dyslexic students in higher education and virtual learning environments: an exploratory study

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  • Dyslexic students in higher education and virtuallearning environments: an exploratory studyjcal_486 1..11L. Habib,* G. Berget,* F. E. Sandnes,* N. Sanderson,* P. Kahn, S. Fagernes* & A. Olcay*Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Technology, Art and Design, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, NorwayDepartment of Nursing, Faculty of Health Science, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, NorwayCentre for Educational Research and Development, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Norway

    Abstract This paper presents the results of an interview-based study of the use of virtual learning envi-ronments (VLEs) among dyslexic students. Interviews were carried out with 12 informantswho had been formally diagnosed as dyslexic. The informants were either enrolled in a univer-sity or college programme, or had graduated less than a year before the interview. The findingsreveal that dyslexic students experience a number of challenges associated with VLE use,including information overload, imperfect word processing tools, inadequate search functions,and having to relate to more than one system at a time.

    Keywords dyslexia, higher education, universal design, virtual learning environments.


    Higher education has evolved considerably in the lastcouple of decades, in particular with a new focus onwidening participation (Pumfrey 2008). Several poli-cies for a more inclusive higher education sector havebeen developed to promote equality of opportunities,and a large number of institutions have implementedstrategies to encourage and support the participation ofstudents with disabilities (Luna 2009; Vickerman &Blundell 2010). In particular, there has been anincreased focus on compensating for disabilities andensuring universal access to the learning environment ofstudents (Hampton & Godsen 2004).

    Concurrently, the use of information and communi-cation technologies (ICTs) has pervaded all aspects ofhigher education, in particular as support for learningand teaching activities (Maddux & Johnson 2010). They

    are also embraced as a way to enhance the student expe-rience, intensify student engagement, and support flex-ible study, thereby increasing student retention. ICTsare also meant to contribute to a widening participation,attracting students from non-traditional backgrounds(Hadjikakou & Hartas 2008).

    Among the learning technologies used in higher edu-cation, virtual learning environments (VLEs) alsoreferred to as learning management systems, onlinelearning environments, or course management systems have grown to become quasi-ubiquitous in theWestern world. A VLE can be defined as a softwaresystem designed to support teaching and learning.These systems typically consist of a set of tools allow-ing for a number of educational and education-relatedactivities, including communication, information pro-cessing, content delivery, student assessment, courseevaluation, and the tracking of student activity. In theUK, the rate of market penetration of VLEs in highereducation institutions was 95% in 2010 (Brown 2010).

    Despite an increased awareness of the need to makeeducation accessible to students with disabilities, there

    Accepted: 11 January 2012Correspondence: LaurenceHabib, Department of Computer Science,Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, P.O. Box 4,St Olavs Plass, Oslo 0130, Norway. Email: laurence.habib@hioa.no


    doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00486.x

    Original article

    2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 1

  • are indications that learning disabilities tend to remainhidden, and therefore under-prioritized in comparisonwith physical disabilities (Burns & Bell 2010;Madriaga & Goodley 2010). Dyslexia, together withmost cognitive disabilities, can also be characterizedas a hidden disability. The term dyslexia is not easilydefined, but we choose to define it as follows forthe purpose of this paper: a learning disorder markedby impairment of the ability to recognize andcomprehend written words (Dittrich & Tutt 2008,p. 97). Unlike physical disabilities, which are oftenobvious to the observer, cognitive disabilities canrarely be seen directly. Dyslexia is among the mostwidespread disabilities, although estimates of its levelof prevalence vary according to which definition isused and which screening methods are employed. It is,however, generally accepted that between 5% and 10%of any adult population have dyslexia (Smythe et al.2004).

    To our knowledge, little research has discussed theconsequences of the use of VLEs on dyslexic students,in particular in combination with increased demandsfor writing. Hence, our research question is how doesthe increased use of VLEs affect the learning experi-ence of dyslexic students? Our aim is to gain insights inhow best to cater for the needs of dyslexic students ina changing educational setting, where new types ofonline tools are developed and used, the content oflearning material is frequently modified and updated,and the sheer quantity of online resources is constantlyincreasing.

    The study reported here took place within the specificcontext of Norwegian higher education, where theso-called Quality Reform, introduced in 20022003 inorder to comply with the Bologna process, has resultedin an extensive use of compulsory student writing, espe-cially as part of new forms of assessment, such as theuse of portfolios (Dysthe 2007), often supported byVLEs. Over the last couple of decades, Norwegianhigher education has also moved towards a more struc-tured and more intensive use of group work (Michelsen& Aamodt 2006).

    This paper is structured as follows. First, a review ofthe relevant literature is provided. Second, the method-ology used is described, before presenting the datacollected through the interviews. Finally, the resultsare discussed, and some preliminary conclusionssuggested.


    Much of the research on dyslexia has focused on pre-school and school-age children (Mortimore & Crozier2006; Price 2006). However, the issue of dyslexia inhigher education has become more prominent in the lit-erature, in particular after various legislations aboutnon-discrimination of disabled students have beenenacted. Legislations and institutional practices gener-ally aim to ensure that disabled students are giventhe same opportunities as non-disabled students, forexample, the Special Education Needs and DisabilityAct, passed in the UK in 2001, and the Americans withDisabilities Act, passed in 1990 in the USA. Such poli-cies aim at forcing institutions to provide disabled stu-dents with the possibility to compensate for theirdisability, including making what is referred in the UKas reasonable adjustments to forms of assessment.This has raised the question of what can be consideredreasonable, and whether there is a risk that academicrigour and standards are compromised (Riddell &Weedon 2006; Pavey et al. 2010). The fact that dyslexiais non-visible or hidden may contribute to it beingperceived as illegitimate, which may reduce access tocompensating measures and concessions in terms ofassessment (Faulkner & Blyth 1996; Riddick 2003).More generally, the literature suggests that dyslexia andother reading disabilities are associated with anxietyand fear of discrimination and stigmatization, espe-cially for students in work-based placements (Blank-field 2001) or graduates applying for jobs (Greenbaumet al. 1996). This concern is particularly prominent inprofessions where there exists prejudice albeit unsub-stantiated that dyslexia might compromise publicsafety, for instance in the field of nursing (Morris &Turnbull 2007).

    A number of study skills have been identified aspotentially problematic for dyslexic students, includingnote taking while watching and listening to a lecturer,and writing texts for the purpose of assessment (Morti-more & Crozier 2006). In particular, structuring andorganizing a coherent text in order to demonstrateknowledge effectively have been identified as a majorproblem among dyslexic learners (MacKay 1997;Riddick et al. 1997). Impairments in terms of phono-logical decoding, phonological analysis, and phono-logical processing have been described as commonamong dyslexic adults (Felton et al. 1990; Pennington

    2 L. Habib et al.

    2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

  • et al. 1990; Hatcher et al. 2002), all of which normallyimpact negatively on academic performance. Dyslexiais often associated with problems with semantics,grammar, and mechanics, which have a negative effecton written syntax (Gregg et al. 2007). In addition, bothpreparing a prcis and proof-reading have been shownto cause difficulties to dyslexic students (Hatcher et al.2002). Deficits in arithmetic fact fluency and in opera-tions among dyslexic students have also been reported(Vukovic et al. 2010).

    Anxiety and self-esteem are recurrent themes in theliterature on dyslexic student experience in higher edu-cation (Price 2006; Price & Gale 2006; Madriaga 2007).A number of sources, including Carroll and Iles (2006)and Riddick (2010), report higher levels of anxietyamong dyslexic students than among their non-dyslexicpeers, both in terms of academic work and in social set-tings. The frequent occurrence of low self-esteemamong dyslexic students is also an issue, especiallybecause low self-esteem is often connected with lowacademic achievement (Banks & Woolfson 2008). Inparticular, the fact that disabled learners are repeatedlyconfronted with negative comments regarding theirlearning and thinking competence may result in themperceiving themselves as inadequate as learners andthinkers (Burke 2002).

    Despite the existence of legislation and guidelinesaimed to make technological products and