Literacy of Students in Adult Special Education

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I am an instructor in the Adult Special Education Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who has an emerging interest in the areas of disability, new technology, and research. I have been involved in a collaborative inquiry on social media use and literacy of students who are considered learning disabled by virtual of their difficulty with print. This paper discusses three aspects of this inquiry: (1) a reflection of my journey as a novice researcher, (2) a literature review, and (3) the preliminary findings from the study.

The inquiry process has challenged my assumptions and knowledge about research. Initially I held a negative bias towards qualitative research; I felt that it was somehow "less than". I believed that traditional research methodologies imbedded in statistical models were superior and resulted in "truer" findings. Many factors influenced my thinking; however, I now understand how these factors were rooted in traditional academic culture. Today, I believe research to hold many forms and shapes, and believe qualitative and collaborative approaches are, in fact, effective methods to systematically inquire and share knowledge.

I consider myself a novice researcher. Prior to this investigation, my experience conducting systematic research was limited. However, my hope that careful and thoughtful inquiry could provide gateways for meaningful change in Adult Special Education Programming propelled my curiosity. I began thinking critically about conventional approaches used to educate people with disabilities in colleges and universities. At the same time, I became increasingly aware of students' use of technology, specifically social media. This started an exploration of my pedagogical assumptions around teaching and learning, as well as the need to consider alternative educational tools.

In November 2009, I participated in the "The Whole Life" project, which was a professional development and training initiative for adult literacy educators addressing learning disabilities in their practice setting. I received a small grant to conduct a needs assessment, and subsequently applied to Kwantlen's Research and Scholarship Department. I received further funding to expand the project and explore the question: What are the perspectives of students with learning disabilities on the emerging implications and potential uses of social media and literacy in a post -secondary environment? Another aim of the study was to contribute to the understanding of current and potential uses of social media to increase educational opportunities at Kwantlen.

Some time later, I enrolled in an inquiry-based research course at the University of Calgary. This course was an individualized study with a focus on collaborative inquiry. In addition to introducing the primary components of research, it also, more importantly challenged my assumptions and hesitations relating to traditional academic research. Moreover, it provided the opportunity to explore my personal connection to the topic under study.

Unfortunately, the initial conceptualization of the study did not include a collaborative framework. As I learned more about collaborative inquiry approaches, I recognized the necessity of working with others. I understood that actively including people with disabilities in all aspects of the research process was not "just the right thing" to do, but essential when embracing the Disability Motto: Nothing about Us Without Us.

The primary collaborative relationship for this project was with an advisory committee consisting of four members, and one staff from a local community organization called the Richmond Centre for Disability (RCD). All four members were involved with the RCD as peer tutors in a computer-training course. The RCD's mission states: "To empower people with disabilities to participate in the community to the level of their desires and abilities by providing information, resources, support and by increasing community awareness and accessibility". Other collaborations included colleagues in the community that had interest in new technologies and social innovation.

This inquiry was not a fully collaborative experience because the research agenda was developed without input from collaborators. Due to the "backward" nature of the process, the voices of people with disabilities were limited. I believe this influenced key components of the study. For example, the roles and responsibilities of the advisory committee were limited due to several factors including academic structures and lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. Through open dialogue and reflective practice, the advisory committee's role evolved and included tasks such as providing feedback; sharing knowledge and expertise; and planning for dissemination of findings. However, other duties could have been included such as input into the research questions, conducting interviews, and analyzing findings. The inherent power disparity between me, as the academic researcher, and the collaborators became evident throughout early discussions. Notes from initial meetings clearly illustrate agenda topics focused on my needs and interests rather than those shared by collaborators.

Although not initially planned, the advisory committee decided to utilize the information and skills they gained throughout this process. Ongoing discussions of the topic encouraged the committee members to put their knowledge into action. They decided to create a presentation on social media focused on terminology, safety, and accessibility that would benefit RCD's members. Currently, the committee is working on a project using collaborative approaches to develop a training document that will be to be included in the computer course curriculum.

This journey has allowed for identification and clarification on many personal levels. I now have a clearer understanding of the benefits and challenges of doing collaborative research between people with disabilities, academic researchers, and community members. Some of the challenges with this approach included the time necessary to develop meaningful partnerships and establishing collaborator's roles within funder's criteria. However, the benefits of moving away from people with disabilities being research "subjects" to active research "partners" outweighs any perceived difficulties.

The list of collaborators and personal relationships I have formed through this process included:

Richmond Centre for Disability (RCD)

B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities

Douglas College - Community Based Research

Steps Forward Inclusive Education

PLAN BC - We create networks, develop resources, cultivate innovation and promote thinking to foster the contribution of people who are isolated and marginalized.

Neil Squire Foundation - Adaptive technology

I also gained knowledge of the main steps in a research process, and examined a variety of research approaches. Finally, I have disseminated preliminary findings at a local level and have plans to disseminate, along with advisory members, at a provincial conference.

The following literature review discussion does not specifically explore the use of social media tools. Instead, it looks at the relationship between literacy and disability with a focus on how social media has and will continue to inform new approaches to learning and teaching.

Literature Review

"To build a society that values inclusion it is important to challenge the assumption that literacy is only reading and writing on paper".

(Literacy, 2010).

It is estimated that 1 in 10 Canadians have a learning disability, and despite technological advancements and learning strategies, they continue to experience systematic discrimination in their pursuit of a post-secondary education (Literacy, 2010). Many factors contribute to low skill level: inadequate literacy instruction; low expectations of educators; physical, social, political and economic barriers; and limited or ineffective intervention methods (Brewster, 2004). The rapid rise of new technologies has encouraged discourse that deconstructs established educational norms and practices. This shift has created opportunity for innovative approaches to learning and teaching.

Literacy is generally considered a set of cognitive skills measured by the individual's ability to read, write, and understand language. However, social media, such as social networking sites, virtual worlds, blogs, wikis and YouTube, provoke new concepts of literacy and new ways of using technology in post-secondary environments. The New Media Consortium (2005) defines twenty-first century literacy as "the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual, and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms" (p.8). Traditional notions of literacy have promoted exclusion and marginalization of people with disabilities, broader definitions reflect a different type of approach. This approach has promoted new ways of using social media for people with disabilities to lead inclusive and full lives.

A recent study found Canadian students with disabilities used social media an average of six hours a week for school related activities and twelve hours a week for non-related school activities (NEADS, 2009). Findings also suggested that, on average, students accessed the internet using seven different ways with desk top computers, lap top computers, and cell phones the three most common. Rather than dismiss social media as an educational tool, educators have asked the question: Could social media be used effectively in post-secondary education to enhance the learning expereience of students?

Using social media is a part of everyday experience for many students. Facebook is the most widely used tool with over 500 million active users in 2010 (Facebook, 2011). On average 50% of users log in daily and spend approximately 55 minutes per day uploading photos, reading profiles and searching for friends (Facebook, 2011). "Tweeting" or sending short messages through Twitter has increased dramatically over the past few years with 100 million new accounts in 2010, up from 4 million 2008 (Twitter, 2010). YouTube is also very popular with 2 billion videos watched per week, and the average user spending 15 minute a day searching the site in 2010 (YouTube, 2011).

The proliferation of social media tools has fostered much debate within the educational community. A recent study found that social media use in colleges increased student engagement and improved faculty participation (Junco & Cole-Avent, 2008). However, the authors also suggested that many instructors lacked the technological skills needed to use social media effectively in their classrooms. A study conducted by Solutions (2011) explored social media use of faculty members in U.S. higher education institutions. They found nearly two-thirds of all faculty used social media tools in their classrooms with over 40% requiring students to read or view social media sites outside of class. The 2010 Horizon Report asserted that social media would continue to have "profound implications" for learning, knowledge generation and creativity in post-secondary institutions (Consortium, 2010).

In contrast, critics argued that social media discourse is grounded in speculation, biases and personal experience rather than empirical evidence (Bauerlein, 2008; Selwyn, 2010). Selwyn (2010) for example, elaborated in detail on the cornerstone of the technology and educational debate - actual use and sustainability. He suggested mid-class, Caucasian men influenced the current social media discourse with little consideration for the "real" users. Timm & Duven (2008) emphasized privacy and ethical considerations suggesting the need for dialogue on apppropriate and ethical practice for students and educators. Similarly, Solutions (2011) reported privacy and integrity as the two most noted barriers to social media use by faculty members.

Nielsen (2006) described social network users using the participation inequality rule: 90% are lurkers, 9% contribute time to time, and 1% contributes most of the action. In the same spirit, Brandtzaeg (as cited in Selwyn, 2008) claimed that most social media users are passive observers rather than engaged participants. He stated: "The majority of people who do use social media are perhaps best termed as 'non-active users' - passively downloading content rather than engaging in any meaningful acts of creation or sharing." This discourse raises concerns considering research shows people with disabilities continue to be disadvantaged in many areas of their lives including access to education and technology.

Reliable data illustrating the relationship between technology use and people with disabilities is limited, and specific data on social media use and people with learning disabilities is non-existent. Comparing findings from several surveys found 44.7% (Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, 2006) of adults with disabilities used the internet in 2005-2006, compared to 73% (Canada, Canadian Internet Use Survey, 2009) of those without disabilities. According to the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (2006), 74.5% of people with a reported learning condition used the Internet in the previous 12 months, and 75% said it helped them be better informed about the world. Data from a provincial review of Adult Special Education (ASE) programming in British Columbia found 75% of students in ASE identify as having a learning disability and 72% of students in ASE read at less than a Grade 7 level (Education, BC Stats, 2006). While research studies often include questions relating to disability and literacy, a lack of consistency with definitions and understandings of the concepts result in inconclusive findings.

Although anybody with internet access can use social media, many tools show a low level of accessibility (OBSERVATORY, 2010). Research has found that popular social networking sites have signficant accessbilitiy issues. The use of CAPTCHAS - Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart - which are used to prevent spam programs from accessing the site often prevented users with vision loss the ability to even register for an account. Other serious barriers included the excessive use of links and advertisments, which make it difficult for screen readers to access information (American Foundation for the Blind). Some popular social networks offer more accessible programming alternatives such as Accessbile Twitter and Easy YouTube, but further research exploring the extent of accessability is needed.

Ways of Understanding: Disability and Literacy

The relationship between disability and literacy is "complex" and "multi-directional" (Zubrow, Rioux, Spielman, Dinca-Panaitescu, Kunkel, & Marsolais, 2009). Commonly, disability has been understood from a medical perspective that viewed disability as an "illness" inherent within an individual in need of being diagnosed or fixed. The "autonomous model" of literacy paralleled the medical model by focussing on measurable, asocial skills outside of a social context (Street, 1995). Understandings from these socially constructed conceptions reinforced individual characteristics as the "problem" with little understanding of broader social structures. By contrast, a "social model" perspective is grounded in the belief that disability and literacy are socially constructed and are a result of relationships with individuals and barriers in their environments. Brewster (2004) argued that professionals needed to re-conceptualize literacy and disability using a social model in an effort to develop more useful and relevant frameworks to inform professional practice.

New Approaches

Research grounded in traditional research methods and understandings of disability have been inadequate in addressing the marginalization and oppression for people with disabilities (Barnes, 2001; Oliver, 1992). Michael Oliver (1992), a disability rights advocate, explains:

As disabled people have increasingly analysed their segregation, inequality and poverty in terms of discrimination and oppression, research has been seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution… Disabled people have come to see research as a violation of their experience, as irrelevant to their needs and as failing to improve their material circumstances and quality of life (p. 105).

Locating disability within the social structures of society along with the acknowledgement of people with disabilities as active and contributing members in the research process has lead to the development of alternative research frameworks (Oliver, 1992; Stone & Priestley, 1996). Collaborative inquiry methods emerged out of these non-traditional approaches. Encouraging collaborations allowed for active participation and involvement in all areas of the research process, and valued people with disabilities as "true knower's" (Stone & Priestley, 1996). Although recognition and acceptance of social model frameworks has grown in recent years, implementation has been commonly misunderstood. Zarb (1995) explained that research from a social model research involved more than just including people with disabilities; rather, the research must have contributed to individual and collective empowerment. He goes further to suggest that disabled people should set the research agenda and ensure it remained focused on directly benefitting the disability community.

Researchers French and Swain (1997) proposed three questions to guide disability research. They are:

Does the research promote disabled people's control over the decision-making processes that shape their lives?

Does the research address the concerns of disabled people themselves?

Does the research support disabled people in their struggle against oppression and the removal of barriers to equal opportunities and a full participatory democracy of all?

These questions illustrate the foundation of research from a social model perspective. Rather, than focussing disability research on individual "problems" or trying to make people "normal", these questions centre on the involvement of people with disabilities and the positive impact on their lives.

The changing direction of disability research parallels the shifts in educational pedagogy. Walk through any college or university campus and the significance of social media use is evident. Students are standing in line or sitting in class while texting or searching on computers. Today's post-secondary students expect environments that promote technological integration and user-led content rather than traditional teacher-centered environments. According to Kuhn (1962), when commonly held assumptions or shared beliefs change it is a "paradigm shift". Social media has promoted a paradigm shift in post-secondary education by challenging the belief that instructors hold the knowledge and transfer it to students. Social media has created a culture where the conceptualization of knowledge content and creation has moved away authority type figures, such as teachers, towards a shared experience.

Siemens (2004) introduced "connectivism" as a learning theory that focused on the connection with others when using technology. He believed that learning is no longer an "individualistic activity", but happens in a nebular environment. In other words, learning happens by developing connections with others and creating networks. Burns (2006) termed "produsage" the development of collaborative content creation (e.g. blogs and Wikipedia) created by on-line users that replaces traditional ideas of content production. Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, & Robison (2009) introduced what they call "participatory cultures" - a focus on collaboration and networking in the production and creation of knowledge. The authors asserted: "Participatory culutre shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community.

This movement towards different kinds of conversations and learning opportunities plays an important role in creating acceptance and full participation for those who have often been excluded as a result of their perceived learning disability. To answer the question of the potential of using social media in post-secondary education for students with learning disabilities, the voices of students using the tools needed to heard, and be involved in guiding future direction. Past studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people with disabilities experience systematic discrimination with the most common barrier being negative societal attitudes. Having people with disabilities conduct research about disability provides a powerful and informed perspective that challenges misconceptions and stereotypes about perceived abilities. It not only promotes new ways that higher education could be delieved, but also who has is valued and has access.

The following are the preliminary findings of Kwantlen students with learning disabilities social media use. These findings along with a presentation on my experience as a novice researcher were presented at a local conference on literacy in March 2011.

Preliminary Findings on Social Media and Literacy of Students in Adult Special Education: An exploratory study

Teresa Morishita, Faculty, Access Programs for People with Disabilities

Kwantlen Polytechnic University

In November 2009, I participated in the "The Whole Life Approach to Learning Disabilities in Adult Literacy Settings" initiative and received a small grant to explore the literacy needs of students with learning disabilities at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Subsequently, I applied to

Kwantlen's Research and Scholarship Department and received funding to expand the project to explore the use of social media and literacy of students who are considered to have a learning disability by virtue of their difficulty with print. This paper discusses two aspects of this project: preliminary findings from the study and a reflection of my personal inquiry journey.


It is estimated that 1 in 10 Canadians have a learning disability, and despite advances in technology and learning strategies, they are still being left behind in their pursuit towards equality (Literacy and Learning Disabilities, 2010). Many factors contribute to poor literacy skills for people with disabilities: inadequate literacy instruction; low expectations of educators; physical, social, political and economic barriers; and limited or ineffective intervention methods (Brewster, 2004). Low literacy results in systematic discrimination and exclusion in many areas of a person's life including education, employment, health and community participation.

Literacy is generally considered a set of cognitive skills measured by the individual's ability to read, write and understand language. However, social media, such as social networking sites, virtual worlds, blogs, wikis and YouTube, provoke new concepts of literacy

and new ways of using technology in educational environments.

Inquiry: Goals and Objectives

The primary purpose of this study was to focus on the question: What are the perspectives of students with learning disabilities on the emerging implications and

potential uses of social media and literacy in a post-secondary environment? Another aim of the study was to contribute to the understanding of current and potential uses of social media to increase teaching and learning opportunities at Kwantlen.

The following were broad objectives for the study: (1) conduct a survey of the literature, and (2) explore the personal experiences of students with learning disabilities at Kwantlen who use social media using a collaborative inquiry model.

Inquiry: Personal Reflection

My interest in literacy, disability and social media came from several viewpoints: (1) a personal belief that education is a means to confront discrimination and exclusion and move towards inclusion, and (2) an understanding that low literacy skills are used to reinforce discriminatory practices; for example, beliefs and actions of professionals that support such statements as "I don't think university is for people like that" or "they need a special program where they can be with people like themselves". New technologies are challenging traditional models of disability and literacy that view the individual having "problems" that are in need of being "fixed". A social model perspective is an alternative framework that recognizes the social context between individuals and their environment.

Methodological approach

Collaborative inquiry methods were used that encouraged collaboration between students, educators and stakeholders. I believed that the students' experiences and knowledge needed to be captured and shared. As the principal investigator, my role was that of an inquirer.

An advisory committee consisting of local community members with disabilities and staff from a community organization was established. Members of this committee were considered research partners who helped guide and influence the research agenda. Some of the steps they were involved with include developing research tools and preparing the research report.

Principle steps

Three students who were either current or past graduates of Adult Special Education programming participated in this study. All participated in an hour semi-structured interview and a short survey. The following main content areas were discussed: social media; literacy skills; and the student's experience, thoughts, and feelings about social media use and literacy in post-secondary education. All sessions were recorded and analysed. Follow-up interviews will be arranged after all data is gathered to ensure the accuracy of the researcher's interpretation of findings.


A main finding shows that students use social media for personal and educational purposes. Another finding was that although students recognize social media as having educational purposes in their personal lives, it was not clearly linked as a potential educational tool in a post-secondary environment.

Participant findings:

The most common tools used were listening to a podcast, reading a blog, watching a video on YouTube, and searching a friend on Facebook.

Participants used social media at least once a day.

Social media meant interacting with friends, people around the world, sharing photos, conversations, learning about things, research and sharing a lot of things.

Participants do not tell people when using social media that they were a person with a disability.

Participants thought there was a link between a person's literacy skill and their involvement in the community.

Participants expressed differing responses to using social media tools in the classroom by students with learning disabilities.

"I don't think it can. It is too distracting. Too social".

"Some tools, like YouTube. YouTube is very educational, but you have to be careful about who made the video. Sometimes it is not appropriate".

Limitations and Future plans

A limitation of these preliminary findings is the small sample size which may not adequately reflect the student population. In addition, interview questions have developed and expanded since the initial interviews which will result in non-comparable data for the final project. The final report is expected to be completed in November 2011.


Brewster, S. (2004). Insights from a Social Model of literacy and disability. Literacy , 38 (1), 46-51.

National Adult Literacy Database. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Factsheet #7: