In Special Ed Land, we rely a lot on visuals. We use them in scaffolding tasks, we use them in alternative and augmentative communication systems, we use them as prompts – in short, they are as important as oxygen.
There’s a visual support hierarchy that extends from using physical objects through to the written word, but a large chunk of kids are able to make meaning of, and are well supported by, the use of generic coloured line drawing representations of objects and activities.
At present, the software of choice for creating these visual supports is a product called Boardmaker. Many teachers would have heard of this software as it’s quite often the ‘go to’ software when people are being encouraged to use visuals in their classroom.
Personally, I have a real beef with Boardmaker. The software costs a fair chunk of money (around AU$650+) for ONE license. That license allows Boardmaker to be installed on ONE computer and it will only work if you have the CD in the machine. Buying licenses to install for 10 users over a network reduces the costs slightly, but it’s still incredibly prohibitive. In addition, the cost factor means that the software is limited to organisations or really rich parents. This means that there’d be no continuity between school and home unless the parents had a spare $650 floating around or their child had a teacher willing to spend even more out of school time making and laminating visuals for home use. And the teachers making them at school will need to go and track down the disc, then wait until the one computer in the school with the software installed is free for them to use (and then there’ll probably be some other hurdle to jump involving colour printing, but that’s another story…).
What’s worse with Boardmaker is that because it’s the visual support software of choice for most special ed settings, there’s almost a kind of peer pressure for schools to use it, in the interests of continuity for kids. Visuals are essentially ‘language’ for some kids, and the argument is that if you change the visual system on them, it’s like you’re changing their language (though I wonder if it’s more a case of just changing the font rather than the whole language?).
As such, Boardmaker has a monopoly on the market. To me, this is like someone ‘owning’ English. And I personally feel that like many retailers in the special education sphere, they are exploiting a group of people who are already financially drained from a myriad of other support systems they require, that aren’t adequately subsidised by society.
So in the interests of breaking this monopoly, I’m thumbing my nose at the ‘oh, but the poor kiddies need continuity!’ argument, and have been on the lookout for visual support software that (a) has a decently sized visuals library (b) is easy to use and practical (c) is more reasonably priced and (d) will be more conducive to home-school links.
I think I’ve found a potential winner.
I downloaded the Custom Boards app onto my iPad and so far I’m more than happy. It has 11000 visuals, and although I’m not a 100% fan of the stick figure characters, they do the job, and have minimal detail to reduce distraction in the visual. The app has 100+ templates that we commonly use in special ed (schedules, now/then boards, PCS card making templates etc.) and you can also just save as a pdf, email it to yourself, and use the Windows snipping tool if you want to use the visuals in a template that’s not supplied (or you can easily email the developers with your suggestions for a new template).
It’s incredibly easy to use. Just search for the picture you’re after (you can modify the accompanying text if you want) and tap it into the cell. If you have unique items that you want to make visuals for, you can take a pic with your iDevice and add the photo from your camera roll into the cell. From there, you can save the board, email it as a PDF or print directly from the iPad (as long as you have an AirPrint setup).
The app was $51.99 when I bought it – much cheaper than Boardmaker. It has the added advantage of being far more accessible to parents, ensuring that home/school connection.
Downsides? I’ve done a few searches that have brought back no results, but I’d get that with Boardmaker anyway. And I’d like the option to be able to merge multiple pictures together, e.g. merge together the ‘maths’ and ‘groups’ symbols to create a unique visual for ‘maths groups’. But it’s early stages, and I’m sure these options will become available in time.
When I have a bit more time I’ll make a little how-to video demonstrating its ease of use. But for now, it’s time to go to work.
So please think twice when your school starts investigating which visual support software to purchase. Boardmaker might be ‘the done thing’, but not necessarily the best option. It’s a good piece of software, but until they start coming to the party with sensible licensing arrangements, I think we need to think twice about whether we support or don’t support their monopoly on the market.