Introduction| A Critique| Learning Theories|Technology Examples

Learning Theories :

Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities

Behavioural Theory| Constructivist Theory| A Case Study

As new technology enters the education system information on how technology should be used in the classroom is produced. Included in this information is the learning theories that teaching practices are based upon. There has been less written about learning theories underpinning the use of technology by students with special needs, including those with learning disabilities.

Early educational use of computers adopted a behavioural approach as the dominant learning theory. Software programs were instructional in nature and provided positive reinforcement for correct answers. With the advent of the World Wide Web and multi-media, and a move toward using a constructivist approach to learning, there are new ways of looking at the use of technology within schools. A brief overview of the behavioural and constructivist views of using technology are provided below.

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A Behavioural Approach: Skill and Drill:

Skill and drill software, also known as computer assisted instruction (CAI), is based around the behavioural theory of learning. The programs:

  • are computer directed,
  • are repetitious
  • have quick response rates,

usually have variable pacing of the skill being practised.
An example of a skill and drill package is Spider Maths. Features of this program can be found at technology examples.

Behavioural approaches in computer packages have been criticised for:

  • Removing challenges (Lawson et al., 1999).
  • The locus of control lies with the computer (Lawson et al, 1999; Semple, 2000).
  • Developing rote memory rather than applied learning (Behrmann, 1998).
  • Enabling teachers to provide exercises without much planning (Behrmann, 1998).


"Computers are no different to any other educational artefact that arrives in a teacher's classroom. All of these can be used mindlessly or mindfully." (Lawson, Mcinerney, Hattam, Smyth., 1999, p33)

What results from CAI is the learner having inert, unusable knowledge (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999)

Despite the criticisms there is also support for the use of CAI's, particularly for students with learning difficulties (Behrmann, 1998). This support is based on a belief that students in special education often require repetition and that self esteem would increase due to positive reinforcement. When using CAI's Behrmann warned that they are not intended to teach a skill but are used as a reinforcement to already taught skills.

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The Constuctivist learning method regards the primary aim of education is to engage students in meaningful learning (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999). One of the problems Constructivists have with the Computer Assisted Instruction is that knowledge becomes embedded in the technology. As a result the role of the student is to simply learn the information presented by the technology.

Technology, using a constructivist approach, is used to engage and facilitate thinking and knowledge construction rather than be used a delivery vehicle (Jonassen, Peck and Wilson, 1999). So how is technology used in a constuctivist manner when the students are those with a learning disability?

The current range of software, multimedia, internet availability, word processing and desk-top publishing tools can be used in a manner where technology is used to support knowledge construction. The difficulty students with learning disabilities have with reading and writing should not prevent knowledge occurring across a braod curriculum.

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A Case Study.
Using Technology & Constructivist Learning for Students with a Learning Disability

The Child:
Digby is a 10 year old boy in grade 5. He has difficulties with end sounds to words and in decoding. This has resulted in him having reading and writing abilities that are 2.5 years below average.

The Environment:
The students work in learning groups. There are two computers in the classroom with each computer having internet access and the program Read and Write downloaded.

The project:
Digby's learning team has been asked to present a project on sport in Israel. What might Digby's contribution to the project look like?



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