Potential of Online Environments to Promote Literacy

With the Center focused specifically on the potential of “emerging technologies” to address the challenge of improving literacy outcomes among struggling middle-school readers, targeted research sought to more fully understand this population’s behaviors and preferences in online environments, effective approaches to using the affordances of the online environment to improve literacy, and design-based work to iteratively create an online environment that could improve outcomes.

Effective Supports to Successfully Engage with Age-Appropriate Texts

Central to the design of a literacy environment that can re-engage and spur self-efficacy among struggling adolescent readers is the use of age-appropriate, high-interest texts and the opportunity to interact in meaningful ways with these texts. In Udio, this meant incorporating content from providers around the Worldwide Web. It was critical to also embed supports that would enable success with such texts, regardless of the alignment between a student’s independent reading level and the difficulty of the content. We thus incorporated various UDL-inspired supports like text-to-speech throughout the platform and multiple media options, with supports, for participating in online discussions.

Udio was designed to allow students to use audio-assisted reading to support independent access to age-relevant texts well beyond students’ decoding level. Once on an article page, students were encouraged to further engage with the text by interacting with a comprehension maze activity and a feature that allowed them to react emotionally to the article.

After reading an article, students had the option to participate in a discussion with their classmates within the tool using the options of text, voice recording, or drawings. Students were also encouraged to collect text and images from the articles to create multimedia projects. These projects allowed students to demonstrate comprehension, compare/contrast articles, express opinions, and promoted authentic student discussions.

Research highlights

  • Behavioral engagement can be measured and shows important predictive power in an autonomy-driven online literacy environment. Particularly for students with low initial reading levels, higher behavioral engagement with optional literacy activities is associated with higher reading comprehension outcomes.
  • Students vary widely in their use of multimedia opportunities for expression in online environments. While typed comments were the most popular (7,000+), 900 were drawn, and 250 were voice recorded. The variability demonstrates the potential impact of embedding multiple modes of expression to encourage discussion in online curricula, particularly for those who struggle.
  • In an autonomy-driven online literacy environment, students show widely different use patterns in choosing which features to employ and with what frequency. These patterns do not neatly align with group characteristics like IEP status or English Language Learners, suggesting the challenge of designing with assumptions about the needs or preferences of particular student profiles.

Writing to Support Reading Comprehension

The online environment provides uniquely rich opportunities both for how to compose and how to share one’s composition with others. The Center purposefully investigated two types of composition: an online discussion format and a longer-form, templated multimedia “project” about what one had read. Both were intended to leverage the established research on the power of written expression to support development of reading comprehension.

Research highlights

  • Struggling middle-school readers were enthusiastic participants in online discussions about what they read, with almost 9,000 discussion comments over the course of an academic year. Almost 80% of those were relevant to the topic of the article.
  • Participants were similarly enthusiastic about creating multimedia online projects about their reading, creating more than 4,000 of them despite this being largely optional. Students varied in their interest in sharing these projects with peers. When projects were shared, more than 3,000 comments were made by classmates in response to projects.

Developing Interests in and through Reading

The Center identified in initial research with struggling middle school readers a core challenge: few students could identify a topic about which they would like to read. This seemed in part due to lack of interest or motivation in reading overall, but also reflected other research demonstrating this age group’s overall difficulty identifying interests. Technology provided an opportunity to support the development of interests in the service of reading.

Research highlights

  • Iterative design of a “dashboard” highlighting reading experiences by topic area can spur students to dive deeply into a topic, fostering identification and pursuit of interests rather than haphazard reading selections.
  • Algorithm-based curation, combined with teacher recommendations, supported students in making selections about reading material.

Design-based research

Situated within education research and development, design-based-research directly reflects “agile” design practices within the technology development world, albeit with greater rigor around research practices (e.g., Da Silva, Silveira, Maurer, & Hellmann, 2012; Martin, 2003). This research and development methodology has grown out of the field of the learning sciences, and involves making, testing, and iteratively refining conjectures about how materials, activities, and practices support concrete learning experiences in real settings, and how those experiences enacted in diverse contexts lead to learning outcomes.

The Center’s focal development effort, Udio, was designed using this process where middle school teachers and students were involved as both partners and participants to test components as they were developed and revised. For example, teachers and students were asked to answer broad questions about how students use and interact with the Internet and computers to inform the design of Udio. Later questions focused on the look and feel of Udio, as well as features and functions, and the overall user experience. Teachers and students were observed using early prototypes and collected feedback for further development.


  • “Agile” development methods from technology development can be successfully integrated with design-based research in educational contexts through strong partnerships with schools and teachers.
  • A strong educational theory can shape decisions during prototyping and iterative design to meaningfully inform learning analytics and data visualization in online educational environments.

Investigating challenges and opportunities in online environments

While the design-based research provided both insights for our continued development of our own product and insights into online literacy environments generally, we also conducted separate research about online learning environments for our target age range.This included both broad consideration of the possibilities and targeted research to understand aspects that would be central to our development work like help-seeking and use of learning analytics to inform students’ online behaviors.

Research highlights

  • Displaying analytics data to middle school students can encourage the kind of help-seeking behavior often sought in richly supportive online environments. Analyzing one’s own usage patterns can help overcome the phenomenon of those students who might benefit most from supports being least likely to choose to use them.


Goldowsky, B.N. and Coyne, M. (2016). Supporting engagement and comprehension online through multiple means of expression. In Proceedings of the 13th Web for All Conference (W4A ’16). ACM, New York, NY, Article 39, 4 pages. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2899475.2899488

Hillaire, G., Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G., & Ducharme, K. (2016). Prototyping Visual Learning Analytics Guided by an Educational Theory Informed Goal. Journal of Learning Analytics, 3(3), 115-142.

Boucher, A.R.& Rose, D.H. (2015, February). Beyond print: The changing landscape of adolescent reading. Adolescent Literacy In Perspective.

Daley, S. G., Hillaire, G., & Sutherland, L. M. (2014). Beyond performance data: Collecting and displaying influential data to students interacting with an online middle school science curriculum. British Journal of Educational Technology.