2000 Conference Proceedings

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LIBERATORS OF THE 21st CENTURY? LIBRARIES AS THE CATALYST FOR SUPPORTING THE LITERACY DEVELOPMENT OF STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES THROUGH ICTs

Bernadette Cassidy, Researcher
ICT and Literacy Project
School of Information Management
The Grange
Leeds Metropolitan University
Beckett Park Campus
Leeds LS6 3QS
Phone: 0113 2832600 ext. .3733
Email: b.cassidy@lmu.ac.uk

Sally Gibbs, Senior Lecturer (Project Director)
School of Information Management
Leeds Metropolitan University
The Grange
Beckett Park Campus
Leeds LS6 3QS
Phone: 0113 2832600 ext.3552
Email: s.gibbs@lmu.ac.uk



The potential of ICT lies in its ability to provide access to learning for students with learning difficulties. Broadly, ICT can enable students to overcome barriers to learning by providing alternative or additional methods of engaging within the learning process. The view about the value of ICT is shown by experience and observation for example, children are obviously motivated by computers, which leads to the conclusion that computers are effective tools for learning. Thus, Seymour Papert visualises two roles for technology: a) heuristic – that ICT has catalysed the emergence of ideas and b) instrumental – that ICT has the capacity to carry these ideas to a wider and expanding audience (Papert, 1980). However, others argue that there is little empirical evidence to support the cause and effect, i.e. that ICT causes higher levels of literacy and learning as much of the evidence is anecdotal and impressionistic, (Hammond, 1994). Theories of learning suggest all students need a range of learning resources including ICT. The question arises whether ICT has particular relevance for those with learning difficulties (LD).

The current debate raises a number of issues about how literacy should be defined and is also concerned with whether ICT has an effect on raising ‘literacy’ levels, or the student’s ‘ICT literacy’ or both. Numerous studies have documented ICT as a wonderful learning tool and facility in education (Olsen, 1988, Loveless, 1995, Underwood, 1990, and Reinking, 1997), but few studies have actually focused on the enhancement of literacy skills in particular, among those with LD. The evidence on the effectiveness of ICT is anecdotal and is not as a result of controlled experimental models, but it does provide enough evidence to continue the exploration of ICT as a compensatory strategy for people with LD. What evidence there is supports the notion of a positive human/computer interaction, which is quite different to that of ICT influencing literacy, (Busby, et al, 1988). This begs the question of what that positive interaction is all about and whether libraries, especially in further education can play a role in this.

The discussion is situated within the current debate about the learning society and the requirement for all individuals to see learning as a lifelong experience. The development of increasingly sophisticated ICTs opens up more opportunities for those with special needs and allows them to contribute more effectively to their communities. Current access to ICTs is dependent on high levels of literacy, but definitions of literacy are being reconstructed as people negotiate new modes of literate activity in post-industrial societies. Recently, there has been recognition of the need to move to definitions of literacy that are multi-dimensional.

This paper will report the preliminary results of a study designed to investigate the role of ICTs in developing literacy in young people, aged 16-25, with special educational needs. The aim of the study is to track the students as they move from compulsory schooling into a range of further education programmes, in terms of their literacy development, and the ICTs available to support such development. The research is located within the context of further education college libraries in England and Wales, and will seek to identify positive models of ICT resource provision for this group, and the role of the librarian in facilitating literacy development.


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Background: Literacy and ICT

Most definitions of literacy place emphasis on print based information and have relevance only for the ‘average pupil’ in mainstream education. They do not take into account, those who do not have access to sufficient means to convey information such as visual; auditory; multi-sensory and the use of non-linear texts.

Literacy has far reaching effects on society. In order to participate fully in society an individual must use communication skills (reading, writing and speaking), superior cognitive skills (analysis and synthesis) and computational skills to solve problems and make decisions (Askov, 1991). Recent statistics from the UK showed that: 57% of eleven year olds reached the reading level expected for their age; six million adults were functionally illiterate and four out of ten unemployed people had no qualifications, (National Literacy Trust, 1997). Furthermore, an international study showed Britain to be far behind four other West European countries; Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Around 10% of the population fell into the low skills category, whereas in Britain, the figure is over 20%, that is to say eight million people are so poor at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life. (Office for National Statistics, 1997).

Notions or ideas of literacy are not a new phenomenon, what is new however, is the complexity of today’s literacy. Definitions of literacy have changed radically in the past fifty years as society’s expectations for literate behaviour evolved. In post-modern society it is becoming increasingly necessary for individuals to negotiate the new technologies, as we move away from an era of exclusion to an era of inclusion, ideas of literacy need redefining. These ‘new’ literacies means that students of all abilities need the necessary skills to function in the information age (Brevik, 1998).


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Definitions of Literacy

There does appear to be little consensus amongst theorists and educationalists about the definition of literacy and therefore it is difficult to envisage a single timeless definition of literacy (Roberts, 1995), although the consensus appears to be on the multi-dimensional aspects of literacy and its dynamics.

ICTs and computers are redefining literacy and the approaches to teaching it. We are in a transition period moving away from print-dominated classrooms where literacy learning focuses almost completely on tasks related to dealing effectively with text. (CAST, 1999).

For the purposes of this research it was imperative to locate a working definition of literacy which would represent the fundamental requirement of all individuals, but especially those with learning difficulties and disabilities:

"Literacy is about empowerment: to nurture individuals using literacy as one means not only of achieving a richer and fuller life but also of achieving social growth and genuine democratic power" (Traves, 1992 p.77).

Literacy is an individual’s understanding of his/her surroundings and environment, for example, whether he or she can negotiate their way to the bus stop and recognise which is the correct bus they should take to college. Once they are at college, can they find their way to the classroom, the learning resource centre or the canteen?

It is not surprising therefore, that the British government has implemented a program to increase the role of ICT within the education sector. Moreover, the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) has pledged that £5 million will be available to support further education colleges in developing the use of ICT for students with special needs.


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The Literacy and ICT Project in Leeds, (UK)

The study is designed to measure the literacy levels of groups of young people aged between 16-25 years with learning difficulties. Initial investigations indicated that those students with LD would either be placed in special schools or integrated within mainstream schools. This situation introduced a difference in emphasis between special and mainstream schools with regard to the method of learning and exposure to ICT. Briefly, the mainstream schools were better resourced in terms of ICT provision.
By exposure is meant the use of ICT as a formal teaching and educational tool as opposed to informal access to ICT (e.g. having computers at home). The design will provide observations for comparison not only between students over several time points, but also within students’ in terms of detecting changes in an individual’s literacy skills.

The fieldwork revealed that the provision of ICT in schools in Leeds is patchy and diverse and is dependent in part on the resources, funding, training, expertise, confidence and knowledge of the teaching staff. For example, only two of the special schools had an IT suite of networked computers available to its pupils.


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Results from the Pilot study

Initial fieldwork was conducted in late 1998 and early 1999 in special and mainstream schools in the Leeds area. A total of ten schools were visited and observed; four of which were mainstream and six were special schools. For the pilot, twenty-three pupils were interviewed from three special schools. The main purpose of the pilot study was to test, and retest the tools for measuring literacy. At the same time, a mini unstructured qualitative interview was undertaken. The interviews were unstructured due to the level of disability of the students and to allow them time to respond in their own words. These included topics such as their feelings about computers, their access, and level of usage etc. All the interviews were tape-recorded.

Of the three special schools, from the pilot study, only one was networked at the time, one was due to be networked early this year, and the third had been cabled but due to lack of technical support the work was not completed. In one school, IT sessions were for the older pupils only and involved exercises such as producing a newspaper. The networked school taught IT separately at Key Stage 3, however at Key Stage 4 it was taught across the curriculum.

All the students were familiar with computers and their purpose, in the main; the students used PCs for word processing and to assist them with homework. However, when the students were asked the question "Do you have a computer at home only a small number said they had and they reportedly excitedly that they had a mega drive and/or play station!

Recent research conducted by the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) which found that the more ICT is used in schools the more it motivates the pupils (SCAA, 1997). The research also found that the use of educational CD-ROMS and Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) has increased significantly. An ILS is a computer-based learning system designed to help users develop specific skills, such as literacy and numeracy.


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Another important issue indicated in the fieldwork was software, for many of the schools; the software was not age appropriate and was viewed as patronising, although there are signs that this is improving. The ILS (Integrated Learning Systems) previously mentioned, were prohibitively expensive, one mainstream school had invested in a less expensive version. Funding is necessary for hardware and software and more importantly to train all teaching and library staff in the use of ICT.

It is important to identify software needs before purchasing and to evaluate any existing software and match to the levels of expertise.

Despite the British governments’ emphasis on ICT, the issues concerning lack of technical support, training, resources were predominantly visible throughout the fieldwork. Nonetheless, there are initiatives that are taking place:


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Conclusions

In 1996, 131,00 students with Learning Difficulties enrolled in further education (FE) colleges in England and Wales, roughly 5% of the total student population, (Meager et al. 1996). Clearly, libraries and colleges in further education colleges need to be proactive in harnessing the mix of traditional based library and information services to support learners of all ages and at all levels. Primarily, the role of further education libraries is to offer flexible and open learning to all students; drop-in learning facilities; learning support workshops; basic skills support and a wide range of materials and resources.

The role of learning resources and libraries in supporting literacy development may well be located outside the college community and operate in an environment where the boundaries between learning, society and ICT become increasingly blurred, the idea of "colleges without walls".

Young people require skills that will teach them how to learn effectively. These learning to learn skills are not currently part of the educational package, and ICT is just one tool to support this. Young people’s experiences are not restricted to a school and college environment; thus it is imperative to offer young people a personally relevant college experience which will be based on the development of genuine literacy and authentic knowledge building.


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REFERENCES


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