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Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010
Avatars helping students to speak
By Jemima Laing
BBC Devon

KC Kelly-Markwick with a student
Tutor KC Kelly-Markwick works with a student at Oakwood Court College

Two years ago, while working with an autistic student with selective mutism, tutor KC Kelly-Markwick stumbled on something she describes as "startling."

Using a webcam with Celeste, a student at Oakwood Court College in Dawlish, KC asked her to choose an avatar to project onto her face on the monitor.

Students had been using the webcams to communicate with their families.

And they were then asked to recite a line using their avatar as part of a project they were doing.

"I asked her if she wanted to do it and she nodded," explained KC. "But we had no idea if it would work."

Sunshine avatar
The sunshine avatar chosen by Celeste

And using the medium of the avatar she was able to speak for the very first time.

KC said seeing Celeste speak for the first time through the sunshine character she had chosen was "both a shock and a very humbling experience".

"Celeste absolutely chose the character herself," said KC.

"I think because it was a sunny, smiley face and though she was very slow and very faint we were just flabbergasted."

The college was able to draw on the services of JISC RSC South West - which offers information and advice on the use of technology.

It's a residential college and the webcams were initially brought in to the school so students could contact their families in the evenings.

Celeste has now left the college but since that initial breakthrough with her, KC decided to see if it might work with some of her other students at the college.

One student who has benefited from use of the avatars is Brynmor - who is 20 - and in his final year at Oakwood.

"All he would say was 'yes, ok' in response to any question," explained KC.

Oakwood Court College student using an avatar
Brynmor with one of the avatars he uses to communicate

"One day we were testing his Skype account to check it worked and he chose a Gladiator avatar, then he proceeded to reel off the name of every gladiator from the television programme.

"Then we changed it to the Fat Controller and he began to recite chunks of Thomas the Tank engine, it just all spilled out.

"So it has become a conversational tool - he's in his third year and we still communicate with him in that way as well as through touch typing - and I mean incredibly fast touch-typing."

The way the college strives to find new ways to help its 35 students to communicate has earned them a Further My Learning Award from BECTA.

And Oakwood is now looking at ways of properly researching their discovery and sharing it with the wider world.

I think ecstatic would sum it up, just ecstatic
KC Kelly-Markwick, ILT learning co-ordinator

"We've got a quite a lot of international interest in what we're doing, opening up communication for people who wouldn't normally be able to.

"Now we want to know how this helps a person with autism understand who they are in our world, which is a very foreign world to them," said Paul Collings, the college's principal.

"This is the mystery that we are trying to unravel, we know something is working but we need to pinpoint exactly what part of it is working."

And KC is excited about what further discoveries they might make and ultimately what that will mean to the students and their lives once they leave Oakwood.

"To stumble on such a thing is just startling," said KC.

"It's hard to verbalise how I feel about it - I think ecstatic would sum it up, just ecstatic."

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