An assistive computerized learning environment for distance learning students with learning disabilities

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Western Ontario]On: 14 November 2014, At: 02:52Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Open Learning: The Journal of Open,Distance and e-LearningPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/copl20

    An assistive computerized learningenvironment for distance learningstudents with learning disabilitiesJoel Klemes a , Alit Epstein a , Michal Zuker a , Nira Grinberg a &Tamar Ilovitch aa The Open University of Israel , IsraelPublished online: 23 Jan 2007.

    To cite this article: Joel Klemes , Alit Epstein , Michal Zuker , Nira Grinberg & Tamar Ilovitch(2006) An assistive computerized learning environment for distance learning students with learningdisabilities, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 21:1, 19-32

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680510500468062

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  • Open LearningVol. 21, No. 1, February 2006, pp. 1932

    ISSN 02680513 (print)/ISSN 14699958 (online)/06/01001914 2006 The Open UniversityDOI: 10.1080/02680510500468062

    An assistive computerized learning environment for distance learning students with learning disabilitiesJoel Klemes*, Alit Epstein, Michal Zuker, Nira Grinberg and Tamar IlovitchThe Open University of Israel, IsraelTaylor and Francis LtdCOPL_A_146789.sgm10.1080/02680510500468062Open Learning0268-0513 (print)/1469-9958 (online)Original Article2006Taylor & Francis211000000February 2006JoelKlemesjoelkl@openu.ac.il

    The current study examines how a computerized learning environment assists students with learn-ing disabilities (LD) enrolled in a distance learning course at the Open University of Israel. Thetechnology provides computer display of the text, synchronized with auditory output and accompa-nied by additional computerized study skill tools which support learning. Since the technology isnot based on language-specific synthetic voice output, it can be operated in any language. Theresults of the study suggest that the assistive technology tested in this study is highly beneficial tostudents with LD who are studying from a distance. The prospects of its implementation forstudents with LD in distance learning academic institutions, at a time when their number in theseinstitutions is increasing, are discussed.

    Keywords: Computerized learning environment; Distance learning; Learning disability; Text-to-speech

    Introduction

    According to most definitions, learning disabilities (LD) are a group of disorders thataffect the ability to acquire or use listening, speaking, concentrating, reading, writ-ing, reasoning or math skills (Gerber & Reiff, 1994; National Institute for Literacy,1995). In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly during the 1990s,special attention and efforts were devoted to research and treatment relating to chil-dren and adults with one or more of these disabilities. During this period, remarkableadvances were also made in the field of digital technology. As a consequence of therecruitment of new technology to LD research and treatment, a body of evidence was

    *Corresponding author. The Open University of Israel, 108 Ravutski Street, PO Box 808, Raanana,Israel 43107. Email: joelkl@openu.ac.il

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  • 20 J. Klemes et al.

    accumulated during this time that indicated that assistive technologies, primarily inthe areas of computer hardware and software, can help students overcome variouskinds and degrees of LD, and provide new opportunities for this population (Elkindet al., 1996; Day & Edwards, 1996; Elkind, 1998; Lewis, 1998; Raskind & Higgins,1998; Lewis, 2000; Maccini et al., 2002; Mull & Sitlington, 2003). The increasedavailability of computers and other assistive technologies, coupled with new legisla-tion related to students with LD in the UK, the US and elsewhere (Day & Edwards,1996; Bryant & Seay, 1998; Raskind & Higgins, 1998) has had a remarkable effecton the number of students with LD in institutions of higher education. For example,between 1988 and 2000, the percentage of students with learning disabilities amongstudents with any disability enrolled in US colleges more than doubled, and reached40% (Henderson, 2001).

    Other developments which occurred during the second half of the twentiethcentury were the rapid increase in the number of academic distance learning institu-tions, as well as the tendency to replace face-to-face lectures in colleges, universitiesand corporate training with distance learning courses. Together with the rise in thenumber of college students with LD in traditional colleges and universities, therewas also a significant increase in the number of students with LD in distance learn-ing institutions. For example, at the Open University of Israel (OUI), a distancelearning university where the present study was conducted, the percentage ofstudents with LD in the total population of students grew from 1.08% in 19941995 to 5% in 20012002, of a total enrolment of 32,000 students (Heiman &Precel, 2003).

    However, the number of students with LD in institutions of higher education isstill far smaller than the number of people with LD in the general population, whichis 5% to 20%, according to the definition of learning disability used in varioussurveys (Gerber & Reiff, 1994; Gadbow & DuBois, 1998). For example, thepercentage of students with LD in US colleges in 2000 was only 2.4% (Henderson,2001). Moreover, a study which examined postsecondary school attendance andcollege completion rate indicated that students with LD were less likely to attendcolleges or to graduate than their peers without LD (Murray et al., 2000). Anotherstudy indicated that only 14% of students with learning disabilities in the US(compared to 53% of students in the general population) attended a postsecondaryschool program within two years of leaving high school (Blackorby & Wagner,1996).

    Teaching in distance learning courses is mainly text-centered rather than face-to-face. For students with print-related learning problems, reading might be slow andnot fluent, and the difficulties in learning that distance learners with LD face areintensified. One of the technologies developed to overcome students reading diffi-culties is computer programs that provide synthetic speech output, synchronizedwith text. Several such programs are commercially available (ReadPlease, AT&TNatural Voices Text-to-Speech Engine, Kurzweill 3000, WYNN, Screen-Reader and others). It is assumed that the benefit of text-to-speech computerprograms stems from the presentation of the text through both visual and auditory

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  • An assistive computerized learning environment 21

    channels (Hecker et al., 2002). Some of the commercial assistive software, such asthe Kurzweill 3000, includes, in addition, digital study tools which aim to supportlearning.

    The majority of the studies that illustrate the effectiveness of text-to-speech tech-nology for people with LD focus on students in conventional face-to-face institutes.To the best of our knowledge, the benefits of assistive technologies for adult highereducation students with LD who study from a distance have not been studied.Therefore, we decided to examine whether a learning environment that providescomputer display of the text, synchronized with auditory output and accompaniedby additional computerized assistive applications, contributes to the learningprocess of students with LD studying from a distance. We conducted our studywith students who are enrolled in a distance learning course at the OUI. The OUIis a distance learning university, fully accredited by the Israeli Council for HigherEducation, which in 2003 served 36,000 undergraduate and graduate students invarious fields of knowledge. Unlike most other academic institutions, where teach-ing is based on face-to-face lectures, the courses offered by the OUI are intendedfor self-study, based on written materials and accompanied by tutorial meetings,Internet technology, written assignments and exams. At the OUI, students with LDare assisted by experts from the university center for students with learning disabili-ties (CSLD), who professionally diagnose the students who apply and furnish themwith individual help and workshops. In the current study, we will describe thelearning environment, discuss the students satisfaction with the technology, andexamine the prospects of its implementation in distance learning for students withLD. Although the number of students with LD who participated in the study wassmall, the general agreement among them regarding the advantages and benefits ofthe learning environment indicates that assistive technologies of the kind describedhere might be helpful for students with LD studying at a distance, and warrantfurther investigation.

    Methodology

    Subjects and design

    The study was conducted over two semesters, with two different groups of students.Undergraduate students previously diagnosed by the CSLD as students with LD, andwho were enrolled in the distance learning, semester-long course Introduction toPsychology were informed about the study. Twenty-four students (20 females, 4males) had the appropriate hardware to run the software and expressed an interest inparticipating in the study. All of these students had taken distance learning coursesbefore, and 83% had taken more than two courses. The types of LD in the group ofstudents varied: 14 students (58%) were diagnosed as having attention disorders and10 (42%) as dyslexic with attention disorders. For purposes of comparison, sixteenstudents (7 female, 9 male) not identified as having any learning disability who wereenrolled in the course and expressed an interest also participated in the study. An

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  • 22 J. Klemes et al.

    electronic study unit on CD-ROM on the subject of memory was mailed to thestudents, together with the other printed materials. All participants were loaned Acro-bat 4.05 ME computer software which enabled them to work in the computerizedlearning environment, and were given a printed or computerized (oral) guidebook.Students with LD were offered a face-to-face training session to acquaint them withthe computer program; however, only four attended the meeting. After the studentscompleted the electronic unit and the accompanying assignments, they were asked torespond to a 36-item attitude questionnaire developed by the researchers. Studentswith LD answered the questions in a structured telephone interview, conducted byone person, while the other students answered the same questions through a writtenquestionnaire.

    Materials

    The learning environment. We developed a CD-ROM that contained the text,synchronized with speech output, of a complete study unit on memory in the courseIntroduction to Psychology. The learning environment included digitized study skilltools to support learning, which enabled the user to do the following:

    Read a text that is displayed on the computer screen and simultaneously listen toit being read aloud.

    Choose between two reading speeds: 140 or 110 words per minute. Reread and listen again to self-selected paragraphs that were difficult to understand

    the first time. Navigate among topics without having to reread or listen again to those parts of the

    text that are irrelevant to the specific topic. Use different colors to highlight words, sentences or paragraphs that are either

    essential to the understanding of the topic, require a repeat reading, or are unclear. Add written notes in different colors to the text while reading and listening to it. Dictate notes while reading and listening to the text, using a microphone. Assemble the highlighted paragraphs and the notes in a separate file for further

    study and review. Change the display of the text on the screen. Search for a specific word or sentence in the text.

    The language of instruction at the OUI is Hebrew; therefore, we needed a digitaltool that would enable us to present the oral text in this language. The software thatwas adapted to construct the learning environment was Adobe Acrobat 4.05 ME,which provides all of the above features and is commercially available. The printedtext of the unit (in Hebrew) was read aloud and combined with the text. The textwas presented on the computer screen, initially using double-spaced 14-point Arial.Two reading speeds were available, using Sound Forge software to slow down theoriginal reading speed. A screenshot of the learning environment is presented inFigure 1.

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  • An assistive computerized learning environment 23

    Figure 1. A computer screen of the learning environment, with some of the digitized features: 1 a, b speed of speech (faster and slower, respectively); 2 a written note, open; 3 a written note, closed; 4 a spoken note, closed; 5 word highlighting; 6 word marking

    Results

    Duration of learning

    Students with LD frequently face difficulties because of slow reading rate or poororganizational skills. It has been shown that using computer readers enhances thereading rate of adults with dyslexia, makes reading less tiring and less stressful, andmakes the time...

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