In this blog post I’d like to briefly explore how participation in a virtual field trip with the aid of technology such as web conferencing helps all students learn alongside their peers.
Dyslexia Advocacy Week and the Web
This week (16-22 March) is Dyslexia Advocacy Week in New Zealand. Curious, I did a web search and landed at Plus 20 in 2015 – Making Good in the Classroom, where I wondered if the content could be accessed other than by just reading text. I was pleasantly surprised as. Alongside the usual option of reading the text on the web page yourself was the option of having the text read to you in a fairly good automated rendition. The text highlighted in time with the narration, and it could be paused and restarted. I further noticed that the heading fonts on the page were big and wavy and colourful, and there is also an interesting big-scale, colourful graphic that summarised the content. I must admit, although I enjoy reading, I went straight to the interactive graphic to get the underlying message quickly! Anyway, I thought this was a good example of a website that was accessible to those with dyslexia, but was also interesting and accessible for everyone.
It got me wondering if everything on the Web improves learning for everyone, not just for students with dyslexia (reading), dyspraxia (fine motor skills), dysgraphia (writing) and dyscalculia (maths). It seems to me that the UDL (Universal Design for Learning) framework offers some hope — I wrote more about this in a previous blog called UDL and Teaching.
Our own experience in applying the principles of UDL
We have always taken this issue seriously. We are increasingly applying UDL principles to our e-learning programme called LEARNZ virtual field trips which has been operating on the Web for 20 years, reaching a wide diversity of New Zealand teachers and students. We are always looking at ways to make our field trips more engaging and more accessible and UDL is part of the “heavy lifting” we undertake so precious teacher time goes further in reaching all students in a class. For students with dyslexia, any learning experience that removes total reliance on printed text should be beneficial.
The benefits of web conferencing as a useful tool for all learners
To provide more immediacy and a more realistic experience for all learners, another addition to LEARNZ is Web Conferencing. It allows multiple interactions to take place in real time between people in different locations. Incidentally, we are also using the same platform to run regular free Teacher PLD about LEARNZ.
During field trips, web conferencing enables our guest experts in the field, such as scientists or conservationists, to discuss and answer students’ questions. LEARNZ teachers, working alongside the experts can also connect to the platform using their mobile phone over the cellular network. Enabling the webcam on their mobile phone means they can show who the experts are, where they are and what they are working on. Back in the LEARNZ office support staff preload or upload in real time related material like photos, diagrams, charts, raw data and web links or summarise spoken responses in the text area. Students, or teachers on their behalf, type questions live into a chat window and the expert’s support people or the LEARNZ support people answer them straight away or provide hints to guide their inquiry.
The multi-mode nature of web conferencing, its immediacy and flexibility allows all students to get a sense of what’s going on and to deepen their understanding. Dyslexic students benefit because web conferencing de-emphasises reading text. Although they may initially find the many nodes of a web conference busy and overwhelming, access via a mobile device shows just one node at a time and allows dyslexic students to focus their attention and spend more time on one activity; such as interpreting a photo.
Web conferencing also allows collaboration. Students, or teachers on their behalf, can upload items to share. It could be photo of a class on its own field trip. It could be a photo of a local action they have taken, like native planting along a waterway. It could be water quality data for discussion.
Combining a field trip experience with a web site and a web conferencing platform whilst applying UDL principles creates a powerful e-learning experience for everyone, dyslexic students included.
What other sites have you found to be a good user experience for those with dyslexia as well as all users?