Speech pathologist Dan Phillips uses technology to teach kids with special needs

For the past 20-odd years, Dan has been devising tech-driven solutions in special education

Dan Phillips taps open a basic-level learner tool for kids with special needs on his iPad to explain the app’s features. “On an elementary level, Bitsboard (the app) helps the user learn by creating a database of learning materials,” says the speech therapist, proceeding to demonstrate how with a pen. He types ‘pena’ in a text box and clicks a picture of the pen before recording the word’s pronunciation in Malayalam with his gadget.

“The best part is that you don’t need an Internet connection nor is the app language-specific,” he says. But Dan’s idea is not to intrusively instruct the kids about the app. His philosophy of pedagogy is rooted in “teaching the teachers” to help children, especially those with special needs.

For the past 20-odd years, Dan has been devising tech-driven solutions in special education. His California-based Tech Resource Centre of Marin, of which he is the director, has been coming up with easy-to-use tools and services in assistive technology and Augmentative Alternative Communication, or AAC.

“Today, technology has become an equaliser in providing a more accessible learning platform for kids with special needs. Many of them are heavily reliant on non-verbal communication, if not have limited communication skills. So you tend not to challenge them and want them to just repeat instructions. This is what’s normally seen in special education across the world. But just because they can’t speak well doesn’t mean they are not smart,” says Dan, who is in the city as part of the ongoing International Autism Conference organised by CADDRE, The Autism School.

Six years ago, he envisioned The Nika Project to take his work to the ground level around the world. “Our pilot project was with the ethnic Zulu community in the interiors of South Africa. Our team walked teachers through our methods and educational tools. When we went back later to assess the results, it was phenomenal. The success won us State support for our project that was then taken to other parts of South Africa as well,” Dan recollects. So much so that he named the project after the Zulu word ‘nika’ that means ‘to give or to supply.’ It has since been taken to West Asia, Indonesia, Australia, Nigeria etc apart from several parts of the US.

Dan Phillips

Dan Phillips  
| Photo Credit:
Harikumar J S

However, Dan says he is wary of challenging traditional methods of teaching and bats for its integration with the modern solutions and the technological advances for greater benefits. “Each country or culture has a system that has been in place for decades or centuries. But in special education, we may need to explore new ways to make children respond and make them think and ask questions. Our history of learning perhaps did not include technology but we are not looking back, rather into the future. We cannot ignore the fact that after our time, our kids are going to live in a technology-driven world,” explains the 50-year-old who demonstrated some of his educational tools to teachers at CADDRE and interacted with the children.

Other educational features Bitsboard offers include picture-word mapping, sight-word vocabulary, handwriting practice, word puzzles and so on. “Simplicity of interface is important,” Dan says. Picteloo and Book Creator, apps for creating story books with digital content, and Go Talk, which has programmes for simple recordable content, are some of the other tools developed as part of The Nika Project. As majority of the operations are based in the United States, Dan says most of the tools are iTunes-based while his centre is working towards bringing out Android-based programmes to reach out to more.

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