ECU student and STEPP Program Mentor Alysha Gray demonstrates the Livescribe smartpen, which helps students with learning disabilities take notes in class. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Summer program aids adjustment for students with learning disabilities

July 8, 2015

ECU News Services

Incoming students with learning disabilities are gaining valuable experience using assistive learning technology through a summer program at East Carolina University.

ECU is one of three universities in the University of North Carolina system participating in College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access and Retention), a UNC-system initiative supporting students with learning differences. Faculty members have found that early introduction to assistive technology helps students who use the technology adjust to college life.
The Livescribe smartpen

New students are already adapting to a new environment and often living away from home for the first time. Having to learn assistive technology on top of that can be overwhelming, said Emily Johnson, associate director and transition specialist at ECU’s Walter and Marie Williams STEPP Program (Supporting Transition and Education through Planning and Partnerships).

“College is a time of tremendous change and adjustment for all students but even more so for students with learning disabilities,” she said. “At ECU, we know that students with learning differences can be successful in college, but that road is smoother if they begin planning ahead in high school, and summer might be just the right time.”

ECU faculty members have been teaching students to use smart audio recording devices called Livescribe smartpens to help with interviewing and note taking. Johnson said the technology enables students to listen more attentively and minimizes the stress of taking notes in class. Students can practice using the device at home, she said, and many do so by taking notes from the History channel or similar programming.

Students and faculty at the three UNC-system campuses also have access to a software program that reads electronic text aloud. The program assists students who have reading and writing difficulties, including students with learning disabilities and English language learners. A speech recognition software is also available to help with note taking and writing papers.

“Assistive technology is not a cure-all for students with learning differences at the college level, but it can give them a boost,” said Dr. Sarah Williams, associate professor of special education at ECU and director of the College STAR program. Developing familiarity with various devices and programs before coming to college can help students more easily adapt to learning situations that are different from the traditionally structured high school classroom, she said.

The College STAR program also supports faculty members in developing curriculum resources that will engage learners and provide them multiple alternatives for acquiring knowledge and demonstrating what they know, Williams said.

Additional UNC participants in College STAR are Appalachian State University and Fayetteville State University.

The College STAR program is funded by the Oak Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland, and the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation. For additional information, visit