The Challenges of Learning in the Digital Age

Recently, I attended the National CHADD conference. This was my 10th year at CHADD where we learn, debate and exchange new methods and ideas. It was, as always, an intense experience. Imagine being in the same space with all of the top experts in the field – the eminent researchers and practitioners, as well as many parents and adults impacted by ADHD, all teaching and learning from each other. I got to hug and reminisce with people I have been working within other parts of the country and Canada over the years, and I even met some people from Australia, Kuwait, and South Africa whom I plan on collaborating with in the near future.

During my next few blogs, I will be sharing highlights of my experience at the conference. For this blog, I am sharing a discussion with Romaney Berson of bFocused Coaching, an educator and ADHD/Executive Function Coach. She had a wonderful presentation at CHADD called, “It’s a Brave New World: Digital Education and the Student with ADHD. With Education consistently moving into more of a digital platform, there have been resulting challenges and disadvantages for many students with ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorders, and Executive Function issues. Below are the highlights from the transcript of our conversation.Technology and Learning

Cindy: During your talk, you mentioned the array of steps and processes students need to go through to stay on top of knowing what their assignments are. Can you please elaborate?

Romaney: The first real issue is that many schools have gone to electronic portals where information about assignments, information from teachers, homework materials, textbooks, etc. are posted. Unfortunately, some schools do not require all teachers to use the selected school portal, so a student might have some teachers who use the portal while other teachers might use a different portal, or their own website or a teacher page on a district-wide website. This means students have to be looking at multiple sites every day to try and keep up with what their teachers want them to be doing. Even at schools where they do require teachers to use the school portal or no portal, teachers are not required to use the portals uniformly. This means that students have to learn the basic way each teacher uses the portal, but be mindful of the fact that many teachers change how they use it over time. Students have to look through the main page, a calendar page, individual class pages and more, to make sure they are staying on top of their work. All of this takes a lot of time and even the best, most focused students spend a lot of time just going through every nook and cranny of the portals or websites they are responsible for. For students with ADHD or other learning differences, this is almost impossible and even painful.

Cindy: So true. And even some kids (and adults!) who don’t have these challenges are overwhelmed with all of the newer platforms. What are some of the other issues you are seeing?

There is also a movement towards online assessments. Here, there are multiple problems. First, students who have developed strategies that work for them to ensure they follow all directions and answer all questions asked, cannot employ those strategies in an online setting. This puts them at a disadvantage. For example, many students have developed strategies for making sure they follow all directions such as circling or underlining important words, (i.e. write 5 sentences) and ensuring they answer all questions within a question, (i.e. writing numbers next to each question). With an online test, students are not able to do this so it is more likely they will fail to follow all directions and/or answer all questions asked. Their ability to do well has been set back by the switch to an online test.

Also, when there are essays or short answer questions, there is nowhere for a student to brainstorm their thoughts, write down ideas or even an outline before writing. This creates a significant problem for most kids who do not have the ability to just start writing an essay and have it be a well thought out and composed piece of writing. Teachers are also using more and more multiple-choice questions. These can be very difficult for students with ADHD as they are often very literal and do not understand nuance and inference. People who work with students with ADHD, as I do, really need to work with them to understand the different strategies for tackling multiple choice questions.

One thing that would really help students would be for them to have an accommodation that allows them to have a paper copy of all tests at the same time as they are doing the test online. This would allow them to use their strategies. Also, having blank paper and a writing utensil is critical for brainstorming and outlining for essays.

ADHD And Learning Another very real issue is that if a student cannot keyboard well, and by this, I mean at least 40 wpm and ideally more, doing their homework, which is more and more online, now takes much longer, when it was difficult for them to do all their homework before it went online. Even more important is that with online assessments, students who cannot keyboard well are at a distinct disadvantage from those who can keyboard well. Many students, even with their extended time, have difficulty finishing an online test if there is real writing involved.

Cindy: I am so glad you mentioned keyboarding. When I do professional development in schools, I always survey what grade students are being taught “QWERTY” – proper keyboarding skills. While some schools are formally teaching students in 3rd grade (the ideal age according to most Occupational Therapists), many schools have abandoned teaching keyboarding altogether. For kids who struggle with ADHD, Executive Function challenges, or learning challenges, keyboarding is an essential skill, and one much harder to master once poor habits (hunt and peck) are formed. Which leads to my next question. What is the impact on students who may struggle with note taking or annotating?

Romaney: My biggest concern is that it seems that very few students today are taking notes in class or on their reading. As someone who works with students with ADHD and other learning differences, I try my best to stress the importance of starting to take notes in class, so they can find a system that works for them. But it is really hard to get them to understand the importance of this. My students are always telling me that they don’t need to take notes in class because the teacher tells them when he or she wants them to take notes. I try to explain that the most important material comes from when the teacher is speaking about what they have put on the board or beyond the few things they say to take notes on, but it often falls on deaf ears. I am very concerned about how these students are going to handle their classes when they get to college. As I said to one of my students, when she is sitting in a 400-person lecture class, I promise that the professor isn’t going to stop and turn around and say to her directly, “okay, now I want you to take notes on this.”

Many schools are now using online textbooks or no textbooks at all. When there is no textbook, teachers use PowerPoints, hand-drawn materials and a variety of online resources. Often, there is no ability to take notes or annotate with these online materials. Even when there is the ability, the reality is that many students will never go back to look at the material and their notes or annotations because it is just too hard to go through all the “clicks” to get there.

Cindy: Do you think that the screens have added to the stress and pressure on students and families.

Romaney: There is no doubt in my mind that digital education has increased stress and pressure for students and families. Besides the issues I addressed above, school has become 24/7. Students can e-mail teachers at any time of day, on any day and get a response. Some teachers are posting assignments late Friday night or over the weekend and sometimes even include a due date on the same weekend. Due dates now include times like 11:59 pm or 8:05 am. Many portals and schools post all grades on-line which for some kids can be problematic because checking their grades becomes an addiction and, in some cases, raises anxiety to concerning levels.
Also, it seems to me that more work is being assigned because either it has become easier for teachers to produce more material (I am seeing a lot of materials coming straight off the web from other sources) or grading is easier because of changes to assessments or assessments being conducted by third-party vendors.

Cindy: If you could speak to the superintendent of schools in some districts, what are the top 3 things you would suggest that they implement regarding this issue?

Romaney: My first dream ask would be to require that all teachers use the designated portal and do so uniformly. Tied to this would be to spend time at the beginning of the year really teaching the kids about the portal and how the school and teachers will be using it.

Cindy: That is a great suggestion. Tied to that I would love to see teachers have time to spend the first week or two helping develop organizational strategies, time management strategies, goals, and a few other things – but that is for another blog!

Romaney: I would also like to see conversations between administrators, teachers, parents, students and other third parties who work with students concerning changes to accommodations that will allow for this new world of digital education. Things like getting a hard copy of tests while doing the online version, having blank paper and pen or pencil to organize thoughts, hard copies of textbooks for kids who struggle to comprehend online books, more extended time if a student cannot keyboard quickly and accurately, etc. We have to look at the way education is being conducted now and consider how it impacts students with ADHD and other learning differences.

Cindy: Yes! I spend a good amount of time supporting parents in learning how to navigate, how to collaborate appropriately and effectively with teachers in these new times.

Technology and Learning Romaney: The third thing is basic but so important. I would love to see every single school in America teach keyboarding every year in elementary school so that every student who enters middle school can type a minimum of 40 wpm and ideally 60-70 by the time they reach high school. This is so critical today because students who cannot keyboard well are at a distinct disadvantage!!

Cindy: Agreed. What I have found is that often when some of the essential, important life skills (such as keyboarding, time management, mindfulness to reduce the impact of stress and improve focus) are taught as part of school, students are more confident, calmer, behave more appropriately, and are more productive. This leaves teachers with more time to do what they love to do – teach!

Thank you so much Romaney, for talking about this important issue.

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