The need for effective instructional programs involving literacy is widely recognized by literary scholars. A powerful aid in solving the problem is the integration of technology into education, especially computer-assisted literacy programs. There has been worldwide experimentation with technology in the classroom in recent years(Forrest, 317), but full integration has not yet been implemented. There are many possible reasons for this, lack of quality hypermedia, cost of computer integration in classrooms, or force of habit, in which we continue to teach with age-old methods. This should not, however, be the case, and many of these issues are addressed in this paper. In this essay, the benefits of computer-assisted literacy programs will be discussed, especially focusing on the use of hypermedia, how they allow the knowledge base to accommodate the learner rather than the learner accommodating the knowledge base. Case studies will be used to reinforce the ideas put forth, in order to illustrate effectiveness, in terms of results and cost.
Hypermedia are a new form of computer technology that has been popularized and made possible only in the last few years. It is "a presentation and representation system built around a network of multimedia materials such as text, graphics, sound, and motion" (Conlin, Hammond, Heller in Liu, 294). The strengths of hypermedia are presented categorically in the next four paragraphs.
Nonlinear format. Hypermedia focus more on relationships than isolated facts. When compared to traditional forms of information presentation, hypermedia alter the constraints and opportunities of conveying information. Unlike printed books or other materials, there is no preset sequence for proceeding in the hypermedia environment. Based on their own individual strengths and interests, students choose different ways to navigate the learning environment. Research shows that learners who were taught by their preferred learning methods achieved more, and were more interested in the subject matter. (Smith & Rezulli in Palumbo & Bermudez, 177) This is impossible in a classroom, where there may be dozens of preferred learning methods, and only one teacher. In the increasingly culturally diverse learning environment, no ethnic or cultural group dominates the user population, and the age- old tradition of writing an instruction set crafted for a "typical" learner has become obsolete.
Individuality. In order to effectively teach literacy, instructors must consider the cognitive and affective aspects of learning(Palumbo & Bermudez, 183). The hypermedia environment allows students to think, create, and physically control learning, which fills these learning objectives. Also, three specific learning types have been identified in literature: visual, auditory, and tactile- kinesthetic.(Palumbo & Bermudez, 185) Everyone learns with a combination of these three methods, but each person has their own preferred style, or combination of these three methods. Hypermedia are strong in all three of these learning areas. For the visual learner, there are texts, graphics, and even full-motion video to enhance the learning environment. For the auditory learner, there is digitized audio for most aspects of the learning experience. The tactile-kinesthetic learner needs to become physically involved with the environment. Hypermedia allow for intense physicality and integration into the environment, as the users are choosing for themselves how the learning is going to develop and proceed. Hypertext , with its flexibility, integrates these three modalities to match learning and instruction.
Associativity. Hypermedia are fascinating in that in many ways they mirror some functions of human memory. Items in hypermedia are logically linked to form a network. Learning theorists are now beginning to view learning as the construction of mental models, or nodes.(Norman in Palumbo & Bermudez, 179) Hypermedia allow the potential for users to "construct personalized transactions between the information to be accessed and their own cognitive structure" (Palumbo & Bermudez, 172) Human memory doesn't read like a book, and it makes sense that the human learning method shouldn't either, in order to be most effective. By giving students the ability to learn through hypermedia, they create a learning experience tailored to their own thought styles, which allow faster and more effective learning of the material, evidence of which will be seen later in the case studies.
Efficiency. Instead of juggling encyclopedias, video players, cassette players, atlases, and textbooks, a hypermedia environment combines all these different types of information and more onto the screen simultaneously. A simple click of the mouse or touch to the screen can activate a jump between many types of media effortlessly. As we will see later in the cost analysis of a case study, not only does this create an atmosphere of increased convenience, it is also extremely cost efficient, for reasons of decreased labor and capital for materials. Another aspect of the efficiency of hypermedia is the fact that each student's assumptions are individually checked, and nothing need be assumed about a student's progress. In a classroom, a subject may be taught, and the teacher may believe that comprehension has been achieved, but with hypermedia it can be arranged that a student cannot proceed with incorrect assumptions, and the material can be approached and presented again without a loss to the other students who did comprehend.
Another important aspect to consider is the fact that this style of learning is effective for adult illiterates, in addition to students. Many people might feel that adults would be intimidated by technology(Lewis et al, 138), but in many cases this has not been the result; adults almost always become as engrossed-or more so-than student learners in the hypermedia format(Finnegan & Sinatra, 109). Adult illiterates may feel insecurity in their inability to read and write and in a traditional learning environment may hesitate to ask for all the help they need. Hypermedia eliminate this concern as the learner is allowed to work at his or her own pace, and determine for himself the amount of online help he or she receives. Programs that have integrated computers and appropriate software have also increased attendance(Turner & Stockdill in Finnegan & Sinatra, 108), which implies a greater interest in the learning process. This is due to the sense of empowerment that adults receive with their education. Students assume the responsibility of creating a learning environment, and this control of the learning makes accomplishments more meaningful(Finnegan & Sinatra, 109). A last point to consider with adult literacy education is that a classroom of non-literate adults will have at least as much diversity of knowledge levels as any group of younger students, and probably much more, due to differing education and age levels. By having a learning environment that tailors itself to each learner, you increase both cost and time effectiveness, as a more developed student isn't waiting around while others catch up, and less developed students aren't getting lost.
Our first case study deals with the effectiveness of a word processor for improving compositions of students. Word processing is a major function of hypermedia because not only must students focus on reading, but on the writing aspect of literacy(Jones, 43). Using a computer, and thus a word processor, allows the student to focus on the composing, as opposed to the mechanical aspects of writing. (Jones in Jones, 43) This is because much of the letter formation, spelling, correcting errors, inserting and deleting text and other conventions of writing are delegated to the word processor. Many would argue that this is a weakness, but we will soon see this is not the case, as it allows the students to reduce their cognitive load and focus more on the actual act of composing a piece of writing.(Jones, 44) Word processors also offer many facilities that may not be immediately available to all students such as on-screen help, a thesaurus, spell and grammar checking. Several researchers have also found that students who use a word processor develop longer compositions, an overall improvement in writing, and an increase in the number of revisions in work.(Beal & Griffin, Cochran-Smith et al., Schrader, Boudrot, Neufeld in Jones, 46) Critics of hypermedia will be interested to hear that the use of word processors results in an overall improvement in the quality of writing and longer stories, even with a pen and paper.(Jones, 45, 52)
Many other courses have had success with hypermedia education techniques, one of which is the READY course, a set of "ten hypermedia reading modules designed for adults functioning between the fourth and ninth grade reading levels."(Gretes & Green, 29) The READY course works through vocabulary and moves on to higher-level reading comprehension through hypermedia elements. The use of the mouse in such an environment was reported to help students overcome inadequate keyboard skills(Gresham, Nurss, in Gretes & Green, 30). Words could be highlighted to cause a pronunciation key and definition to appear below any paragraph. In the box was an icon that could be clicked to hear digitized audio pronunciation of the word. In such an exceptional hypermedia environment, Gretes and Green observed an impressive learning improvement. For the experimental group, a grade equivalent improvement of 1.84 grades was reported, roughly three times the improvement of 0.59 of the control group.(Gretes & Green, 37) This correlation between increased learning and the READY course gives a strong argument for hypermedia instruction.
Growing concern for cost-effectiveness in schools due to decreased funding, and the recent decline in unit costs for microcomputers make hypermedia a cost effective literacy tool, also. A study was conducted to analyze the cost effectiveness of two hypermedia based literacy education programs: Technology for Literacy Center(TLC), and Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System(PALS). Both programs had an impressive learning rate alone, with PALS needing 70 hours to improve one grade level, and TLC needing 77, as opposed to many traditional learning methods which are reported to require well over 100 hours. (Lewis, Stockdill, and Turner, 141, 144) The costs of these programs was considerably lower than many other literacy programs because the initial capital required is lower, and upgrading the information periodically doesn't require much new physical material. The labor costs are also considerably lower, as the hypermedia is doing most of the work, as opposed to paid instructors. The average costs per grade level change was about $1400 per grade level, and the cost per hour of student instruction was under $20. The teachers still occupy at least half the budget of both programs(Lewis et all, 141). It was found in this study that when additional computers are "substituted for skilled labor in the instructional process for adult basic reading, increases in efficiency may result"(Lewis et al, 148). It was also found that when a computer-based program was compared to a tutor- based one, "costs per unit of gain in basic reading skills clearly favor" the computer based program(Lewis, 148).
Many authors are now beginning to call for universal computer literacy(Eisele,85), in effect demanding integration of computer literacy into the standard scholastic curriculum. This is due to the pervasive nature of computers in our lives, and that: "The time is rapidly approaching when the ability to make intelligent use of computers will be prerequisite, to everyday life situations such as riding subway cars, using telephones, driving automobiles, watching television, obtaining news, learning new skills, and making career choices." (Eisele, 85) Indeed, some have called for a "new literacy"(Plevnik,82), made possible through new technology and new communication techniques, arguing that the "communication medium determines the speed of thought which is the basis of dynamic literacy"(Tezak in Plevnik, 82)
These arguments and others call attention to the growing and persistent presence of computers in the lifestyle of our society, which would call not only for the use of hypermedia in assisting literacy, but the familiarity with hypermedia being a necessary element in literacy education.
Eisele, James E., "A Case for Universal Computer Literacy", Journal of Research and Development, Vol 14 No 1, 1980.
Finnegan, Roslyn, and Richard Sinatra, "Interactive computer-assisted instruction with adults", Journal of Reading, October 1991.
Forrest, Tracey, "Technology and the Language Classroom", TESOL Quarterly, Vol 27 No 2, 1993.
Gretes, John A, and Michael Green, "The Effect of Interactive CD-ROM/Digitized Audio Courseware on Reading Among Low-Literate Adults", Computers in the Schools, Vol 11 No 2, 1994.
Jones, Ithel, "The Effect of a Word Processor on the Written Composition of Second-Grade Pupils", Computers in the Schools, Vol 11 No 2, 1994.
Lewis, Darrell R, and Stacey Stockdill, Terilyn Turner, "Cost Effectiveness of Micro-Computers in Adult Basic Reading", Adult Literacy and Basic Education, Vol 14 No 2, 1990.
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