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Landmark College: Learning Disabilities Innovation Symposium
By Yehuda Bayme


President Peter EdenTo an overflowing group of educators from across the Northeast and Canada attending the 2013 Learning Disabilities Innovation Symposium at the Landmark College campus in Putney, VT, President Peter Eden described the 28-year-old school as a collaborative space devoted solely to students who learn differently.  Dr. Eden proudly noted that 66 percent of Landmark graduates succeed in obtaining a baccalaureate degree, as compared with the national average of 55 percent for all learners, and 23 percent for students who learn differently.

Dr. Matthew Schneps, Director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was this year’s keynote speaker. Dr. Schneps is a scientist by profession and an individual with dyslexia himself. His recent research is focused on technologies that make reading easier for some profiles of dyslexic individuals. He said that the key to success is having a deep passion for learning and transforming that into reality, in his case, through technology. He broadened the common understanding of dyslexia, which asserts that dyslexia is caused by difficulties with phonological awareness, to include challenges to visual attention as part of the dyslexic spectrum. While individuals with dyslexia do have difficulty with phonological awareness, Dr. Schneps noticed that many dyslexics also describe their experience with reading as the text “swimming on the page.” He said that, while not everyone in the general population has difficulty with reading, we must remind ourselves that reading is not a natural human reflex, like tasting or smelling.  Even those who are not dyslexic require at least seven years of practice to become fluent readers. The skills needed to read include building a vocabulary repository, phonological awareness (sound-symbol association), understanding syntax (grammar), lower order perceptual skills, and working memory. Schneps added another little-known, but very important skill to the list- control over attention. This is not inhibitory control that helps a person refrain from doing something else while reading and it is not a form of disorganization. Control over attention has to do with visual attention, which is the ability to focus in on the thing that is of interest to us while screening out all other visual stimuli. When people learn to read, they have to learn to put their attention right on the word they’re trying to read.  Many people with dyslexia are not able to do this and have trouble with reading because their attention lags behind their vision. Schneps has learned through his own research that iPod e-readers, which limit the amount of text on each line, can make it easier for some dyslexics to place their attention on each word and improve their reading comprehension.

During his Question and Answer session, Dr. Schneps explained that video games are perhaps the most famous example of interventions to help people improve their visual attention. He explained that visual attention is part of vision itself and plays a significant role in everything one see. Audible books may not be a solution either, because the person may have an auditory attention deficit, as well. However, training in that area can also be created so that students can improve control over what they hear.

Some of the other presentations during the symposium, included a session by Dr. Manju Banerjee, Vice President and Director of Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT), which illustrated how writing could be made easier for students who learn differently, by using features within Adobe Acrobat – Standard/Pro. Adobe converts text into PDF, which stands for “Portable Document Format.” Dr. Banerjee explained that PDFs maintain the same format as the original document, but can be made more malleable and accessible by using features within Adobe Acrobat. For example, you can insert hyperlinks into PDFs and attach your own text or audio to the document at any location within the document. Other features allow one to use the technology to do lower order tasks, such as searching and locating words or bodies of text within the file, thus facilitating higher order cognitive tasks such as comprehension and recall. Writing a term paper, for example, is made easier by embedding cues and notes as reminders within the text of a seminal resource document to remind oneself that this information is important.  These notes, whether written or audio, embedded right next to the text in the document facilitate learning through associative proximity. In other words, students can see their own notes and the actual text description right next to each other. 

In another session, Caleb Clark of Marlboro College Graduate School, who oversees a tech program and comes from a media production background, discussed the future of apps and the internet. He noted that because of cloud computing, emails will no longer have attached files to download, but instead, individuals will be able to grant access to their own cloud for others to view any shared document or file. He also shared examples of several educational apps.

During the panel discussion, students talked about their experiences at Landmark College. One student spoke of how she uses programs such as Google Calendar to color-code and remind herself to organize her day’s schedules. Another student from Woodstock, NY, who is interested in a career in electrical engineering, spoke about how he “syncs” his electronic calendar with all his portable devices and puts all of his textbooks on Kindle. Another student, with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) talked about using her Mac computer as a text-to-speech device to aid her reading. She buys her textbooks from Coursesmart.com and uses the text highlighting tool in Adobe Acrobat to assist with reading.

Everyone benefitted greatly from the exchange of ideas and the information shared by experts. #



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