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Case Study of an e-Learning Ecology

Project Overview

Project Description

Explore and document a case study of an e-learning innovation—something in which you have been involved, or which you have observed in a place where you have studied or worked, or an interesting intervention somewhere else that you would like to study in more detail. A practice may be a piece of software or hardware; a teaching and learning activity that uses technology; or a case study of a class, a school or person using technologies in learning in an innovative way. Use the 'seven affordances' framework to analyze the dynamics of the e-learning ecology that you are investigating.

Icon for Chromebooks in Special Education

Chromebooks in Special Education

Educational Challenge

Today's educational landscape includes hardware in various levels of flexibility, affordability, and durability. More and more school districts are moving to 1:1 computing environments, and as many of them formulate technology budgets they often take very few factors into consideration when making purchasing decisions. One factor that is  nearly always overlooked is the level of accessibility afforded to students with various disabilities. Administration  frequently does not consider whether their existing software will run on the new hardware, or if new software purchases must be included in the technology budget. Additionally, they often overlook the importance of their technology infrastructure - things like bandwidth, wireless access points, and capacity for expansion - in these decisions. Even considerations as simple as adapters to connect to existing projecters is often not considered, yet each and every one of these factors plays a role in the potential for a 1:1 initiative to be successful.

One of the technologies that is most frequently being purchased today is the Chromebook. It is practical, affordable, and is made by several different manufacturers with more being introduced regularly. They come in various sizes and form factors, and offer almost immediate boot-up with very little waiting time before they are ready to be logged in. Most districts who choose this particular technology use cost as the most significant decision making factor.

Once this purchasing decision has been made, administration goes about the process of creating the necessary staff and student profiles, planning and conducting professional development sessions to help teachers prepare to use the devices in their classrooms, getting proper signatures from students and their parents to ensure that they will be responsible for the devices, and finally, distributing them to the students for daily use. All of the students. Including those who have accessibility needs.

The unfortunate reality is that the needs of these students are not even realized until after the devices have been distributed and the student tries unsuccessfully to access the device.

Can anything be done with Chromebooks to provide access?

Chromebook? What's that?

Chromebooks are very different from traditional laptops, iPads, and the older netbooks. They are smaller, slimmer, and lighter than traditional laptops, they boot up faster, and they require internet access at all times to be used. They are turned on in seconds, can have multiple users for a single device, have built-in virus protection, and feature automatic updates so that devices require little maintenance on the part of the school, the teacher, or the district. Unlike tablets, they have full keyboards built in. Chromebooks have excellent battery life, often lasting an entire day on one single charge.

Chromebooks are manufactured by a many different companies including Samsung, Acer, and HP, and they are available at a wide range of price points starting as low as $199.00 for HP's most basic model, all the way up to Google's own Chromebook Pixel at $1,299.

Chromebooks use the newer Chrome operating system, which is familiar to many users who have been using the Chrome browser since it was introduced as a Beta (test) version in 2008. Since its introduction, the Chrome browser has become the most widely usied internet browsing platform in the world, having just recently overtaken Internet Explorer here in the US. This can be attributed, in large part, to the number of smartphones that use Chrome to access the web:

This level of familiarity helps the average user when trying to migrate to the Chrome operating system so that the learning curve is somewhat lower, and it has the added benefit integrating well with laptop users who use the Chrome browser.

All data on a Chromebook is stored in the cloud, so each person who accesses a Chromebook requires his or her own login so that data can be saved to individual accounts. This is helpful for people to be able to access their data anywhere in internet connection is available, and regardless of device or platform. All preferences such as font size and bookmarks are saved to the user's profile, so the visual interface is the same no matter where the user logs in.

All of these benefits don't come without drawbacks though. Chromebooks have very limited accessibility features for persons with disabilities, and the inability to install software on the device makes it even more difficult to retrofit the device to meet a user's accessibility needs. The ability to store data in the cloud can be both a benefit and a drawback for those who prefer to store their data locally, or for those who do not have internet connectivity at all times. Printing can be a costly challenge, as the Chromebook was not really designed to be a device that produces hard copies.

Pros Cons
Small, slim and lightweight Requires robust wireless access if using in a 1:1 computing environment
Powers on quickly Very limited number of accessibility features
Multiple users on one device Durability is an issue for more affordable models
Affordable Cannot install software
Data is stored in the cloud Data is stored in the cloud
Replacement for breakage is often more cost-effective than repairing the broken device On-screen keyboard is only functional for touch-screen models rendering them impossible to use with accessibility switches
Built-in virus protection Printing can be difficult without the right cloud based printing support
Full tactile keyboard Integration with current LMS
Shorter learning curve for people who have used the Chrome browser Can't install drivers to enable accessoris
Long battery life
Offers easy opportunities for collaboration
Updates happen automatically and behind the scenes

On a day-to-day basis, learners can use Chromebooks to access the web, create content using various websites and web 2.0 tools, take notes if so desired, collaborate on assignments using Google Drive, learn to be better digital citizens, view videos, and even access social media if the school permits it. With proper subscriptions, students can even access some textbooks online rather than carrying around old, outdated books since the e-editions can be revised more frequently.

Underlying Learning Theory

Ubiquitous Learning

Chromebooks offer anywhere, anytime access provided that an internet connection is available. Learning is web based, and access is quickly at the ready, and they do offer some limited features to provide accessability. For those that have visual disabilities, Chromebooks offer the ability to increase the default size of the cursor and change the contrast so that users with low vision can invert the color scheme. It also offers the ability to turn on spoken feedback, which is somewhat spotty and rather cumbersome to use, and enable screen zoom so that you can easily enlarge the text on screen. An on an on-screen keyboard can be enabled that is clickable with a mouse, however, the keyboard is very small and difficult to see. They do offer support for some Braille displays as well.

The problems begin when you attempt to connect external input devices such as a switch or a joystick.A switch is a device that provides alternate access for those with range of motion disabilities, no purposeful hand use, persons with nerve damage, and many others. Examples of commonly used switches can be found at Enablemart's website. The most commonly used switches are round such as this Jelly Bean Twist:

Switches and joysticks must connect to a computer via a switch interface. Some interfaces such as this Don Johnston model connect via USB port, and you can plug up to 4 switches into a single interface.

Others, like this Ablenet Blue 2 use Bluetooth connectivity to access the device.

Bluetooth connectivity is a very exciting innovation for alternate input devices, however, if you have more than one student in the class that require these types of input, they will often interfere with one another rendering them useless. At this stage in the development of this technology, the USB interface is a better option for classrooms with students that have more than one student who require access.

When used with a tradition desktop or laptop computer, one must plug it in and identify a click or series of clicks to perform specific functions such as tab and enter. Many operating systems including Mac OS and Windows OS have accessibility options that allow you to turn on an step scanning feature so that the cursor moves automatically rather than pressing the switch to tab through an entire website. The Chromebook does not offer this feature, nor can any third party app or extension be installed that provides this type of access.

Demonstration of a Chromebook with accessibility switches connected

When you plug in a device such as those shown above, the Chromebook recognizes an alternate input method, and it is defaulted to identify the device as a keyboard. This cannot be changed. It also renders the existing keyboard on the Chromebook inoperable because the device recognizes that an external keyboard exists.

The bottom line is that it does offer ubiquitous learning, but only for those who don't require external accessibility devices.

Differentiated Learning

Chromebooks were designed with the web as their starting point because individuals who access computing devices are most frequently trying to gain access to the internet. Google developers determined that the netbooks of the late 2000s were bloated with a slow and laggy operating system. With this in mind, the developers at Google attempted to create a device that got its users to the web as quickly as possible. Stripping away the necessity of a standard operating system freed up the computer's memory to focus on the task of booting up quickly so that the user has internet access nearly immediately. This access opens the door to every website that exists on the World Wide Web including those that utilize Flash technology which does not run on iPads. This unprecedented level of access to the Internet presented an opportunity for differentiation in instruction that had not previously been available. Students no longer had to wait through the cumbersome process of booting up a Mac or a PC as the device slowly mounted all of the components required to run, then wait to launch a browser, then have the compuer finally grant access to the web as long as no immediate updates were required, many of which also needed reboots prior to completion of the install. Teachers had the ability to easily distribute assignments using Google Drive, students had the ability to collaborate in real-time on projects, and the battery lasted all day. Communication with students using learning management systems like Edmodo, Moodle, and Schoology provided a forum to communicate with teachers and each other at any time of the day. What's not to like?

Multimodal Meaning

Differentiated learning is about more than access to the internet. Students of today want to create materials using video, audio and images. They want to share these projects on social media, and want to be able to access them from any device they may have in their pocket. Students have come a long way from the traditional book report. To wit, several years ago I was working in a classroom with high school students that had varying levels of behavior disorders and learning disabilities. They were working on a required Shakespeare unit, and most of them were struggling with the concepts and the language. Each student had access to a MacBook with web access along with video prouction and photo editing software. One of the students took it upon herself to walk around to her classmates and ask each of them to play a role. She re-created the entire story featuring her classmates, and created a slide show with embedded audio and video. She demonstrated the learning using tools that she was comfortable with, and it was far more relevant than a worksheet would have been. Chromebooks have limited ability to do these things, and video and audio production can only be done by third party Chrome apps or extensions. Tools like WeVideo have been introduced, but these features are sill rudimentary in nature. It is possible, but it is not easy. Today's learners look for instant gratification. They want to pull thier device out of a pocket, click a button and instantly be recording. For students who require the use of alternate input devices, the ability to click on the icon to launch apps like WeVideo does not exist. The switch will not scan down beyond the browser's address bar to permit the student to access the Google Apps menu because the device requires a click to perform this function. 

Collaborative Intelligence

One of the areas where Chromebooks excel is the ability to collaborate. As previously mentioned, since the entire focus of the Chrome environment is web based, real-time collaboration is easier than it has ever been before. Chromebooks do access many of the websites frequently used by special educators, and teachers can create materials to upload to resource-sharing websites such as Boardmaker Share. The vast database of materials can be downloaded and modified to the individualized needs of the students in each classroom. Unfortunately, right now, a computer with the Boardmaker program is needed to download and modify the materials, however, Mayer-Johnson, the developer of this product, is moving their product online. Vendors are beginning to understand that online collaboration is the way of education today, and they are slowly catching up.

Websites like News2You, which helps students with disabilities learn about current events, is already online, and many of items featured on their website are not only interactive, but switch accessible even via Chromebook. Special education students can collaborate to create a classroom newspaper that features the current events happening in their very own lives. This brings collaboration to a level that moderately to severely disabled learners are able to comprehend, and it gives them the ability to participate.

Chrome now offers the ability to digitally borrow library books from local libraries provided that the user has a library card. This feature has a built-in dictionary to help students define unfamiliar words, and depending on the book, in some cases you can enable the ChromeVox text to speech feature that will read the book to the lear

Critical Reflection

It is very clear that Chromebooks are the designated choice for increasingly budget-conscious school districts, and that administrators will continue to use cost as the most significant factor when making 1:1 computing decisions. In special education, it has become a standard practice to adapt equipment and materials to suit the needs ot the students we service, and although right now the options in the Chromebook environment are very limited, special education technologists are optimistic that changes will be make to improve the features available to the 1% population that we serve. Although it is understandable that our student population is extremely small, and that their needs are highly specialized, the fact is that they are still held accountable to Common Core standards, still must participate in assessments (although sometimes in an alternate format), and that teachers are required to differentiate instruction to all students, which includes this 1%.

When initially introduced, iPads offered very little in the way of accessibility features, and now, just a few short years later, the device is considered the industry standard in access for learners with varying degrees of disabilities.

Chrome Apps and Extensions are being introduced regularly. SpeakIt is an extension that allows the user to highlight passages of text and have them read aloud, and tools like TLDR (Too long, didn't read) shortens and summarizes websites to help students who may have comprehension issues. Using these 2 tools together creates a web article that reads aloud in words and language that a struggling reader would understand a bit more easily.

Conclusions and Recommendations

All in all, I believe that the accessibility tools and features of the Chromebook are moving in the right direction, and that vendors who ordinarily provide special education specific materials are rethinking their service delivery. Hardware developers have identified that persons with disabilities are a population that rely on technology to function on a daily basis and that the huge earning potential. Special education software developers are starting to see the financial benefits of moving away from a per-license purchaing model and moving toward a web subscription based model. Not only does this provide better access, it ensures that the stream of revenue is ongoing provided that the schools continue to renew their supscriptions.

With both entities moving toward the middle, ultimately learners with disabilities are going to be the ones who benefit the most. Although today I don't believe that the Chromebook is the best option for students with moderate to severe disabilities, I do believe that it will not be long before we are able to see the next evolution of the Chromebook that provides access for those who need it most.


Works Cited

Adobe Digital Index. "ADI Report: Google Controls The Browser Worldwide." ADI Report: Google Controls The Browser Worldwide. Adobe Digital Index, 5 June 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.

"Chromebook." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 July 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.

"Don Johnston Inc. | Switch Interface Pro 6.0." Don Johnston Inc RSS2. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.

Hartman, Lynda. "Supporting Struggling Learners in Chrome." Supporting Struggling Learners in Chrome. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.

"Introducing the Chromebook." YouTube. YouTube, 10 May 2011. Web. 30 July 2014.

"TLDR." Chrome Web Store -. PlexiNLP, 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 July 2014.