In this first post for Applying Educational Technology to Practice (CEP 812), I have taken on an ill-structured problem that I have noticed in working with e-learning programs like Khan Academy, iReady, or IXL: sustained attention when working in an e-learning environment for students with inattention or hyperactivity/inattention (at-risk for ADHD).
There are a number of benefits to e-learning programs. Well-designed e-learning platforms can provide students with differentiated instruction and teachers with valuable data. But for all of their benefits, e-learning programs also present a number of challenges.
E-learning platforms require students to work independently. Students at-risk for ADHD may struggle with maintaining their focus on course content presented electronically. This presents a problem: how do teachers take advantage of the many benefits of e-learning platforms in a way that supports students at-risk for ADHD? This ill-structured problem has no single solution, but can only be addressed through reflection and the thoughtful application and adjustment of strategies which comport with the given situation.
In doing some research, I came across a study that compared the learning gains and off-task behavior in 2nd-4th grade students diagnosed with at-risk for ADHD when presented a geometry lesson in varying levels of visual intensity. The study authors found that students who were given the lesson with a higher level of intensity retained more information and exhibited less off-task behavior. The authors believe that this is due to the fact that students with at-risk for ADHD habituate to the level of presented stimuli quickly and then seek stimulation elsewhere. Therefore, increasing the intensity of the stimuli presented will delay this habituation threshold, allowing the student to focus on learning longer (Kang & Zenatall, 2011, p. 784-785).
“That’s great”, you may say, “but even if high visual intensity versions of our e-learning programs where available (a big if), our school does not have additional money to pay for them”. But as we have been reading in Berger (2014), great ideas come from great questions. So I asked myself, “What tools currently available could be used to increase stimuli in e-learning environments?” And this is where I come across a little hack: Google Chrome high-contrast mode. Originally designed to make text easier to read, high-contrast mode also simulates the sort of visual enhancements that were used in the study. Here’s how you activate high-contrast mode on a Chromebook.
- Open Google Chrome
- Go to “customize and control Chrome” (three vertical dots in the upper right-hand corner, right below the close window “x”)
- Open “settings”
- Scroll down and open “advanced”
- Scroll down to accessibility
- Click on “Manage accessibility features”
- Under display there is a toggle button for “use high contrast mode”
Note: in step 5 you can chose to “always show accessibility options in the system menu”.
The short(-ish) version:
chrome>customize>settings>advanced>accessibility>manage accessibility features>use high contrast mode.
In early experiments with high-contrast mode, I have had some success. For example, one fifth grade student who struggled to sustain 20 minutes of focused work on the Chromebook was able to complete 30 minutes of work with minimal redirection in high-contrast mode. One negative effect that I did find, was that the novelty of the appearance of the screen in high-contrast mode was a major disruption at first, although this died down pretty quickly.
This experiment raises some interesting questions: How relevant do the stimuli need to be? Could it be that students who insist they have to listen to music while they work have a point? Is there a “contextual-level threshold” where the additional stimuli work against student learning? And a question all teachers know well: is providing these tools preventing students from learning important life skills (response inhibition, sustained attention, etc.). This gets into a core debate surrounding students both with and at-risk for ADHD and is far too big of a question to address in this post. But given the high importance of students acquiring foundational math skills and the high correlation between students at-risk for ADHD and poor math performance (Kang & Zentall, 2011, p. 792), I am encouraged to continue to experiment with high-contrast mode.
You can see a video of how to use high-contrast mode here:
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Kang, H., & Zentall, S. (2011). Computer-generated geometry instruction: A preliminary study. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59(6), 783-797.