Satoshi Sakai, right, looks at a video taken with a 360-degree camera while Eiichi Miyazaki holds a virtual reality terminal for understanding how those with autism experience their surroundings, at Kagawa University, in Takamatsu, on April 25, 2018. (Mainichi)

By: The Mainichi | (Mainichi Japan)

TAKAMATSU — Special needs classrooms and schools in Kagawa Prefecture are making use of the latest resources like information communications technology and 3-D printing in order to offer the right support for students with varying disabilities and development levels.

With the expansion of the use of the latest technology, teachers have more resources at their disposal to offer better instruction to their students, as well as make educational materials specifically to meet the needs of those students. With these new methods, teachers and experts are teaming up to making the school life of children with special needs run more smoothly.

Nestled in the Seto Inland Sea in Kagawa Prefecture lies the island of Shodoshima. In the special needs classes at Shodoshima Municipal Nouma Elementary School located in the southeastern part of the island, a field experiment with remote support about teaching methods was carried out from January to March this year. The project was led by two professors from the Faculty of Education at Kagawa University in the prefectural capital of Takamatsu, special needs education specialist Satoshi Sakai, 56, and Eiichi Miyazaki, 55, who specializes in education technology. They teamed up with IT giant Fujitsu Ltd. to combine technology with classroom needs.

Sakai, who has experience as a teacher at a special needs school, began wondering in 2005 if there wasn’t a way to offer more precise support to match the type and severity of a disability, and decided to start researching at Kagawa University. Because he had used Fujitsu materials in his classes when he was a teacher, he joined up with the company sometime around 2008 to jointly develop the new resources.

A subcommittee of the Central Council for Education , an advisory body to the education, culture, sports, science and technology minister, presented a report in July 2012 concerning special needs education, requesting that all teachers build up a certain degree of knowledge and skills about children with developmental disabilities. The central government is also promoting “inclusive education,” which aims to offer the same level of education to children all over the country regardless of the presence or lack of a disability. The project is based on the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that Japan ratified in 2014. Still, on remote islands and in rural communities, there were limited opportunities for teachers to go to training sessions or hear lectures given by experts. Obtaining the know-how needed to be effective in the classroom was an issue.
Kimihiko Taniguchi, left, and Yurino Asakura show off the tools they have made so far using a 3-D printer at Kagawa prefectural Takamatsu school for children with special needs, in Takamatsu, on April 26, 2018. (Mainichi)

In order to resolve this problem, Sakai began using cameras that could take 360-degree photos and microphones. Through viewing videos sent to him by teachers and meeting teachers face-to-face through a video conference call system connecting his office to Nouma Elementary School, Sakai was able to give teachers feedback on how to improve their interactions with the students.

Sakai conducted a total of three experiments with the school. At the front of the classroom were 23-year-old Haruka Tanaka, who was in charge of her very first special needs classroom, and 49-year-old teacher Kazumi Sakamoto, who was there to support here. Sakai suggested to Tanaka that she increase the distance between student’s desks to help the children who were not the best at organizing or cleaning up.

“Being able to get advice from experts like this so easily is an extremely powerful tool for teachers who have yet to build experience in the classroom,” Tanaka said. Sakamoto also commented, “If we have (the experts) come all the way to the school, it’s hard to schedule a date and a time. With this system, it is possible for experts to observe what goes on in the classroom several times in a short period of time, and we were able to apply the information to improve the lessons immediately.”

According to Sakai, in special needs education, there is a manual for each academic subject, but the condition of each student differs, and many teachers are left unsure about what to do. Nouma elementary Principal Fumiyo Kawai hopes that “the possibilities of the guidance offered by teachers will grow thanks to the remote support system.”

Sakai also employed virtual reality to try to have teachers experience how those students on the autism spectrum see and hear. Sakai, Miyazaki and Fujitsu hope to make remote instruction and virtual reality technology available even in rural classrooms after conducting tests to secure countermeasures against personal information leakage, data transmission techniques that are not influenced by radio wave conditions and other areas that need to be developed to make their goal a reality.

“We would like to build a system that can provide appropriate help so that teachers can support students with special needs, regardless of distance or environment,” Sakai said.

At another school, Kagawa prefectural Takamatsu school for children with special needs, in the prefectural capital of Takamatsu, a 3-D printer was introduced two years ago. It allows teachers to create tools to help support students with physical disabilities as well as educational materials for the classroom all on their own.

Under the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, which went into effect in April 2016, the government asks society to provide “reasonable accommodation” so that everyone is provided with the same rights, whether they have a disability or otherwise. General instructional materials for ordinary classes were difficult to use, and many teachers used handmade materials instead. But, with the introduction of the 3-D printer, by simply entering the data into a computer, it became easy to make materials that fit each individual student.

So far, the teachers have made “counting sticks” for math with an indentation so that they can be grabbed easily, a “brush holder” that makes it easier to grasp writing tools like pens and pencils and other creations that make classroom activities smoother. As part of the students’ lifestyle training, they also developed a tool to fix the lever of an electrically operated wheelchair to move in a single direction, and taught each method of operation one by one to the children.

“In special needs education, it’s important to ask if enough is being done to meet the specialized and personal needs of each child,” emphasized Kimihiko Taniguchi, 45, the teacher who led the move to introduce the 3-D printer at the school. Another teacher, 28-year-old Yurino Asakura also said, “It makes me happy to see the instant the students’ expressions change. I believe that we have increased opportunities to see those moments.”

The two are promoting use of the printer at training sessions and gatherings for other teachers as well, hoping that those children gifted with computer skills will one day grow to be able to use the 3-D printer.

(Japanese original by Keiko Yamaguchi, Takamatsu Bureau)

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