1999 Conference Proceedings

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Howard Kimmel
Internet: kimmel@admin.njit.edu 
Fadi P. Deek
Internet: deek@admin.njit.edu

New Jersey Institute of Technology
University Heights
Newark, New Jersey 07102
Tel: 973-596-3574
FAX: 973-642-1847

Mark O'Shea
Internet: Mark_OShea@monterey.edu

California State University - Monterey Bay
100 Campus Center
Seaside, CA 93955

The implementation of instructional technologies has expanded greatly in the past few years, and has become a major focus within current educational reform movements (Means, 1993). Computers, multimedia tools, peripherals and applications, satellite downlinks, and the World Wide Web are becoming more common in schools and classrooms. The infusion of the technologies into schools across the country (and the funding required to implement and support them) has created substantial new expectations in K-12 education. These increased expectations bring numerous important issues into the educational arena.

From the rhetoric of national education goals, the educational arena is crowded with ideas and demands from all sectors.

However, when discussions about education and educational reform veer away from the daily activities of the classroom, people tend to lose sight of the most important stakeholders in education - the learners themselves. Strong opinions have been expressed about teaching and learning, because it is something everyone seems to be able to identify with, as students, but also perhaps as parents or as educators. Within this context, implementation of instructional technology would appear to be advancing very rapidly, but are changes in the methods of instruction that will make the best use of these new teaching tools keeping pace? This question is even more critical for children with disabilities, since the advent of the technology is seen as a way to "level the playing field," that is, provide accommodations for the children that will allow them to develop the skills and knowledge and demonstrate the achievement of high academic standards.

The 1997 reauthorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) mandates a free and appropriate education for all students, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. It also mandates that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) must relate more clearly to the general curriculum. New National and State standards are also being mandated for all children, including children with disabilities. For example, the National Science Education Standards (NSES) has as a central tenet the idea of "success for all students" (NRC, 1996) . The successful inclusion of students with disabilities requires that the classroom curriculum be accessible to all students. The challenge is to ensure that teachers have the training and tools to meet the needs of a heterogeneous population in an inclusive environment.

As schools learn more about how students with special needs learn best - and include an increasing number of them in regular classrooms, teachers face the challenge of designing activities tailored to their diverse needs. Technology can be a powerful vehicle for instruction, curriculum access and accommodation, if the technology is infused within the curriculum and not viewed as an adjunct to teaching and learning activities. In the inclusion setting, the use of technology can provide a tool for learning and full access to the curriculum for all students. Technology can help individualize teaching and learning, though its effective use requires careful planning and design. Kimmel and Deek (1995) have discussed the need to recognize that educational technology can not be considered a panacea for educational reform. However, technology must be built into the curriculum. Incorporation of instructional technology, such as computers and multimedia tools, into classrooms must be accompanied by systemic change in the educational process. That is, to make meaningful use of technology as an instructional tool, requires the guided and systematic use of computers in classrooms for teaching and learning.

Technology as a Tool

In general, there is some agreement that learning with computers can have a positive effect on learning (Parr, 1997). In exploring how technology can play a substantial role in helping schools and educators meet the mandates of IDEA and national and state standards, two perspectives are useful:

  1. a focus on minimizing the effects of a student's disability where the technology can be used to accentuate students' strengths; and
  2. a focus on remediating a student's disability, where the technology can be used to help students strengthen their cognitive and academic deficits.

Assistive (Adaptive) technology provides methodologies and strategies to minimize the effects of the students' disabilities. These strategies and techniques for meeting educational goals and objectives appear to be widely addressed (Golden, 1998; Todis & Walker, 1993).

Technology applications to strengthen students' cognitive and academic deficits have not progressed as well, especially in the fields of science and mathematics. Providing children with disabilities a solid foundation in basic skills is an essential requisite for them to study science and mathematics. All students must be provided with skills in logic, analytical reasoning, scientific knowledge, and diverse communication skills. This means an emphasis on reading, writing, speaking, listening, and interpretation of written and spoken materials. The challenge is to provide instruction for the development of conceptual knowledge in science and mathematics while ensuring a mastery of the necessary basic skills for each grade level.

A decade ago, the primary thrust of instruction for most students with learning disabilities was in remediation of deficits in reading and mathematics, with drill and practice in arithmetic, computation, spelling and other academic tasks that rarely required complex problem solving or critical thinking. These instructional practices reflected the belief that the development of these basic skills must always precede instruction in problem solving and critical thinking tasks. This overemphasis on the "basics" with the exclusion of cognitively complex tasks provided these students with unchallenging intellectual instruction, so that they are unable to perform even the simplest level of math problem solving (Parmer, Cawley, and Frazita, 1996). Similarly, there is a lack of meaningful access to a science curriculum for students with learning disabilities, where there remains a heavy reliance on teaching science primarily through textbooks and many of these students are not skilled independent readers.

Retention and transfer of knowledge learned in class are considered two of the most significant learning problems of children with disabilities. To overcome these difficulties, children must be able to learn by a variety of instructional strategies used by teachers who are knowledgeable about effective adaptations for students with disabilities. Current educational reform movements stress instructional practices in which understanding is achieved by children actively constructing their own knowledge. In mathematics and science, instructional strategies should be creating learning situations where students are forced to think through several options before deciding how to proceed, articulate their thinking on reaching the decision, and learn to evaluate the success or failure of the chosen procedure.

Technology should be used to create learning environments that enhance understanding of concepts for all students, and provide them with the opportunity to solve problems and think critically. As a learning environment, computer based learning (CBL) systems has been expected to serve as a way to motivate, teach, and empower children with physical and learning disabilities. CBL approaches have served these students within the limitations of tutorial software which interprets individualization as self-paced individual study of prescribed material, games that require some problem solving skills, and adaptive technology which permit students with disabilities to accomplish task they are normally unable to do. The development of expert systems was expected to provide the connection between assessment information generated by CBL systems and instructional planning that is done by the teacher.

CBL and expert systems still do not meet the requirements of the mandated standards, which stress constructivist learning to develop an understanding of concepts and problem solving skills.

For example, some form of implicit instruction (which includes appropriate teacher guidance) should provide students with opportunities to learn, practice, and refine higher level, critical thinking skills needed to formulate and define problems, develop strategies for solving a given problem, and have the opportunity to test the different strategies in seeking a solution. Conceptual understanding is reached when students are able to find alternative representations for defining and solving problems. The envisioned learning environment should provide the vehicle for students to study and explore their own problem-solving efforts so as to enhance the teaching and learning of problem solving and impact on cognitive skills, content knowledge, attitudes, and motivation. Availability of this kind of learning environment would bridge the gap between the availability of adaptations for individual needs and the actual use of such adaptations by the teachers in order to design appropriate interventions for individualized instruction or for small groups of students.

A learning environment that adapts and enhances the general problem solving method to the domain of computer programming has been developed by Deek (1997). It integrates problem solving methodology/program development tasks with the cognitive skills that must be gained by students. The system provides tools that the students use in formulating the problem, planning and designing the solution, and monitoring and evaluating the solution's progress, and it encourages students to understand the problem and to think about possible solutions before engaging in implementation details.

We are in the process of developing a prototype system (which includes appropriate teacher involvement) to support students in the stages of mathematical problem solving including formulation, planning, design and implementation, and testing, and to apply the tools of this system to the learning of important mathematical concepts as students develop and refine their problem solving skills. Our decision to focus on mathematics is based on the fact that students with learning disabilities continue to be at-risk for failure in mathematics. These students generally have difficulty processing information, and acquiring and applying knowledge - the basic prerequisites of problem solving (Hallahan & Kauffman 1986). Students with learning disabilities need additional time to understand and break down problems and construct strategies, and require ongoing opportunities to explore mathematical tasks in ways that match their learning styles and strengths.

Parmar, Cawley, and Frazita (1996) studied the performance on middle school mathematics word-problems of students with and without disabilities. It was reported that students with disabilities performed at significantly lower level on problems that were non-routine. They concluded that there is a need for math instruction to move from strict computation to problem-solving type activities, including emphasis on real applications. Thornton, Langrall, and Jones (1997) found that, although problem solving traditionally has been a difficult area for many students with learning disabilities, it can be used as an effective vehicle for learning mathematics, including basic facts and concepts.

Further, the work of Goldman and Hasselbring (1997) highlights the importance of providing students with opportunities for ongoing assessment to determine how they are doing with respect to meeting goals and completing tasks. We propose that many of these difficulties can be overcome by providing a learning environment that supports the idea of mathematics as a problem-solving activity.

This environment is based on the Dual Common Model for Problem Solving (Deek, 1997) and takes into consideration the cognitive skills that must be gained by students and the tasks performed in solving problems. Facilities to assist the students in learning these skills and accomplishing these tasks will be provided for each stage of the model.

The system will be used by students to learn, practice, and refine higher level/critical thinking skills. It will harness the technology's potential to become a powerful learning tool for all students that is envisioned in the standards. Such a system will provide the vehicle for students to self-regulate and monitor their own problem-solving tasks. The student will be able to examine how they actually solved the problem and how the selected strategies they used can be improved. The system will provide an environment to enhance the teaching and learning of problem solving which can also impact on cognitive skills, content knowledge, attitudes, and motivation. The approach will meet the needs of students (as identified in the research literature) to develop and refine their skills in solving a variety of problems structured to enhance analyses and interpretation, rather than simple rote memorization (Parmar, Cawley, & Frazita, 1996).

Most importantly, perhaps, the structured nature of the process will serve to refine and enhance the organizational skills of students with learning disabilities. This learning system will facilitate the individualization of teaching methodologies, as it emphasizes the role of learners as individual creators of knowledge. The system can bridge the gap between the availability of adaptations for individual needs and the actual use of such adaptations by the teachers in order to design appropriate interventions for individualized or small group instruction.

The Learning Environment: Process and Tools

The learning environment combines the process and the tools to support the functionality of a learning environment with a workbench facility and a battery of utilities used in algebraic problem solving. The model described by Deek (1997) provides the theoretical and cognitive basis for this environment. This synthesized common model for problem solving is supported by cognition, human information-processing and learning theories.

The following are our guiding principles:

An electronic project notebook and a complete transcript/playback recording is provided. Students' problem solving self-monitoring and feedback are achieved by maintaining progress records that can be examined by both the student and teacher.

Tools for Problem Formulation:

Three tools are used for problem formulation:

  1. The Problem Description Editor, is used to enter and save the problem statement into the system.
  2. The Verbalization Tool presents questions to the student while the problem statement is still visible in the editor. These questions provoke the student to re-examine the problem statement which remains displayed throughout the interaction session. The result of this verbalization is saved, along with subsequent verbalization sessions, by the recorder and are available to the student during the entire problem solving process. A complete transcript is also created
  3. The Information Elicitation Tool is used to extract and organize relevant information, found within the problem description, in a structure suited to perform the transformations of subsequent stages and to carry out the tasks that will lead to the solution.

Tools for Solution Planning:

Three tools are used for solution planning:
  1. The Plan Definition Editor is a simple text editor used by the student to describe their approach and the steps required for solving the problem. This initial plan helps coordinate student's thoughts and actions in solving the problem.
  2. The Goal Decomposition Tool allows the student to begin the process of transforming the goal identified in the information elicitation phase into subgoals that need to be completed to solve the problem.
  3. The Data Description Tool is used to transform the givens and unknowns identified in the information elicitation phase into data representation.

Tools for Solution Design and Implementation: Two tools are used for solution design and implementation:

  1. The Task Organization Tool is used to establish the hierarchy of the subgoals already refined in previous stages and must now be carried out to solve the problem. It allows the student to reexamine the decomposition of problem goal/subgoals, establish the correct sequence and relationships among tasks, and prioritize the implementation of various tasks.
  2. The Solution Implementation Editor is used to develop the logic for tasks required to solve the problem. It allows the students to focus on the utility of mathematics in modeling and solving the problem at hand.

Tools for Testing and Evaluation:

Testing in this system is not a sequential task, rather the students are encouraged to begin the evaluation of their work early in the process and in parallel to formulation, planning and design. Three tools are used for solution testing throughout the process of problem solving:


The mandates of IDEA, and national and state standards will require full access to the classroom curriculum by all students, including students with disabilities. Technology can provide a learning environment, that supports the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills of all students, as well as their acquisition of the requisite basic skills.


Deek, F. P. (1997). "An Integrated Environment for Problem Solving and Program Development". Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Golden, D. (1998). "Assistive Technology in Special Education: Policy and Practice". Council of Administrators of Special Education, Inc., Albuquerque, N. M.

Hallahan, D.P. and Kauffman, J.M., "Exceptional Children." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Kimmel, H. and Deek F. P. (1995). "Instructional Technology: A Tool or a Panacea?" Journal of Science Education and Technology, 4(4), 327-332.

Means, B. (1993). "Using Technology to Support Education Reform". U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. National Research Council. (1996). "National Science Education Standards." Washington, D. C. National Academy Press.

Parmer, R. S., Cawley, J. F., and Frazita, R. R., (1996). "Word Problem-Solving by Students With and Without Mild Disabilities." Exceptional Children, 62, 415-429.

Parr, J. M. (1997). "Computer Assisted Learning with An Integrated Learning System: Another Front for Raising Literacy and Numeracy Amongst Secondary Students?" New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 32 (1), 37-51.

Thornton, C.A., Langrall, C.W., & Jones, G.A., "Mathematics Instruction for Elementary Students with Learning Disabilities." Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30 (2), pp. 142-150, 1997.

Todis, B. and Walker, H. M. (1993). "User Perspectives on Assistive Technology in Educational Settings." Focus on Exceptional Children, 26 (3), 2-16.

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