The use of interactive computer programs in an educational setting is often intended to motivate students (Boyle et al., 2016; see also our previous blog post on technology use to motivate young readers ) and offer more individualized learning to meet the diverse needs of students (Vasquez & Straub, 2012). In recent years, the quality and quantity of computer programs have increased so dramatically that their use is now pervasive in K-12 classrooms (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010). The investment in educational software and digital subscription services in United States schools already totaled about $8 billion in 2013, the last reported record of expenditures (Harman, 2014), and it continues to rise.
Digital tools and opportunities commonly are integrated with face-to-face instruction to create a blended learning environment (Greer, Rowland, & Smith, 2014). Multiple review articles looking at the current state of blended learning research across various ages of students and settings have found significant positive effects. However, most research has been with college students, while the number of studies conducted in elementary or secondary schools remains small. In one meta-analysis, only 5 of 176 studies reviewed were conducted in kindergarten through Grade 12 (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones 2009). Another review found only seven studies in elementary or secondary schools that employed a rigorous research design capable of assessing the effectiveness of blended learning (Brodersen & Melluzzzo, 2017)
The limited number and rigor of studies make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the benefits of blended learning. In addition, some researchers caution that students may struggle to comprehend large blocks of text that require scrolling or navigating among multiple screens (e.g., Mangen, Walgermo, & Brønnick, 2013). It is important that teachers understand how to capitalize on the benefits of incorporating different types of technology in literacy instruction (e.g., electronic books, reading intervention programs) while minimizing the potential pitfalls.
Educational technology versus assistive technology
Educational technology that all students might access as part of the normal course of literacy instruction should be distinguished from the subcategory referred to as assistive technology. Software and hardware that are purposefully identified for use by students with disabilities in order to complete academic and everyday tasks are considered assistive technology. A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan should include any assistive technology needs, and the purpose of that technology should be made clear to the student’s teachers. Once properly described in this manner, allowing the student to use the technology is not optional, rather a legal and ethical obligation the teacher must fulfill (Assistive Technology Act of 1998, 2004).
If the use of assistive technology is necessary in some instances but counter to the student’s learning goals in other ways, the team developing the IEP may specify when the tools are or are not appropriate for use. For example, a student with dyslexia may need to use audiobooks or text-to-speech recognition when learning content for subject area courses. Without the assistive technology, the student may not have the same opportunity as his or her peers to learn or demonstrate an understanding of the material. However, it may not be appropriate to use those tools when the student is receiving reading instruction intended to help him or her work on the particular reading or writing skills for which the assistive technology is being relied upon. To put it another way, if a student with dysgraphia is working on an IEP goal to improve handwriting skills, it would not make sense to complete handwriting lessons using voice recognition software on a digital device. Similarly, if a student with dyslexia is working on improving decoding skills, it would not make sense to have the decodable text aligned with a phonics lesson read to him or her through text-to-speech software.
The sections that follow describe limitations of two types of educational technology, and some considerations to help use the technology in beneficial ways that are complementary to core literacy instruction. These tools might be made available to all students, not just those with an IEP, during literacy instruction in a blended learning environment.
Electronic books and readers
Electronic books (e-books) include digital textbooks, novels, informational articles, and other supplementary reading materials, delivered via an electronic reader (e-reader), computer, or tablet. Texts can be purchased individually or can be obtained through a paid subscription. They were widely used for independent reading in the Iowa Reading Research Center’s study of intensive summer reading programs (Reed, Schmitz, Aloe, & Folsom, 2016). During these segments of class, students most often were observed sitting in front of laptops, wearing headphones, and listening passively to the audio of the book or article being read to them while yellow highlighting moved over the words on the screen. This activity did not make students responsible for applying reading skills, and the yellow highlighting even removed the need for students to track the print themselves.
In addition to potentially turning students from active readers into passive listeners, e-readers have been associated with students reading less frequently (Merga & Mat Roni, 2017). This may be partly due to getting off task using the other features of the devices such as online content or other applications not associated with reading the digitally delivered text. Properly designing blended learning activities, as discussed with greater detail later in this post, can ensure the technology does not become a distraction or disruption to literacy learning (Kennedy & Deshler, 2010).
Digital reading instructional programs
The use of digital curricular programs is believed to help teachers with individualizing reading instruction and intervention for students of different ability levels (Cuevas, Russell, & Irving, 2012). Unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that using digital programs actually results in improved outcomes among students with and at risk for reading disabilities (Stetter & Hughes, 2010). The standard for establishing that technology “works” traditionally has been based on whether the tool operates as intended, rather than on rigorous research evidence of effectiveness (Edyburn, 2013). An operational tool is not the same thing as an effective tool.
Teachers still play a critical role in planning appropriate instruction, regardless of the types of materials or resources used in lessons (Regan, Berkeley, Hughes, & Kirby, 2014). Without the supportive guidance of and interaction with a teacher, some students who have experienced repeated reading failure and other challenges report feeling dismissed by being sent to the computer for their instruction (Reed & Wexler, 2014). For those students, the use of computers depersonalized the instruction.
Improving the use of digital tools in the classroom
Educational software and other digital tools are far more sophisticated than those that were available even a decade ago. Use of these tools in the classroom offers new avenues for increasing efficiency, individualization, and student motivation (Boyle et al., 2106). However, simply replacing traditional print-based books and instructional materials with digital formats cannot guarantee that those resources will be used wisely.
Educators might take several steps to ensure the digital activities remain the complement and not the core of their literacy instruction:
- Always provide the assistive technology for a student with a disability as prescribed in the IEP.
- Disable the audio, highlighting, and hyperlink functions of e-books unless a student’s language and learning needs (as outlined in the IEP) specifically warrant such high levels of support. If the functions are used, consider the circumstances and timeline in which they should remain enabled. Then, make a plan to assist the student with transitioning away from needing those functions.
- Plan face-to-face instructional activities based on the materials students read on e-readers or the skills they learn on a computer program. This might include fostering discussions about the important ideas in a text, incorporating the transfer and application of skills to reading in other content areas, creating opportunities to explore and apply key vocabulary words from the digital text, writing predictions about or reactions to the digital texts, and making connections to other lessons or reading materials.
- Consider computer programs as one component of a blended learning environment in which the teacher and peers are still the primary sources of interaction and instruction for students. Situate the time spent on the computers as a segment of independent learning and practice. A small group of students may work with the digital resources while the teacher is instructing another small group. Have the small groups rotate through stations of teacher-led instruction, computer-led instruction, and peer collaboration.
Digital tools can be powerful augmentative resources for differentiating literacy instruction, but they are not yet able to supplant the important role of the teacher.
This article originally appeared on the Iowa Reading Research Center blog . The Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) applies current research for the development and dissemination of best practices in literacy.