1. Special Needs Education in Japan and ICT Use
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) through the use of personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and the internet, etc., has now become necessary in daily life.
In the field of education, schools in Japan are now also being equipped with ICT environments. In particular, in June 2019, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced and implemented the Act to Promote Information Technology in School Education. In December 2019, the plan to realize the GIGA School Program was announced. In addition, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, temporary school closures were carried out and the need for on-line classes further increased. As a result, the learning environment at school will focus on furnishing one device for each student as well as a high-speed, high-capacity network, and the ICT environment can be expected to develop at a faster pace.
Furthermore, according to the new curriculum guidelines for elementary schools in 2020, junior high schools from 2021, and high schools from 2022, information literacy (including information ethics) has become a quality and ability that is fundamental to learning along with language ability. Moreover, in addition to basic skills such as inputting letters, etc., the new curriculum guidelines in elementary school include fundamental views of programming. In addition, the new curriculum guidelines in junior high school for technology and home economics and in senior high school for information science specify more and improved content regarding programming and information security. As such, it is easy to envision further application and development of ICT in the field of education in Japan during the current Reiwa period.
Amid these developments, ICT is also being increasingly applied in the field of special needs education. In fact, the use and application of ICT is more advanced or widespread in special needs education than in general education, and ICT has become essential to meeting individual educational needs.
In fact, from early on, MEXT has worked to promote the use of ICT in Special Needs Education. In 2002, MEXT published a new "Handbook on Information Studies - Information Technology in Schools and its Practice" which included a chapter on "Support and IT Development for Children in Need of Special Education Support." MEXT later published "A Handbook for ICT in Education" in 2010 and "The Vision for ICT in Education" in 2011, and both publications included special chapters with the keyword "special support education." Moreover, in the abovementioned plans to realize the GIGA School Program, references to "children in need of special assistance" or "diverse children" can be understood as indicative of an awareness of special needs education.
A look at the material and studies published by MEXT alone indicates that the use of ICT in special needs education is clearly a special topic and becoming a highly supported effort.
2. Applying ICT in Response to Special Needs
Specifically, how is ICT now being applied in special needs education? Each of the following sections introduces a specific application of ICT in response to the particular needs of a disability.
1) Visual Impairment
It goes without saying that visually impaired students are in need of support to cope with the difficulty of "seeing."
Today, nearly all ICT devices are equipped with text reading functions. As a result, using an ICT device enables easy access to printed information.
Furthermore, like tablets and smartphones, operation by touch panel has been a major contribution to the education of children with visual disabilities due to the ease of expanding or contracting the screen content with a flick of the finger or pinch on the touch panel. Furthermore, most tablets and smartphones today are also equipped with a camera function. As such, by using the camera function and then enlarging the photographed image with a pinch or flick of the fingers, it becomes possible to access the necessary information on just one device without needing a magnifying glass or monocle. Furthermore, many of the tablets and smartphones today are also equipped with functions that alter color and contrast, thereby easily enabling the creation of an environment that suits one's way of seeing.
Furthermore, DAISY （Digital Accessible Information System*1）, an international standard for digital audiobooks that has become widely used since around 2000, is one tool that has played an important role in the learning of children and students with visual impairment. Multimedia DAISY*2 books and textbooks now make it possible to study through synchronization of the audio recording, letters on the screen, and images. Furthermore, not only is multimedia DAISY is used by children and students with visual impairment, but also by those who have intellectual or learning disabilities. However, given that nearly all DAISY books and textbooks are still produced on a volunteer basis, there is a need to further develop production methods and technology.
2) Hearing Impairment
Needless to say, children with hearing impairment need support for the difficulty of hearing.
At present, techniques of speech recognition have greatly advanced, facilitating the conversion of audio information into text information. As a result, it has also become much easier for students with hearing impairment to study in the same environment with other non-impaired students. Furthermore, it is also possible to send and receive information that is immediately converted over the network by voice recognition to written information. As a result, voice recognition technology will become widely used in collaborative learning with distant schools via television conferencing and other means. However, speech recognition systems differ in accuracy depending on the system used and the surrounding environment, and it is not always possible to convert all speech information into perfectly correct written information. For this reason, it is still necessary for written information that has been mistakenly converted to be corrected by hand.
In addition, live streaming sites on the internet are equipped to enable automatic speech recognition from uploaded moving images and then conversion of the speech into subtitles. As a result, making subtitles for video learning material, which required considerable time until recently, has now become possible in a very short period of time. However, when uploading the visual material on a streaming website, there are also necessary copyright considerations.
3) Movement disorder and Health Impairment
Health impaired children or those with movement disorder each experience difficulties that are related to individual health conditions. For this reason, it is necessary to provide support for the conditions of each child.
For example, physically disabled children who have difficulty with upper limb function can use a keyboard with typing or eye-tracker function as a substitute for writing. Furthermore, by using a tablet screen and the camera function on a smartphone, it is possible to write it on the blackboard without writing letters. When a student with physical disability has limited movement or when weak physical condition makes it difficult for the child to go out, by using a TV conference system, for instance, it is possible to take lessons from home or another location. Furthermore, by using a telepresence robot*3, it has become possible to participate in excursional activities outside school without leaving home or school. It is also possible that these various on-line learning systems will provide training for future work at home.
4) Intellectual Disability and Developmental Disorder
Children with intellectual or developmental disorders also experience various difficulties, and depending on their particular condition, the support they need is also varied.
For example, for children who have trouble with spoken language communication, it is possible to convert a saved text into speech using a read-aloud function. Furthermore, saving images and photographs on a tablet terminal or smartphone and displaying them to the communicated party is one method of communication that can substitute for spoken language communication that is also portable, compact, and easy to use.
Furthermore, for children who have trouble maintaining attention or concentration, digital textbooks can use animation to focus on areas that merit attention and thereby facilitate understanding. As for whether an answer to a problem at hand is right or wrong, because it is also possible to give immediate feedback, either by visual or auditory means, or both, this will promote the motivation to study and learn.
Furthermore, the examples given above that apply to various disabilities can also be effective in children with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders. The multimedia DAISY system introduced above with reference to visual impairment offers synchronized audio, text and images, which reduces the burden of reading and thus aids the comprehension of students who have learning difficulties and intellectual disabilities. In addition, the conversion of the audio information to printed information introduced with reference to hearing disabilities supports the learning of students who have difficulty "hearing" due to learning disabilities. Learning and studying using various on-line systems that have been introduced above with reference to movement disorder or frail conditions can also be applied in cases in which learning is difficult in a group situation due to particular sensory symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder, etc.
Methods to respond to various special needs have been introduced above, but they represent only a part of the expected changes to come. Moreover, in the abovementioned plans to realize the GIGA School Program, announced in December 2019, and the increased need for on-line classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ICT-based education that provides one device for each student will become the norm. As such, future research on special needs education will also find it necessary to consider the application and role of ICT. As for in-class practices, the application of ICT will become established as a method of education to be used on site along with blackboards and creating education materials, etc. In particular, ICT can be one effective means of "providing reasonable accommodation" in line with promoting inclusive education.
When considering the implementation of ICT into special needs education, some readers may get the impression that it is necessary to use special equipment and develop a new system and software. However, as I have introduced in this article, it is possible to provide assistance to support children with special needs as well as help for the difficulties that they experience without using special devices or developing a new system, but rather by making the most of the ICT at hand. From now on, however, it will be important to implement an optimal environment by realizing the concepts of the GIGA School Program, making the most of online education adapted to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 infection, and coordinating these efforts with existing ICT. It will be important to skillfully integrate in-person instruction, which has been the traditional method of education in Japan, with ICT instruction and enable each child and student with a disability to develop and learn the skills and knowledge to live through this era of highly developed information and communication technology.
- • MEXT. Act on Promotion of the Digitalization of School Education (Notice)
https://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/zyouhou/detail/1418578.htm (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. Implementing the GIGA School Program
https://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/other/index_00001.htm (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. The Course of Study for elementary school (Notified in 2017)
https://www.mext.go.jp/content/1413522_001.pdf (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. The Course of Study for lower secondary school (Notified in 2017)
https://www.mext.go.jp/content/1413522_002.pdf (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. The Course of Study for upper secondary school (Notified in 2018)
https://www.mext.go.jp/content/1384661_6_1_3.pdf (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. Information Education Practice and Informatization of Schools -New "Guide to Information Education"
https://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/zyouhou/020706a.pdf (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. Guide to Informatization of Education
https://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/zyouhou/1259413.htm (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- • MEXT. Vision to Informatization of Education
https://www.mext.go.jp/component/a_menu/education/micro_detail/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2017/06/26/1305484_01_1.pdf (In Japanese; accessed Nov. 2, 2020)
- *1) DAISY (Digital Assessible Information SYstem) is an international technical standard for digital audiobooks. It was developed as a substitute for tape recordings to be used by people with visual impairment. It is now internationally recognized as effective for those with learning or mental disabilities.
- *2) Multimedia DAISY uses digital talking books with synchronized text-to-speech functionality and synchronized print and screen images. Replay requires dedicated playback devices and a personal computer installed with the particular software.
- *3) A telepresence robot, a robot that combines both a video conferencing system and remote control technology, enables users to conduct a video conference and operate the robot remotely. Enabling users to provide a sense of presence to others, it is becoming more widely used to work remotely, participate in events, and in education.