The Challenge of Reaching All Learners in the Digital Age

Sarah K. Howorth, Assistant Professor of Special Education
Mia Morrison, Lecturer of Instructional Technology


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Ms. Jones is a 4th-grade teacher who has been teaching for 25 years. However, lately, she has been struggling to adapt her instruction as her district has embraced a 1:1 device program with e-textbooks, a vision for increased inquiry-based learning, and focus on 21st-century skill building for all students. She is being asked to use Google Classroom as a learning management system instead of her trusty teacher planner and digital student tracking and feedback. How can she explore and learn how to use these new digital instruction tools while working 60+ hours a week?

Present and Future of Technology in Schools
Technology is here to stay, with new tools and innovations in communication, commerce, and production shared daily. Within the field of education, our charge has moved away from disseminating information to embracing a new paradigm in teaching and learning to prepare students for a dynamic and ever-changing future environment. In 2018, the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon report (K-12 edition) identified educational technologies likely to have an impact on learning, teaching, and creative inquiry. Included in this list were redesigning learning spaces, advancing cultures of innovation, approaches to deeper learning, and mixed content learning (STEM → STEAM).

These developments pose unique challenges to our education system both nationally and here in Maine. Teachers like Ms. Jones are diligently working to shift their focus from information dissemination to the creation of authentic learning experiences to empower and advance both student and teacher digital literacy. While increased access to device programs is often the first step, educator training at all levels and support are the true key to success. Programs such as Apple Teacher and Google Certified Educator have helped immensely to push educators forward and create community, locally and across state boundaries. However, there are more difficult and even “wicked” challenges ahead.

Difficult challenges involve a) rethinking the role of the educator, b) addressing the increasing achievement gap and c) sustaining innovation through leadership. Rather than develop curricula and assessment for each subject area in isolation, it is now critical that educators collaborate across content boundaries to bring authentic and relevant application of knowledge and skills into the classroom. The achievement gap refers to the disparity in academic performance among groups such as students with disabilities, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse students. We must deeply consider the palliative vs. productive effects of equity and equality to meet the needs of all learners. Thus, the challenge is to nurture teachers who are trained to lead these types of professional development to guide and inspire their colleagues toward innovative instruction. Technology tools may be one way to support solutions for all of these challenges.

Outline of Maine’s 1:1 program,
Public schools in Maine were the very first in the nation to implement 1:1 laptop access to all middle school and high school students (Task Force on the Maine Learning Technology Endowment for the Maine Department of Education, 2001). The education system in Maine must keep pace with career preparation needs of the 21st century in the face of rural settings and lack of network infrastructure. With the advent of the Digital Age, there has been a shift in learning management systems, classroom dynamics, and modes of learning and communication. Teachers must learn to navigate classroom management and universal design for instruction that allow all students to a free and appropriate education while protecting student data.

Throughout the implementation of Maine’s 1:1 program, there has been more focus on device rather than teacher training. In this way, the movement forward has not achieved the traction nor true educational value intended to bring our rural students into the 21st century. The next logical step is to focus on creating authentic learning experiences, making connections, and advancing digital literacy for both students and teachers. While thousands of Maine students have a variety of devices in hand, teachers must learn to apply and embed meaningful technology use into curricula. For true advancement of student success and improved digital literacy, studies have shown that not only must we consider the application of technology, but the orchestration of teacher, student, and technology use (Pedro, Barbosa & Santos, 2018 and Elphick, 2018). Training and practice in implementing universal design for learning while increasing teachers’ technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPaCK) in teacher training, pre-service teacher curricula, and professional development are critical to the future advancement of teaching and learning in Maine.

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Ms. Jones is asked to collaborate with Daniel, an EdTech that accompanies Johnny, who has a reading disability, to class. Johnny is a literal thinker and struggles with reading comprehension. Daniel has heard that software such as Newsela and text to speech interventions can help with reading. Ms. Jones allows Johnny to read articles from the class using Newsela, selecting the lexile level without compromising content as well as listening to the text using an iPad. Sam, another student who also struggles with reading, sees Johnny working and asks if he can try Newsela and listening to the text. As Sam manages his own modifications coupled with text to speech tools, his attitude and reading skills improve. Ms. Jones realizes that these technology tools and strategy are not just for those with special needs. They can be leveraged to support learning across all ages and abilities because students are able to self assess, respond, and access tools and strategy specific to their own needs. She does not have to be an expert herself. Ms. Jones learns to share the same article with all her students on Google Classroom. They can then select tools and strategies individually to advance their reading skills based on personalized strengths and needs. She and her students are advancing their digital literacy.

How UDL and technology help all learn and prepare for careers of the future
Universal design (UD) in education stems from the architectural field. Architects use UD to ensure appropriate accessibility for all who use a particular building. This same premise is the foundation of UD in education, creating the foundation for Universal Design for Learning or as it is commonly referred, UDL. UDL is a curriculum-design process that begins with planning for every student, making instruction more effective, and providing opportunity for teachers to maintain their individuality and creativity (Novak & Rose, 2016). UDL is important in special education because it allows learners of all abilities to access the same curriculum as their typical peers, and essential component of a free and appropriate education. Planning instruction in all classrooms should include the principles of UDL in order to best meet the diverse needs of all students. UDL provides the framework for meeting the individual needs of students while planning for everyone, essentially providing the opportunity for teachers to be more efficient and effective in their instruction while setting the stage for more effective collaboration (Courey, Tappe, Siker, & LePage, 2012). For students with disabilities, technology tools can make a dramatic difference and ultimately “level the playing field”.

However, UDL is not only for the special education classroom or special needs student. This curricular design strategy incorporates differentiation, customization, choice, and opportunity for both student and educator to focus on strengths and interest. Students are asked to take part in their learning through choices in the modality for exploration and expression to increase engagement and persistence. Self-assessment and reflection support student ownership. Each student is unique, with individual strengths and interests which ultimately serve to drive their learning and growth. We must meet these diverse learners with customizable, flexible curricula to support personalized growth and development.

References

  • Courey, S. J., Tappe, P., Siker, J., & LePage, P. (2012). Teacher Education and Special. Teacher Education and Special Education36(1), 7-27
  • Elphick, M. (2018). The Impact of Embedded iPad Use on Student Perceptions of Their Digital Capabilities. Education Sciences. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 8(3), 102. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8030102
  • Novak, K., & Rose, D. (2016). UDL Now!: A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms. CAST Professional Publishing
  • Pedro, L., Barbosa, C., & Santos, C. (2018). A critical review of mobile learning integration in formal educational contexts. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(10), 1-15.
  • Task Force on the Maine Learning Technology Endowment for the Maine Department of Education. (2001) Teaching and Learning for Tomorrow: A Learning Technology Plan for Maine’s Future (Final Report). Retrieved from https://www1.maine.gov/mlti/resources/history/mlterpt.pdf
  • Taylor, M. S. (2018). Computer Programming With Pre-K Through First-Grade Students With Intellectual Disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 52(2), 78–88. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022466918761120

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