Human Cognition in the Design of Assistive Technology for Those with Learning Disabilities

Human Cognition in the Design of Assistive Technology for Those with Learning Disabilities

Boaventura DaCosta (Solers Research Group, USA) and Soonhwa Seok (eLearning Design Lab, University of Kansas, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-817-3.ch001
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Abstract

This is the first of three chapters serving as the introduction to this handbook which addresses the relationship between human cognition and assistive technologies and its design for individuals with cognitive disabilities. In this chapter the authors introduce the human information processing system. They discuss the modal model of memory, a basic framework offering the most popular explanations behind the active processes used in the construction of new knowledge. In doing so, the authors examine the three memory stores comprising the modal model which are responsible for the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information. The authors then discuss ways in which to increase learning. Altogether, they present the approach that technology for learning should be created with an understanding of design principles empirically grounded in the study of how the human mind works, particularly when it comes to the design of assistive technologies for individuals with learning disabilities.
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Introduction

The Case for Human Cognition in the Design of Assistive Technology for Those with Learning Disabilities

First published in the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 and since amended and replaced with the Assistive Technology Act of 1998, assistive technology (AT) has been formally defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (United States Congress, 1998, Definitions and Rule section, para. 3). Although we typically think of technologies such as wheelchairs and prosthetics to help those with physical impairments, ATs can also have a significant impact on the lives of those with cognitive disabilities. If created with the abilities and deficits of those with cognitive disabilities in mind, ATs can remove obstacles and offer individuals greater independence which they might not otherwise be able to experience. Likewise, the opposite is also true. Assistive technologies created without an understanding of the cognitive disabilities of individuals can become a hindrance. Unlike that of AT, the mere act of defining the term “cognitive disability” has proved troublesome.

The Broad Nature of Cognitive Disabilities and Our Focus on Learning Disabilities

Definitions for the term “cognitive disability” vary by source. Generally speaking, a cognitive disability is any disorder which affects mental processing. There are different severities of cognitive disabilities. Individuals with severe disorders may need uninterrupted assistance and supervision by caregivers in almost every aspect of daily life, whereas individuals with minor cognitive disabilities may require very little if any assistance. In fact, some cognitive disabilities may be so minor that they are never diagnosed (Rogers, 1979).

Our Focus on Learning Disabilities

In this three chapter introduction we focus on cognitive disabilities which impair learning. Specifically, children, adolescents, and adults diagnosed with learning disabilities (LDs). We refer to children, adolescents, and adults because LDs are considered to be lifelong disorders. Children with LDs will someday grow up to become adults with LDs. Their brains are not defective or damaged. Instead, they see, hear, and understand things differently. Learning disabilities are thought to be neurological in nature and are related to central nervous system dysfunction (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1991).

This brings up an important point. Learning disabilities should not be used as a measure in which to gauge intelligence. Individuals with LDs have average or above average intelligence, but have difficulty with rudimentary skills that those without LDs take for granted. Learning disabilities are typically considered to be less severe cognitive disorders which can manifest themselves in many different forms. Reading disabilities (dyslexia), writing disabilities (dysgraphia), and math disabilities (dyscalculia), are probably the most recognizable LDs owing their mainstream familiarity to the media and other public channels.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cognitive Psychology: A branch of psychology dedicated to the study of the human mind focused on the acquisition, processing, and storage of information.

Information Processing Models: Models of human memory portraying the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information (e.g., Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968; Waugh & Norman, 1965).

Long-Term Memory (LTM): A memory store responsible for the persistent storage of the personal experiences, general and factual knowledge, and skills accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

Metacognition: Refers to an individual’s awareness of his or her own cognitive processes and strategies (e.g., Flavell, 1979); commonly referred to as “thinking about thinking” (Brunning et al., 2004; Clark, 2003; Reid & Lienemann, 2006).

Empiricism: The belief that knowledge originates from experience (John Robert Anderson, 2004).

Assistive Technology: Any form of technology which can be used to aid individuals with disabilities.

Learner-Centered: An instructional approach which places focus on the manner in which technologies can be used in the promotion of human cognition (Mayer, 2005b).

Declarative Knowledge: A classification of knowledge found in long-term memory (John R. Anderson, 1983; Squire, 2008); deals specifically with factual information and can be best described as knowing “what” (Brunning et al., 2004).

Learning Disability: A heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1991).

Divided Attention: The selection of many stimuli all at once (Pashler, 1998).

Associationism: The theory that all consciousness can be explained by the association of sensory stimulus with responses.

Working Memory: A temporary memory store responsible for the active processing of information; the most widely accepted model is that by cognitive psychologist Alan D. Baddeley who proposed the model of working memory.

Automaticity: The automatic execution of cognitive skills requiring little conscious attention; lessens the need for resources from working memory.

Slot: The core component of schemata; considered “placeholders” containing specific information about the concept represented by the schema (Brunning et al., 2004).

Echoic Memory: The temporary storage of auditory stimuli in sensory memory.

Metacognitive Regulation: A dimension of metacognition; the means by which we regulate our cognition (Brown, 1987).

Behaviorism: The theory that all objectively, observable behaviors are a result of conditioning; the theory discredits mental activities.

Procedural Knowledge: A classification of knowledge found in long-term memory (John R. Anderson, 1983; Squire, 2008); deals specifically with skills and can be best described as knowing “how” (Brunning et al., 2004).

Chunk: A meaningful grouping of information; originally proposed in the 1956 paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller as the means to quantify the capacity limitations of working memory.

Selective Attention: The process of selecting from among many potentially available stimuli while at the same time screening out other stimuli (Pashler, 1998).

Sensory Register: A temporary buffer responsible for the storage of sensory stimuli (Brunning et al., 2004).

Prior Knowledge: Information already learned and held in long-term memory.

Iconic Memory: The temporary storage of visual stimuli in sensory memory.

Cognitive Disability: Any disorder which affects mental processing.

Perception: The process to recognize, store, and get meaning from sensory information.

Sensory Memory: A temporary memory store responsible for the handling of visual and auditory sensory information.

Visuospatial Sketchpad: One of three components comprising the model of working memory; responsible for the handling spatial information (Baddeley, 1986, 1998, 2002).

Metacognitive Knowledge: A dimension of metacognition; refers to what we know about our own cognitive processes (Brown, 1987).

Semantic Memory: A categorization of declarative knowledge; refers to factual and general knowledge unrelated to personal, autobiographical events.

Radical Behaviorism: A branch of stimulus-response psychology credited to American psychologist, B. F. Skinner which postulated that all measurable behavior can be predicted, and consequently controlled.

Signaling Principle: An instructional principle proposing that learners learn more when cues are added to highlight the organization of the essential material (Mayer, 2005a).

Schemata (sing., Schema): A popular explanation as to the organization of knowledge found in long-term memory.

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning: A theory credited to Richard E. Mayer and his colleagues focused on best practices in the use of visual and auditory information in multimedia-based instruction.

Episodic Memory: A categorization of declarative knowledge; knowledge associated with personal, autobiographical events (Tulving, 1983).

Short-Term Memory (STM): A memory store responsible for the temporary, passive storage of information; cognitive psychologists have since adopted a much more active view–working memory.

Modal Model of Memory: A widely accepted representation of the information processing model typically referred to as the classic Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) model; depicted as three distinct memory stores: sensory memory, STM or working memory, and long-term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory: A theory proposed by John Sweller and his colleagues focused on the limitations of working memory during instruction.

Technology-Centered: An approach which places focus on the capabilities of the technology and not necessarily on the capabilities of the learner (Mayer, 2005b).

Phonological Loop: One of three components comprising the model of working memory; responsible for the management of acoustic and verbal information (Baddeley, 1986, 1998, 2002).

Executive Control System: One of three components comprising the model of working memory; manages the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop in addition to controlling information flow in working memory (Baddeley, 1986, 1998, 2002).

Conditional Knowledge: A classification of knowledge found in long-term memory; can be best described as knowing “when” and “why” to use declarative and procedural knowledge and when not to use those (Brunning et al., 2004).

Attention: The cognitive process involved in selectively focusing on relevant information, while at the same time, ignoring other irrelevant information.

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