2000 Conference Proceedings

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SUPPORTING STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES: AN INTRODUCTION TO WEB-BASED PROCESS-ORIENTED INSTRUCTION

Greg R. Gay
Center for Academic and Adaptive Technology
130 St. George St.
Toronto, Ontario
M5S 3H1
g.gay@utoronto.ca

A web-based course on developing process-oriented instruction has been created to support teachers of students with learning disabilities. The course focuses on raising self-awareness.


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What is Process-Oriented Instruction?

The goal of process-oriented instruction is to teach students about themselves as learners, and raise their awareness of their abilities and learning preferences. Process-oriented instruction involves a teacher modeling and thinking aloud as a way of uncovering for the learner, the cognitive and metacognitive processes underlying learning. Process-oriented instruction may be described as "Applied Cognitive Psychology" (Wong, 1992). Vermunt (1995) defines process-oriented instruction as "... teaching thinking strategies and domain-specific knowledge in coherence", aimed at "promoting the development of meaning-directed and application-directed learning styles." Students who possess these learning styles use deep processing and self-regulated learning strategies, and to them, learning is seen as a personal construction of knowledge. These students are motivated learners who seek out learning opportunities.

Process aware learners learn to recognize and analyze patterns, and ask themselves questions: "Is this problem like another I've experienced?", "Why do I have trouble with this type of problem?", "How is my excitement (or anxiety) affecting how I learn?", "What did I just do?"..., each of which are conscious metacognitive statements. These questions become a regular part of thinking that develop into a skill, and with practice, become a regular part of a person's personality. Life-long learners, a popular term in the realms of education, possess the skills and knowledge that develop out of process-oriented instruction.

One of the keys to developing increased knowledge of thinking processes is to develop models of thinking. Models help an expert learner put into words (or pictures) "tacit" knowledge that is often difficult to verbalize. Models also help the novice learner make sense of a vast number of interactions between perceptual abilities, learning preferences, memory capacities, and the accumulated knowledge of facts and procedures that govern how learning occurs. By developing models of thinking, highly automated processes become declarative knowledge, and the accumulation of this knowledge forms a content area of it's own. This content knowledge differs from other content area knowledge however. It can be compared to language, which is a "meta" system of symbols we use to describe other systems of symbols that we use to represent meaning (see a discussion of semiotics and sign systems). Metacognition is another such "meta" system, used to regulate thinking, the development of which is a primary focus of process-oriented instruction.



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Metacognition and Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities have been described by many as the ineffective use of strategies. Children with learning disabilities are not necessarily deficient in the quantity of learning strategies they possess, but rather, apply them in inappropriate or ineffective ways, having less control over certain aspects of their thinking.

Several characteristic profiles come to mind: disorganized, lacking social skills, the class clown, each stemming from the inappropriate or ineffective use of strategies.

Children with learning disabilities tend not to transfer strategy knowledge across domains; skills they learn in one situation are not likely to be applied in a similar situation in another content area. Research repeatedly shows that strategy transfer has been difficult to achieve in children with learning disabilities. For these children, a primary reason for this lack of transfer is insufficient general knowledge about learning, knowledge about one's self as a learner, and knowledge about task demands. Metacognitive learners, on the other hand, are able to tap into a content area consisting of models, strategies, and regulatory skills that can be generalized to new learning experiences. A goal for educators of children with learning disabilities should be to turn these often disorganized, unmotivated, though often very bright children, into metacognitive learners.


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Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills

To this end, Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills (Gay, 1999) has been developed to teach self-awareness, metacognitive knowledge, and knowledge of individual differences to teachers of children with learning disabilities. The free10 week Web-based course adopts a "model and think-aloud" approach. It puts the teacher in the place of the student, teaching them about the cognitive and metacognitive processes underlying learning by sharing their learning experiences and building "applied cognitive knowledge". The entire course revolves around building a profile of ones abilities and preferences, developing a personalized model of learning. With this knowledge and skill, these educators are better able to teach these skills to their students - with or without a learning disability.

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Adaptive Learning Environments

The framework of the course includes seven navigation systems that add adaptive structure to the course. Learners who prefer guided learning can add structure to the content by proceeding through it in sequence, while those who prefer global learning can add structure only where difficult material is encountered.

The first navigation system consists of graphical button bars at the top and bottom of each page, providing instant access to the nine major sections of the course site. The section of the site currently accessed is high-lighted by the corresponding graphical button turning green. The second navigation system is identical to the first except that its presentation is in a text format and it appears only at the bottom of each page. The third system adds a linear structure to the content, allowing learners to proceed through the course sequentially from beginning to end using next and previous buttons. The forth system consists of a visually presented hierarchy of ones position in the course content, using customary open and closed folder and page icons found in most PC-based applications, which are presented on every page. The fifth system consists of hypertext links from within the content itself, providing direct links to related topics in other areas of the course. The sixth system consists of colour coded headings used consistently throughout the course indicating one's depth in the material, location among the major sections of the site, and also providing direct links back to the upper most pages in any given section of the course. The final navigation system consists of a hierarchical site-map that presents the course with numerical, textual, and visual structure. Headings are integrated into the site-map, maintaining a visual presentation of the hierarchy of ideas.

Learning to Learn also includes a set of "thinking type" icons, used judiciously throughout the course to trigger particular types of thought. These icons initiate thinking that might not emerge spontaneously in learners with a learning disability. The icons include brightly coloured question marks, check marks, and X's to indicate things learners should question, things they should adopt, and things they should avoid. Other icons include an open book, a pen and paper, and a scissors glue and paper icon to indicate a reading exercise, a writing exercise, and a project suggestion, respectively.
 

Learning to Learn is also offered as a model of accessible Web-based instruction, designed to provide content that is adaptive to a person with a learning disability, accessible to a person with a visual impairment, and both visually pleasing and interesting to a sighted person or "typical learner."



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Learning Modules

Each of the course modules contains five major components:
  1. A Targets page which contains links to each of the major pages within a module, forming a global outline of the week's topic
  2. Course Notes which provide more detailed coverage of the topic
  3. Hands On Activities which allow learners to consciously experience themselves learning
  4. An Online Discussion in which learners share their experience with the activities
  5. Web-based Resources which provide a diverse collection of information useful for developing one's learning skills and developing process-oriented instruction.
An optional course project is also available, providing hands on experience developing Web-based process-oriented instruction, while reinforcing participants understanding of content covered in the course.

In addition to an introductory orientation week at the beginning, in which participants learn how to use the course site, 10 general areas of learning are covered. These areas include, in order: consciousness, metacognition, learning styles, memory, language, reading, writing, problem solving, creativity, and the biology of learning.

A typical module starts with a "Targets" page that outlines the topic, providing hypertext links to the various course notes and activities from within the context of the outline, and suggests goals and discussion topics. Participants are instructed to read the course notes as an introduction, try the activities to develop an awareness of particular learning processes, and visit the Web resources to broaden their understanding of the topic. Finally they report back to the discussion forum the experiences they had with the exercises and the resources they found while searching the Web.

During the first week participants are introduced to a number of simple activities which immediately trigger their awareness of learning in progress. A concentration exercise reveals an ongoing internal dialogue (or chatter) in one's mind, attention exercises reveal the flow of thoughts during problem solving and academic activities, and discussions reveal differences in learners' abilities to deal with various types of exercises. It quickly becomes apparent that learners approach the exercises from a variety of angles, and are quite aware of what they are good at and not so good at. For most it is the first time they have devoted conscious effort to thinking about thinking, and it often results in an "Ah Ha!" experience that permanently changes the way they think about themselves as learners.

The second week expands on their developing self-awareness by introducing learners to the concepts of metacognition and automaticity. A model of learning abilities is also introduced at this time, providing a structure from which to link content learned, with that that follows. The third week introduces the notion of learning styles, outlining the various theories and providing activities and discussions which reveal a broad range of learning tendencies or preferences. During weeks four through nine specific areas of learning are addressed, looking more closely at the development of language, reading, and writing ability, and the nature of memory, problem solving skill, and creativity. The final week focuses on developing an understanding of biological processes involved in learning, how brain structure and cognitive processing differ in those with learning disabilities, and how things work differently in those with a developmental delay, Alzheimer's disease, who experience a stroke, or who acquire other conditions that change the biology of the brain.

The ultimate goal of the current version of the Learning to Learn course has been to develop a general awareness of the importance of including learning skills instruction as a natural part of teaching/learning within any content area. The course stresses the need to adapt instruction to multiple formats, providing students with reinforcement through different modalities, and supporting students with a weakness in one or more modalities by providing alternative formats that express the same meaning.



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Future Directions

Development of a new framework for the Learning to Learn course is underway that incorporates the variety of perceptual formats (hearing, seeing, reading, and doing), and structural formats (linear, hierarchical, or webbed), adopting the adaptability of the current version of the course. The new multimedia framework will provide exploratory data from which to develop an understanding of how a diverse group of learners approach instructional material presented on the Web. Data will be collected that records learning in progress. This data will include a navigation history for each participant, consisting of a record of internal links followed and time spent on each page, along with results from a number of tests, inventories, and surveys collected throughout the course.

Patterns of navigation will be recorded and analyzed, and compared with results from the various exercises, inventories, and tests taken throughout the course. Four types of criterion measures will be collected for comparison with navigational tendencies: 1) memory ability on tasks measuring verbal and visual memory performance; 2) learning preferences collected from the Sternberg-Wagner Thinking Style Inventory and Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Inventory; 3) qualitative accounts of participants' experiences with the exercises throughout the course, collected from postings made to the course bulletin board; and finally 4) participants' attitudes and beliefs about the course and it's content, and their experience with computers, the Web, and Web-based instruction. The ultimate goal is to create an intelligent tutoring system that can learn about a learner and adjust itself to match the needs of the learner.

It is expected that visual and verbal learning tendencies will be displayed through the preferred use of graphical or verbal/textual navigation systems, as well as global and sequential preferences displayed through the use of global and sequential navigation systems.

Future development also includes the addition of a "Social Skills" module, and the development of a complementary course that focuses more on specific strategies such as note taking, test taking, comprehension, and organizational strategies.


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Conclusion

Learning to Learn is unique among hundreds, if not thousands, of learning skills courses available on the Web. It does not focus on teaching the strategies that we commonly think of as learning skills. Rather, it teaches self-awareness. With this metacognitive knowledge in hand, learners are better able to adapt and make the most out of "what they've got".

Though the current version of the course was created for teachers, the original version was created for high school students, with an emphasis on teaching self-awareness and compensatory strategies to students with learning disabilities. As the course framework evolved it became a tool for teachers of these students. The ultimate beneficiaries of Learning to Learn are young learners, particularly those who don't do well in the classroom for one reason or another. Teachers are able to use a public version of the course to support these students, providing alternative formats, reinforcement, and learning in a motivational environment that adapts to ones abilities and preferences.

The Learning to Learn project is part of the Special Needs Opportunity Windows (SNOW) project, a collaboration of educational institutions, government, and professionals in the fields of technology and special education. The SNOW project Web site is hosted by the Centre for Academic and Adaptive Technology (CAAT) at the University of Toronto in Ontario Canada. More information can be found at the URLs below.



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References

Vermunt, J. D. (1995). Process-oriented instruction in learning and thinking strategies. European Journal of Psychology of Education 10(4), 325-349.

Wong, B., Y., L.(1992) On Cognitive Process-Based Instruction: An Introduction. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 25(3), 150-152.

Gay, G., R. (1999). Learning to Learn: Thinking and Learning Skills
http://snow.utoronto.ca/Learn2/introll.html

 

SNOW- Special Needs Opportunity Windows
http://snow.utoronto.ca 

CAAT- Centre for Academic and Adaptive Technology
http://caat.utoronto.ca  

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