In the United States, national standards defining mastery in content areas such as science or the social studies demand literacy skills that include analysis, prediction, comparison, and interpretation. Despite the promulgation of such standards, 60 percent of the country’s 17-year-olds cannot “find, understand, summarize, and explain complex informational material,” a situtation that seems to have changed little over the past 30 years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000, online document).
Students with identified learning disabilities fare especially poorly. These students’ deficits in basic skills compromise their ability to extract meaning from text (see, e.g., Ben-Dror, Bentin, & Frost, 1995; Cook Moats & Lyon, 1993; Deshler & Ellis, 1996; Deshler, Ellis, & Lenz, 1996; Lyon & Krasnegor, 1996; Scruggs & Wong, 1990; Shaywitz, 1992, 1996; Vaughn & Schumm, 1995; Wolf, Pfeil, Lotz, & Biddle, 1994). Because instruction in the content areas typically relies heavily on text, most of these students fail to achieve proficiency. This is a highly significant problem: there are approximately 5.5 million students with learning disabilities in American schools, accounting for 12 percent of the total public school population and 46 percent of those receiving special education services (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).
What are the causes of this disturbing situation? This article focuses on those that are rooted in teaching materials and instructional approaches. A review of research in these areas suggests two factors of particular importance:
- Textbook designers contribute to the problem by designing “inconsiderate texts” that do not adequately highlight salient information (Armbruster, 1985; Chambliss, 1994; Jitendra et al., 2001; Tyree, Fiore, & Cook, 1994), and, as Carnine, Crawford, Harniss, Hollenbeck, and Miller (1998) note, “rarely include explicit organizational strategies designed to help students understand and apply content knowledge” (p. 150).
- Students with special needs spend much time outside of their mainstream classrooms receiving remedial instruction in decoding, a focus that deprives them of the content exposure that would help them learn strategies for managing information effectively (Lipsky & Gartner, 1995; Vaughn & Schumm, 1995; Willis, 1995). In other words, the provision of remedial support outside of the general education classroom in many cases results in students falling further behind.
Students with learning disabilities can benefit from adaptation of instructional materials or creation of alternative materials. However, this approach places a tremendous burden on teachers, particularly novices (Ellis & Sabornie, 1990; Moon, Callahan & Tomlinson, 1999). Moreover, while many teachers adapt materials effectively, doing so requires careful attention to ensure that the adaptations preserve the lesson’s instructional goal and do not change the learning task. Further, teachers’ efforts sometimes are wasted because students perceive the adaptations as “different,” feel stigmatized by them, and are therefore reluctant to use them (Ellis, 1998).
Thus, students with learning disabilities and their teachers require new approaches that better support their needs. The National Council for the Social Studies (1994) has taken a step in the right direction with its curriculum standards, which call for a major overhaul of curricula, methods, and materials to reflect contemporary understanding of social studies subject areas and the best ways to teach them. An overhaul of this nature provides educators with an excellent opportunity to design materials and instructional approaches that meet the needs of diverse students. This article describes a recently completed study focused on the potential of multimedia, technology-based teaching materials, and instructional approaches to improve learning for all students, including those with learning disabilities.
The purpose of this project was to develop an exemplar of an online content area textbook that uses contemporary multimedia technology to meet the needs of diverse learners. This resulted in the refinement of a software tool to read digital text aloud while simultaneously highlighting the words being read, thus supporting learners whose reading skills are insufficient for the text at hand.
Three items were developed as a result of 2 years of formative evaluation work with students and teachers:
- A digital exemplar, created from materials in the public domain, that parallels a section of the popular high school history text The American Nation (Boyer, 1998), enhanced with a range of powerful built-in supports and customizable features (a page from it is shown at right)
- Assignments and pedagogical procedures that take advantage of this flexibility to improve learning opportunities for all students (including those with special needs) in integrated classroom settings
- High School Students’ Recommendations for Digital Textbooks: A Formative Evaluation, a document that details the recommendations made by students for the design of digitized versions of texts
Traditional instructional materials and approaches are based on a one-size-fits-all paradigm that places an expectation of flexibility squarely on students. This creates barriers to learning for many, and attempts to overcome such barriers have usually involved implementation of specialized instructional supports. A new approach to pedagogy called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), under development at CAST, turns the tables (Meyer, Pisha, Murray, & Rose, 2001; Meyer & Rose, 1998; Pisha & Coyne, 2001; Rose & Meyer, in press). Drawing on recent work in the neurosciences and on the capacities of new educational media, UDL provides a framework that guides educators in achieving the kind of curricular flexibility that can meet the needs of widely diverse learners.
With digital technology, information can be presented in any one of several media, transformed from one medium to another, electronically formatted, and networked so that teachers and students can employ many alternatives with relative ease. Brain research provides insight into three broad learning networks that guide the selection of the alternatives to be presented (Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 1998; Meyer, Pisha, Murray, & Rose, 2001; Meyer & Rose, 1998; Rose & Meyer, in press):
- Recognition networks enable us to identify and understand information, ideas, and concepts. They are specialized to sense and assign meaning to patterns we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
- Strategic networks enable us to plan, execute, and monitor actions. They are specialized to generate and oversee mental and motor patterns.
- Affective networks enable us to engage with learning. They are specialized to evaluate patterns and impart emotional significance to them.
These three networks align closely with the three conditions for learning proposed by Vygotsky (1978, 1986):
- The learner must recognize patterns in sensory information. Simple perception is insufficient. For example, the learner must both perceive written letters and recognize that the order in which they appear is not random.
- The learner must have a strategy for processing information. To comprehend complex information presented in text, students must use high-level strategies (such as locating main ideas, summarizing, and paraphrasing) and metacognitive skills (such as self-questioning).
- The learner must engage in the task. Some instructional supports and challenges may overwhelm or bore the student. Successful learning demands sustained focus despite distractions. Furthermore, the student must believe that he or she can be successful and appreciate the causal link between this success and the amount of effort expended.
According to Vygotsky (1978, 1986), these three conditions are best met within the student’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) — that is, the point at which the learning task is related to but just beyond the scope of the student’s existing knowledge in the target area. This happens when supports and scaffolds, challenge and resistance are balanced in a manner appropriate to the task at hand. If the task entails too much challenge, the learner cannot recognize its salient elements, approach it strategically, and maintain engagement with it. On the other hand, if the supports and scaffolds are too extensive, the task becomes too easy; no effort or learning is required to achieve it, and students may disengage due to boredom. However, ZPD is not determined by task alone. Individual differences can arise in any or all of the three learning networks, leading to a broad spectrum of learning abilities among all individuals. The ZPD is therefore different for each student.
These insights are the basis for the three principles of curricular flexibility contained in UDL:
- In order to support diverse recognition networks, instructional materials and approaches should provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation.
- To support diverse strategic networks, multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship opportunities should be provided.
- To support diverse affective networks, multiple, flexible options for engagement should be available.
These principles can inform the development and implementation of curricula that optimize learning opportunities for the widest possible range of learners.
The primary research methodology for this project was formative evaluation (Flagg, 1990), guided by seven research questions. This methodology differs from summative research in that its objective is to guide design of a new method, material, or approach, rather than to evaluate effectiveness empirically.
With the publisher’s blessing, researchers at CAST began by developing a digital prototype that reproduced on screen the look and feel of the history textbook The American Nation (Boyer, 1998). The prototype featured text-to-speech (TTS) capability, designed to support struggling readers’ access to written information by reading the text aloud to them. (This feature could be turned off if desired.) Further, users could elect to have the program highlight words, sentences, or paragraphs on screen as the text is read aloud, helping them to focus on written text as they listen. The prototype also included features such as hyperlinked reference tools (dictionary and encyclopedia), digital highlighters, note-taking tools, and navigational supports.
Qualitative data collected from those who worked with the prototype were used to inform subsequent modifications and to gain opinions regarding the relative advantages of digital and print presentation. Researchers also examined the effectiveness of the methods by which the digital prototype was incorporated into instruction, designing and testing new instructional materials and assignments to take advantage of the prototype’s scaffolds and supports. Through formative evaluation, teachers and students contributed to the design process. Consequently, their needs and preferences are reflected in the materials and instructional assignments.
The first year of the 2-year project was divided into four iterative development cycles (detailed below) that focused on refinement of the software tool and development of flexible digital presentation formats for the content of the history text. The second year built on the results of the first by using similar methods to develop, test, and refine assignments and instructional procedures using the software tool and digital history text. The data collected were used to derive preliminary recommendations regarding the design of flexible, digitally based curriculum materials included in the High School Students’ Recommendations for Digital Textbooks: A Formative Evaluation. These recommendations will be incorporated into CAST’s UDL guidelines, which will draw upon information from this study as well as other sources.
Setting and study sample. The study was based at a U.S. suburban public high school with a population of approximately 1000. Researchers offered students in two Grade 11 integrated American history classes an opportunity to participate (random sample selection is not a requirement of formative evaluation). The 70 students who accepted the invitation and gained parental consent were enrolled in the study. The group included 16 students with identified learning disabilities and 1 with a significant visual impairment.
Instrumentation. Four techniques were used to gather qualitative data:
- Observation of classrooms and individual students at work
- Interviews of students and teachers
- Student focus groups
- Collection of student work samples
Observations and interviews were guided by written protocols developed in collaboration with the project’s participating teachers. Focus groups addressed broad questions framed by the research team.
Procedures. During the first year, four formative evaluation cycles were completed, each involving four activities (see Figure 1): exploration consisted of approximately 2 weeks’ work with small groups of students, exploring the use of the software tool or the digitized content; development typically required several weeks and entailed programming and developing material based on feedback from the exploration activity; trial entailed a month-long evaluation by 15 students of the function and utility of recent modifications; and, finally, a one-month refinement period allowed further fine-tuning of the digital text based on comments collected during the trial phase.
Cycles were executed on an overlapping schedule to maximize their number (see Figure 2).
The second year focused on developing student assignments and instructional techniques to capitalize on the novel capacities of the digital text developed in the first year. The formative evaluation process employed during the first year was modified to guide the development and testing of four types of student assignments.
Data analysis. Responses to protocol questions collected during the first year were pooled and then searched for shared student opinions as well as individual suggestions for modifications of the prototype.
We each independently reviewed the data and prepared a preliminary summary, then reconciled our summaries through discussion. We prepared a single summary document and presented it to the full CAST research and development team in order to inform ongoing prototype development. In the second year, acquisition of a coding and theory-building software program, NVivo (1999), enabled more efficient and flexible retrieval and coding of participant responses, but otherwise the Year 1 process was unchanged.
The World Wide Web Consortium’s Access Guidelines
The fundamentals of UDL prompt consideration of the access requirements of the broadest range of users when designing new educational materials. The basic access needs of individuals with special needs were met in the prototypes by complying with access guidelines promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium (1999, online document). These guidelines served as a foundation upon which to build new options, features, and supports into the evolving prototypes, affecting both presentation of the textbook’s content and development of innovative assignments and activities.
For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines call for a written description of each image on any Web page, represented visually by an adjacent, underlined d. Although the descriptions themselves are not visible, screen readers for the blind can be configured to read them automatically. Other interested users can access the descriptions by clicking on the d. The presence of these descriptions has minimal effect on users who do not need them, but provides users who are blind or visually impaired with access to at least some of the information available to their sighted peers. Inclusion of image descriptions is an excellent example of universal design: supports for individuals with a special need are built into content presentation, but do not significantly interfere with the experience of those who do not require them.
Although providing access to information is important, it is not the same as providing access to learning. As Vygotsky summarized so neatly with his concept of the ZPD, maximal learning occurs when there is an appropriate balance between challenge-resistance and supports-scaffolds. In some circumstances, efforts to improve access can undermine learning by eliminating challenge and resistance. For example, text-to-speech capacity can provide a student with dyslexia access to important content in a digital text. When the goal is to learn about the subject matter of that text, TTS offers access to the necessary information. However, when the goal is to learn how to decode, TTS is counterproductive. To ensure a proper balance between access to information and access to learning, the W3C guidelines were implemented to provide maximum flexibility in adjusting levels of support and challenge, thereby bringing instructional tasks into each learner’s ZPD.
Four categories of preliminary recommendations emerged during the formative evaluation process: content presentation, navigation, reference tools, and gathering salient information. Rationales for recommendations in each category, with links to the exemplar and screen shots, follow. Readers are invited to visit and interact with the full American History Exemplar. Readers who wish to explore the TTS capacity of the text will require a “talking browser” such as CAST eReader, ReadPlease 2000, or Help Read. Information on how students interacted with digital materials can be found in High School Students’ Recommendations for Digital Textbooks: A Formative Evaluation, where selected student comments are reproduced.
Content presentation. The affordance of TTS software proved extremely popular with the weaker readers in the sample. Further, several students with no identified special needs reported that they used the highlighting function without the synthetic voice, either to pace themselves as they read or to help them find where they left off reading when they paused to answer a homework question. (Click here to see an example of blue-highlighted text from the exemplar. For this and subsequent examples, use your browser’s “Back” button to return to the article.) On the other hand, some students chose to shut off the TTS feature.
Students with and without identified special needs articulated their preference for clear, simple presentation of text. Many commented that they were regularly distracted by graphics on printed textbook pages. Unexpectedly, almost none of the students — with or without identified special needs — understood the significance of boldfaced text, multicolored headings, and other elements included by the publisher to help them prioritize, organize, and comprehend major concepts. Some students also noted that supporting information (such as biographies or sidebar explanations) in printed textbooks interfered with the flow of the text and their ability to understand it.
These comments precipitated the design of two alternative views of the full text in the digital prototype: one with graphics and features embedded as they are in the printed textbook, and another that replaces the graphics with icons that can be clicked to display images at the user’s discretion. In addition, to support students’ learning from text and to help them understand the significance and uses of structural features, an “outline view” of the content was created that displays only headings, subheadings, and key vocabulary. Clicking on a heading or vocabulary term brings the student to the corresponding portion of the text.
The formative evaluation yielded the following preliminary suggestions for injecting flexibility into content presentation in a digital learning environment:
- Make TTS available to support reading
- Provide sequential on-screen text highlighting, to be used alone or synchronized with TTS
- Make available a launch page for each chapter, with options for presentation of text, images, and other content elements
- Make available the option to display digital text in a single column
- Provide an option to view the text, images, charts, sidebars, and other elements simultaneously, as they would appear in a printed textbook (as an example, scroll through this view of the Farm Life and the Dustbowl section)
- Provide the option to select a simplified presentation of textbook material, in which images, charts, sidebars, and other elements are represented by relatively simple icons (scroll through this view)
- Include both text and graphics in each icon, and keep the location of these links consistent (example)
- Make available an outline of each chapter that readers can use either as an organizer before reading or as a succinct statement of key points for studying
- Embed relevant video clips directly in the chapter, reachable via a linked icon or embedded image of the video itself (Note: If your browser is Internet Explorer version 5.5 or higher, you will require the QuickTime plug-in to view the video clips in the linked example)
- Make digital and printed content consistent in appearance, to facilitate students’ use of both the textbook’s and the computer’s presentation (example)
With respect to the last point, page numbering, structure, content of chapters and sections, and colors used for headings are among the features that can be kept consistent across versions. While students in this study did not understand the meanings of colored text and other formatting features found in the printed textbook, they reported that consistency in these features was helpful when they began a reading assignment in the electronic version but used the printed version to complete their work later, when a computer was not available.
Navigation. The means by which movement from place to place is possible in a digital text must be efficient and intuitive for all users. In pursuit of clear navigation design, three characteristics of the digital text were addressed: number of frames per page, location of the table of contents, and use of hyperlinks. Formative evaluation yielded the following preliminary recommendations:
- From the launch page, allow users to choose between a single-frame presentation and a presentation with three frames that can be scrolled and sized independently. The three-frame selection enables users to view the table of contents, core text, and assignment directions simultaneously; the single-frame version supports individuals with visual impairments, who frequently use screen readers that do not readily process multiple frames.
- Present the table of contents in a frame on each page in the three-frame view. This allows students to move easily from one part of the chapter to another and helps them see at a glance where they are working within the chapter.
- Make available hyperlinks to supplementary information, such as Web sites. Being able to link to other materials within the electronic environment facilitates access for learners.
Reference tools. In addition to providing navigation to supplementary information, including links to reference materials is an unparalleled strength of digital text. Integration of Microsoft Bookshelf (1997) electronic dictionary and reference suite, or similar tools, makes the use of reference materials easier than in print environments. For example, a student who does not understand a word in the digital text need only use the mouse to highlight the word and click on the Bookshelf icon to obtain both a definition and a recorded human voice correctly pronouncing it. Bookshelf also contains the Encarta electronic encyclopedia. Students with insufficient background knowledge to understand text on a given topic can access relevant information simply by clicking, and can then return to the task at hand. Of course, linked encyclopedia also support student research.
A powerful but often neglected strategy for improving understanding is to look up a concept or term in the reference materials (e.g., a glossary) within a textbook. Few students in this study reported using these resources in the printed text: several were unaware of their existence, and others indicated that the information was difficult to find, largely because it was dispersed (e.g., a separate glossary, gazetteer, index, historical documents, and embedded charts and tables).
These observations yielded the following preliminary recommendations:
- Present all reference information on a single page (a Unified Resource Page, or URP), rather than in several locations
- Organize each URP to reflect the locations in which information can be found in traditional textbooks (e.g. the glossary, gazetteer, etc.), to improve students’ understanding of what these materials are and how they work
- Make available links to external reference materials, such as an online dictionary, encyclopedia, or selected Internet sites
- In compliance with the standard computer interface design, if no information is available from a particular source (such as the gazetteer), “gray out” the title of that source
Gathering salient information. Well-designed electronic environments can effectively support students in the process of finding, collecting, evaluating, and classifying information. In this study, students made frequent use of and reported an appreciation for the software tools that supported them in these processes.
Within the software’s text-to-speech program, users can simultaneously view the table of contents and place two “text windows” side by side. Students were assisted in setting up one window with the text under study and the other, smaller window as a “notepad” (example). Information can be moved from the core text to the notepad in two ways. First, text or images can be selected using the mouse or arrow keys, and then copied and pasted into the new notepad document using either commands from the menu bar or their keystroke equivalents. This is a familiar procedure for students accustomed to using word processors for writing. Second, students can “drag and drop” material by selecting it with the mouse, depressing the mouse button while moving the selected material to the notepad, and then releasing the mouse button. Of course, students can also type directly into the notepad, a feature many used to answer questions, amplify ideas, and make notes for later study.
Key supports, such as TTS, also work in the notepad file; this document can be read aloud or printed at any time. Because notepad files are in the rich-text format (RTF) readable by most word processors, students can save them to floppy disk for loading later on a computer in school or at home for editing and printing of polished notes or assignments. All students in this study, regardless of their learning needs, embraced the notepad, and it saw regular use during classroom-based, teacher-led activities as well as independent work sessions. Students found the notepad particularly helpful in completing assignments that required locating key terms in the text and writing definitions for them.
In response to student comments that they wished they could underline or highlight in their printed textbooks, “highlighter pens” were programmed into the digital exemplar, accessible through the screen menu bar (example). Students used these pens, available in five colors, to help make important information stand out: for example, one color might signify who the passage was about, a second might identify when the event took place, a third might identify where it took place, and so forth. Some students tended to highlight extensive blocks of text, illustrating their difficulty in determining what was most important — and making their highlights less useful. This problem was, of course, not confined to the electronic environment and reflected the need for strategic help.
Although these supports for strategic approaches to reading are readily available in the digital version, there are no specific provisions that encourage students to use them. In a separate study recently completed, embedded supports for strategic thinking while reading were included, and students were asked to respond to specific embedded strategy prompts (Dalton, Pisha, Eagleton, Coyne, & Deysher, 2001). It is anticipated that this study will lead to further recommendations for design features that support strategic learning.
Early in the project, members of the CAST research team observed that, at the beginning of each week, one of the collaborating teachers gave students a list of 12 words reflecting people, events, or concepts from the section of the textbook under study. They were required to read the appropriate textbook pages and write definitions of these words as they encountered them.
Close observation of students at work and subsequent interviews of selected students proved both revealing and unsettling. When questioned privately and in confidence, all students reported that they seldom, if ever, read assigned textbook chapters from start to finish. On the contrary, most students without identified special needs skimmed the book to locate each term, then paraphrased the surrounding text to create a definition. Although none of the 17 students with special needs employed a skimming strategy (perhaps because their weak reading skills prohibited it), their approaches are noteworthy: these students either sought support from teachers or aides in the resource room who typically read the chapter aloud to them, or they copied someone else’s answers or ignored the assignment altogether.
As students began to work with electronic versions of the textbook, several learned to use the software’s “find” function to streamline the assignment further by locating the words without reading the text at all. Once they’d found the words, they used the drag-and-drop feature to copy them and the surrounding text to the notepad; they then made cursory changes in wording, and printed out their completed assignment in record time. Of course, these students completed this task with little or no thought, and probably learned little from it.
Newly designed assignments can use the power of computers to provide a better balance of supports and scaffolds, challenge and resistance. For example, summarizing passages of expository text in content area materials is difficult for many students but very useful in both academic and real-life situations. The researchers chose to develop a series of assignments to address this skill.
To establish a baseline, students were asked to read several pages of text, either in the printed textbook or online, and then to summarize their readings in writing. Few students without special needs and no students with special needs were able to complete this task successfully. Further, when queried afterward, very few students could articulate a systematic strategy. When asked how they usually created summaries, the vast majority replied that they first read the material (if they could) and then wrote down all the information that seemed important, usually in the order in which it appeared in the reading.
In order to provide students with hands-on opportunities to learn effective summarization strategies, four sequential assignments were developed. Each of these included built-in scaffolds and supports, both to facilitate summarization and to help students internalize effective summarizing strategies for future use. The assignments were created to take advantage of the software tools, but students were allowed to use the traditional textbook if they wished. Each of these four assignments addressed the goals of the task in a different way, and each made available a different mode and degree of support.
In the first assignment, students were asked to use the electronic highlighting pens to draw attention to five different types of information (view the teacher version and student version of the assignment). They were encouraged to use their highlighters sparingly, choosing only the words signifying who, what, when, where, and why, and using a different color for each category of information. Students were then to draw on their highlighting to support their construction of one- or two-sentence summaries of each paragraph. The desire for brevity was underscored by providing small physical spaces — fields capable of displaying only two lines at a time — for student responses.
The second assignment made use of Inspiration (1994), a commercial computer program designed to facilitate the development of concept maps (see teacher version, student version). After instruction on the use of the program, students were asked to develop concept maps representing selected passages. To support those unable to accomplish the task independently, students were first provided with partially completed maps. Successful completion required arrangement of the concept map’s nodes of text from the book into the correct sequence, linking them, assigning each link a label selected from a list of words describing possible relationships between ideas, and finally writing a summary for the entire passage. After students had successfully completed this assignment, they were given a more challenging version intended to build upon their experience. Here students were required to generate entire concept maps independently from scratch.
The third assignment was to examine primary source materials presented in the electronic study environment and identify information that supported or contradicted the key ideas identified in the concept maps (teacher version, student version). Students chose from a selection of primary source materials, including both text and other artifacts, such as images and sheet music.
For the fourth assignment (teacher version, student version), groups of three students were each assigned a section of the textbook, a controversial statement relating to that section, and instructions to defend or attack the controversial statement. Students were to extract information from their passages that supported their point of view (using highlighting and concept mapping, if they wished) and then to present their arguments before a mock congress comprised of faculty and staff. The congress evaluated each pair of presentations and recommended legislation based on the persuasiveness of the competing arguments.
Taken together, these four assignments can be seen as a sequence that begins with a relatively concrete find-and-mark activity and concludes with a relatively abstract and demanding task requiring the integration of multiple points. This sequence can be repeated several times during a semester, focusing upon different content each time and giving students multiple opportunities to develop reading comprehension and study skills in supported environments while also learning a range of content.
Students reported that three of the four assignments were helpful: the summarizing supports, the use of primary source documents, and the mock congress. Teachers and researchers noted that students were more engaged during these activities than during typical class work. Moreover, teachers reported that student work generated by these assignments was of higher than usual quality.
The students did not find concept mapping as helpful or engaging as the other three assignments, and the quality of student maps generated from scratch was not high. When queried, students reported that they had insufficient experience with the concept mapping software to use it efficiently. Because Inspiration has been thoroughly studied by others in similar contexts and found both effective and popular (see, e.g., Anderson-Inman, 1989; Anderson-Inman & Horney, 1996, 1997; Anderson-Inman & Tenny, 1989), it is likely that the response would have been more positive had training been more adequate.
Digital versus print content. New digital technologies have advantages over print-based presentations, and this project provided an excellent opportunity to investigate students’ perceptions of them. The majority of the 70 student participants not only recognized the merits of digital text but also reported that they would use digital content exclusively or in combination with its print equivalent if given the opportunity; only 2 asserted that they preferred textbooks and would not use digital content at all. One of these students remarked, “I am used to using the textbook, I have been using it for a long time.” This comment reflects the effects of 10 years of in-school experience with printed texts and the high level of comfort this affords. However, despite the fact that most students had little or no previous experience using electronic textbooks as they were asked to employ them in this study, the vast majority responded positively to them.
According to the students, the digital format offers three major advantages:
- Flexible presentation of content, including the capacity to have the computer read the text aloud, makes it possible for individuals to structure learning activities to suit their particular needs.
- The ease with which one can locate specific information such as dates or terms within large sections of text greatly facilitates fact finding.
- The portability offered by a compact disc or Internet version of the content frees students from the need to carry a bulky textbook.
Students also reported one significant disadvantage of digital material: problems stemming from technical glitches. Use of a digital textbook requires a school-based technical support system to troubleshoot problems that may arise with individual computer systems, whereas printed texts require little or no ongoing maintenance. Of course, students who do not have computers in their homes are denied the opportunity to use these digital materials outside of school hours, and this raises a further disadvantaged in the form of a significant equity issue.
Limitations. Because formative research does not require large samples and random assignment, this study was conducted at a single site with a relatively homogeneous sample and focused on the single content area of American history. While there appears to be no reason to conclude that the same results might not be obtained in any urban or suburban school in the United States, it is possible that the setting, student sample, or the content area were in some important way idiosyncratic. This question can and should be investigated in subsequent studies.
One characteristic of the sample is noteworthy. The teacher who taught the integrated eleventh-grade American history classes was not a proficient computer user at the beginning of the study. Further, despite the best efforts of all involved over the 2-year span of the project, this individual was not able to integrate the use of computers and online materials successfully into the fabric of day-to-day instruction. The project provided the teacher with all hardware and software necessary to use the materials created, including a computer for use in the classroom and the capacity to display the computer’s output on a large television monitor. One-on-one training was provided at the onset and at intervals during the project, but did not result in the teacher acquiring the skills and confidence necessary to use the technology effectively with students.
Project computers located in the resource room and office space next to the history classroom proved adequately reliable for student use. However, others in a room set aside for study were generally unusable because they were shared with students not participating in the study and experienced frequent technical problems.
Finally, participating students were unfamiliar with the Inspiration software used for one of the prototype assignments, and project staff underestimated the amount of training and practice required for them to achieve proficiency. Students’ resultant difficulty in completing the relevant assignment adversely affected the results.
Significant advances: Digital exemplar and assignments. As a result of this project, an online exemplar of a high school social studies text has been created that illustrates the preliminary recommendations for designing textbook content in electronic environments. It includes built-in scaffolds and supports such as TTS that go beyond the capacity of printed materials to provide for the learning needs of a highly diverse student body. Analysis of qualitative data suggests that these supports succeeded at least to some extent in increasing students’ engagement in learning and contributing to better quality student work.
Observations of and interviews with students as they completed the time-honored homework assignment of locating and paraphrasing definitions of key terms found in the textbook showed that traditional assignments may be inappropriate in online environments. The process of designing more thoughtful student assignments that successfully address curriculum goals in online environments proved very valuable. Insight was gained into promising designs and the amount and types of training and support that are necessary to enable the transition from print-based instruction to the use of more flexible and powerful digital materials. Further, scaffolds, such as the use of electronic highlighting pens and partially completed concept maps to help students learn complex skills such as summarizing, found favor among both students and teachers. Digital materials, like their print-based counterparts, must be developed within the context of pedagogically sound instructional approaches.
Preliminary recommendations. A key product of this study is High School Students’ Recommendations for Digital Textbooks: A Formative Evaluation. This document captures what has been learned about the design of digital texts and presents those insights in the form of preliminary recommendations for commercial publishers wishing to create digital texts for high school social studies. The preliminary recommendations provide a basis for further research and development. The time is right for the development of research-based guidelines for UDL in the United States, as several statewide textbook-adoption policies require or are contemplating requiring textbook publishers to provide digital versions of their materials, in addition to printed versions.
Contributions to UDL. An important element of this project is its aspiration to go beyond the provision of basic access features, ensuring that instructional approaches scaffold student weaknesses but do not remove the essential element of challenge. The varied supports were designed with three broad learning networks in mind (mediating Vygotsky’s three conditions for learning) and scaffold students’ varied recognition, strategic, and affective needs in the following ways:
- Recognition: Individual differences in recognition are supported by the provision of multiple representations of content. These include both an on-screen layout that features a rich variety of images, in-text features, and sidebars (similar to those found in many popular contemporary textbooks), as well as a more spartan layout that provides key content in a single column of core text and relatively unobtrusive icons, hyperlinked to supplementary resources. Further, optional TTS with synchronized on-screen highlighting of text supports a variety of students, including those whose reading skills are inadequate for typical high school texts.
- Strategy: This project explored built-in supports and scaffolds for strategic approaches to learning. Such tools as an easy-to-use link to an online dictionary make available to students practical strategies for improving their understanding. Connections to Internet resources provide structured avenues for obtaining background knowledge. The assignment prototypes demonstrate the potential of new technologies to allow developers to embed supports to help students learn strategic skills. Further, providing multiple kinds of assignments offers students some choice in the manner in which they work with information.
- Engagement: The role of student engagement and investment in the strenuous process of learning is easily overlooked. This project’s results suggest that giving students freedom of choice to select representations and strategies appropriate for their own learning needs contributes significantly to engagement. Perhaps the best examples of this can be found in students’ reactions to the prototype assignments and in their teachers’ observations that students completing these assignments produced work superior to their typical efforts.
Implications for Further Research
Because this project was formative by design, rather than summative, the purpose was not to quantify, document, and describe improvements in student achievement or to make the claim that materials designed in accordance with the project’s recommendations will bring about specific improvement. Consequently, in addition to further formative studies that delve deeply into areas examined here, rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental research will be required in order to evaluate the full benefits of these materials and approaches for diverse learners. Further, the novelty of digital prototypes such as those developed in this study may affect their popularity with students and teachers. Thus, research probing the long-term effects of curricula designed according to the preliminary recommendations outlined here will be important. Nonetheless, we are encouraged by the results of this work, and believe that indications of the potential of UDL to help teachers help all learners warrants further investigation.
In addition, as noted above, this study was limited to one student population in one subject area. Future work should explore applicability in other student populations, at other grade levels, and in other content areas.
Finally, by this time, many teachers are fluent with the use of computers for word processing, basic applications, and locating information on the Internet. However, those who have not acquired basic computer skills may be resistant to or experience some difficulty in adopting technology-based materials and approaches. Further research on this teacher population will be necessary to develop appropriate scaffolds and supports for their learning needs.
Implementation of a UDL approach can help teachers more fully and readily accommodate the needs of their students, including those with special needs. Curriculum designers and developers who seek to use multimedia for the benefit of all learners should not fall into the trap of simply using digital technologies to mirror the methods and approaches of print technologies. If the promise of digital learning environments is to be realized, new curriculum materials must go beyond traditional approaches, offering new content presentations, access options, strategic supports, engagement options, activities, and instructional techniques. With these approaches, teachers can use the flexibility of electronic multimedia to improve learning opportunities for all students.
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About the Authors
Bart Pisha is the director of research at CAST (39 Cross Street, Peabody MA 01960, USA; e-mail email@example.com). His research interests include Universal Design for Learning and the development of writing skills. He serves on the board of the International Dyslexia Association.
Peggy Coyne is the associate director of programs and services at CAST, where she can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also a doctoral student in language, literacy, and culture at Boston University, where she is examining issues of Universal Design for Learning and family literacy.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education, OSERS CFDA# 84-327A, without which this project would not have been possible. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, publishers of The American Nation, provided substantial support, and their interest in our results was gratifying. Finally, our colleagues at CAST supported this effort in myriad ways. Absent this support, we could never have completed the project.
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Citation: Pisha, B., & Coyne, P. (2001, November). Jumping off the page: Content area curriculum for the Internet age. Reading Online, 5(4). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=pisha/index.html