Facebook levels the playing field: Dyslexic students learning through digital literacies by Owen Barden

Article Synopsis & Core Research Questions

Barden (2014) looks at how dyslexia has been characterized over the years to form a better understanding of how technology can help students with dyslexia navigate issues they may encounter. The author clearly spells out the core research questions he started with: “The primary aim was to examine the educational affordance of Facebook [for students with dyslexia]. Subsidiary questions were: What does the project reveal about the students’ motivation to learn through literacy? What does it reveal about their sense of identity? What pedagogical principles does their use of the social network evoke?” (Introduction section, para. 1).

This study reveals that contrary to assumptions about students with dyslexia having minimal interaction with mainstream technology, they are actually embracing it as a means of managing symptoms of dyslexia. For example, texting a friend means not worrying about spelling, because text-speak is expected. S/he will also feel more comfortable using a word processor with spell check, considering it a normal part of education and perhaps not even realizing how it is helping her/him overcome problems associated with dyslexia. Using technology has been shown to help students, raising their own belief in their abilities and increasing their literacy at the same time. In fact, the author’s preliminary survey showed that these older students appreciated being able to use mainstream technology that helped them overcome differences, but didn’t use special assistive technology specifically for dyslexia, instead seeing the assistive technology as something to help younger or less experienced students.

Methods Used

The author’s test group consisted of five Sixth Form College students (of varying ages and from varying curriculums) that the author was currently tutoring. Because the ability to set up, use, and maintain a Facebook account requires many literacy skills that are considered difficult for students with dyslexia, he decided to monitor their use of this particular technology. Barden stated that “an innovative methodology was devised, combining aspects of case study and action research with an ethnographic sensibility (Green and Bloome 1996)” (Methodology and methods section, para. 1). The students were asked to create a group Facebook page that would account for the students’ research about dyslexia. The author gave basic assistance in the beginning: requesting that students create rules for how the page would be set up and how their online interactions would take place, providing information about sites that they could use, creating research questions that the students could choose from to continue their group research. Beyond that, the author was an observer/documenter, expert, and researcher, leaving the students to work without interference. Information was gathered through video, student self-reports, and screen recording over the course of five weeks during one 90-minute session each week. It should be noted that the students were all A-level students, which means that they have had a history of being high achievers and should not be taken as a whole-population sample of students with dyslexia.

Findings & Conclusions

Unsurprisingly, these students often felt that they were not on an even keel with students who did not have dyslexia. However, students noted feeling that technology helped “level the playing field” (to use their own words). Students felt that the technology they and their peer groups used daily helped them overcome feelings of inadequacy that they often felt while dealing with dyslexia. There were five main ways they saw Facebook as helpful: (1) They felt that if they could be “enrolled” in a Facebook page for each class they were taking, it would help them better keep up with what they needed to do and when things were due. This could be as simple as just asking on that Facebook page what was due that week or as in-depth as using the chat function to get (or give) help with an assignment. (2) Students were able to take control and obtain agency in their own learning. For example, one student watched a class video multiple times in multiple places to help increase her own understanding of the material and to help her family and friends understand. Another used a video to kickstart her understanding of material, watching the video more than once before further researching the topic on other websites. (3) Students were able to think more in-depth about their own thought processes and learning preferences. One student had just learned he had dyslexia, but was able to determine what techniques and technology worked best for him, allowing him to better review class materials. (4) Students were able to learn what helped them when reading/studying and were then able create a better environment for their learning. For example, students were able to take advantage of multimodal design to help facilitate learning, meaning-making, and retention by allowing them to find the mode of information distribution that best helped them. (5) This technology allowed students agency to switch roles, becoming the teacher or mentor for others who have dyslexia. Students expressed dissatisfaction with their own teachers and the methods those teachers had used (to little avail) in the past. By switching roles, this allowed them to make the best use of technology to help others who have dyslexia understand and overcome difficulties, directly from students dealing with the same issues.

The author determined that although Facebook relies heavily on writing posts and reading people’s pages, expectations that students with dyslexia would feel left out or left behind with this technology were overturned. Instead, Facebook allowed students to take charge of their own learning and help others in the process. In addition, students learned about their own learning styles and needs. Because Facebook is “the most popular and frequently used social media platform among teens” (Pew Research, 2015), students with dyslexia see it as a way to help them overcome obstacles that other forms of interaction with their peers might have. Facebook allowed students to use multiple forms of communication and learning, whatever best suited their needs, furthering their own academic attainment and putting them on a more “level playing field” with peers in an academic setting.

Further Research Opportunities & Unanswered Questions

The author is clear that these findings may not be indicative of a larger-group mentality. For one, all five students that he was tutoring are high achievers, indicating that they may have already determined ways to overcome dyslexia with or without technology. Further research in the area of a larger sample group that covered a wider range of student abilities would be helpful and would give a better idea of whether the five main findings carry over for students in general. Could it be that these students already have some of these abilities, even without Facebook or other technologies, due to their higher cognitive abilities? One would assume this to be true, although it is not necessarily so. It would be immensely interesting to see what findings from different ability levels and perhaps even different age groups would find. Another area of further research would be whether students in other countries also have the same facility of understanding and use with Facebook for academic purposes.

We are left with these questions that might be answered through continued research:

Is Facebook truly beneficial or could it actual hinder student learning? One has to wonder if using Facebook prevents the student from learning the tools for improving the symptoms of their dyslexia, particularly when students specifically said that they didn’t want to use the other forms of assistance. There are other tools available (via technology and otherwise) that might prove more useful. Is it helpful to count on Facebook when there are other technologies that can help the student? Although the teacher will have educational tools available, it seem that one of the participants preferred Facebook because he liked the layout and because most people in his age ranged used Facebook. Perhaps it wasn’t that Facebook was particularly helpful to the students, just more familiar and easier to work with than other tools available.

Would younger or older students with dyslexia find Facebook to be just as effective? There are still many students who don’t care for technology and social media. Students like these may be resistant to using something less familiar (and, of course, most companies have age restrictions for using online technology).

Is Facebook helping to develop metacognitive awareness or is it more about the student using a tool they prefer? Learning isn’t easy, so when things are done in a way that is fun and interesting, students might be less resistant to instruction and willing to learn more.

As other social media platforms become popular for this age group (e.g., Instagram), would the results be as encouraging?

Additional References
Pew Research Center. (2015) . Teens, social media & technology overview 2015. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/