National Center for Technology Innovation

Project SOLO Leads to Unexpected Discoveries

Karen Erickson proposed a winning research team and design for the 2005 NCTI Tech in the Works competition.  As the study unfolded, researchers, teachers, students, and developers were surprised at the implications of the study and the findings.

Recruitment Response Strong Across the Achievement Spectrum

At the school they approached, three times as many subjects volunteered than they had requested; the project became massive. The subjects brought an unexpected diversity: instead of getting the expected mix of special education and typically-developing students, they found themselves working with three distinct sections of the achievement spectrum: typically-developing students, special education students, and students classified as gifted and talented.

Retailored Curriculum Leads to New Product Development

In the middle of the project, a key piece of curriculum delivering Self-Directed Strategy Instruction had to be completely reworked to fit the strategies and language used in the school. Erickson and her team of graduate assistants accomplished the task in short order. Erickson worked with the teachers to write eighteen day lesson plans, following the research model but using the teachers’ writing strategies. This improvisation created valuable groundwork for a new product for Don Johnston, which the team will develop and complete this summer.

Findings Open Up New Questions for Longitudinal Study

Finally, while findings demonstrated clearly that students in special education substantially benefited from SOLO, researchers found few benefits for the gifted and talented group.

Draft:Builder SOLOThis result provoked a raft of new questions. A major indicator of achievement is the number of words a student writes across the school year. While the introduction of SOLO led to no loss in word count among the population with special needs, the students in the gifted and talented class wrote fewer words. Was this because they were getting used to using the software? If they had a longer period to master the product, would their rates of achievement accelerate at comparable levels? Would other indicators rise?

Both Erickson and Ziolkowski believe that a longitudinal study, over an extended period of time, can get closer to answering these questions. Ruth Ziolkowski comments that “Often with technology there is a learning curve; without adequate time, the study might not reveal the true results. For example: the first day I type, I might be quite slow. After learning to keyboard, I can produce written work much faster than with handwriting. We want to see the results over time.”

Erickson, supported by Don Johnston, has already designed a two-year longitudinal study for which she hopes to find major funding. The plan is to run the study in a charter school that targets drop-outs at each end of the learning spectrum—low-achieving students who left school as they fell behind, and high-achieving students who dropped out because they were bored with the grade-level curriculum.

For Erickson and Don Johnston, Tech in the Works has provided the foundation for what they believe will be a highly competitive Stepping Stones application.

Working Together through Tech in the Works

In 2005, Karen Erickson delivered a keynote at ATIA describing how researchers could partner with business. “I thought it was important to say that companies have been forward-thinking on this subject. Although they had no evidence that doing research would support the bottom line, they shared the risk,” said Erickson. “Some researchers were skeptical about these partnerships. How legitimate can research be when the companies want control over the process?

“The Tech in the Works grants provide a good example of how collaboration can work well,” Erickson continued. “The way NCTI set these awards up provided the quick turnaround the companies tend to want, while safeguarding the research integrity that we researchers want. NCTI provides validation,” in a review process including a panel of researchers and vendors. “This project never felt to me like a company-driven field test. It felt like research.”

The design of Tech in the Works was equally effective from the company’s point of view, and for many of the same reasons. As Ben Johnston put it, “Many larger grants take years to complete, and considering the speed at which technology evolves, the data can become obsolete before the study is finished. The rapid turnaround time of the Tech in the Works program gave us opportunities to identify trends that we can quickly infuse into development and planning. The data is also important for our customers who, increasingly, need and demand solid experimental data to make educated decisions.”

Opportunity for Younger Researchers

Karen Erickson finds the Tech in the Works grant-making prototype especially valuable for two categories of researchers:

Doctoral students who have completed their course work but who have not chosen a research topic
: The brief period allowed for Tech in the Works projects gives these students an opportunity to do serious research that enriches experience without requiring a long-term commitment.

Young faculty members who have not yet established the track records needed to compete successfully for major funding. Tech in the Works enables researchers to build their vitas—in particular, it enables them to demonstrate the ability to lead a research project.

Don Johnston Asks Questions, Listens, and Supports

The ongoing relationship between Don Johnston and Erickson’s Center for Literacy & Disability Studies provided a strong foundation for Project SOLO.

“They gave us any support we needed,” said Erickson. Don Johnston helped the team to network the product on site. Also, Erickson added, “Each copy of the software needs to be licensed to an individual. I went to them and explained that in order to safeguard confidentiality they could not know who the users were. They gave us forty-five licenses, all registered in my name. That is a tremendous concession for them. We had terrific human interest stories, and DJ would have loved to go interview these students. We can’t do that; many of these students are anonymous for good reasons. The company understood. They’ve been extremely flexible.”

Don Johnston Inc. provided that support in part because they understood and appreciated the quality of leadership Karen Erickson provided. “Karen’s design was sophisticated in many ways; she acknowledges the total picture, the technology, the instruction and how each of the pieces work in combination,” reflected Ruth Ziolkowski. “Karen has a brilliant mind and a huge heart,” said Ben Johnston. “She put an unbelievable amount of personal time and emotional energy into the project. She spent days working with the teachers to ensure all of the writing strategies fit into the school’s curriculum. Karen did everything necessary to keep the momentum going in this study. We would love to collaborate with her on future research grants.”

Three Suggestions for Tech in the Works Improvement

Karen Erickson suggests that, “It would be good if NCTI could give the notification of the award before the end of the spring semester. By then, all of the graduate assistants have already decided what research they’re doing in the fall. We had to scramble, but I was lucky and got top-notch people on the project.”

“We’d like to see two deadlines,” Erickson adds, “One for a preliminary report and the second, about six months later, for the final report. We had a tremendous amount of data to analyze, particularly because the response to the project was so strong at the school. Analysis took much longer than the implementation.” Ben Johnston also has an idea for improvement. “The only thing I would love to see changed in future grants is an option to run a second part to the study that answers questions raised in the initial study period.”

Students and Teachers Waking Up to Assistive Technology

Project SOLO met challenges at the human level—and had its biggest surprises here. Karen Erickson told two stories, outstanding examples of the positive reactions they had to the software on site.

Write:OutLoud SOLO“We had a boy who refused to write anything. He opened the laptop and didn’t want to touch it. In his eyes, this was confirmation that they were treating him ‘like a special ed kid.’ Now he’s the school’s expert on the software. He goes to special ed every morning. He tended to like the time there because he could take it easy. But now he asks to leave—to go to writing class. He wants to be in writing class and use the computer all the time. At the end of the research, he had to take a writing test with a pencil. When he was done he said, ‘I know I did OK, but can I do it over, using the computer? Then I’ll do it even better.’ His confidence had risen. He wrote a story and showed it to the principal. And this was because of a six week study with ninety-five kids!”

“We also had a fourth grade teacher, an excellent and experienced teacher in a mainstream classroom, nationally Board Certified. But she hated computers. She only used e-mail—and reluctantly, only because there was no other way for colleagues to communicate with her on essential information. Now she checks out the wireless cart so often that if other teachers in the building can’t find the cart, they just go to her classroom because the odds are good that they’ll find it there. The impact’s been amazing.”

Project SOLO demonstrated more than the usefulness of SOLO software. It provided powerful narrative evidence of how once the computer is demystified for students and teachers, it becomes an invaluable tool to accelerate learning and nurture teaching.

Cameos of Featured Collaborators

Photo: Karen EricksonKAREN ERICKSON, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an associate professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Department of Allied Health Sciences, School of Medicine. Dr. Erickson directs several research and development efforts addressing the literacy learning and communication needs of persons with disabilities of all ages. Current research efforts involve infants and toddlers with visual impairments, school-aged students who struggle to read and write, school-aged students with complex communication needs, and children, adolescents, and young adults with multiple disabilities including deafblindness. Dr. Erickson’s work has been published in numerous journals and books. Dr. Erickson was the 2004 recipient of the National Down Syndrome Congress Educator Award and the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication Distinguished Literacy Lectureship Award.

Photo: Ruth ZiolkowskiRUTH ZIOLKOWSKI received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Occupational Therapy in 1985 from University of Illinois. Early in her career she worked with augmentative communication and assistive technology as an occupational therapist. She received her MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management in 1987. Ziolkowski, President and Proprietor of Don Johnston Incorporated, began working with the company in 1987 and is proud to celebrate Don Johnston’s more than 25 years of success.

Photo: Ben JohnstonBEN JOHNSTON received his Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology and Marketing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His studies in psychology focused on child development and human motivation. Over the past four years he has developed new products, coordinated educational research, and led communication campaigns for Don Johnston Incorporated.

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