An Info Brief by the Center for Implementing Technology in Education
Innovations in computer technology in the last 20 years have changed the way most people live, work, shop and communicate. Education has changed, too. Now students can upload assignments to a class website, email questions to their teachers, and work on assignments with distant peers using instant messaging, online discussion forums and wikis.
Improvements in assistive software and hardware (speech-to-text, screen readers, portable notetaking devices, communication devices, etc.) enable students with disabilities to participate more fully in classroom instruction. They also help these students to be more independent, interactive and engage socially with their peers. A student with dysgraphia may struggle with handwriting; a portable notetaking device and laptop allows this student to do all assignments without the need for laborious handwriting. A student with dyslexia may struggle with writing and spelling; a speech-to-text program can allow the student to hear their writing read back to them for editing or for reading difficult assignments.
The usefulness of assistive technologies for students with learning disabilities is fairly obvious. It is easy to understand the educational benefits of software designed specifically for students with dyslexia. But what about Web 2.0 tools? What are they and how do they affect learning and interaction for students with learning disabilities?
Students and Web 2.0
Internet technology has led to improved access to multiple forms of media from around the world, to information on health and well-being, to the political process and to each other. The recent proliferation of Web 2.0 tools has further improved access by allowing anyone to be a part of the online world. The term Web 2.0 is used fairly loosely by many people, but it basically refers to new web technologies that allow anyone to add or modify content online. Web 2.0 tools have taken the internet from a “read-only” web to a “read-write” web (Gillmor, 2004).
The internet began as a fairly static place, changeable only by those with technical knowledge; the web has now become much more dynamic. Replacing a small group of programmers and web developers, there is now an entire community of bloggers, videographers, web designers, digital photographers, animators, filmmakers, writers and artists changing the face of the web, armed only with simple tools and creativity.
In a sense, these tools have democratized the internet, allowing anyone with technology access to make their voices heard. These tools have also helped to democratize learning for those with disabilities or learning differences. As Web 2.0 tools have given young people an unprecedented level of involvement in media, they have also begun to give young people with disabilities an unprecedented level of access to learning and peer communities.
The increase in computer processing speeds and the decrease in size mean that today we can carry a fully functional computer in our pockets. With wireless internet access available in many public places, access to news and information can happen almost everywhere. The nearly universal access to these technologies mean that today’s students regularly email, IM (instant message), participate in chat rooms, and post to blogs and social networking sites as a means of communication and social interaction. Despite the frequency of this type of informal writing among teenagers, many of them do not consider their electronic communication to be “real writing” (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith and Macgill, 2008). However, many educators are beginning to examine how these communications might be included in academic activities.
These tools have both social and educational implications for students with learning disabilities. With young people with disabilities using Web 2.0 tools and other new technologies with increasing frequency, it is important to look at several of the most popular tools (blogs, wikis and messaging) to see how they might be useful for these students.
Web 2.0 Tools and Students with Disabilities
Blogs are similar in format to journals or diary entries. Much in the same way that a teacher may ask their students to keep an academic journal, blogs can serve as a medium for recording thoughts and impressions on a particular topic. Blogs are (mostly) free and easy to create, so any teacher or student can create one even with no knowledge of HTML or web design.
Depending on how blogs are used, they can have a number of benefits, both academically and socially, for students with learning disabilities. In the instance of classroom blogs, teachers can post assignments, classroom notes, video lectures and other classroom material on their blog. This is beneficial for the entire class, but would also allow a student who struggles with attention or auditory processing to review class material multiple times. These classroom blogs can also be a place for students to access handouts or assignment worksheets. A common difficulty for students with LD and ADHD is misplacing or forgetting schoolwork. A classroom blog provides a central location for students to locate important class information and can help with organization.
Many teachers are also using classroom blogs to facilitate class discussions or for writing assignments. For the student with LD, a classroom discussion blog can serve a number of purposes. For example, students with dyslexia may struggle to find the right words quickly, making classroom discussions difficult. Participating in an online discussion with classmates can allow the student to think about their answer and post it when they’re ready. When classroom blogs are used for student writing, they can also be beneficial for students with LD. A student with dysgraphia may struggle with in-class writing prompts, particularly if students are expected to write with pencil and paper. However, when a teacher uses a classroom blog for students to respond to writing prompts, the same student can participate fully, particularly if he or she uses speech-to-text or word prediction software to assist in drafting their writing.
For older students, a personal blog can be a great way of expressing thoughts and feelings and encouraging writing. Because journal writing, creative writing and personal storytelling tend to be high interest, they may help encourage reluctant or struggling writers to write more frequently (Lenhart et al., 2008). Indeed, a recent study has shown that teen bloggers tend to write more often (both online and off) than teenagers without blogs (eSchoolNews, 2008, Lenhart et al., 2008). Additionally, the act of telling stories helps improve language and reading skills (Huffaker, 2004), so blog writing can potentially help students with LD to become stronger writers. The act of writing a blog also means students are writing for an audience, which can be motivating. In a recent survey of teen writers, one student commented that “…if I knew that other people were going to read what I wrote and react to what I was writing then I would make it better and I would want to do the best that I could at it” (Lehhart et al., 2008, 52).
Some teachers use educational blog software to create individual student blogs, allowing teachers complete control over content. This ensures that student blogs don’t become places for inappropriate comments and bullying. If your child with LD creates their own blog separate from school, be mindful of issues of internet safety and appropriate online behavior (see section on Safety and Social Considerations).
A wiki is an online software tool that allows multiple users to collaborate and generate web content, typically for reference purposes. The most well-known example of a wiki is Wikipedia, but there are many uses for wikis on the web. A classroom wiki could be used for a collaborative writing project. Students could be asked to edit a page on Wikipedia on a specific topic they’re studying. Alternately, students could be asked to find a piece of misleading or incorrect information in a Wikipedia entry, leading to a classroom discussion on the dangers of completely open collaborative networks. Because wikis keep a record of every change made, a wiki could also be used for students to work on collaborative projects.
Like blogging, writing for a wiki may be of a greater interest for students than writing a traditional research paper. This high interest writing may encourage struggling writers to write more frequently. Wikis have another possible benefit for students with LD in their collaborative nature. Whether writing for a classroom wiki page or adding content to a public wiki such as Wikipedia, writers are working with others in the community to share knowledge. Writers edit each other’s work, comment on inaccurate information and share their areas of expertise. Again, writing for an audience may help motivate reluctant writers and improve writing skills (Lenhart et al., 2008). This format not only provides students with LD valuable feedback on their writing, it can also give them a platform for sharing something they know a great deal about. Many students with LD may have low self-esteem or feel anxious and depressed because of their difficulties in school. Becoming an “expert” on a wiki page could boost a student’s self-concept and help them recognize their strengths.
As educators introduce blogs, wikis, e-mail, and other current digital communication strategies, they should be explicit about the difference between the formal language required for written communications and the less formal language frequently used in blogs, e-mails and text messaging. Educators may want to set expectations for correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure for specific assignments while setting relaxed expectations for others.
For some students with dyslexia, the relaxation of expectations has been helpful. Dyslexic students who have difficulty producing formal text may need accommodation or modifications. Schools could provide software that helps with spelling, drafting and grammar. See such tools reviewed in the TechMatrix where you can search for Writing + Means to organize and plan. Teachers could edit student work before putting it up or assign another student to do so. It is important for the student with dyslexia to be able to produce at the level of their peers and meet expectations. The distinction between formal and informal language becomes particularly important with text messaging.
Text messaging is one of the more popular pastimes on the planet, with as many as 2 billion estimated users worldwide. NASA has even taken text messaging out of this world by setting up a news feed site on Twitter.com for short updates from the MarsPhoenix lander. Using Short Message Service (SMS), users can send and receive short text messages (up to 160 characters) on their mobile phones. With the popularity of text messaging, many educators and parents have started to wonder whether there might be any educational benefits to all the texting going on.
While texting in schools is still mostly viewed as a distraction, some schools are beginning to look at ways to harness student interest in texting for educational purposes. Some teachers use texting to launch discussions on formal vs. informal language, comparing the “language and syntax of text messaging with that of formal, written English” (Carvin, 2006). Others have students use texting to create short summaries of more formal pieces of literature (Bernard, 2008).
Very little research has been done about texting and educational benefits for students (both with and without disabilities), but there are some applications that have promising uses for students with LD. One easy to use tool that could be helpful for kids with LD is Google SMS. Using Google SMS, users can send a text message to search Google. For example, a student could text “define converge” to receive an immediate definition. Users can also use this tool to perform calculations, translate between languages, and find maps and directions. The ability to perform calculations and conversions between measurements (i.e. cups to gallons) could prove beneficial for students with dyscalculia. While most cell phones have a calculator feature built in, Google SMS provides access to more in depth information.
Another potential educational use for cell phones and text messaging is in the area of organization. Several teachers have begun experimenting with sending texts to their students reminding them of assignments, upcoming quizzes and other important events. While not every teacher does this, students can set up their own reminders to be sent to their cell phones using an online reminder service such as Remember the Milk. Remember the Milk is a free online to-do list (several other websites do similar things) that allows users to enter important tasks and dates, either online or by sending an email. The website then sends reminders to the user by text, email, or instant message. Additional features allow users to locate tasks on a map, share tasks with others (helpful for group projects), and view tasks by due date and past due. Many students with learning disabilities, particularly those with ADHD or dyslexia, may have difficulty staying organized and keeping track of assignments. A text message reminding them of an important project or a meeting with a tutor may help.
Finally, several teachers have begun allowing students to text answers and comments during classroom discussions. In one excellent example of the benefit of this use of texting, an educator in Texas asked her English language learners to text responses to her and their classmates. She comments “Not only did I have more replies than I expected, but the questions were open-ended so students used more English… I had students who rarely join in discussions in class share ten or more responses” (Bernard, 2008). This type of texting could also help students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities feel more comfortable with participating in classroom discussions. Allowing students to text their answers means students can think about what they want to say and get it just the way they want it.
Safety and Social Considerations
Web 2.0 tools and the ability to modify and create your own content have changed the way we interact with each other online. But with these new technologies come several potential drawbacks, particularly for young users. Misuse of texting, blogs and wikis has been widespread. Children (and adults) use social networking sites to torment and bully. Online “vandals” change Wikipedia pages to reflect their own biases or to fuel online feuds. Comments sections on personal blogs can become breeding grounds for bullying and name calling. It is important to teach any young person responsible online behavior, but doubly so for students with learning disabilities.
Many children with learning disabilities may struggle with social interactions and appropriate behavior. They may not know how to modulate their behavior, read social cues or how to judge if a comment is inappropriate. They may also have difficulty discerning whether information presented to them online is true. Interactions online may be particularly problematic for children with “difficulty reading between the lines” and interpreting what others say. They may be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of or bullied online.
Several recent high profile cases of online bullying highlight the necessity of having these types of conversations and monitoring your child’s online behavior. For students with LD, this discussion may also come as part of an overall discussion about responsible behavior, appropriate comments, and maintaining privacy online. Check with your school district or state board of education for internet safety standards, policies, or helpful brochures to learn more.