ECHOES II aims to build on the interdisciplinary and innovative work of ECHOES (TEL1 small grant, 2006/7) to develop an adventurous technology-enhanced-learning (TEL) environment in which both typically developing (TD) children and children with Asperger Syndrome (AS) at Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7) can explore and improve social interaction and collaboration skills. The environment will also serve as a tool for researchers, teachers, parents, and practitioners to investigate problems that children may encounter in specific social contexts and the ways in which those problems may be addressed.
The proposed technology-enhanced learning environment will combine existing technologies in new ways. With the active participation of user groups, we will combine interactive whiteboards, gesture and gaze tracking, and intelligent agent-based context-sensitive interfaces to create a novel interactive multimodal environment that can be adapted to the needs of specific individuals, and that can provide new ways of investigating and supporting the development of social skills in children.
Research and curriculum developments emphasise the importance of social and communication skills as the basis of learning by all children (Bruner, 1972; Vygotsky, 1978; Piaget, 1962; Alexander, 2004; Mercer and Littleton, 2007). However, pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including those with Asperger Syndrome (AS), are cut off from learning in ways that typically developing (TD) individuals are not (Jordan, 1998).
Notably, many children have both an enthusiasm and an aptitude for technology, and many children with ASD, in particular, have a natural affinity with technological devices (Grandin, 1995; Murray, 1997; Murray & Lesser, 1997; Murray & Lawson, 2007). There is also evidence that computer assisted learning is an effective medium for individuals with ASD, because technology can be motivating, safe and emotionally engaging (Murray, 1997).
Both current theory and technology are now ripe to allow us to accommodate the different developmental trajectories of children. We plan to create technology that teaches autistic as well as typically developing children deep social understanding instead of mere rules that are difficult to generalise to everyday life (Hadwin et al., 1996; Rajendran & Mitchell, 2007). We propose a rich multimodal environment which allows children to progress through different social activities based on their specific cognitive demands, and which is expected to promote transfer of their learning.
The learning outcomes envisaged from ECHOES II therefore include improved ability and motivation for children to engage in social interactions, including transactional, collaborative, and conversational exchanges. Success will be evaluated in controlled studies using established metrics (for example Psychoeducational Profile-Revised (PEP-R) (Schopler et al., 1990)).
Finally, the ECHOES II team recognises that technology has the potential to provide all children with a safe exploratory space for creativity and imagination where children can find their own interesting and novel ways of interacting, without fear of failure (Sherrat, 1999; Murray & Lawson, 2006; Keay-Bright, 2006). ECHOES II will have the dual benefit of being in a place in which learning happens and in which learning can be studied.