How Can a Computer Program Help Students With Disabilities Learn?

Ph.D. in Education student Sarah Abitbol was awarded a Walden fellowship for investigating how to improve learning processes in students with disabilities.

Sarah AbitbolMarch 2012—“What tools do you use to read?” asks Ph.D. in Education student Sarah Abitbol. “You’re blending letters together and accessing the sounds, but the process has to be seamless. If your visual and auditory discrimination are automatic and your processing speed is adequate, those tools will help you read effectively.”

Abitbol uses this example to explain the complex experiences learners have when trying to digest new information in the classroom. She received Walden University’s 2011 Don E. Ackerman Research Fellowship in Educational Leadership, a $10,000 grant through the Presidential Fellowship Program, to pursue her study The Effect of a Neuroscience-Based Computer Skill Training Program on the Growth of the Specific Cognitive Deficits Associated With Specific Learning Disabilities in Young Children.

Her goal is to make information processing an unconscious task and learning processes automatic for all students. “Many learners can make a leap without additional guidance,” she explains. “For some, the learning process can stop before it’s fully started.”

Garnering Support

Abitbol knew her choice of a computer program to conduct her quantitative study was essential: It couldn’t simply address a single processing skill; it had to address a series of skills and combine both sides of the brain. “Think of it as correlation of how the left and right sides of the brain work together,” she says.

Next, she enlisted school principals, parents and students to participate. Gaining the support of parents was the most emotional, but the most moving experience, she says. Once she presented her study, it was as if someone who spoke the same language had entered the room. “The parents were all nodding their heads,” she explains. “The study made sense to them. They are very close to their children and want to help them overcome hurdles and develop their strengths.”

Abitbol assessed each of the 44 participating children before starting the study. “We wanted to measure their level of cognitive performance, auditory perception and visual memory at the onset to create a baseline,” she explains. Then for the next three months, the children spent 30 minutes a day, five days a week, using the computer program.

The computer program is designed to stimulate children to progress to the next level. “The minute the student has trouble, he’s hitting a weak processing ability,” Abitbol says. “The exercise could potentially confirm the deficits a child faces like how well he scans letters across a page or remembers three digits.”

She hopes the study results ultimately teach her how to improve the learning process for each student, and, most importantly, to share her results with the wider community. “The primary goal is to help children find ways to become better learners,” Abitbol says. “I also hope to share the benefits of this intervention with parents, educators and policymakers.”

She’s been especially appreciative of the strength of the community at Walden. “My chair Dr. Barry Birnbaum has been really supportive. I have already received so much encouragement and empowerment to pursue this dream from my entire dissertation committee,” Abitbol says. “Their positive outlook is a strength of the Walden community.”

About the Fellowship

The Don E. Ackerman Research Fellowship in Educational Leadership provides funding to support faculty or student research projects that contribute either theoretical or applied knowledge that may change education at the preK–12 levels, in any educational field or position. The program is designed to encourage research conducted in the name of Walden University and contributing to the continuing improvement of teaching and learning through leadership.

Read more about the Don E. Ackerman Research Fellowship in Educational Leadership and past recipients.