Charting Uncharted Waters: How ELESIG’s Roundtable Sheds Light on AI’s Role in Neurodiverse Students’ Education
by Dr Jim Turner (LJMU) Current Chair of ELESIG
Have you ever wondered how AI could revolutionise the learning experience for neurodiverse students? ELESIG recently hosted an online roundtable discussion featuring experts from the University of Oxford and City University London, who shared invaluable insights into the evolving landscape of AI and neurodiversity within the university sector.
Who was speaking
- Sarah Hopp, an ardent social justice and educational philosopher, stands at the forefront of advocating for neurodiversity in education and workplaces. With a rich research background focused on equity, equality, and diversity, particularly neurodiversity and Positive Niche Construction, she brings a well-rounded understanding of educational policy analysis and the crucial role of empathy and compassion to her current role as the Student Disability and Neurodiversity Manager at City, University of London.
- Dominik Lukeš, the Assistive Technology Officer at the University of Oxford, is an advocate for integrating technology to enhance productivity in reading and writing. With his Reading and Writing Innovation Lab, Dominik actively educates through workshops and encourages the exploration of devices and applications that support reading and writing, while also being a proponent of digital accessibility.
- Ross Thomas is a Disability and Neurodiversity Advisor at City University of London, where he is responsible for screening students, planning and reviewing Student Support plans, supporting program design and facilitation, creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment, acting as an intermediary between students and staff, and promoting understanding of neurodiversity. (Ross could not join us on the day but has contributed to this blog)
What were the main points
Before discussing this, I think it’s important to say that neurodiversity encompasses a vast spectrum of neurological variations including, but not limited to, ADHD and dyslexia. Talking about AI as a one-size-fits-all solution to address the diverse needs of this population makes no more sense than talking about any other technology as a single solution that will meet the needs of all single unique challenges and requirements of each neurodivergent individual. As AI technology is still in its early stages, we are only beginning to understand its capabilities for supporting neurodiversity. Having said that our speakers are helping us to explore and understand this area, and here are some themes that I found interesting, if you want to listen back to the discussion, please use the link below.
Cognitive Scaffolding: Cognitive scaffolding, a term highlighted by Dominik Lukeš during the roundtable, refers to the support structure that aids individuals in understanding and navigating complex information and tasks. Rather than having AI complete the task, it starts to provide different in-roads to build understanding. Dominik exemplified this concept by demonstrating how ChatGPT can be employed to dissect complex academic documents, breaking them down into more digestible pieces or transforming the information into alternative formats such as tables. This technique can be particularly beneficial for individuals who may find conventional academic materials overwhelming or inaccessible. Building on this theme, Sarah Hopp emphasised the importance of acquainting neurodiverse students with these tools through specialised support sessions. Her approach not only focuses on exploring the potential of AI-driven cognitive scaffolding but also instills an awareness of its limitations, ensuring a balanced and informed use of the technology. This idea reminded me of Dawson’s chapter on cognitive offloading which discusses the psychological research into how and why and the different forms of externalising cognition (Dawson, 2020). Well worth a read.
AI supporting the student’s journey: Drawing on her experience as a SENCO, Sarah Hopp highlighted the profound impact AI can have on a neurodivergent student’s educational journey, from early education through to university, by facilitating the development of personalised learning strategies and smoother transitions; however, she also emphasised the necessity for political will to support the integration of such technologies and systemic changes aimed at fostering greater equality within the educational landscape.
A fundamental change to the way we change: The intersection of AI and neurodiversity has brought about a new era of discovery, where the traditional models and clear pathways are replaced by a grassroots approach, driven by engaged users who are actively solving problems and exploring support routes. In this transformative phase, the emphasis is on person-centered support, as exemplified by Sarah, who understands the importance of telling the student’s story and building trust to navigate an exploratory journey, free from preconceived notions of what technology can do to help. It is through this autonomous and user-driven approach that we can truly unlock the potential of AI in supporting individuals with neurodiverse needs.
Post session discussion: After the session we discovered an interesting question in the chat, which I asked the speakers to comment on. “Does GenAI output, being based on a very neurotypical dataset, also further exclude neurodivergent voices in promoting a particularly bland communicative style rather than embracing diversity?” Dominik does not see this as a problem, that there is diversity in writing styles and language in the dataset, changing prompts can change the writing style, and the flexibility in AI means individuals can create prompts to rewrite things in a way that suits their individual needs. Ross wanted to highlight the possible negatives. He reflected on his experience of supporting students using text to speech. These students can struggle with texts that lack idioms, and expressions that help create in roads that lead to better understanding. Another area is the length of sentences, which can appear in generated text. Being aware of the positives and negatives can help humans and AI become better communicators.
Tips for thinking through AI and Neurodiversity
Here is a summary of some of the tips for those working in this area.
- Invest some time to get to know AI: For individuals delving into the interplay between AI and neurodiversity, it is essential to invest time in understanding the nuances of the technology. Start by exploring the functionality of AI tools, focusing on their strengths and limitations. Be open to engaging with specialized learning resources, such as courses on prompt engineering, to comprehend the intricacies involved in AI technology. This endeavor requires a commitment to continuous learning, transcending initial reactions, and a dedication to exploring practical applications and implications of AI in the context of neurodiversity.
- Bring expertise together: Another invaluable tip is to foster collaboration among various experts within an institution, bridging the gap between technological know-how and an understanding of students’ diverse needs. By connecting those with expertise in AI technology with professionals who comprehend the multifaceted requirements of neurodiverse students, a synergy can be achieved that allows for the development of more tailored and effective AI-supported educational strategies and interventions.
Dawson, P. (2020) ‘Cognitive Offloading and Assessment’, in M. Bearman et al. (eds) Re-imagining University Assessment in a Digital World. Cham: Springer International Publishing (The Enabling Power of Assessment), pp. 37–48. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-41956-1_4.