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Digital discovery

Photo: Josie’s story - how the family increased their digital skills

With so many new apps, websites and programs to use to support her moderately deaf daughter Josie during the school closures, tech-shy mum Holly was determined to gain the skills she needed.

When Holly was contacted by her daughter’s teacher to ask if Josie, Then in year 5, could be moved up a class in maths, she was overjoyed. Home schooling had been difficult for everyone, but this news proved their efforts were paying off.

Josie (now 11), who is moderately deaf on her left side and has autism, had always struggled with the noisy school environment. With that challenge taken away during last year’s lockdown, Josie, who wears a hearing aid, could concentrate more easily. In its place, though, was an online world that posed new challenges for the family.

“I’d spent so long trying to limit screen time at home and, just like that, everything seemed to have moved online,” says Holly, also mum to Noah (13) and Benjamin (7), who are hearing.

With three children learning at home, they each needed access to their own laptop or iPad to complete their work, but the family couldn’t afford to buy new technology. “I posted on the local buying and selling group on Facebook to see if anyone was selling a reliable laptop second-hand, because we needed one for Josie,” says Holly. “Luckily, her head teacher saw the post and asked if I wanted to borrow an iPad from the school. I had no idea that the school would loan out equipment. That was a huge help.”

Having all the equipment they needed was just the first hurdle for the family. Like many other parents, Holly felt daunted by the various new apps, programs and websites – all with different login details and passwords.

“Some of the websites we’d used before for homework but most of them were new to me. My phone was quite old and wouldn’t even support some of them! I had to get my head around Microsoft Teams, which the teacher would use to communicate with us. It was all so overwhelming.”

Josie’s needs, which also include dyslexia, meant that she needed full-time, one-to-one support from Holly to get the most out of this new way of learning. Working one-to-one meant they didn’t need the sound field system that Josie usually relies on in class to hear the teacher, but they still had to limit background noise at home so Josie could concentrate.

Determined to support Josie as much as possible, Holly spent her evenings familiarising herself with the programs they would need to use the next day. When she needed help, she turned to other parents at Josie’s school.

“The most helpful thing I did was to ask other parents,” she says.

“The school has a great Facebook group for parents, so I posted on there. I found that other parents were having the same troubles I was – finding pieces of work, for example – and we were able to work things out together.”

Screenshots that other parents shared were particularly useful to Holly, and helped her find easy ways to use some of the new programs. “I learnt from other parents that it was sometimes easier to use the Microsoft Teams app than the website, for example, because there are a few more steps on the website,” she says. 

Even when she’d got to grips with all the new programs she was using to support Josie, things were not easy. “Using the screen all the time just didn’t seem to be working for us,” says Holly. “Josie finds words more jumbled when reading them on-screen and I found that if I wrote things on paper, she could read and copy them better. When we started using a mix of screen and paper-based learning, it really helped.”

Although Josie came to thrive in her new learning environment, even being moved up again in maths to the top class, it took her a while to get used to things too.

“Each Monday morning, we would log in and see 14 assignments to be completed that week,” says Holly. “That was very daunting for Josie but gradually she began to enjoy the challenge. We’d do three each day and she became determined to have them all done by the Friday.”

It wasn’t only Josie’s school work that moved online. The youth club for deaf children that Josie had previously attended weekly also hosted virtual meetings using Zoom – another program for the family to navigate.

“We found it difficult to load Zoom on our phones,” says Holly. “When we had to return the school’s iPad after lockdown, the youth club loaned one to us. It was great the youth club were still doing something but, like everything else, Zoom took some getting used to.”

Josie struggled to follow Zoom calls at first, with the program set to show everyone on the screen at once. Through trial and error, they found that changing the settings to see one speaker at a time meant Josie could follow the speaker more easily.

“We’ve all learnt so much about learning and socialising online,” says Holly. “It’s had an effect on all the children, but we’ve seen the biggest change by far in Josie. She’s more in control of her learning environment and her confidence has soared.”

Although she admits she still prefers using physical books and paper, Holly says that learning at home has changed some of their learning habits for good. “We always used to do stories before bed,” says Holly. “But now that we read so many books online, we prefer to do this straight after school so we don’t have screens at bedtime. Little changes like that have made so much difference to us all.”