Web-based discussion forums 'marginalise dyslexics'

July 7, 2006

Academics alienate dyslexic students when they conduct group tutorials online, a study has concluded, writes Jessica Shepherd.

Researchers at Sheffield University found dyslexic students were at a "severe disadvantage" when chatrooms and text conferences replaced classrooms and lecture theatres.

The students often chose not to participate in online tutorials because they feared being humiliated for spelling and grammar errors, which are common symptoms of dyslexia.

Others also struggled to read and write down their ideas as fast as their peers. The study, the first of its kind, comes at a time when universities are increasingly incorporating web-based learning and teaching into the curriculum.

Researchers analysed the contributions made by 32 dyslexic and non-dyslexic students to online group tutorials over two years, ending this March. They then asked the students to give frank feedback on how they and their peers interacted.

Brian Woodfine, a PhD student who is one of the authors of the study, said he worried for the future of dyslexic students as universities moved towards more web-based teaching.

He said: "Our research confirms that in a synchronous learning environment - such as chatrooms and text conferences - it is certainly true that students with dyslexia will be at a severe disadvantage. This is related to problems of spelling, sentence structure, reading, memory, time management and organisation.

"Students with dyslexia are at risk of exclusion and marginalisation in any e-learning activity that involves this type of technology. The temptation will be to use an increasing component of synchronous environments and this may be a significant risk for students with dyslexia in the future."

One student involved in the study, who preferred to remain anonymous, said:

"Spelling is a problem I have and will always have. That is why I usually stay away from chatrooms."

Miguel Baptista Nunes, a lecturer in the department of information studies at Sheffield who led the research, said universities could use mentors to tackle the problem.

He said: "The findings of this research have established the need for reasonable adjustments to be taken whenever synchronous learning activities are required.

"The nature of these adjustments need not be necessarily a technological one and may include moderating and tutoring strategies.

"There is a need for fur-ther research in this area," he added.

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