Karen, how would you summarise the work of ACER? Is it all about the robots?
No – it’s not just about the robots! They are a small part of what we do here at ACER, not only in terms of the different areas we specialise in, but in the context of our work in technology-enhanced learning itself. In fact we have a range of foci here at ACER, and are particularly interested in education across the lifespan of individuals, and in working with autistic people, practitioners and families. We research how children learn and interact, as well as specialist practice and provision. We also engage in multi-disciplinary work with computer scientists and companies, for example. It’s funny though, whenever we launch a project connected with the robots in some way, it tends to go viral! There is a lot of interest in this work internationally. Last time, our work was featured in the national press and television news, as well as on American TV. We were even filmed by a Polish TV crew.
What do you think makes ACER different from other university departments specialising in autism?
Essentially, at ACER we are as interested in practice as we are in theory. While it’s important to us to be rigorous and systematic, we also want to make sure we are engaged with activities which are grounded in day-to-day reality. Our focus is on making a difference and on impacting on practice, not just with professionals, but autistic individuals and families too. We spend a lot of time in schools, evaluating our work. Also, our courses run at different levels from post-graduate certificate to PhD: we have nearly 450 students! Importantly though, we learn from them too because we believe in interlocking teaching and practice. In fact, our students really keep us on our toes!
You’ve been working in this field for quite some time. How long have you been based at ACER and how did you come to focus on autism?
I’ve been at ACER since 2001 when I was recruited by Professor Rita Jordan to set up a web-based programme. Before then I worked in a special school for children with severe learning difficulties and there was one particular boy called Bobby (not his real name) who was autistic and who I realised I had no idea how to teach. My training didn’t help me, nor my instincts as a parent. I wanted to learn more and so I started with a Masters in Autism: I started to think a lot more about how different people might be experiencing the world. I also realised that Bobby, although he had no spoken language, was very bright, and he was in completely the wrong school for him. His parents wanted him to move to another school and I supported this, even though it meant going against my employers at the time.
During the time you have worked in this area, what would you say are the biggest changes which have taken place in autism education research?
Above all, the recognition that we shouldn’t be conducting research without autistic people and their families. And that the research should take place in the environments where people learn, such as schools.
In your view, which aspects of the education of autistic children need the most improvement at the current time?
We recognise that without changing the mind set, understanding, knowledge and skills of teachers, we can’t progress much. There’s still a need to develop understanding and awareness about autism as a difference and not a deficit. Also in schools, the focus shouldn’t just be on the academic, there is a need to emphasise broader areas of development, such as communication and social understanding. In an ideal world, education would be much more personalised.
If you could name one project you have been involved in, which is the one you are most proud of?
I’d say the Shape project I’m really proud of it because it was about knowledge co-creation and because it made a real difference to the teachers and their pupils. We looked at four different technologies and took them into schools and classrooms and evaluated how the teachers used those technologies. The teachers made digital stories about the work. I’m also very proud of the Autism Education Trust training materials, standards and competencies we produced – over 50,000 school staff have now been trained using those programmes. We developed these materials in partnership with the voluntary sector, local and national government, as well as with autistic people. We have all learnt a tremendous amount from this collaborative process. At the moment, I’m very engaged with the Erasmus Plus project with our partners from Greece and Italy. It’s all about sharing practice and how this fits into different cultural contexts: we also learn more about ourselves by looking at other cultures.
If anyone reads this thinks they might want to study at ACER, what should they do in the first instance?
You can see all the different courses we offer on our website. It’s important to stress that there are different modes of delivery: campus, distance learning (but paper based), or entirely web-based. There are also different part-time or full-time options too, of course.
Summarise a typical day at ACER in three words.
Interesting, challenging and busy!! Interview by Becky Wood