The impact of Technology Enhanced Learning on students with Specific Learning Difficulties

Astrid Coxon, Fabio Aricò, and Jeremy Schildt, University of East Anglia
First published January 2019
Published as an Economics Network case study August 2020

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are experiencing a radical uptake of technology enhanced learning (TEL) practices. There is a lack of robust research exploring how the changing landscape of HEI teaching impacts students, particularly students who have a specific learning difficulty (SpLD). We aimed to explore this through individual, semi-structured interviews conducted with 9 University of East Anglia undergraduate students with SpLDs. Participants accepted TEL as part of HEI teaching but expressed that it wasn’t always fully integrated or sensitive to students’ learning needs. Although many participants identified TEL practices which they found beneficial, some participants stated they found TEL challenging to use. Others felt that teaching staff used TEL in a way which was not appropriate to students, and this negatively impacted their learning experience. This research highlights how the integration of TEL and its use by students can be improved to create a more inclusive learning environment.

Introduction

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are experiencing a radical uptake of technology enhanced learning (TEL) practices (Gordon, 2014; Henderson, Selwyn, & Aston, 2017a), including Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), online forums, student response systems (such as clickers and text response via mobile phone apps), and the integration of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (Hamid, Waycott, Kurnia, & Chang, 2015; S. Manca & Ranieri, 2013). In addition, the student body is now more socially and culturally diverse than ever before, and there is an increasing commitment to widening participation by addressing access, success and progression for students from underrepresented groups.

Despite these developments, there is a lack of robust research exploring how the changing landscape of HEI teaching impacts students, particularly students who have specific learning difficulties (SpLD), such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention deficit disorder. Without a better understanding of how students with SpLDs use and experience TEL, it is challenging to develop inclusive teaching practices that provide all students with an equal opportunity to engage with their learning at HEIs. By exploring the experiences of these students, in their own words, it is possible to better appraise current TEL practices, providing insight and guidance for integrating TEL with more traditional teaching methods in HEIs (Kirkwood & Price, 2014). This qualitative study forms the first stage in a four-part research initiative to develop inclusive guidelines to improve the provision of TEL for all students in HEIs.

Research aims

This study aimed to: 1. Explore what TEL practices undergraduate students with SpLDs currently use, and their opinions of them 2. Understand how TEL practices impact SpLD students, both positively and negatively.

Methods

Ethics

Prior to recruiting participants, the project proposal and its data collection strategy were submitted for ethical scrutiny and approval by the School of Economics Research Ethics Committee. Given the sensitive nature of the data, recruitment of participants was handled by an administrative assistant within the Student Support Service. Students were contacted by email on the basis of their declared SpLD under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act and invited to participate in the project.

Interviews were held within the premises of the Student Support Service, to provide a further layer of confidentiality. The interviewer did not have access to the full identity of the students being interviewed, unless students themselves decided to disclose this information; the administrative assistant involved with booking interviews had no access to the content of the interviews. Student participants were briefed about the project aims and objectives and gave explicit informed consent to be interviewed and have their conversation with the interviewer recorded and transcribed. Students were also advised of their right to withdraw from the study at a later stage by contacting the Student Support Service administrative assistant supporting the project. This process was facilitated by a coding system held only by the administrative assistant that matched student identity with a unique interviewee code.

Interviews

Individual, semi-structured interviews were conducted by one member of the research team (AC), experienced in the use of qualitative research methods. Participants were all undergraduate students at the UEA. A total of nine students with SpLDs were interviewed, with interviews lasting between 12- 37 minutes. Demographic data such as gender, age, and field of study, was not collected. For the purposes of ease of discussion, we have assigned each participant a gender-neutral pseudonym.

Table 1: Participant assigned pseudonyms and interview length
Participant number Pseudonym Interview length
001 Frankie 19:07
002 George 36:53
005 Jesse 26:14
006 Morgan 12:24
007 Casey 32:06
008 Sam 36:54
009 Ash 31:01
010 Rory 37:16
011 Charlie 23:13

Interviews were all conducted in a quiet and confidential space by one member of the research team with experience conducting qualitative research. The interview schedule was designed following a scoping review of the literature, and in discussion between members of the research team. Questions within the schedule were deliberately open-ended, with various prompts provided to encourage participants to talk freely and broadly about their experiences of TEL. Interview questions included topics such as “Do you use digital technology often in your learning? Is this your own choice, does it reflect how teaching and assessment happens in your modules, or both?”, “does your specific learning difficulty affect your use of digital technologies for learning” and “do you find digital technology in your learning useful, and why”. The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed for analysis, with the identity of participants kept confidential.

Analytic approach

Thematic analysis, as defined by Braun & Clarke (2006), was used to analyse the data. As prior research in this area is limited, this approach allowed for analysis to be primarily inductive, reflecting the lived experiences of participants in their own words. Each of the nine transcripts was systematically analysed and coded, then cross-referenced and re-coded to ensure a rich analysis which reflects the dataset in its entirety. Areas of convergence and divergence between participant accounts were noted and initial themes developed. These initial themes were then related back to the dataset as a whole and refined where appropriate. From these themes, we then developed a concise and coherent narrative to provide a descriptive and interpretative analysis of the participants’ experiences.

Results & Analysis

Following analysis, four key themes were developed, highlighting areas of significant convergence and divergence in participants’ experiences of TEL. All participants accepted TEL as part of HEI learning and teaching experience but expressed that it wasn’t always fully integrated or sensitive to students’ learning needs. Some participants expressed a preference for more traditional learning methods, stating that they found digital technologies challenging to use (theme 1, “TEL as enhancement, not replacement”). Others felt that teaching staff used digital technologies in a way which was not always appropriate to SpLD students, and this negatively impacted their learning experience (theme 2, “The role of staff”). However, several of the participants discussed the benefits of social media platforms and cloud-based platforms as practical ways to facilitate peer support and collaborative working in group projects (theme 3, “Social aspects of TEL”). All participants were able to identify ways in which current TEL practice could be improved. Two participants stated explicitly that they found the increasing use of TEL was a significant barrier to their successful engagement with the learning materials, and found TEL challenging rather than beneficial. All nine participants discussed the importance of varied methods of learning, options, and support for students to adopt a learning approach which met their individual needs (theme 4, ”Student-led learning”).

(1) TEL as enhancement, not replacement

When asked what digital technologies they used in their learning, all participants were able to identify a variety of TEL practices. These included familiar established programmes (e.g. Microsoft Office, Word), Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs, such as Blackboard) provided by the university, specialist software and equipment (e.g. DragonTalk, Sonocent) supplied by the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), interactive platforms used in formal teaching settings (e.g. clickers, Padlet, Kahoot), social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat), online resources (e.g. YouTube, Google) and online or cloud-based programmes (e.g. Grammarly, Google Drive, OneDrive, Office 365, Skype).

The majority of participants were able to describe positive experiences of TEL, giving examples of how TEL resolved certain practical issues such as access to, and organisation of, resources -

“...when you type it just makes things way easier, and you can put them in Grammarly, which is really helpful. Everything is online, so putting things online and on the computer is way easier than finding it and writing it down.” - Casey

“We have some lecture capture within my school, where they like record audio and put the slides up on Blackboard, and kind of marry the two up. Which is quite handy when it comes to revision.” - Sam

Charlie in particular, welcomed the increasing use of TEL, preferring working digitally over more traditional methods -

“I definitely enjoy, I’m quite good at typing, like touch typing, so I definitely enjoy doing all that on the- during the lecture cos it keeps me engaged as well.” - Charlie

However, despite these perceived advantages, the majority of participants stated there were elements of their learning they still preferred to adopt more traditional learning methods for. In some instances, this was simply down to personal preference, but in others, participants explained they found the digital format difficult to work with -

“I prefer to write things by hand, ‘cause I think it makes me concentrate more. If I have something trying in front of me, I’m probably going to end up doing something else, or going on the internet... I just feel I’m going to concentrate more if I don’t have a laptop in front of me and I can’t type as quick as other people.” – Frankie

“...for me, I can’t read things on a screen, I need it in paper. Listening’s fine, but I need it in paper as well to be following properly, or else it doesn’t go in as well.” - Ash

“I find it hard to read off the computer.” - Sam

Charlie emphasised the importance of adopting TEL practices as preparation for using digital technology in the workplace -

“I would feel quite uncomfortable now if we were still doing everything on paper because that’s just not how the world works. So like in a workplace, you, that would never happen, so I’m glad there’s a transition.” - Charlie

Conversely, Sam explained that reliance on digital technologies in HEI learning had been a disadvantage in their workplace, suggesting the need to develop a range of different skills throughout HEI study -

“...sometimes, technology is great and has really helped, other times it’s been a bit of a barrier in that I never has a chance to develop my handwriting and then likewise never had a chance to become a quicker typer because I was given DragonTalk software. Then moving into the professional environment where I work in a control room, and there’s this ‘oh well if you can’t type quick enough you need voice to text software’, working on a phone, you can’t use voice to text....” - Sam

All participants explained that both TEL and more traditional learning practices had advantages and disadvantages – one could not completely replace the other, and participants chose to combine different methods to suit their individual needs and preferences. TEL practices were seen as an enhancement to existing methods of learning, not a replacement of them -

“They’re just, you know, another set of tools that I can use. Which is good cos like, I just want to come to them, use them objectively. I don’t really mind. As long as I’ve got a diverse range of things to access, and then I can pick it out.” - Morgan

(2) The role of staff

Although students’ use of TEL was often self-directed (ie. In the case of revision/study aids, word processing and group working), participants also described ways in which TEL practices were used by teaching staff. Some felt that staff use of TEL was limited -

“...they just put the PowerPoints on Blackboard, though occasionally if something’s really important, they’ll record the lecture, but yeah, they basically just put it on Blackboard [VLE] and that’s about it.” - Frankie

Participants such as Morgan and Charlie felt that the use of TEL practices by some staff was done as a “box ticking exercise”, and not innovative or well considered -

“I think a lot of lecturers see it as a necessity rather than anything that they can like, I don’t know, add to, or use in an innovative way... it does feel a bit, you know, Spartan sometimes. Especially when certain lecturers don’t use it, or they don’t use it consistently.” - Morgan

“...obviously some better than others, but it feels like the lecture, when they’re doing that, it just felt like they were being told to do it. And it didn’t really work... it just felt like ‘we’re ticking boxes for the uni’, so no, I don’t think that really helped the lecture...” - Charlie

Rory explained that some staff were more open to using novel TEL practices, but didn’t always appear confident in their use or effectiveness -

“...there’s only one lady that’s come in quite a few times, using this little clicker system. So it doesn’t happen very often. It’s always a case of ‘I don’t know if this works but we’ll give it a try’.” - Rory

Others, such as George, felt that this limited range of TEL practices impacted negatively on opportunities to demonstrate their ability and understanding -

“We had an assessment that they wanted to- it was a formative and they were like ‘let’s do it as an audio recording’ and I was like, ‘that’s great! I’m really good at talking!’ And then he was like, ‘no, we’ll change it as email submission, page of A4 now’... I’m meant to be like the 99th percentile of verbal ability, or something dumb like that and I was like ‘wow, I’ll do really well now’... It’s really disappointing...if you’re going to use technology, how about we use it bigger than just make a Word document?” - George

Frankie speculated that some staff were resistant to the use of TEL practices in fear of it reducing attendance to, and engagement with, lectures. However, they emphasised that the advantages (increased accessibility) outweighed the disadvantages (reduced attendance) -

“...there’s been discussion of the recording of lectures, but then there’s like the whole against argument of that people just won’t show up, which I understand, but I think it’s going to benefit in the long run and if people don’t want to show up, that’s their problem... People have disabilities, stuff like that, so I think it’s a good idea.” - Frankie

For those staff members that did use other TEL practices in their teaching, this was most commonly interactive technologies and student response systems, such as Padlet, clickers, or quiz generators such as Kahoot. Ash found some of these useful, but others anxiety provoking -

“...we often use online quizzes in class...we’ve had clickers, Padlet, we’ve had a couple of things. Which I quite like cos there’s no, you know, time thing on it, it’s just you’re answering in your own time...I don’t like Kahoot because I always feel rushed, and I can’t think that quickly. And then I feel crappy because I can’t get any of the answers right.” - Ash

Casey and Rory stated that TEL practices were not always used consistently or appropriately, disadvantaging the learning needs of SpLD students -

“...it gets me so frustrated because they’re meant to send the lecture notes to us the day before the lecture, especially for us, like we should get the copies, because it’s like, we got told we’ll get the copy as we’ve got disabilities, to help us with. Like that’s never happened, except from one lecturer.” - Casey

“I know there’s a few people in my cohort that have sort of similar difficulties to me, and you often hear sort of in the background ‘oh they’ve not put the Powerpoint up and ugh’, you know, you can hear them sort of moaning, because they’re already in that state of mind ‘oh well they haven’t put it up for me, so there’s not a lot I can do’.” - Rory

Morgan felt that staff should be given better guidance on how to effectively integrate TEL in their teaching, particularly regarding the needs of SpLD students, to make sure individual needs are met -

“...every lecturer having like, a blanket agreement that they’ll use some form of technology. Or just like guidelines of how to use that technology […] I’d be very wary of introducing that if you’re not 100% certain that a lecturer already has some interest or some knowledge of access services. Because inappropriately used, technology is worse than not having it.” – Morgan

(3) Social aspects of TEL

All of the participants in this study discussed the social aspect of TEL practice. Some, like Charlie and Jesse, discussed how social media platforms enabled real-time peer support whilst studying and revising -

“...I use Snapchat to interact with my friends, but sometimes that could’ve been like revision, so especially during exams, because you can send videos on Snapchat now...we did have conversations where we’d be able to talk to each other...” - Charlie

“I ask my mates questions on Snapchat...It’s just easier to send them a picture of what I’m doing and be like ‘is this right?’ or ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with this?’” - Jesse

Others, such as Casey and Rory, discussed the various forms of group problem solving that TEL practices offered -

“We do use the Facebook group, and the Facebook chat, we do have questions popping up every, like every week, about essays and stuff, people are really good with that. People ask questions, and then everyone answers, or they will have a concern and then they will be like ‘OK I will email the teacher’, after that they will send it back to the group, which I found really helpful.” - Casey

“We’ve got like a Facebook chat which is for the whole cohort to put queries or whatever on.” - Rory

Most frequently discussed were the benefits of digital technologies for collaborative group working -

“...when we did a group essay we used Google Docs, because then we could live edit it and comment on each other’s work, which was super cool.” - George

Group working using TEL was also described as being more accessible and in some ways even more collaborative than more traditional methods, enabling participation of group members who may not be able to attend in person, for whatever reason -

“OneDrive, I mean when it comes to doing our group blogs...we’d open up a document on OneDrive and share that with everyone...we all use different colour fonts so we knew who did what...so stuff like that works really well...We had those, that one person that never showed up to group work, never showed up to a seminar, actually did a lot of work...there were people that helped fantastically which obviously if it wasn’t for that technology, we never would have had that input.” - Sam

(4) Student-led learning

The majority of the participants interviewed for this study experienced benefits from TEL practices, but emphasised that these form part of a broader range of teaching practices. Linked to the first theme, “TEL as enhancement, not replacement”, this theme encapsulated participants’ concerns that HEI practice should be flexible, sensitive to individual learners and, ultimately, student-led. However, some participants felt that the increased uptake of TEL was taking choice away from students, as using digital technology in learning becomes the “new normal”. George felt more traditional methods of learning were no longer an option -

“It’s not my choice, it’s everything is just digital. That’s how they want to teach it, like a lot of people will turn up to a lecture with their laptop and have like the lecture slides on the laptop and then will make notes on it. And I don’t really know how to do that.” - George

For students not confident in the use of digital technology, this may create a sense of feeling left out, or unsupported. For HEI to be truly inclusive, students who share George’s experiences should be supported either to develop their knowledge of using digital technology in learning or adopt learning practices that suit their needs, skills and preferences.

The way in which HEIs adopt TEL practices is not always reflected in the ways students choose to incorporate digital technology in their learning. Casey described how students were already choosing to use social media platforms for group discussion based on convenience, rather than using the formal discussion board set up on the university’s VLE -

“It’s so formal and you don’t, you have to check to get the message, but for Facebook you get a noti[fication] and you can just read it.” - Casey

This example (echoed in other participants’ accounts) suggests that platforms provided by HEIs do not always match students’ preferred ways of working. However, as the use of social media platforms is not monitored by academic staff, this can create practical problems -

“...one person says this, one person says that, one person says another, and everyone gets really confused, instead of just all having it fed through one person to the director...if they had a system set up, in place already...they knew it was going to be an issue, but it still happened.” - Ash

This suggests a need for HEIs to recognise the ways in which students adopt TEL practices and respond in a way that best supports their learning and understanding in reality. Sam explained that students’ use of TEL practices will likely continue to develop and grow with time, but emphasised that there is also a need for teaching staff to adapt their ways of working to match, in a way that was flexible to individual need -

“...the way that we as students interact with technology will develop massively, but I think from, the most part as well, our kind of academic tutors need to change? And need to see that there are more than one way of doing things, and we all learn in different ways, and sometimes using a broad range of technology can assist that, but also not in a ‘one glove fits all’ approach...” - Sam

Many participants, particularly Jesse, supported the idea of student autonomy: HEIs provide a variety of options in terms of approach to learning, with individual learners deciding to adopt approaches which best suited their own needs -

“....they [the university] give you access to all the software and stuff, and I think it’s more, it’s up to the individual learner and how they like to learn.” - Jesse

Although there is still a responsibility for HEIs to provide adequate choice and support, participants agreed that HEI learning should ultimately be student-led.

Discussion & Conclusions

This research explored the TEL practices currently experienced by undergraduate SpLD students in HEI study. Although participants described some of the positive aspects of TEL practices, such as collaborative group working, peer support, and increased accessibility of teaching materials, they also identified a number of ways in which use of TEL practices could be improved. Despite the recent, radical uptake of TEL in HEI teaching, these findings suggest that this approach is not necessarily the best approach for all students.

Although some of the participants in this study saw clear and significant benefits in using TEL to facilitate their engagement with study at HEIs, this was not the case for all. Some participants expressed a preference for more traditional methods of learning (printed materials and face-to-face discussion), and stated they found TEL hard to engage with. With the increasing ubiquity of TEL practices, it is important for educators to carefully consider how best to scaffold these with students’ engagement and understanding (Henderson, Selwyn, & Aston, 2017b; Schneckenberg, 2009). Participants also described instances where TEL had been adopted by teaching staff, but not appropriately integrated; this was felt to be more detrimental to the learning experience than not including TEL practices in the first place, echoing findings from Manca & Ranieri (2016). This is particularly true for students with SpLDs, who may require alternative teaching methods to facilitate their learning (Balakrishnan & Gan, 2016). This research highlights the need for educators to continue to employ a broad range of integrated teaching methods, which support the broad and varied needs of all students.

Limitations and future research

The findings from this research will be used to inform the design of subsequent stages of the research project, including the design of a questionnaire to be disseminated to all students at the University of East Anglia.

There are some important limitations of this study that should be acknowledged and addressed in future research. First, TEL is a complex term which encompasses a broad range of practices, including but not limited to: social media, specialist hardware and software, web-based programmes and virtual learning environments. Its use may vary between HEIs, further impacting students’ specific conceptualisation and experiences of what is meant by TEL. Even with the same understanding of what constitutes TEL, TEL is a very complex object. A classification of different forms of TEL, matched to a specific response for each category, would allow testing the association between specific TEL forms and their effectiveness within the SpLD student population.

Secondly, the term SpLD covers a range of difficulties which can manifest in a variety of ways so that each profile is unique to the individual (British Dyslexia Association, 2018). Different SpLDs might generate different needs and different reactions to TEL. Consolidating published SpLD research, we would be able to discover whether there are patterns and differences across different SpLDs.

It is anticipated that the overall findings from the research project will be of great benefit to students and educators alike. All students at HEIs in the UK are likely to be exposed to TEL, and the findings from this research will enable the development of informed, evidence-based guidance for optimising integrated and inclusive teaching practices.

Acknowledgements

This project was generously funded by the UEA Alumni Fund 2015. The authors are grateful to the University of East Anglia and the Alumni Fund donors for supporting their research.

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