Special Education

Math Study Evaluates Digital Aids

By Andrew Trotter — October 20, 2008 5 min read
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Researchers in Kentucky are learning important lessons about whether students with disabilities are benefiting from a digital math textbook that speaks words and equations aloud while highlighting those elements on a computer screen. The research is one of several federally funded projects to identify ways to deliver curriculum content that are more effective than printed books or the common forms of digital textbooks.

The small group of students from two middle schools in Clark County, Ky., all had “print disabilities,” an umbrella term for a variety of physical, visual, or learning issues that interfere with the ability to read text on a printed page. Students in the study had learning disabilities, including dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, cognitive issues, or other conditions, but not visual impairment.

Findings for the first year of the study were positive, if tentative, according researchers at the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

“From the pilot, we can say that all the students did improve in their algebra and pre-algebra skills,” said Debra K. Bauder, the lead analyst for the study and an assistant professor at the University of Louisville. “I’m really looking forward to what kind of results we’ll be getting this year.”

However, it is worth noting that the study was very small. Only 14 students were involved last school year, but the number will rise to 26 students this school year, including students from a third middle school in Shelby County.

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Called the Supported Math Accessibility Reading Tool project, the Kentucky study is one of several Phase 1 studies awarded two-year grants in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs.

The researchers have applied for federal Phase 2 funding to scale up the study in future years, said Ms. Bauder.

Complicated Math

The study is designed to explore the potential of the Mathematical Markup Language, or MathML, a digital format used in sophisticated mathematical software to present formulas and other math expressions.

Mathematicians have used MathML for years, but most K-12 publishers do not use it in creating digital versions of their textbooks. The typical process instead treats each complicated math expression as an image. But a digital image file, while fine for printing a math formula in a book, is a static element that cannot be manipulated by software in ways that might help students with print disabilities, according to Stephen L. Noble, another University of Louisville researcher who worked on the study. It cannot be “read” by a synthetic speech processor, for example, he said.

MathML, on the other hand, works with speech processors and other accessibility technologies installed on computers.

For the smart project, Prentice Hall, a division of Pearson LLC, used MathML to digitize the textbook Say It With Symbols, a title in the widely used Connected Math 2 series.

Multimedia Texts Address Learning Disabilities

Researchers in Kentucky are studying new ways to convert print textbooks to digital versions to help students with “print disabilities,” an umbrella term for a variety of physical, visual, and or learning issues that interfere with the ability to read print.

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Students were given the digital text on a thumb drive that could be used on school laptops or their home computers. The thumb drives were loaded with Read & Write 8 Gold software, made by Texthelp Systems Inc., a Woburn, Mass.-based subsidiary of the British company Texthelp Systems Ltd.

Also part of the system was a special MathML software “engine” called MathPlayer, by Design Science Inc., based in Long Beach, Calif.

With that setup, the students in the test group could read the text on a computer, which also would speak the words in the book, including the math equations. Another feature was synchronized highlighting of the text and equations as the computer read them aloud.

Students in the test group were given the printed textbooks, too, but they almost never used them, according to the researchers.

The students in the control group had only the printed textbook.

Student Feedback

The early findings, based on pre- and post-tests, are that the students who had the digital versions learned more math than those who just used print textbooks. As the math grew more complex, the students who used the digital versions outperformed those using the print textbooks, according to Mr. Noble.

Students told researchers that it was valuable to have a tool that could speak a math formula aloud as the students looked on, Ms. Bauder said. “One of the comments that a couple of kids made last year is they saw the formula and never knew how to say it, so to hear the formula, how to say it, really helped.”

Students also told the researchers that the speech and highlighting features gave them a feeling of independence, because they did not have to ask their teachers for as much help.

For the study’s second year, the researchers have made changes based on teachers’ and students’ feedback and researchers’ observations. They improved the quality of the speech in the system and provided students with earbuds rather than headphones. Teenagers regarded the bulky headphones used last year as “socially unacceptable,” Ms. Bauder said.

They also improved data collection regarding how students used the digital textbook and for how long.

Accessibility Standard

The Kentucky study is timely because MathML is being considered for addition to the federal standard on the accessibility of textbooks for students with disabilities, according to Skip Stahl, an official of the Center for Applied Special Technology, in Wakefield, Mass., which maintains the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.

The board of experts that advises the department on the NIMAS, which was created under the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, may vote this fall on whether to recommend adding MathML to the technical specifications in the standard, Mr. Stahl said.

If the board votes yes, and the addition is approved by the department after a regulatory proceeding that would take at least 18 months, publishers would have to include MathML in digital versions of their textbooks, in order for them to be purchased by schools that receive federal idea funding, Mr. Stahl said.

Mr. Noble, who is a member of the NIMAS board, said he hopes the Kentucky research will help convince publishers even before that process is completed.

“There’s a whole lot of power they’re wasting [by not using MathML],” Mr. Noble said. “We’re throwing away the potential to be more accessible.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as Math Study Evaluates Digital Aids

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