Learning disability is “a form of delayed developments in one or more development areas such as speech, language, reading, writing arithmetic or other school subjects resulting from a psychological handicap caused by a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbances” (Adam and Tatnall, n.d. p.2). While the word ‘special need’ is sometimes used to connote learning disability, however, Adam and Tatnall, (2007) suggest that special need is an umbrella term that inculcates both physical and mental needs and that learning disability is an aspect of special needs, hence both should not be confused to mean the same. In this paper, I shall be focusing on learning disability as a separate term from special needs.
Tony (2019) suggests that in addressing learning disabilities in students, it is important to embrace innovative methods during teaching and learning to aid those students that have been identified as having disabilities in learning. For instance, she suggests that information technology can be a good strategy to help students enhance their learning and become successful in their learning. Of recent, more studies have also agreed with this position and there is an increasing body of knowledge on how technology can aid learning in students with learning difficulties (Susan, 2009; Wood et al., 2017), especially with the help of assistive technology. There is a consensus amongst these studies that integrating technology into teaching and learning has the ability to enhance the learning of students who are experiencing learning challenges. The use of technology, has been seen to be very crucial as it is imperative to enhance learning efficiency amongst this set of students and the use of assistive technology has been seen as important in this regard (Starcic and Istenic, 2010; Wood et al., 2017).
Furthermore, there exists in diverse contexts the question of whether students with learning needs should be taught just as they are taught in normal classrooms or if they will require their own special schools and classroom for them to be taught effectively. Several studies are in line with the former school of thought and they are of the view that students with learning needs should be taught in the four walls of the traditional classrooms while the latter view disagrees and feel that its best that these types of students have their own special classroom for effective teaching and learning (Bulgren, 2008). However, Swanson (2010) argues that in some subjects such as mathematics and social studies, having a special class has had little to no effect in enhancing the learning needs of students with learning needs. On the contrary, more reports are supporting the need for having a special school setting for students with learning disabilities. Also, while the majority of these studies were carried out in developed nations like the USA and, there is little evidence to support such claims on how technology helps students to optimize their learning, particularly in public primary schools in less developed countries like Nigeria. Also, in addition to teachers in developed countries, while Cope and Ward (2002) observed that teacher knowledge about the technology as well as their attitude towards it can aid how technology is implemented in the classroom, there is less information in the literature in public primary schools in Nigeria with regards to this. Therefore, it becomes imperative to understand the use of information technology (i.e., assistive technology) to enhance students with learning difficulties in developing nations’ contexts.
Understanding Learning Disability
Tony (2019) opines that learning can be understood when a person acquires new knowledge and skills. When students are developing in the early stages of their life, they begin to learn new abilities such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. This is also determined based on their age as well as their intellectual capacity (ibid). However, Dhana and Jagawat (2013) note that while some children develop normally in terms of their intellect, vision, hearing, and other physical attributes, there are some other children who are exceptions: they are challenged in being able to develop these abilities at the level expected of them. They exhibit impaired vision, hearing and other physical abilities that normal children usually develop, thereby struggling to acquire the cognitive skills, and IQ needed for normal brain functioning and intelligence for learning (Kumar and Raka, 2016). Studies (e.g., Pillay, 2000) show that understanding the concept of learning disability spans a wide area of certain characteristics, as it affects students’ cognition. For instance, students with learning disabilities struggle in diverse areas such as in their academics as well as the ability to perform in social gatherings. They also lack the necessary emotional intelligence for daily interactions. More profound issues are frequently seen in certain areas such as in literacy (i.e., reading and writing) and mathematics, which are regarded as the core components of education (Adam and Tatnall, 2007). Tony (2019) suggests that the most profound learning disability is known as dyslexia, which can be described as a situation where students have challenges with reading. According to Tony (2019) dyslexia occurs when students struggle with recognizing and manipulating sounds in language while also having the inability to “decode or recognize new words”. Children with dyslexia cannot often read texts accurately and fluently (ibid).
Another form of learning difficulty for students with learning disabilities is known as dysgraphia. This issue occurs when students are having challenges in writing and it is more glaring when they are not able to put together their thoughts and ideas in writing. This affects students in basic writing, especially in how they write, type and spell (Rivalland, 2000). Another form of learning disability is dyscalculia which is the inability of students to recall and apply correctly mathematics steps to solve problems (Dhana and Jagawat, 2013). Dhana and Jagawat (2013) provided some certain examples, such as not being able to understand size and spatial relationships, additions, fractions, decimals, multiplication as well as inability to remember certain mathematical facts and concepts.
Inclusion in Education
According to UNESCO (2013), inclusion in education is about encouraging active participation of students by responding to their various learning needs within a classroom. The central core of this definition is to reduce exclusion and ensure learning takes place optimally based on every child’s unique needs. According to Adam and Tatnall (2007), inclusion helps to ensure quality in education; this is because all students’ diverse needs are met in “a responsive, respectful and supportive manner” within a traditional classroom setting. A traditional classroom comprises of students with diverse learning needs who work together with their peers with the view of being taught optimally and gaining access to quality education. This is in tune with the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) (1989), which states that all pupils, either with learning disabilities or not, are eligible to education without any form of segregation or bias. From this statement by the UNCRC, it becomes necessary that children with learning difficulties should have the right to quality education despite their learning challenges. This will aid them to become future-ready learners and compete in the global job market in the future (Hornby, 2015). UNESCO (1994) adds that, in general, the set-up of the education system should be an avenue that provides opportunities for development in pupils and should embrace all types of children from diverse types of disabilities, including those who have physical, emotional and intellectual needs. In an inclusive school, they are to consider children who are struggling and have several learning needs, hence teaching and learning should be tailored in such a way that recognizes those needs.
In the USA, the Disability Act (IDEA) (2004) requires that, when children are observed to have learning difficulties, educators should come up with what is called an individual education program also shortened to IEP. This program should be developed with the parents, teacher, and qualified persons in mind, and such a plan must be customized to each child. According to United UNCRPD (Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) (2006), people who have disabilities should be able to have opportunities to become lifelong learners and not be faced with any form of discrimination. They should be treated equally and not excluded from quality education. Felicia et al. (2014) and Hornby (2015) suggest that the main aim of education for students with additional needs is to provide them with the best quality education within a traditional school and classroom. According to Keetam and Alkahtani, (2013), all these rest largely on the quality of teachers who should possess the necessary skills and abilities to apply them in ensuring quality education for all. This is because, according to Strong (2018), teachers are the most impactful school-based factor when it comes to students learning. Furthermore, Lindeblad et al. (2016) suggest that when interventions are supported with assistive technologies, effective classroom practices such as peer self-assessment, and problem-based learning are identified for aiding pupils with learning disabilities in their learning.
Understanding Assistive Technology
The International Disability Education Act (IDEA) suggests that assistive technology can be considered to be any form of technological equipment that aids people with disabilities to improve their functional capacities. According to Kumar and Raja (2015), assistive technologies can be computer software or any tech-based product that helps improve learning concentration in students with learning disabilities. With the use of assistive technology alongside teaching and learning, teachers are able to find solutions to the learning challenges of students and encourage independent learning in those students who are experiencing such challenges. The type and use of assistive technology can be determined by the needs of the student as well as how familiar the teacher is with the technology aiding learning of such students (Campbell et al., 2006). When it is well deployed by the teacher and well-tailored to the needs of a child, it can aid schools to increase access to the curriculum as well as enhance the quality of learning for the pupils (Alkahtani, 2013). According to Starcic and Istenic, (2010), there exists a diverse form of assistive technology software and devices that encourages students’ active learning and inclusion in the classroom. These encourage students’ metacognition and the ability to retain and produce knowledge, thereby making them independent learners. These technologies include very simple spellcheckers to advanced ones such as speech recognition systems and educational software. Out of all this software, Rufus et al. (2015) argue that soft wares that have the ability to recognize voices, predict words, check for spellings, as well as those that encourage learning in mathematics have been discovered to enhance learning by giving opportunities to learn for students with diverse learning needs. In providing learners with learning needs who are unable to achieve both academically and non-academically (i.e., emotional and behavior wise), educators must be able to identify the necessity of assistive technology that will aid them in achieving their learning objectives. As such, it can be assumed that assistive technology in teaching and learning, also planning of activities by the teacher is very important, especially considering students with diverse learning needs.
Does ICT Improve Learning?
Reynolds and Turcsanyi-Szabo (2017) in their study, argue that adopting information technology is observed to be a positive and effective influence on pupils with learning disabilities by enhancing their self-esteem. The self-esteem of these students is improved as they become aware that they are able to achieve academically and improve their skills at the end of the class. Reynolds and Turcsanyi-Szabo (2017) further argue that “both human and nonhuman must be induced to work together to produce the desired result”. In addition, they opine that principals or schools leaders have a crucial role to play in terms of providing the financial resources to enable the usage of information technology for learning disabilities. Also, they must rally stakeholders to work towards a common goal. Such stakeholders include ICT team on ground which will provide training for teachers and parents. They also reassure parents that the school has a hang of it. While this study shows the importance of IT in students with learning disabilities, however, Petretto et al. (2021) believe that there are certain risks involved when using IT with students with learning disabilities. For instance, “when there is not enough attention on the provision of specific ‘reasonable accommodations’ for each student’s need or when the accessibility is not well considered in designing and in implementing tools, devices and learning environments” (Petretto et al. 2021, p.10). Therefore, Petretto et al. (2021) suggest that in the view that there are diverse students with unique learning abilities, teachers are charged with identifying the unique needs of students and providing the needed technology in line with the needs identified per student. In addition, teachers should also perceive the importance of IT in aiding students learning. In support of this Pillay (2000) and Quinn (1996) mentioned how technology aid students learning in the following ways:
- Aid students to become independent in their learning;
- Students’ engagement in the classroom;
- Peer and teacher access;
- Opportunity to learn from diverse options in education;
- Encourages peer self-assessment;
- Gain mastery of their learning.
Education is important for students’ life-long success. However, from the literature, it was observed that students encounter different levels of development and have different learning needs, thereby widening the learning gap. Technology, and assistive technology in particular, has been seen to bridge this gap, and students with learning difficulties can now learn at their own pace and become lifelong learners, this is particularly important because it encourages inclusion in teaching and learning in line with UNESCO and the IDEA child right. Therefore, it becomes for schools and educators to value the influence of technology in aiding learning outcomes, especially in students with different learning needs.