History is full of stories about geniuses with unique learning needs. Albert Einstein, for example, got so frustrated with rote learning that he dropped out of school at the age of 15.
Dr. Carol Greider, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, is another example of a gifted individual who faced some academic challenges. As a child, Dr. Greider was put into remedial classes because she was a slow reader. According to this article about her career, she developed a passion for science in college and got good grades — but was rejected by many grad schools due to her poor GRE scores.
Thankfully (for all of us), she was accepted into U.C. Berkeley, where she made the prize-winning discovery of telomerase, which eventually became a therapeutic target in cancer treatment.
Both Dr. Greider’s successes and challenges can be attributed to the same thing: dyslexia, a neurological condition that affects nearly one in five individuals. Dr. Greider says that her ability to pull information out of context and develop novel ideas is likely a positive attribute of her learning difference.
The many cognitive strengths associated with dyslexia are well-documented. According to this Scientific American article, there is a disproportionately high number of dyslexic astrophysicists because people with this condition are particularly good at noticing “things that are out of place.” Those with dyslexia also have strong problem-solving skills and spatial awareness.
People with dyslexia are no more or less intelligent than the general population, but under the right conditions, they can climb to the very top of their chosen field — whether it’s in the sciences, the arts, or business management. Unfortunately, many bright students with this learning disability don’t get the chance to succeed.
Individuals with dyslexia can learn to read, but they often find it challenging to stick with a long passage of text. This means that traditional academic environments, where the printed word is a primary conduit of knowledge, can be very taxing. And post-secondary studies, where the bar for independence is even higher, can be particularly challenging.
According to one piece of research, only 2% of people with dyslexia enrolled in undergraduate programs in the US complete the required four years of study. Gifted students with dyslexia (called “twice exceptional” in research circles) are also at a higher risk of dropping out of college.
When an otherwise bright student leaves because they aren’t getting the support they need, it is a missed opportunity for the student, the institution, and society.
Academic leaders focused on retaining the best and brightest should ensure students with learning differences such as dyslexia are included in their approach. And this is where technology (particularly digital textbooks) can help.
Delivered via an e-reader app on any mobile, tablet, or desktop, the most robust digital textbook solutions come equipped with accessibility features that can significantly benefit individuals for whom the written word is a barrier to learning. And when a digital textbook is delivered as part of a learning platform that integrates fully with library and university systems, it can unlock a whole universe of knowledge for a slow reader.
Of course, technology is not a silver bullet. It is not a substitute for the phonics support and other interventions students with dyslexia will have received in elementary school, nor will it replace social support and accommodations, such as extra time on tests provided by a university or college.
But when it comes to accessibility, a digital textbook beats paper hands down, and specific features can help higher learning institutions meet students’ needs. Here’s how:
According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, warm-colored background colors, including yellow, significantly improve reading performance. While this benefits all readers, it can be a game-changer for those with dyslexia. Digital learning enablement platforms make it easy for students to adjust colors as they see fit via apps that enable complete control of the background colors.
Text-to-speech is an assistive technology that is particularly useful for those long passages that are tricky to decode. When students encounter a challenging block of text, they can select the text they want the platform to read aloud. Or they can choose to have the entire textbook read out loud to them. This can be a particular benefit for those who have severe dyslexia or those with mild dyslexia who just need an extra boost. The benefits also extend to students with other types of disabilities, including low vision.
One of the more innovative functionalities found in some digital platforms is the ability to stream all university-provided content instantly. Students pull from thousands of books and find the most relevant paragraphs, figures, and diagrams in seconds.
Dyslexic adults have demonstrated greater creativity in tasks, and pulling from multiple sources of information is one way to synthesize information to gain new insight. People with ADHD also thrive when they pull from various sources of information. So for out-of-the-box thinkers, a layered search could be transformative.
Some dyslexic readers have difficulties with visual attention and need help eliminating distractions. A study from 2013 found that students with dyslexia had better reading comprehension when using an e-reader that displayed only two or three words per line of text. With a fully responsive interface, text can be magnified using the student’s native browser zoom function without overflowing or hiding helpful functionality. This is easier than holding up a magnifying glass to a page.
Textbooks that use old-fashioned fonts can be frustrating for readers who have trouble with visual clutter. According to research, font styles like sans serif, monospaced and roman significantly improved the reading performance of people with dyslexia. Many e-reader apps incorporate the option to easily and quickly adjust the font.
Students could also try using OpenDyslexic, a funky-looking font designed to make it easier for the eye to detect direction. There is no hard evidence that this benefits people with dyslexia, but given how easy it is to adjust fonts on most e-reader apps, it’s definitely worth a try.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for meeting diverse learning needs. It might take a bit of troubleshooting before a student finds the right combination of adjustments that best suits their individual preferences and requirements when using a digital textbook. Still, the benefits of having more options for accessing learning content are evident.
Digital content can unlock a whole world of knowledge that may be otherwise unavailable to students with learning differences. For students, it means a fair shot at success. For institutions, it means more tools to foster the kind of brilliance that may have previously gone unnoticed.
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