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IES Grant

Title: Keys to Writing Smarter: An Online Writing Workbench for Students with High-Incidence Disabilities
Center: NCSER Year: 2017
Principal Investigator: Hall, Tracey Awardee: Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)
Program: Technology for Special Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (07/01/2017 - 06/30/2020) Award Amount: $1,399,656
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R324A170043

Co-Principal Investigators: Karen Harris and Steve Graham (Arizona State University)

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to develop and pilot test a technology-based professional learning system to support teachers in providing more effective writing instruction to seventh- and eighth-grade students with high-incidence disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional and behavioral disorders, dyslexia). Students who graduate from high school without the writing skills required for college success or gainful employment are at a disadvantage. Many students with high-incidence disabilities struggle with writing, particularly in the areas of basic reading and language skills; fluency in basic writing skills such as spelling, handwriting, and keyboarding; and ability to compose text. Thus, there is a need for professional development to support teachers in addressing their students' writing needs before they reach high school in order to foster their ability to meet college and career standards.

Project Activities:  The researchers will develop and pilot test the Writer's Workbench, a technology platform to provide teachers with professional development and ongoing learning, coaching, and web-based tools. An agile approach will be used during the 2-year development phase to rapidly prototype and test minimally viable components of the program through continuous cycles of design, implementation, analysis, and re-design. In Year 3, researchers will implement a small randomized controlled trial to test the usability, fidelity, and promise of efficacy of the fully developed Writer's Workbench. Mediation analyses will be conducted to determine whether teacher behavior mediates the impact on students' writing outcomes.

Products:  The primary product of this project will be the Writer's Workbench technology platform, which includes teacher training (professional development, coaching, and professional learning communities), tools (web-based digital environment), student supports, and strategies for teachers. Products will also include peer-reviewed publications and presentations.

Structured Abstract

Setting:  The study will take place in seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Arts classrooms in urban and suburban public schools in Massachusetts.

Sample: In each development cycle, the researchers will work with eight teachers (split between seventh and eighth grade) and approximately 150 students in inclusive classes taught by general education teachers. In addition, 20 teachers and approximately 375 students will participate in the randomized controlled trial. Approximately 18 percent of the students (about 5 students per teacher) will be students with high-incidence disabilities.

Intervention: The Writer's Workbench is a technology platform based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that supports teachers in providing effective writing instruction to their students with disabilities. It is intended to improve teachers' ability to support students in writing process and strategies, self-regulation and goal setting, and feedback/progress monitoring. Specifically, the focus is on informational and argumentative writing, as the college and career standards at these grade levels include learning how to write logical, coherent, and compelling essays; using text-based sources to form arguments; and using evidence to inform. The online platform will provide professional learning and coaching using a just-in-time support model (i.e., access to information at the moment the teacher needs it). The supports will target teacher knowledge of instructional strategies to support students with diverse needs, learning strategies to support content, strategies for setting purposeful and reasonable goals for writing, and strategies to evaluate student writing and use this feedback for modifying instruction. The Writer's Workbench also includes tools to support students with disabilities, such as text-to-speech, spell check, speech-to-text, and word prediction technology. Teachers will receive 4 days of face-to-face professional development prior to any classroom implementation with students. Teachers will implement writing instruction and supports for a minimum of 90-120 minutes per week. During the intervention, teachers will participate in professional learning communities once per month to share successes, challenges, and student work.

Research Design and Methods: The project will be conducted in two distinct phases. In Phase 1 (Years 1 and 2), the researchers will focus on iterative development and formative research of the Writer's Workbench tools and professional development components with data collected from surveys, observations, interviews, and feedback from two focus groups of teachers and their students per month. In Phase 2 (Year 3), the researchers will conduct a small randomized controlled trial to test the promise of improving teacher knowledge, skills, and practices; student writing outcomes; and usability and fidelity of the fully developed Writer's Workbench. For this pilot study, 10 classrooms will be randomly assigned to the intervention condition and 10 classrooms to the control condition. Researchers will also conduct mediation analyses to determine whether teacher behavior mediates the impact of Writer's Workbench on students' writing outcomes.

Control Condition: For the randomized controlled trial, teachers in the control condition will participate in business-as-usual writing instruction.

Key Measures:  During Phase 1, measures include student and teacher surveys, observation protocols, teacher and student focus groups, and teacher interviews about the tool development. These data collection methods will assess clarity, accessibility, usability, value, and promise of the tool and the training in the use of the tool; teacher planning and instruction; and student perspectives and interactions with the tool. These same measures will be used in Phase 2 along with researcher-developed measures of teachers' writing knowledge and self-efficacy, student and teacher usage logs, student writing performance (on the Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test—writing assessment), and student written compositions. Three measures will be used to collect data on implementation fidelity – a self-report checklist for teachers, observations, and the Writer's Workbench event usage log. All measures will be administered at pre- and posttest with the exception of the fidelity of implementation measures collected during treatment. 

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will conduct qualitative and quantitative descriptive analyses to summarize data collected in Phase 1 to guide design and development priorities. In Phase 2, the researchers will evaluate the promise of the Writer's Workbench for improving student writing outcomes using hierarchical linear modeling, controlling for students' pretest writing scores. Additional analyses will be conducted to understand whether there are differential outcomes for students with disabilities. Path models will be used to determine the extent to which teachers' self-efficacy and knowledge mediate the effect on student writing outcomes. The researchers will also use hierarchical linear modeling to investigate relations between implementation (dosage and fidelity of Writer's Workbench) and student writing performance.