Using technology to support neurodivergent students in classrooms.
People with neurodivergent conditions are among the most socially excluded, vulnerable groups in the world. In the UK, around 2.5% of people have a mild or moderate condition, 1% have a severe condition, and around 700,000 adults and children have autism.
Over 70% of neurodivergent students attend mainstream schools, which cannot accommodate their needs. According to research, 70% of parents are unsatisfied with the level of understanding of autism in their child’s school.
Without personalised support, it is highly unlikely a neurodivergent person will make the academic and social progress they should. The problem gets worse as students get older: in India and Bangladesh, national reports indicate that access to higher education for students with disabilities is incredibly limited.
Access to appropriate information and communication technologies (ICT) provides the best - and perhaps only - chance for students with a range of physical, sensory, communicative and cognitive disorders to participate in society and fulfil their potential.
Researchers David Brown and Mufti Mahmud from NTU’s Computer Science and Informatics Research Centre have improved the inclusion of students with neurodivergent conditions in special, inclusive classrooms. Incorporating multimodal affect recognition, serious games, location-based services, digital game-making, and robotics and accessibility, their research has focused on using artificial intelligence (AI) to understand how engaged learners are, and how to employ novel ICT interventions for pupils in the greatest need.
They have developed and evaluated numerous enabling technologies to support inclusive teaching practices and promote the cognitive, emotional and physical rehabilitation of users. This includes an accessible version of an award-winning educational coding app Pocket Code, which has been downloaded more than one million times across 180 countries; AI-enabled adaptive learning platforms MaTHiSiS and Pathway+; and the app BuddyConnectTM.
Together with NTU PhD researcher Matthew Harris, they have also developed a range of virtual reality worlds where neurodivergent individuals can learn real-life skills. This includes a virtual version of Nottingham city centre, a café, a supermarket and a kitchen which teach users how to navigate through these spaces and how to interact with different people within them. More recently, they are also investigating the use of virtual environments to identify any concerns with aging.
Their AI algorithms can also be used to predict when students with autism will experience an emotional dysregulation event when there is still time to intervene with evidence-based wellbeing interventions. This leads to less classroom disruption and improved mental wellbeing for students.
Our researchers see people with these conditions as their co-researchers, rather than subjects to be researched ‘on’. They believe people with lived experiences of disability should be at the centre of the research process. That’s why they formed the Nottingham International Consortium for Educational Research (NICER) - engaging neurodivergent people to ensure they are involved in the research process and that it’s informed by their needs and wishes. This group meets monthly at the local special school Oak Field.
They are rethinking how technologies can deliver education more effectively and efficiently to improve participation of all learners. Long-term, our researchers want to implement inclusive education approaches informed by the very best, most promising technologies, to afford equality of access to all marginalised students in the EU.
An additional aim is to extend these approaches to low- and middle-income countries. This is important, as in general, a taboo still exists in rural areas regarding disability (especially learning disabilities). They hope to address this issue with their colleagues and communities in India and Bangladesh. Find out more about their work.
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Professor Brown is Director of the Computing and Informatics Research Centre and Research Group Leader for the Interactive Systems Research Group.
Dr Mahmud is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Computing at the Computer Science department of Nottingham Trent University.
Matthew Harris is an Academic Associate in the Department of Computer Science. He has experience in developing software for Virtual Reality applications.
Health and Wellbeing
This research is drawn from the strategic research theme of Health and Wellbeing.
Groups and centres
Centre for Computer Science and Informatics (CIRC)
The Computing and Informatics Research Centre’s (CIRC) unifying and overarching research vision is ‘Enabling Digital Technology’ and is grounded in high-quality, interdisciplinary work with expertise in advanced computer science topics with links to partners from both academia and industry.
Interactive Systems Research Group (ISRG)
The Interactive Systems Research Group focuses on the development of new technologies for the cognitive and physical rehabilitation of users within the real world, and the promotion of their mental wellbeing. This is a multi-disciplinary endeavour bringing together researchers and clinicians in virtual environments, serious games, games based learning, assistive technologies, location-based services, mobile applications, robotics, health psychology and computational intelligence.
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