eLearning Options Hinge on Appropriate Internet Access

High speed Internet is an extraordinary creation; it allows you to sucker punch HBO and Netflix without the punitive reprisal of extensive buffering, which might otherwise hinder your ability to watch the entirety of Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica in one weekend.

Entertainment value aside, high speed Internet has also been a boon for education, not just for higher education, but also for grades K-12. Having access to information and elearning programs can dramatically improve a student’s ability to learn. While many public schools have access to high speed Internet, a significant deficit exists.

According to the Education Super Highway, roughly 63% of public schools in the United States do not have adequate bandwidth to meet current demands for digital access. This equates to roughly 40 million US public school students who are not able to utilize the Internet to its fullest potential.

Cultivating in students a self-sustaining desire to learn is essential to future success and general well-being. One such initiative that does so, although also ultimately depends on Internet access, is the “universal design for learning,” or UDL for short. “We’ve seen that technology can do a lot of stuff to support students, but the real driver is: Do they actually want to learn something?”

The UDL initiative began when the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, began creating interactive digital textbooks for students with disabilities. These digital textbooks incorporated pop-up graphics, text to speech functionality, versatile fonts, and other features that were customizable by the student. Customizable features are key to creating and fostering positive interactions between students and learning. Additionally, students are more receptive to learning when presented in a way they understand and can comfortably interact with.

The success of UDL initiatives led schools to adopt these flexible and interactive education materials and methods for students outside of special needs departments. The founders of CAST determined that the greatest impediment to student learning was not physical or cognitive impairments, but emotional.

According to David Rose, a neuropsychologist and co-founder and chief education officer with CAST, said “We’ve seen that technology can do a lot of stuff to support students, but the real driver is: Do they actually want to learn something?”

After determining the importance of an emotional connection to reading, CAST went on to create Udio, is an online tool that specializes in assisting middle school students who are struggling with reading.

The goal of Udio is to engage students with a topic or idea that interests them, rather than the traditional approach of giving them materials below their grade level to read. To engage students, Udio uses online articles donated from various organizations, such as NASA or Sports Illustrated for Kids. These articles are supported with text-to-speech bubbles, which allow the student to hear the word aloud; additionally there are audible word translations for English-language students. From these articles, students are typically asked to create Internet-based presentations that incorporate various text, audio recordings, and images that illustrate their understanding of the article.

A recent modification to Udio is the redesign of the assessment feature. Instead of presenting students with a traditional multiple choice test, students now fill in a word puzzle created from what they just finished reading. Non-special needs students also benefit from Udio and similar UDL programs the flexible features allow students to customize their interaction to suit their learning style.

On March 12th and 13th, educators and elearning specialists from across the country will meet in Mississippi for the Second Annual UDL-IRN Summit. They will discuss UDL best practices, the most effective means of implementation, how to expand UDL research, and ways to increase collaboration between researchers and those implementing UDL.

Without initiatives such as UDL and the organizations that provide access to high speed Internet and elearning content, many more students would lag behind.

For more information on UDL, see Slate’s article: A New Approach to Designing Educational Technology.

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