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The Digital Revolution's New Bounty

Technology Can Now Tailor Lessons to Every Classroom Learner

Harvard Graduate School of Education
June 1, 2002 A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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Bart Pisha

An Atypical Learner
Bart Pisha: Research Director, CAST

Bart Pisha, Ed.D.'93, almost missed being interviewed for this story because he couldn't find his car. Returning to Boston from a weeklong conference in New Mexico, he'd taken a cab straight home, forgetting that he'd left his car at work to avoid paying for parking.

In many ways, Pisha, who squeaked through high school and dropped out of college twice, is the perfect person to oversee research at CAST. Not only does he have a great mind for elaborate, conceptual investigative projects, he also knows what it's like to be an atypical learner.

A husky, avuncular man in his mid-fifties, he fidgets like a teenager when he's forced to sit still. His diagnosed attention deficit disorder makes organization and memorization uncommonly difficult. "This car thing is not an isolated incident," he says. "I'm very forgetful. I can't just tell somebody, 'I'll call you next week,' because I won't." Numbers are the worst, he says. When calling a close colleague, for instance, he has to refer repeatedly to the phone book because he can't remember number sequences from moment to moment. He can tell you that he and his wife just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, but not, off the top of his head, the year in which they got married.

"From K through 12, most of the classes I took failed to engage me," he says, leaning forward in his chair with one knee bouncing as though it were spring wound. "By relying so heavily on rote memorization, and by testing me only on the things that were easy to test, my teachers came up with a wholly erroneous picture of my capacity—and gave me a fairly serious emotional beating in the process."

Pisha took a predictably roundabout route to Harvard: stints at rubber and bleach factories, community college, an abortive attempt at law school, and some very rewarding public school teaching and work with learning-disabled students. He and his wife sold their house and cashed in their teachers' pensions in order to afford the HGSE doctoral program—where he excelled in statistics, of all subjects.

"We know enough, now," Pisha says, "to know that not all people learn the same way. One-size-fits-all education is not good education. Teaching approaches and materials have to be flexible enough to celebrate the gifts that every learner has and to work around the holes in all of our heads."

by Eric McHenry

Until just a few years ago, Westbrook, Maine, was the pretty little town that smelled. The Sappi Pulp and Paper Mill sat regally on the tree-lined banks of the Presumpscot River, its smokestack filling the sky with a stench that visitors compared to rotten eggs. When Sappi stopped making pulp products in 1999, eliminating both the stench and about 300 jobs, it didn't have much effect on the town's size: the foul air had been keeping away at least as many people as the jobs had been keeping around. What it did affect, however, was the town's profile. After more than 200 years as a blue-collar industrial center, Westbrook suddenly became a bedroom community for nearby Portland.
CAST's chief education officer Bridget Dalton, Ed.D.'91
CAST's chief education officer Bridget Dalton, Ed.D.'91

At Congin Elementary School, just down the road from the Sappi plant, the classes have never been so full. Or so diverse. Gentrification has added the children of white-collar families to the mill-town mix, and the school enrolls the district's entire multihandicapped student population for grades three through five. They don't spend their days sequestered in special education classrooms, either. In schools across the country, in response to recent federal laws, students with special needs are now being integrated into mainstream classes.

"Suddenly, teachers have all different types of learners in their classrooms," says Anne Meyer, Ed.M.'75, Ed.D.'83, co-executive director of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit organization based in Peabody, Massachusetts, that aims to create teaching materials versatile enough to reach every student. The challenge teachers face is compounded, Meyer says, by the new standards movement, which demands that every student clear the same bar. "It's almost impossible to do, really, without the support of flexible technology."

Such support is emerging as an option for teachers. The technology gap in public education is narrowing, with one computer for every 5.3 students in America's poorest districts—less than half a student behind the national average. And federal funding for technological infrastructure is increasing.

"There's tremendous pressure on teachers," Meyer says. "But at the same time, there's tremendous opportunity."

Universal Design for Learning
Nathaniel McKague, a Congin fifth-grader with cerebral palsy, plugs away at his latest short story in a computer lab full of his classmates. He's in a stander, a wheeled apparatus that supports his limbs so that he can spend part of the day on his feet. A teaching assistant reads back the sentences he's dictated to her—"She ran home and never returned to the old, raggedy shack again"—and he taps them into the computer on a customizable keyboard with large, widely spaced characters.

When Nathaniel arrived at Congin in the fall of 2000, he wasn't much of a talker. "He had great difficulty vocalizing words," says principal Judi Schneider. "Just to get my name out was an enormous struggle. Folks quite naturally wondered, 'Is he learning?' The way a person with cerebral palsy looks on the outside can lead people to think that there's not much going on inside."

But now he's talking up a storm, Schneider says. Working with assistive technologies and a team of dedicated teachers has really brought him out, revealing the aptitudes and complexities of his busy mind. These days, Nathaniel is even known to make the occasional wisecrack.

"Are you writing a story?" Schneider asks him.

"No," he says with a mischievous smile. "I'm typing a story."

In a nearby classroom, third-grader Olivia Marsden is choosing props and characters for a movie she's making on the computer. Her class has been reading about colonial history, so she's setting her story in an eighteenth-century farmhouse. Clicking and dragging, she furnishes the kitchen with a butter churn. She puts a pig in an adjacent field. Olivia is an accelerated learner, says her teacher MaryEllen Doherty; novel technologies help keep her engaged. This is only her first week using the software program and she's already quite proficient. Eventually, she'll write a narrative to accompany her scene, record herself reading it, and set the characters to walking and talking—a bona fide motion picture.

Catty-corner from her, a redheaded boy named Ian Baker is halfway through "Frog's Lunch." He needs some extra help with his reading, and Ms. Doherty is using another software program to provide it. "Along came a fly," says the computer in a raspy bass voice. The animated frog, which Ian is proud to have colored green using the program's painting function, prepares to deploy his lethal tongue. "'Mmm, lunchtime,' said the frog." The words appear on the screen, too. A yellow bar surrounds each phrase at the moment it's spoken.

Ms. Doherty is across the room working with another student, but she's also guiding every aspect of Ian's reading experience. She has chosen the rate at which the words are delivered and the color in which they're highlighted. The program keeps an electronic portfolio that tells her what book Ian's reading, how long he's been reading it, and how much of it he's read. She can shut off the speech, and can even restrict Ian's access to the paint pot if she thinks he's spending too much time illustrating the story and not enough time reading it—a measure that his fondness for coloring sometimes makes necessary.

Recasting Itself
The whole scene at Congin could be called textbook Universal Design for Learning (UDL), if "textbook UDL" weren't a contradiction in terms. UDL is the governing philosophy at CAST. Digital resources such as Nathaniel's keyboard, Olivia's movie-making program, and Ian's reading software are vital to the UDL vision because they can be tailored to specific learning needs and talents in ways that a textbook simply can't.

“There's no reason to believe that the textbooks you see today on any child's desk look anything like what you'll see in 5, 10, or 25 years. Nor is there any reason to believe that they should.â€

According to Bart Pisha, Ed.D.'93, CAST's research director, the digital multimedia revolution of the past 10 years is as historically significant as the invention of the modern printing press. "There's no reason to believe that the textbooks you see today on any child's desk look anything like what you'll see in 5, 10, or 25 years. Nor is there any reason to believe that they should," Pisha says.

Founded in 1984, CAST spent its first years steering students with disabilities to appropriate technological aids. About 12 years ago, however, the group reexamined its mission: rather than helping kids adapt to the system, why not help the system adapt to them? Why not calibrate curricula so that no student would be left alone too far behind—or even too far ahead?

The epiphany, Anne Meyer says, came when CAST was developing electronic books for a group of young readers with different disabilities: a boy who could only blink and move his jaw needed an electronic book that he could control with his chin switch; a girl who was physically and visually disabled needed large, on-screen buttons that could speak their functions to her; a boy with learning disabilities needed words read aloud when he clicked on them.

"We suddenly thought, 'Why don't we make a book with all these options?'" says Meyer. And then we applied the concept to curriculum, and said, 'Oh my god. One out-of-the-box curriculum, with options, could work for all kids. So why are we focusing on special tools for special kids instead of focusing on changing the curriculum?' Once we saw it that way, it was impossible to look at it any other way."

This new approach, UDL, encourages educators to see their students not as occupying one of two categories—disabled or normal—but as representing a range of different educational needs, each of which should be accounted for in a model classroom. UDL isn't a product CAST is pushing, says chief education officer Bridget Dalton, Ed.D.'91. "It's a philosophy—a way of thinking about learning, about what needs to happen for every child to be successful."

"Our Big Schtick"
Students learn when they surmount obstacles. But some obstacles (say, a vision problem) have nothing to do with the subject at hand (say, mathematics). One of UDL's purposes is to get rid of these so-called gatekeeper skills—barriers unrelated to a given subject that can, nevertheless, prevent students from learning or even being tested on that subject. And because so much of the work at CAST centers on eliminating these obstacles, Meyer says, the organization is sometimes miscast as an enemy of high standards.

"We like high demands!" says CAST co-executive director David Rose, Ed.D.'76, who is also an HGSE lecturer. "What we want is an environment flexible enough to let us know whether kids are actually learning history, whether kids really are good readers. Right now you can't tell, and that's what we consider blasphemy."

In Concord, New Hampshire, for example, there's a middle-schooler who writes like a kindergartner—big, crude, nearly indecipherable letters. He's bright and engaged, but severe motor problems make handwriting difficult. He uses a laptop computer with a number of assistive features, which gets the job done in most of his classes. But geography poses a unique challenge. His classmates are busy marking up maps—labeling cities and countries and sketching in topographical features—which demands the sort of pen-control he just doesn't have.
“What we want is an environment flexible enough to let us know whether kids are actually learning history, whether kids really are good readers. Right now you can't tell, and that's what we consider blasphemy.â€

Putting their heads together, his teacher, parents, and special educators came up with a novel solution: to digitally scan a year's worth of maps and store them in a file on his laptop. Now he can pull up the appropriate maps and label them using a drawing function. He's doing the same work his classmates are doing. And at the end of the year, he will have been rigorously tested on his knowledge of the world. He won't have been tested, however, on his handwriting ability.

"Determine what the goal of the lesson is," says Meyer, "Then put the resistance where it belong."

"And put the support where it belongs," says Rose.

"The digital environment makes that possible in ways that the print environment does not," Meyer says.

"That's our big schtick," Rose adds. "Print just doesn't know how to be flexible that way. Digital does."

The Book is Not the Content
"I'm on the phone every day," says Mark Aronica, Ed.M.'97, who telecommutes to CAST from his office in San Francisco. "I have a lot of compassion for people who are visually impaired, because this job has given me a taste of what it's like not to be able to see the people you're dealing with."

Aronica, a dyslexic computer whiz, left a lucrative career in the private sector to take a job that better reflects his combination of interests—education, technology, and helping out atypical learners. As senior director of systems development, he's responsible for getting CAST's large-scale technology projects off the ground. The visually impaired have been on his mind a lot lately as he's worked to make CAST's new Universal Learning Center (ULC) fluent in Braille.

The ULC is basically a big, digital library. Of all the products CAST has in development, it is the most potentially far-reaching, because a comprehensive, accessible repository of digital books could serve as a foundation for universally designed curricula all over the world.

“The book is just a manifestation of the content. What we want to do is isolate that content, then re-present it in any way the user needs to receive it.â€

This fall, faculty at a dozen public schools around the country started combing the ULC's stacks for the first time—reviewing and responding to an early pilot version. It's only a skeleton of the archive Aronica has in mind. There's still a lot of legwork to be done—resolving copyright issues, scanning texts, and developing the ULC's ability to translate a text into whatever form the user might request. Eventually, visitors will be able to locate the book they want and specify, down to the most microscopic detail, the way it will be presented to them: as white characters on a black background, as a Braille printout, as text spoken and displayed simultaneously, or any of a hundred other permutations.

"Ultimately," says Aronica, "we're really talking about moving away from the idea that the book is the content. The book is just a manifestation of the content. What we want to do is isolate that content, then re-present it in any way the user needs to receive it."

Taking It Universal
Because Universal Design for Learning is more a mindset than a set of tools, CAST's most important work of all may be its firsthand interaction with schools. Enterprising educators in places like Westbrook, Maine, and Concord, New Hampshire, have been indispensable. Two summers ago, as the recipient of CAST's first UDL Fellowship Award, Donna Palley, Ed.M.'81, spent three weeks at the organization's headquarters in Peabody, Massachusetts, learning about new assistive technologies and exchanging ideas with the staff. Later, she led an eight-day UDL workshop for middle-school faculty and staff in her New Hampshire district. Congin Elementary's Judi Schneider, similarly, has been a Johnny Appleseed for CAST, helping UDL take root in several Maine schools.

Universal success for Universal Design, however, will require more than a handful of committed individuals. "We need school administrations that support teachers taking risks," says Grace Meo, CAST's director of programs and services. CAST also needs a school environment that is supportive of the inclusion model, with the technology infrastructure already in place. "Look," Meo says, "we know we can go to schools in Wellesley and Newton, Massachusetts, and they'll be well positioned to embrace UDL. But does that mean it's going to work in Detroit, Milwaukee, and the Bronx? We won't consider the job done until it's available to everyone."


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