CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki is an Associate Professor and Director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. His research focuses on new methods for teaching STEM to students with disabilities, and using eye-tracking technology to study the cognitive underpinnings of information processing.
How did you get started in Cyberlearning?
That’s an interesting question. In the beginning, I didn’t jump directly into cyberlearning, as I am mainly interested in helping students who learn differently — students who have learning disabilities, ADHD, or are on the autism spectrum. I want to use whatever tools and technological resources that are available or that we can develop that will best help ensure that the students I work with will learn, enjoy learning, and be motivated and engaged in learning process.
Cyberlearning was merely a natural extension of that. By looking at tools, and affordances of new technologies, there is a lot that you’re able to do that maybe wasn’t available in the past. My focus is with working with that student population, and whatever tools are available are the ones I’m going to use to help that student population.
Your work focuses on students who learn differently. How can the field of cyberlearning help these students?
Drawing the line between what is and what isn’t cyberlearning is a little fuzzy. For students with learning disabilities or learning differences assistive technology has long been a way to make content more accessible to them. The line between what is assistive technology, what is educational technology, and what is cyberlearning is blurring. Resources that were at one point specifically for students with learning disabilities — like speech to text, and text to speech technology — are now available across the board and useful to all learners.
There are many traditional tools available that work well for our student population, and there are new ways of using those old tools. There are new affordances we are starting to explore. For example, one of the approaches we use with our students is using mind mapping and speech-to-text technology to help students learn to outline. Just saying you are using such tools isn’t enough. It’s how you use them and the pedagogy arounding using those tools that is critical. We use an approach where we work with students creating those mind maps, and then transfer them to a text format as an outline for an essay. Then we help them use speech-to-text to flesh out that content, and finally, we revise it with a keyboard. There are a lot of students who have used those tools before, but without the right approach and the right strategies, they were not very effective.
New tools are emerging that I think are really exciting, especially for our student population. I’m excited to explore virtual reality and its affordances. Our students tend to learn best in hands-on experiential learning environments. Virtual reality has the potential to really broaden the opportunities of experiential hands on learning in the classroom. It’s an area we are just beginning to explore, but I think there’s a lot of potential there.
The game world is another area I’m starting to explore. For example, we’re work with TERC, a non-profit out of Boston, that develops educational products. We have a grant to collaborate with their Educational Gaming Environments (EdGE) team looking at how cognitive tools can be effective vehicles for supporting the learning of students whether or not they have disabilities. We are currently using an eye tracker, and down the line we want to add EEG and fNIRS to try to map the cognitive learning process. Several labs are looking at this area. We’re trying to do it at a very small time scale, which technologically has been very challenging. We’re hoping to develop a way to look at the differences in interactions with the learning environments between students who have learning disabilities and those who don’t. Are their interactions different? For example, if a student has ADHD, are they attending to the right objects at the right time for efficient learning to occur, and if not, can we adapt the game to meet their learning needs? We’re interested in the millisecond timescale and linking certain cognitive events with stimuli in the game. For example, the Impulse game displays a bunch of particles in a space and you can exert force on those particles, which will react to that force based on their volume and density. The student can control one particle to get it to a goal. If the particle gets close to a really high density particle, you need to react quickly. We can tell with the eye tracker if the student even notices the difference between particles by whether and when they look at it or react to it.
What type of help or support would you like from the Cyberlearning community?
That’s a great question. There are two particular areas I’d love more help and support with.
First, our lab staff have reasonable technical skills. But I would love to work with someone who has real technical horsepower, who can code and develop software and tinker with hardware at a faster pace than we are able to at our labs. Collaborating with someone with the technical expertise and resources that could move things more quickly than we can would be extremely beneficial.
The other area I’m interested in is the idea of really pushing the envelope for all cyberlearning designs, so it’s not just myself and a handful of other people looking at cyberlearning tools for students with disabilities but rather it’s every designer considering the needs of struggling students in their core design. That often gets a reaction from designers like: “We can’t meet the needs of everyone.” I fully understand that. I don’t expect someone developing a virtual reality environment to be able to make it accessible to someone who is visually impaired. That’s not what I’m asking. What I’m asking is to have the designer community look at the opportunity afforded by getting feedback from individuals with dyslexia, ADHD, or physical disabilities who may help them create better, smarter designs. While a system may not be fully accessible to all individuals, if attention is something that’s important to your design, having someone with ADHD as part of your design or test team can really help you gain insights that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Another example is if you want really simple, accessible, clear text instructions, ask someone with dyslexia to help you write those instructions. Don’t think of it as a way to make the content accessible to students with disabilities, but look at what these individuals can provide to you as a designer to create better, smarter designs.
The fear is that by making my design accessible, I need to add all these retrofits that make it clunky or that it’s way too expensive in the early stage. I’m not trying to convey universal access; I believe that is an unrealistic expectation. Look for what a broader range of designers and test subjects can do, and think of it from that angle. It’s the mindset that’s key. Helping designers incorporate that mindset will help create better cyberlearning environments.
How do you make connections in the cyberlearning community?
I have a very broad range of personal interest. I’m particularly focused on supporting my student population with math and science, but I’m interested in a broad range of areas. I’m interested in working with many lines of research. I almost have to hold myself back sometimes. I love to collaborate and to work with diverse groups. I thrive on seeing what new technologies are out there, what other fields can compliment and support the work that I’m doing, how I can compliment and support the strengths of other teams, and what we can explore together.
I found the cyberlearning community to be quite open to collaboration. It’s a collection of people straddling multiple different fields. My background is cognitive psychology, but now I have a learning disability focus. I also have a learning sciences focus grounded in my cognitive psychology background. I feel I don’t fit neatly into any one space. I’m always struggling to figure out which conference, which journal, which place I belong. None of them do exactly what I do. However, I found the cyberlearning community more open and more multidisciplinary than other fields.