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

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<ul><li><p>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* &amp; 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</p><p>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.</p><p>Keywords dyslexia, higher education, universal design, virtual learning environments.</p><p>Introduction</p><p>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 &amp;Blundell 2010). In particular, there has been anincreased focus on compensating for disabilities andensuring universal access to the learning environment ofstudents (Hampton &amp; Godsen 2004).</p><p>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 &amp; Johnson 2010). They</p><p>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 &amp; Hartas 2008).</p><p>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).</p><p>Despite an increased awareness of the need to makeeducation accessible to students with disabilities, there</p><p>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</p><p>bs_bs_banner</p><p>doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00486.x</p><p>Original article</p><p> 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 1</p></li><li><p>are indications that learning disabilities tend to remainhidden, and therefore under-prioritized in comparisonwith physical disabilities (Burns &amp; Bell 2010;Madriaga &amp; 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 &amp; 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).</p><p>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.</p><p>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&amp; Aamodt 2006).</p><p>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.</p><p>Background</p><p>Much of the research on dyslexia has focused on pre-school and school-age children (Mortimore &amp; 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 &amp;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 &amp; 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 &amp;Turnbull 2007).</p><p>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 &amp; 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</p><p>2 L. Habib et al.</p><p> 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p></li><li><p>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).</p><p>Anxiety and self-esteem are recurrent themes in theliterature on dyslexic student experience in higher edu-cation (Price 2006; Price &amp; 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 &amp; 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).</p><p>Despite the existence of legislation and guidelinesaimed to make technological products and resourcesaccessible to all, there are indications that many of thetechnologies used in a learning context are not univer-sally designed (Hepworth 2007). One way to bridgethis gap would be to ensure that all technology-basededucational tools and resources, including VLEs, aredesigned to be usable by all people, to the greatestextent possible, without the need for adaptation or spe-cialized design (Centre for Universal Design 1997). Forinstance, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines(WCAG), which contain a range of recommendationsfor making web pages accessible to users with disabili-ties, recommend that hyperlinks should indicate thecontent of their destination (W3C 2008). Nevertheless,several web pages that offer learning content containhyperlinks that do not indicate in any way what will beshown when activating the hyperlink. For example,hyperlinks that only display unspecific text such asread more or click here are quite common. Whentaken out of context, which may occur with the use ofscreen readers, these labels do not provide the user with</p><p>sufficient information to make a decision on whichhyperlink to select. The WCAG 2.0 list several addi-tional criteria related to content, such as mechanisms foridentifying specific pronunciation of ambiguous words,definitions of special words, expanded forms of abbre-viations, and supplemental content or versions, all ofwhich are meant to make content accessible to readerswho do not have a reading ability beyond lower second-ary education level. Few VLEs satisfy these criteria,which would have made the content more accessible forpersons with dyslexia who generally struggle withreading comprehension. Consequently, VLEs are notalways easily accessible to dyslexic users.</p><p>Methodology</p><p>This study was conducted within the realm of a widerresearch on students with dyslexia and their use ofVLEs, including interviews, questionnaires, and labora-tory experiments. The study consisted of gatheringqualitative data through semi-structured interviewswith 12 adults with dyslexia who either were enrolled asstudents in an institution of higher education or hadgraduated during the past year. All the interviewees hadbeen formally diagnosed with dyslexia during theirprimary or secondary schooling, through an officialpsycho-assessment procedure. This procedure normallyincludes a series of Norwegian language-specificdyslexia screening tests, and is routinely carried out by aspecial needs educator or a psychologist when suspi-cions arise that a student may have learning disabilities.The respondents were recruited via various channels,including a mailing list of students registered with dys-lexia within the researchers institution, variousdyslexia-related websites, and social media. The age ofthe informants ranged from 19 to 36.</p><p>All the informants were interviewed twice: oncebefore and once after an experiment where they per-formed a series of tasks on the VLE Fronter, wherebytheir eye movements were recorded with the help of aneye-tracking device. All first interviews lasted between30 and 60 min, and were conducted by one of tworesearchers responsible for this part of the study. Theinterviews were carried out with the help of an interviewguide designed by the whole group of researchersinvolved in the research project. The guide for the firstinterview consisted of four sets of 40 questions in total,including follow-up questions, covering four broad</p><p>Dyslexic students in higher education and VLE 3</p><p> 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p></li><li><p>areas: general digital literacy, experience with VLEs,use of assistive technology, and psychological issues.The questions were relatively open, and gave the par-ticipants an opportunity to discuss aspects of VLEs theyconsidered important, for instance How often do youuse VLEs?, Which tasks are problematic?, andWhich tasks are unproblematic?. The intervieweeswere also asked to estimate their own competence andlevel of experience, but no formal scale was used(although a Likert scale was used in the questionnaires).The second interview was carried out according toanother guide consisting of 10 relatively open questionsrelated to what had happened during the experiments. Inparticular, the informants were given the opportunity toreflect and comment on the tasks they had been asked tocarry out as part of the experiment, their level of diffi-culty, and the type of problems encountered. Within therealm of the experiment, the students performed 12 dif-ferent tasks in a fictive room in the VLE Fronter,designed to match the students ordinary use of VLEs asrealistically as possible. Examples of tasks were down-loading documents, finding lecture presentations, andusing discussions forums. The students interactionwith the system was observed by one or two researchers,and their eye movements were registered by an eyetracker.</p><p>All the interviews were audio-recorded and tran-scribed in full, except for two, due to defective audioequipment. The analysis of the data was performed bothon the basis of the broad categories that had been identi-fied when forming the interview guide, and on the basisof new categories that emerged from the interviewsthemselves. Those categories were developed andrefined throughout the analysis proce...</p></li></ul>