Digital Textbooks and Students with Special Needs
The inclusive nature of digital textbooks has the potential to powerfully meet the diverse learning needs of students who are exceptional. The most practical elements of digital text are the simple ones. For example, students with vision impairments can use the text-to-speech or screen readers found within universal access programs to have text read aloud to them. Students can tailor text to their specific needs by changing font size and type. A simple change of background color can greatly improve text readability for learners.
With features like these, along with more advanced features, digital textbooks could decrease teacher-planning time and increase teacher-student interaction with content. For teachers, digital textbooks provide assistive technology in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA, 2004). This law requires that assistive technology resources be made available to all persons with disabilities and provides funding to make these resources possible. In addition, Public Law 100-407, the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act, requires that all students who are exceptional receive technology resources that support access to grade-level appropriate content.
This requirement complicates instruction for teachers. When teachers use traditional textbooks, the content is static, and often, the complex language used in textbooks is too difficult for learners with special needs. In an effort to resolve this problem, teachers use strategies to adapt the complex language to meet the learning needs of individual students. This can result in watered-down versions of text that fail to deliver rich grade-level content to students.
Digital textbooks are being developed using a universal design for learning (UDL) approach. UDL strategies do not water down content. Rather, complex content is presented using simpler language with supportive hyperlinks to definitions of cognitively difficult key vocabulary and concepts. Following UDL strategies, core content can be scaffolded to meet the cognitive levels of individual learners (1). Scaffolding content enables students with special needs to learn grade-level content within their zone of proximal development, thus providing content that is easy to understand while remaining aligned with curriculum standards (2). Many students with special needs also now have access to mobile devices for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC devices). These devices can also be used to access digital textbooks, therefore meeting the majority of student learning and communication needs through one simple device.
Further, digital textbooks could decrease school and district expenditures on textbook adoptions. For example, our district's last math textbook adoption was a disaster. The student and teacher editions contained so many errors that the math company had to replace all teacher and student editions and peripherals not once—but twice. Although the district did not directly incur this cost, someone had to pay for the errors and usually, that falls to the consumer (in this case, the schools). Digital textbooks can be updated instantly because they are web-based. The savings could be staggering to schools.
If I were a bean counter (and I am certainly not), I would wonder about return on investment. What is the total cost of purchasing a mobile device fully loaded with access to all textbooks and resources any student would need throughout the elementary school years, or throughout the middle school years, or throughout the high school years? How does this cost compare to the cost of printing, reprinting, and replacing textbooks during a student's time in elementary, middle, or high school?
If schools purchase devices capable of accessing digital textbooks for all students, that would include those with special needs. Consequently, schools would save money by reducing the number of assistive technology purchases, teachers would save planning time, and students with special needs would have appropriate access to rich, adaptable content necessary to meet their specific learning deficits. Since 2004, IDEA has required that students with special needs have access to technology resources such as digital textbooks to increase learning of the curriculum. Why is adoption of digital textbooks taking so long?
D. Edyburn, "Understanding What Works and Doing What Works," Journal of Special Education Technology 23, 1 (2008).
D. Edyburn, "Using Research to Inform Practice," Special Education Technology Practice 11, 5 (2009): 2129.