2000 Conference Proceedings

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CAST'S WEB LEARNING AND PRODUCTIVITY TOOL

Sheela Sethuraman
39 Cross Street, Suite 201
Peabody, MA 01960
ssethuraman@cast.org David Clark
39 Cross Street, Suite 201
Peabody, MA 01960
dmclark@cast.org

The World Wide Web is a rich educational environment, providing a wealth of current and frequently updated information and hyperlinks that enable students to research topics in-depth by visiting relevant Web sites. But the very richness and complexity of this vehicle for learning presents significant challenges to the many students using it to conduct research for homework assignments or to learn about a favorite topic. Content with heavy emphasis on text, resources that are poorly organized, and visual and audio distractions turn a powerful learning environment into one that is fraught with barriers for even the most skilled Web user.

Challenges with Web Searches

To find the information they need, students must first know how to conduct an effective search. Even when they are successful in using a search engine to enter appropriate key words, search results often yield an overwhelming list of Web sites that may or may not be relevant to the topic they are researching. Moreover, the readability level of much of the information they access on the Web is inappropriately high.

While these challenges present difficulties for most students, they are especially daunting to students with learning disabilities. For example, search engines help Web users find the information they are looking for, but they are unforgiving of spelling errors and vocabulary deficits. Even "help screens" are often too text-dense to be comprehended by students with reading difficulties.

CAST Research on Web Use and Effective Information Acquisition Strategies

CAST is currently conducting research to identify barriers and solutions to effective Web use in learning for students at the middle school level with a range of disabilities, including sensory, physical, and learning disabilities. This is an important educational transition point where many students with disabilities flounder due to underdeveloped skill needed in the acquisition and presentation of information. We are also conducting focus groups with educators and school librarians to learn more about effective pre-search, search and organizational strategies currently used by learners.

A Web Learning and Productivity Tool

The research findings are informing our design and development of a web learning and productivity software tool codenamed Webtrekker. Webtrekker is based on CAST eReader, a CAST ResearchWare(R) product. The eReader is a popular tool that provides supported reading capabilities through its synchronized text-to-speech functionality. It reads plain text documents, Rich Text Format (RTF) documents and Web pages. In building the new product, we intend to develop our own modules and whenever appropriate, license existing components such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, spell checkers, markers and graphic organizers and integrate them into the core eReader engine.

This enhanced eReader or Webtrekker will help students with disabilities to focus on one or more strategic approaches to finding and using information on the Web, thereby reducing the burden of processing and manipulating massive amounts of information: Specifically:

Planning support - to help students identify the major tasks, prioritize them and plan a timeline for the completion of the assignment. Search support - to help students identify appropriate key words, verify spelling, narrow down their search, categorize, and rank search results. Information organizing support - to help students organize information they find on the Web so that it is useful to them. The WebTrekker will help students to mark sections of text, whole documents, images, graphics, or charts and save that information with its reference in a graphic organizer. Further, the tool will enable students to take notes (an especially difficult task for students with disabilities) and attach the notes directly to the text that they have selected. Presenting/Writing support - to help students with the writing process, including planning and organizing, writing and editing, and presentation of the work.

Universal Design for Learning® Components in the Tool

CAST's Universal Design for Learning® principles will guide our work as we develop the Webtrekker. Some key aspects of Universal Design for Learning® include flexible learning supports, access supports, opportunities for customization, opportunities for self-monitoring and self-assessment, multiple ways to communicate, multiple levels of engagement and timely and appropriate feedback. We are currently building many of these Universal Design for Learning® features into the Webtrekker tool. We also plan to develop guidelines to help publishers, web developers and authors of electronic materials create universally designed learning materials which can be used with the Webtrekker tool. These efforts will ensure that students with different learning needs can easily access and process the information on the web.


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