How does Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) assist students with learning disabilities? Case Study from undergraduate and postgraduate courses in FBL

Umair Tanveer, Senior Lecturer in Supply Chain, FBL, UoN

Statement of the problem

How does technology enhance learning (TEL) can assist students with learning disabilities? The learning disability that I have chosen for this case study is Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty where individuals struggle with remembering and processing information. This could affect the learning process of students who were diagnosed with this condition, which could ultimately impact their academic performance (The Dyslexia Association, 2018). According to the statistics, 6.3 million people, in the UK, are identified with dyslexia (GOV, 2018). These statistics indicate that dyslexia is a learning disability that needs attention at all levels of education, particularly to prevent any feelings of isolation from other students being developed.

I chose this topic based on my experience and observation as a tutor at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. I observed in my classes that students with learning disabilities are sometimes relatively quiet and shy and tend to be more reluctant to participate in class discussions compared to others. I teach a diverse group of students with multiple academic background and nationalities. Therefore, I assumed that this lack of participation was due to students’ diversity, cultural differences and language barriers. However, by observing these students’ behaviour in the class firstly and having one to one discussion with students’ latter, I found out that learning disabilities were the major reason behind their shy behaviour in most of the cases. This general observation increased my interest in the exploration of different learning disabilities and of possible solutions to help me develop appropriate support for such students during the class and at the time of assessment. The growing importance of student learning and engagement in the present education system has led me to opt Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) as a tool to assist Dyslexic students’ learning and led me chose this area as a topic for this assignment.

It is important to consider the needs of students with a learning disability because the literature suggests that if their needs are not addressed then, compared to their peers, they are more likely to perform below average, especially in reading and writing. Cortiella and Horowitz (2014) have also highlighted that students with learning disabilities can face difficulties engaging with their peers which can lead to other issues such as poor participation, lack of self-awareness and consequently poor performance. Graham (2006) highlighted that the volume of knowledge, a student has, is usually based on written materials such as essays, reports and exams. Reid et al (2013) explained that students who have learning disabilities are most likely to fail if adjustments are not made to the learning and teaching provision, due to slower learning capability. All of the above indicates that we have a responsibility to ensure that students with learning disabilities are provided with additional assistance and support to support them in reading or writing, help them participate fully within classes, and ultimately support them in passing the module.

Technology is one of the options available to assist such students to effectively communicate their thoughts and ideas. The importance of writing is considered one of the key skills in the learning process and highly emphasised. Reid et al. (2013) emphasised that it is a critical skill that all students should learn how to write effectively because it is a part of their everyday life. Within this Case Study gave me the opportunity to consider using Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) as a strategy to assist Dyslexic students.

Learning Disability (Dyslexia)

“A learning disability is a neurological disorder where a person’s brain functions differently; however, this occurs independently of intelligence; learners with the disability may find reading, writing and spelling difficult which could ultimately affect their education quality and outcome” (Office of Special Education Programs, 2014).

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty where individuals struggle remembering and processing information; this could affect the learning process of students who diagnosed with this condition, which could ultimately impact their academic performance (The Dyslexia Association, 2018). According to the statistics, 6.3 million people, in the UK, are identified with dyslexia (GOV, 2018).

Dyslexic students may demonstrate difficulties in reading, recognising individual sounds, analysing words and blending sounds to create words; this could negatively impact on their learning and may result in limited vocabulary knowledge (International Dyslexia Association, 2010). Therefore, timely identification and prompt diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia could result in improved reading and spelling and could prevent the feelings of disappointment and isolation in learners (Glazzard, 2010). Nevertheless, academic progress is not the only area affected by dyslexia. It could also affect social and emotional development and stability, which often remains unnoticed (Ryan, 1992; Terras et al., 2009). The most frequent emotional symptoms amongst dyslexic learners are the anxiety and stress which are exacerbated by exploring more about their conditions and the level of performance compared to that of their peers (Sako, 2016). This could potentially lead the student to be bullied by their classmates which could ultimately make the students display timid behaviour, avoid challenging situations and constantly solicit help and encouragement (Glazzard, 2010) leaving them with a negative attitude towards learning (Burden and Burdett, 2005).

The dyslexic’s self–image, according to Sako (2016), is another aspect of social impact that individuals are vulnerable to. For example, school-aged children may find that they are less competent and more hesitant compared to their peers who could leave them with a negative image of themselves; therefore, it is crucial that the learners can develop a positive self- perception to overcome the feelings of inferiority as a result of a weakness or failure and the frustration that follows.

Overall, the life quality of dyslexic individuals could be significantly affected by the prolonged frustration, inconsistencies and mood swings; therefore, educating the dyslexic children about their disability, so that they could adapt to different situations, is of great importance (Humphrey, 2003).

Technology use in classroom

For many years, the use of technology has transformed education by empowering students and changing the way they learn. Electronic devices, such as computers have enabled students to access a wide range of information in different formats such as audio, video and internet, where individuals may participate in real-life discussions sharing and documenting photos and images, to represent ideas using presentation applications, and to use analytical tool such as advanced graphics calculator (Churchill and Churchill, 2008).

Implementation of technology in education is a key factor that needs to be supported by the teachers. The importance of students’ ICT skills has also been constantly emphasised (Chikasanda et al., 2013). The use of technology in the classroom could promote language and literacy skills as well as lifelong learning opportunities both in and out of school. According to Edyburn (2006), the effective application of technology in the classroom is one crucial factor; this means how purposeful the use of these tools are, in meeting the learners’ needs; for instance, time management, note-taking, exam preparation and assignments. Students with dyslexia who are only allowed to rely only on improving their reading ability will not be successful unless they can also use compensatory measures such as a training program and Assistive Technology (Fälth and Svensson, 2015) for example, a taped version of the book instead of reading the printed version.

In addition, some studies found that the use of technology is an effective tool to teach language and literacy in the classroom (Peterson-Karlan, 2011; Ruffin, 2012); such as video games provide valuable experiences for students since they incorporate an entire set of fundamental phonological principals that are applicable in many settings which could be beneficial for both families and educators (Gee, 2003). A study showed that young children, who played more advanced games, demonstrated a high level of involvement and interaction with other media such as; websites and books to connect and understand the games (Shaffer et al., 2005). Shaffer et al. (2005) argued that video games make powerful teaching and learning tool because they offer content that is personally meaningful, experiential, social and epistemological.

Summarily, the technology could eradicate barriers and can be used by adjusting skill deficits and supporting word recognition, word meaning and overall comprehension with a multisensory experience (Stearns, 2012).

Assistive Technology (AT) to support students with disabilities

Assistive Technology (AT) refers to any piece of equipment or device that may be used by an individual with a disability to perform specific tasks, improve functional capabilities, and develop more independence. AT could significantly benefit disabled individuals to engage in and performs tasks or daily activities (Ruffin, 2012). The use of technology in education has been the subject of many studies in recent years with similar outcomes concluding that the use of technology in teaching is growing and it is considered to be an effective strategy to enhance students’ learning as it supplements traditional methods; nevertheless, lecturing continues to be the most common approach adopted by teachers (Ness and Lin, 2015; Riva et al., 2016).

According to Hasselbring and Bausch, (2005) integration of AT in education could not only promote independence but also compensate for their deficiencies. Furthermore, students’ overall performance could improve as they would have access to a range of resources and could take part in school activities similar to other students (Pucket and O’Bannon, 2012).

AT has supported students with a disability in several ways such as, visual mapping applications, word prediction, voice recognition, text-to-speech (TTS) software, word processors, portable keyboards, and mini-computers (electronic notebooks) or tablets. AT, followed by instructions, is considered to be helpful for students in reading strategies and writing process by enabling them to improve their skills in effectively processing the information (Ortlieb et al., 2014; Pisha and O’Neill, 2003). A study by Ortlieb (2014) on the effectiveness of digital learning environment in reading, demonstrated that amongst print-based instruction, hybrid instruction and digital instruction, the students using the hybrid instructions outperformed the other two groups.

Comprehension and fluency are two further key elements of an AT-integrated classroom (Hecker and Engstrom, 2005). Minimising the barriers in the process of learning and understanding can be one crucial benefit of using TTS. In other words, it may allow the learners to interact with the texts more effectively using the available functions such as highlighting the text, adjusting the rate and voice and selecting writing options. This could eventually enable the students to comprehend the text more efficiently.

AT has also been confirmed to be effective in writing instruction (Edyburn, 2013). Word prediction and voice recognition are suggested to be as effective as word processors in improving the quality of writing (Forgrave, 2002; Hecker and Engstrom, 2005). For instance, the use of speech-to-text allows students to put their ideas and thoughts in writing before they forget about them. Organisational skills and study skills are two other areas that can improved with the use of AT; for example, when students use digital cameras to record key dates, homework assignments and other events rapidly and accurately (Forgrave, 2002).

The ultimate purpose of using AT in the classroom is to promote students’ self- sufficiency and independence to request a sufficient amount of support and technology tools (Peterson- Karlan, 2011). To achieve this, students should be educated about their disability as appropriate. In spite of extensive research on AT, it has been reported that teachers’ perspectives are limited in this aspect, which, consequently, interrupts its implementation regardless of the availability of funds and technology applications (Peterson-Karlan, 2011).

Researchers have focused on how dyslexic people can improve their learning by using computers without hindering other types of learning (Beacham, 2002). A significant number of studies emphasise the effectiveness of the use of multimedia as an assistive tool for all learners including those with dyslexia. O’Connell et al. (2010) suggest that the proper combination of input could significantly improve the learning experience of students with a disability; for instance, use of animation and narration could increase the amount of material the dyslexic students can learn.

Technology is believed to be mainly used to improve the academic gaps and teaching skills that students with dyslexia have not mastered; however, other researchers have concluded that technology should be used to reduce or even eliminate the effects of a student’s disability (Edyburn, 2006). Furthermore, the use of technology in the class can reduce the number of time students with dyslexia spend attempting to decode content and will free them to become more engaged in learning.

The use of technology could only be beneficial when it promotes independent student learning and minimises the support of teacher or parents continuously. This will enable the student to access, interact with and apply information on their own as they reach adulthood (Office of Special Education Programs, 2014). Edyburn (2000) claims that using AT for reading and writing compensates for the difficulties experienced with blending, spelling, poor handwriting and language delays which are some of the characteristics of individuals with dyslexia.

The intervention

In my practice, if I recognise through a 1:1 meeting that the student may be dyslexic, and find that the student is unaware of the problem, I refer the student to the Univeristy’s ASSIST team for a proper assessment. If the student is already aware but was reluctant to declare it at the time of admission I make the student aware of the support plan available for them at our University during the 1:1 meeting and convince the student to make an appointment with the ASSIST team to get proper support.

When I am informed at the beginning of the term of the details of the Dyslexic students, I use different assistive technologies and teaching strategies to support them. The assistive technologies that I use include:

  • Acquisition and production of material in alternative formats, including print, electronic, audio
  • Videos (embedded in the lecture slides or uploaded as a separate link on the NILE site)
  • Web-based online resources (journal articles relevant to the lecture topics)
  • Online blogs
  • Storyboard for discussion of different topics

Material that is made available to Dyslexic students in different formats include the lecture slides and textbooks. Lectures slides are made available electronically on the NILE site. The hard copy (in appropriate colour print) of the lecture slides are provided to Dyslexic students before the lecture if the student does not have access to the necessary printing facilities. The Dyslexic student is allowed to record my lecture (or seminar) using a recording device; usually a Dictaphone is provided by the ASSIST team at UoN. In some courses, I upload pre-recorded lectures onto the module NILE site to enable students to familiarise themselves with the topic before the lecture, or to catch up on the topic in case the student missed the lecture.

I make the reading resources of the module as accessible as possible for Dyslexic student by providing a reading list on the module NILE site which includes a list of core textbooks, additional reading list and links to e-books (accessible from the University Library site). I also use web-based online resources such as journal articles which are relevant to the topics. Dyslexic students can get a specialised text-to-speech software from the IT department, free of charge, if they perfer listening to these e-materials to reading  them.

In my teaching I use a lot of videos which are either embedded in the lecture slides or uploaded as a separate link on the module NILE site. The purpose of including videos in the lecture is to increase the interest and engagement of Dyslexic students who face difficulty in reading.

The Blog is another tool I use to build the confidence of Dyslexic students because they can communicate their thoughts and ideas on different topics by writing than articulating in the class. To assist their writing,  another assistive technology, speech recognition software can be used by the Dyslexic students, that converts speech to text.

To increase the level of confidence for interaction of Dyslexic students, I design class activities with the  focus on group discussion and group tasks.  ‘Storyboard’ is another useful tool which I find effective with Dyslexic students in group work. I use it mostly in the group tasks where I group Dyslexic students with their peers and everybody in the group writes his/her point of view to be shared with the rest of the class.

The purpose in using the above assist technologies and techniques is two-fold.  They help to support the Dyslexic students to become more independent learners, whilst also enhancing the learning experience, and providing quality support, for all students.

Another strategy that I use to support students with learning disabilities on my module is to offer them the opportunity to receiving feedback on their assessment multiple times before the final submission. The feedback can be provided in emails or in 1:1 meetings, and could also be supported by technologies. This strategy has proved to work really well with the Dyslexic students. It provides them with the opportunity to improve their work gradually and builds their confidence in tackling the assessment.

In addition to technology-enhanced teaching techniques, I also use the traditional teaching methods including lecturing and use of whiteboard (to make mind maps). To increase the confidence level and interaction of such students, I design class activities with the focus on group discussion and tasks (sometimes include the web search).  The use of AT coupled with multiple teaching strategies (including both traditional and technology-based) are used for enhancing student engagement, learning and confidence and ultimately the overall pass rate. Figure 1 below gives a snapshot of the teaching techniques that I have used in better engaging and supporting the Dyslexic students.

traditional teaching tools and assistive technologies

Figure 1: traditional teaching tools and assistive technologies

Peer observation

To evaluate the intervention, I used peer observation. The peer observation is a process which provides an opportunity to enhance the quality of learning and teaching to both, the observee and the observer. It also provides an opportunity to share good practice with colleagues by sharing new ideas on teaching practice and supporting each other through their teaching skill. To learn from my intervention, I have asked Dr Michael to be my observer. Dr Michael was invited to attend a seminar session of BSO2003 (year 2) class. This session had approx. Twenty-five students from diverse backgrounds and two students with a learning disability. To see the best results and interaction among students, they were informed one week in advance.

This observation aimed to demonstrate the application of a valid and reliable Assistive technology tool available to assist students with learning disabilities as well as to see the level of understanding and engagement among students in this session.

The feedback from the observer stated that the activity was in line with higher education level descriptor. Moreover, he witnessed a good level of engagement among all peers. The activity was designed using active blended learning (ABL) model where students were given pre-class activity (including some research element).  In class, students were asked to write a reflection on a live document on one drive and share their thoughts with their peers. At times, I find it difficult with some students where they were less engaged as compared to their peers. I asked them to use a storyboard to share their findings and see if they understand the research element and its presentation to a large number of audience.

After been observed by the observer, we had a chat and discussed how important student engagement is in our classrooms and how to improve this.  After the application of the storyboard in my class, I have seen a massive increase in peers engagement; this is also reflected in their class discussion and final grades. Overall, the feedback which I received from Dr Michael was constructive and encouraging. However, I do believe that there is a little room for further development in this area. For my personal development, it is important for me to acknowledge the needs of students with learning disabilities and to undertake a training session for getting more information on different kinds of learning disabilities and the relevant assistive technologies for enhancing student learning, engagement and overall performance.

Recommendations

In addition to the above teaching options, the following recommendations are put forward for implementation at an institutional level and beyond:

  1. Development of comprehensive and reliable tools for professional assessment of the needs of the person with Learning Disabilities, along with clear guidelines to support teaching staff.
  2. The need to raise the awareness of the available assistive technologies, ensuring clear information for teachers, professionals, parents and students with learning disabilities.
  3. Training for teachers to understand different kinds of disabilities and the use of assistive technologies to support students overcome the associated difficulties, so that teachers can effectively work with students with Learning Disabilities to achieve better learning, engagement and overall performance.
  4. Training for students with Learning Disabilities, focusing on the availability of different assistive technologies and how to use them to overcome their Learning Disabilities.
  5. Availability and accessiblity of the different products and devices appropriate for students with Learning Disabilities.
  6. Investment in research and development in the area of the assistive technologies and relevant hardware is necessary to enhance the quality of life of a person with a learning disability.
  7. The need for trained and qualified Learning Disability specialists with the ability to use assistive technologies appropriately to meet the need of individual students.
  8. The need to establish a network of Learning Disability establishments, professionals, and other organisations which are not directly involved in the field of ‘learning disability’ but share common interests in assistive technology such as manufacturers, government institutions and funding agencies, to enable effective service.

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