF training manual, 2004).
Technology, however, is often introduced to pupils without a full understanding of the benefit it may offer. Florian and Hegarty (2004) suggest that unless teachers fully understand the potential benefits of ICT and the logic behind using such technology, purposeful learning and engagement is limited. The application of ICT, they argue, must begin with the teacher and an understanding of the type of learning they hope to achieve. Teachers must be trained and competent in the use of ICT themselves before they can successfully support its use in pupils with PMLD in overcoming barriers to learning. Furthermore, they must also fully understand the nature of the assessment they would need to conduct in order to fully utlilise the technology.
In addition to an adequate assessment of needs and the appropriate use of devices, the third component of successful use of ICT involves the software employed. Sparrowhawk and Heald (2007) outlined criteria for software to ensure it can successfully overcome barriers to learning. They suggested that software should be stimulating and fun, colourful with clear, rich graphics, music and sound, offer immediate feedback with repetition and reward, be challenging and allow pupils to keep trying, but be structured in small steps. Supporting these criteria, Foyle (2012) recently published an article outlining the role of interactive technology in the SEN classroom, describing pupils as most engaged and motivated when applications were visual and contained sound, music and rewards.
An important contributor to the field has been the tablet device, specifically the Apple iPad, a slim, lightweight and multi-touch device for downloading, accessing and interacting with a vast range of applications. To date, little empirical evidence of the effectiveness of the iPad in supporting learning in pupils with PMLD has been conducted and reported, although case studies published by schools that use iPads to support such learners are beginning to emerge. For example, the deputy head teacher at Topcliff School has reported that iPads have had a positive impact and response from their special needs pupils and teachers alike, as the iPad is easy to use, accessible and allows the user to access many well-designed applications, a sentiment shared by the head of music at Mary Elliot Special school, who described the technology as easy to use allowing teachers to feel confident in using ICT, with cheap yet engaging applications. In a blog written by ‘Jwinchester25’ (2012), a head of year in a generic special school for pupils with a range of special educational needs, the iPad is described as a device that enables and allows learning at any time, with a wealth of sensory applications that are ideal for learners working between p1 and p2, owing to the visual impact and instant feedback provided by its applications. Undoubtedly, the iPad has several factors that are advantageous in supporting the learning of PMLD pupils, including the range and value of its applications, its sleek and easy to use design, and use of touch technology, which can help overcome barriers for pupils facing issues using the traditional mouse and keyboard (Bean, 2012). However, such advantages come with important caveats; teachers must ensure that the device is both adequately positioned and mounted to optimise both vision and interaction (Watson Hyatt, 2010; Rahman, 2012).
Pupils with PMLD have greater difficulties in learning and have additional impairments in functioning and needs that can create barriers to learning. Practitioners and teachers can support pupils to overcome such barriers by providing a learning environment that is stimulating to the senses, and promotes motivation and engagement. The world of technology can augment such learning by enabling pupils with PMLD to communicate and engage with the world around them. However, in order to maximally support such learners, technology must be tailored to the specific and individual needs of each pupil, requiring a thorough and accurate assessment of each pupil’s needs. It would appear that the Apple iPad has great potential to act as a tool for learning for pupils with PMLD, however there remains a gap in the empirical literature regarding the factors that might influence successful use of the iPad in such a teaching environment.
The following chapter discusses the research methodology chosen for the present study and provides the rationale underpinning its selection. As action research was selected as the prime research strategy, this chapter will discuss and explain what action research entails and also provide a brief explanation of the data collection methods that will be employed. Furthermore, the chapter will discuss the technique of sample selection and sample size proposed. The chapter will conclude with a discussion of the research instruments that will be utilised to gather the primary data.
1. Research Strategy
According to Lewin (1946), action research is “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action (using) a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action”. It involves a practical approach to research inquiry in a social institution (Waters-Adams, 2006), and is perhaps more interactive than other research methodologies, as it balances data collection and analysis with problem solving action in the field. This is advantageous as it allows the researcher to derive predictions regarding change within the research site (Reason & Bradbury, 2002). It is conceptualised as a collaborative process between the researcher and the research site and population, so it allows not only for observation and reflection, but also action and improvement of practice (Mills, 2006). Action research was particularly appropriate in this context. The author of the present study is an ICT coordinator, and was keen to discover how new technology purchased by the author’s school could be most effectively used with PMLD learners. Action research is often used when a new initiative is about to be implemented, in the absence of knowledge regarding the best method to do so. It allows for the discovery of practical solutions that are directly derived from the specific circumstances of the research site. However, as action research does not involve the objective measurement of phenomena, it can suffer from researcher bias (Mills, 2006). However, all researchers bring a degree of subjectivity shaped by individual experience, and it is the action researcher’s challenge to recognise such bias and build a critical reflexivity into the research process accordingly (Herr & Anderson, 2005). Action research can be time consuming, and difficult to conduct in tandem with normal classroom activities. For this reason, Mills (2006) advocates developing a timeline of enquiry. The timetable for the current study is as follows:
Phase 1 (July 2012): Develop research questions.
Phase 2 (August 2012): Conducted critical review of relevant literature.
Phase 3 (September 2012): Conduct classroom observation. Disseminate questionnaire to
Phase 4 (October 2012): Conducted semi-structured interviews with teachers.
Phase 5 (November – December 2012): Data collation and analysis
Phase 6 (Early 2013): Review, question and action. Disseminate research findings to interested
3.2. Data Collection
According to Mills, “the importance of data collection is to challenge yourself to explore every possible angle to try to find patterns and seek out new understanding among the data” (2006: 122). The selection of data collection methods forms a fundamental step in the research process and should be underpinned by the concepts of reliability and validity. Reliability relates to the accuracy of the data and urges the researcher to consider whether the data they have collected presents an accurate representation of the reality under study. Validity refers to the essential truthfulness of the data; an assertion that the data collected actually measures the reality under study. Producing high quality research is of particular concern to the action researcher in schools, as the teacher researcher has an additional obligation to their students, and to add to the professional knowledge base (Sagor, 2000). One method of enhancing the quality of research is to triangulate data collection; to use more than one source of data during more than one point in time. The present study included questionnaires, observation and semi-structured interviews. The approach therefore was mainly qualitative, although the inclusion of some closed-ended questions in the questionnaire allowed for some limited quantitative enquiry.
The questionnaire was designed and will be disseminated via Survey Monkey, an online research resource which allows users to design surveys and collect and analyse data easily. The questionnaire contained both open-ended and closed-ended questions to enable respondents to both answer the specific research questions, and also provide their own responses to add richness to the data. Invitations to participate in this part of the research will be made to members of staff from a different school to the research site, and respondents will be invited to complete the questionnaire via an online link. The questionnaire has been designed specifically to investigate how other schools are integrating iPads into their work with PMLD learners. The main advantage of the questionnaire method is that it potentially allows the researcher to collect a large amount of information in a relatively short amount of time (Mills, 2006). However, the method is notorious for returning lower response rates. Generally speaking, postal survey methods have an average response rate of below 10%, whilst typical response rates for online surveys are a little higher, at 20 – 30% (SurveyMonkey, 2012).
The observations will be conducted only at the primary research site, and will be participatory in nature, as this allows for more focused naturalistic observation (Bell, 2005). In the present study, observation will take place with four pupils with PMLD as they use iPads as part of normal teaching and learning activities. The observations will be guided by the use of the Engagement Profile (SSATrust, 2010) which will enable the researcher to observe exactly which factors involved in the use of iPads engage pupils. For an example of the Engagement Profile observation sheet refer to Appendix A.
The aim of the interview is to elicit information about participant’s attitudes, opinions and perspectives in order to form a meaningful understanding of the phenomena under study (Hannan, 2007). Specifically, this research will include the use of semi-structured interviews, which allow researchers to have a set of specific questions to discuss, but allows for some flexibility on the respondents’ behalf. One interview will be conducted with the class teacher, and will address the ways in which iPads are incorporated into teaching activities with PMLD learners.
1. Sample Size and Sampling Techniques
For questionnaire completion, sampling will follow the snowballing technique, a non-probability sampling technique whereby participants in turn recruit future participants from among their acquaintances. In this instance, the link to the online survey will be sent to the target population, with a request that it is passed on to other interested parties. As the likely response rate is as yet unknown, the link will be sent to all possible study participants. The return rate will determine whether any quantitative data analysis will be conducted on the closed-ended survey items. The observations will be limited to four pupils, who will be identified as appropriate for participation via the researcher’s own knowledge of the pupils within the research site, and via discussions with classroom teachers. Only one interview will be conducted with the classroom teacher. Methods were selected that drew upon small samples to provide an in-depth exploration of the area under study, the number of observations and interviews was restricted to maximise the effectiveness of such in-depth exploration (see Kruger & Casey, 2009 for a discussion regarding sample size when using qualitative methods.
4. Ethical Considerations
Of prime concern to any researcher, are the ethical considerations and implications of their work. A full understanding of research ethics, and adherence and accountability to an ethical framework can provide a solid base for the research work in order to achieve completion of said research successfully (Willis, Inman and Valenti, 2010). Adherence to ethical considerations in research promotes the aims of research; prohibiting the falsification of results avoids error. Ethical norms ensure that the researcher remains accountable to the public and can prevent harm; therefore prior to the commencement of any piece of research, it is essential to consider all the ethical implications that may present themselves throughout all stages of the study. Central to research ethics is the issue of consent. The proposed study will provide interview participants with a Participant Information Form (PIF) detailing exactly the aims and processes of the research, and the contact details of the researcher. A consent form will be given with the PIF for both the participant and researcher to sign. The form will detail the participants’ right to refuse to participate, and right to withdraw consent at any point during the research, without penalty. As the pupil observations will be conducted as part of normal teaching and learning activities, it is not necessary to seek permission from parents.
In a dissertation work, keeping the personal details of the respondents secured is a prime ethical requirement, therefore, another major ethical consideration of the proposed study relates to anonymity and confidentiality. Conducting any research within the workplace could raise concerns among participants; therefore the interviews and Engagement Profiles will be anonymised and assigned codes rather than names. Surveys will be conducted anonymously via SurveyMonkey, access to data will be strictly limited to the researcher, and all participants will have the right to access their own information.
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