On one of the Becta lists a conversation broke out regarding solutions for visually impaired students who use Microsoft's Internet Explorer. CleanPage was suggested, and Keyboard Shortcuts noted. And this was all good to see, good to know.
But I commented to a teacher on the list that I still thought FireVox, the 'blind browser' add on to Firefox, would be a more effective solution for her students, because it is a full, robust browser which can be operated without sight, and with the many other supports available in Firefox.
"Yes," others told me, "but Firefox just isn't available in many schools, libraries, etc."
This is undeniably true. True in the United Kingdom, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand (to name a few English-speaking nations), and even 'more true' in the United States (to name another).
Firefox - entirely free, totally accessible, far 'safer' in terms of web browsing, far more supportive of differentiated instruction - remains a rarity on the computers used in schools, in public libraries, in adult education programs. And thus students, and others, are denied the ability to learn and use essential tools such as FireVox (the blind browser), Click-Speak (FireVox's cousin for dyslexia and other print disabilities), gTranslate (right-click translation), Dictionary Switcher (a fabulous tool for ELL students, Second Language Acquisition, and all those who communicate outside their home nation), and many more.
The result? Students do worse in school than they need do, they struggle more, they even drop out more. All because schools won't take the two minutes to download something free.
Google Apps for Education - entirely free, with no advertising - is available to every primary, secondary, and post-secondary school. It provides a highly accessible and organizable email system, student calendars which teachers may share, word processing which can be used singly or collaboratively, spreadsheets, presentations, and much more. Combined with, say, Click-Speak (above) it provides reading and writing support for a wide range of struggling students. But most schools refuse to use it, choosing to spend (at least) cumulative hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars (quid, Euros) operating third rate email systems.
The result? Less money for the important technology investments - netbooks and wireless, high-level disability supports and alternate keyboards, tablet PCs and polleverywhere licensing. And thus, higher rates of student failure and disengagement, all because schools won't send an email to Google.
From Ghotit (the world's best English-language context-based, text-to-speech Spell Check system) to WordTalk (turns Microsoft Word into a talking word processor), from OpenOffice to Linux (stop paying for Microsoft licenses), from Google Earth to GraphCalc (free complete graphing calculator), from Click-N-Type (the best virtual on-screen keyboard) to PowerTalk (reads presentations outloud), schools could be providing their students with a world of software and supports at zero cost, but are refusing.
The result? Rich, white, Protestant, normally-abled students get what they need at home, and vulnerable students fail.
I keep struggling with this. I can really no longer accept the answer, "ignorance." At some point being completely ignorant of the tools of your trade becomes either "willful ignorance" or simple "stupidity." These tools have now been available for too long, are too easily 'discoverable' for this excuse to hold water anymore.
And I won't accept the answer, "fear" anymore either. If an electrician was too afraid of electricity to touch a wire, he'd be an electrician no more. So if an educator is afraid of the information and communication technologies of his/her age, then he/she can no longer be an "educator" in any meaningful way.
I have come to suggest that the answer is actually political, that too many in charge of education do not want universal success, do not want the increased economic competition which might come from those who are currently excluded from educational success. Many people have been shocked when I suggest this, but few have offered a coherent alternate theory.
Why, when schools cry about a lack of funding do they spend more to exclude students? What is it about administrators, policy-makers, educational technology workers, which causes this bizarre, and socially destructive, behavior?
Not a rhetorical question - I'm getting desperate to begin to find an answer to this question, so we can start to work on a solution...
- Ira Socol
next up: Why would schools purchase the iPod Touch rather than (less expensive) netbooks? Why would schools propose Apple-based handheld solutions rather than universal solutions which could be used on the students' own phones in school and at home? (a related question)
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children