Research: Improving Literacy With Learning Tools

This morning I read a research paper entitled Leveling the Playing Field with Microsoft Learning Tools written by Katherine McKnight PhD and was published by the Center for Evaluation & Study of Educational Equity RTI International.

The focus is squarely on asking the question “Does the use of Learning Tools improve literacy outcomes, with both reading and writing for students?”

Firstly, I think it’s worth exploring the role that research has in education. It’s a pretty hot topic because in my experience, most educators will wholeheartedly agree that basing their pedagogy on a solid research and evidence base is critical, however they also state that sometimes finding timely and up to date research is difficult.

There are longitudinal studies which are invaluable and yet with the pace of change across many sectors these days, and education is no different, sometimes the research finding is too slow to get to educators or worse, some of it is quickly out of date, particularly if the technology has improved and moved on during the interim. This particular study tries to address this challenge by stating at the outset:

Education leaders want shorter turn-around studies that provide more timely information and address practical questions about education technology.

I acknowledge that there will be some educationalists who would see this as unsatisfactory and may question the validity of the research and conclusions. However, in my experience there are many teachers and school leaders who, somewhat pragmatically, do want some very recent research that can provide wider data sets or perspectives to confirm what they’re already seeing in their own schools.

This research paper drew on some conclusions from the 2017 SXSW Panel Discussion (South by Southwest annual conference in Texas, USA that focuses on creativity with technology) where the following key questions were identified when it comes to adopting educational technology:

  • Is it going to work?
  • Under what conditions, and in what learning environment, does this product work?
  • With which group of students does the product work?
  • At what cost?
  • Is the product better than what teachers were doing before to advance student learning?
  • And how easy is it to you?

I’ve personally presented a wide range of different educational products to educators, both during my time as a teacher, Head of Faculty, Director of ICT and more recently working for Microsoft and agree that the above list pretty neatly summarizes the key questions I’ve been asked. To this end, the research is formatted in such a way as to address these questions and the methodology is based on:

  • Analyses of academic results from students in the 2nd-8th grades at Bellevue District who sat the standardized STAR assessment and compared this with historical results of students from the same cohorts in the District (see p.11 of the study for more information on the methodology).
  • In addition to the STAR data, interviews were conducted with the eight teachers who participated in the study.

I refer you again to the original PDF with the research to read in detail, however feel free to look at my annotated copy of the PDF where I’ve marked up the more important elements (as I saw it) and this may allow you to skim the content quicker if you’re short of time. If you’re interested in what I used to write on the PDF, it’s actually a free PDF editor called Xodo which is awesome and I encourage you to check it out.

The overall results finding is stated as follows:

Based on our analysis of the STAR data and interviews with teachers, Learning Tools appears to be promising technology for supporting and enhancing reading, writing, “non cognitive” factors and access to content that readers otherwise struggle to comprehend.

The key graph showing the impact of Learning Tools is below (note: students that used the Learning Tools are represented by the blue line, with the steeper the angled bar the more significant the improvement):

Be Wary of Bias:

As with all research into commercial tools, school leaders will, and should be, wary of bias or overly optimistic outcomes. I found that in reading this report there was a number of statements that acknowledged balance or where there was insufficient evidence to conclusively back up a claim. From p.13 of the report the following comes:

The results look promising. But it is important to note that although the Learning Tools group showed significantly greater average growth than the historical cohort, their final average Spring STAR scores and percentile rankings remained lower. The district noted that over time, they’ve had increasingly more English Language Learners and students in Special Education ….. it is important to regard the results with caution. Statistically, starting at lower levels offers the opportunity for greater growth.

I was thrilled to read this, because it aligns with my own first hand experience around initiatives with students who are below, or well below, whether they should be academically. It’s a wise caution and yet there is a definite acknowledgement from the researcher that the teachers are seeing positive improvements in results, engagement and confidence in the literacy of their students.

Teachers were also pretty honest about perceived shortcomings in the Learning Tools:

One teacher whose coursework focuses heavily on annotating while reading – e.g. circle difficult words, highlight important passages, and so on – reported that Learning Tools does not allow readers to annotate in the Immersive Reader. She thought Learning Tools might benefit beginning readers in elementary grades more so than her students

A fair point, however other teachers acknowledged that they simply adapted the use of the tool due to this short coming and would have students take notes in a different window on their computer, whilst Immersive Tools read to them in the background. Additionally, one teacher acknowledged that whilst Learning Tools was a relatively easy tool to use, for students with special education needs getting them to use technology both effectively and appropriately was a real challenge.

Other Findings:

I am going to list off some of the findings that stood out to me from this research, again most of these are underlined or highlighted in my annotated copy of the PDF, but in no particular order:

  • Students across year levels seemed more motivated to revise their written work and create more drafts through using the “read aloud” feature of Learning Tools due to the multi-modal nature of the tool. They were hearing gaps in their writing and grammar and could fix them quickly.
  • Teachers could confidently deliver more advanced reading material to all students knowing if they could accurately read it, they could listen to it being read to them and process it that way. This also removed the stigma for students, particularly teenage boys, that they did not need the teacher to read the assigned work to them. This was seen as a way of “leveling the playing field” amongst learners.
  • Student agency/ownership of their learning. Teachers reported that the non-cognitive skills they were seeking to develop were improved through the use of the tools. Students became more independent in their learning, could identify the correct tool to use to help them and gained confidence in being able to access the same content as their peers, even if it was being read to them by Learning Tools.
  • For English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), they benefited from hearing how words in English were pronounced, particularly multi-syllabic words and the pace of reading. Additionally, Learning Tools now supports 9 non-English languages.
  • Teachers successfully implemented the Learning Tools in a wide range of settings:
    • Whole group instruction
    • Small group instruction
    • Independent work at school
    • Independent work at home

Conclusion:

Given the free cost of Learning Tools, and the deep integration into both the desktop and online versions of tools in Office (as well as the Edge browser in Windows 10), there are few barriers to implementing these into the classroom.

The above research certainly suggests there is positive impact from their use across a wide range of learners and year levels. I’d be interested to hear from teachers that have integrated this tool into their classroom practice, so feel free to drop a note in the comments below.