29 April 2008

Planning for Access

It is about to be May, which means it is time to start considering how to ensure that your school, college, university is a place with true access next year.

The goal is equal access to information and communication, with equal meaning "at the same time," and "in the same place," and "in a form that is as usable," as the information and communication provided to any other student.

When Enda Guinan posted yesterday about Assistive Technology planning at NUI Maynooth, I thought, we all need to be asking these questions and making these plans.

Enda begins with the most important thought: "Next semester we will have TextHelp and Inspiration on every PC across the campus. As these are our most popular applications, I reckon that by mainstreaming their availability, the needs of a lot of students will be taken care of. Students with mild dyslexia for example won’t need to use the current ATC."


Years ago, at Grand Valley State University, I was asked if we wanted to develop specialized labs for our new AT applications. "No thanks," I told my boss, "I'm done with resource rooms, I want this stuff everywhere that everyone else gets to access computers." And last week, on Karen Janowski's blog, I noted that education for those with "special needs" will never get better until "regular education" gets better. "Regular education should be able to include, and foster success and independence for, perhaps 98% of students," I said, responding to her call for better supports in every school.

So Enda's step one should be everyone's step one. Every computer in your school, on your campus, should have the basic tools. Whether you install Text-Help's Read-and-Write or Freedom Scientific's WYNN is your preference, I think highly of both literacy support packages but think that your choice will largely depend on what else you are installing (Read-and-Write does more things, WYNN does fewer things with a some stronger supports). But your school needs one of these highly-supportive literacy solutions everywhere (network "concurrent use" licenses are available for both). Dyslexia and other print disabilities represent up to 80% of the "disabled" students in any school population, and weak readers who could benefit from these tools as well, may include as many as many as two-thirds of your students. In addition, word-highlighting text-to-speech systems seem to have significant positives for students with attention issues. Inspiration is another "everywhere" solution. Writing support is essential if the students currently not succeeding are to succeed, and Inspiration is a proven, inexpensive solution.

But those "cost-to-purchase" products should only be part of what is installed everywhere. Your computers must have all "that free stuff" that both builds access and teaches students (and faculty) that supportive technology is everywhere.

Start with Firefox, properly equipped, on every computer. The properly equipped means that FireVox (the blind browser support) and CLiCk-Speak (the dyslexic browser support) are installed, as are right-click dictionaries (US) and spellcheckers (UK) and g-Translate. (You can add the dictionary switcher as well.)

Then make sure the other free text-to-speech solutions are available: WordTalk, NaturalReader, MicrosoftReader (be sure to add Text-To-Speech engine, dictionaries, and RMR conversion tool for MS Word), and PowerTalk for PowerPoint. Zero Dollars, or Euros, or Pounds - but massive impacts for your students.

For screen magnification, iZoomWeb is free, effective, though it works only while you are online in Microsoft Internet Explorer. For low-dexterity keyboarding support - Click-N-Type, the world's best on-screen keyboard is also completely free.

And make sure that Ghotit is prominently displayed in your Firefox bookmark toolbar, so that dyslexic students and English-language-learners have a spellcheck system which works for them.

Another essential online support for your students are Google Accounts. With Google Accounts they will have Google Docs, and the ability (for free, including at home) for CLiCk-Speak to read back their writing to them as they edit, and the ability to collaborate on shared writing. They will also have Google Notebook, and Google Calendar, both of which support both life and academic organization.

And one more thing - those boxes of alternative keyboards and mice, and ready-to-grab headsets. (see this hardware post)

OK, that's the "everywhere" stuff, but as Enda points out, you need two other support centers. You need a place where students can experiment, learn, screw up, that's private enough to keep the costs of failure low, and thus encourage risk-taking. And that learning lab can double as a low-incidence disability support centre, with less "typical" software and hardware, like JAWS and Braille printers, Zoom-Text or MAGic, and AAC tools and switch devices.

And you need a place, and a program, of faculty training and support. Just as students need a place to safely play, experiment, and learn, so do teachers and professors. This space needs to double as a materials accessibility lab, where everything from PDF accessibility to website accessibility to captioning is as simple and easy as possible. If it is not, your delivery system will be ineffective because the teaching materials are likely to remain inaccessible.

If your school is not set up as above, you have a long summer of work ahead of you. Not having accessible ICT is the same as not having accessible entries or accessible toilet facilities. Or maybe it is worse, since the very purpose of the school is the transmission of information, and if some students are denied the fair access to that, there's no reason for those students to come to the school at all.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

25 April 2008

Culture and comprehension

Americans report sport scores in the wrong way. If a person from almost any other nation looks at the score of an American game in progress they will assume that the visiting team is the home team and will be wrong in their assumptions regarding the stadium and city they are seeing. I have seen this create difficulties and misconceptions. It's a tiny thing but it begins to explain the enormous problems faced by educators who refuse to embrace the idea of differentiated instruction and instruction based in, or at least accepting of, the culture of the individual learner.

Ever watch the faces of confused learners - or a confused audience? Ever notice that, at first, all of their cognitive effort is being expended on jamming that square peg into that round hole? Maybe you are more familiar with what happens next - they give up, seek distraction, or check out.

A few months ago I threw a statement out to a list-serve of international students during a debate on precision and language in academic discourse. I had been arguing for writing which might best be understood by multiple audiences, and others had been arguing for the perfect precision of subject-specific and audience-specific academic language. So I said, "That lad's got the sliotar just exploding off the hurley."

I said that this statement was absolutely precise. Just about anyone in Ireland - or many New York neighborhoods - would understand immediately, and that the precision "was important," that a sliotar is not a baseball or a lacrosse ball and a hurley is not a tennis racquet or a lacrosse stick. But, I wondered, if I had a room of students, half well versed in Gaelic games and half not, that if it would not be a good idea to make the information reasonably available to both groups, and maybe to the subset of students who know nothing of sports at all.

Because, if we don't do that, some students become unfairly privileged, some will waste much of the cognitive effort we want them to use on "the learning" simply trying to handle our language, and others will give up.

How technology can help

So what if - almost effortlessly - you could solve this? What if fans could choose to see their football scores either on USA Today - home teams listed last (the American tradition that comes from baseball's structure of innings) - or on Guardian.com - home teams listed first? What if any student in the sliotar discussion could instantly type sliotar into Wikipedia and link to "Hurling" and quickly access enough information to understand my sentance? What if a student could even hear "sliotar" being pronounced during the radio broadcast of a match? What if students trying to figure this out could dig through their choice of information sources, such as the GAA site, or a YouTube glimpse of the sport?

Or what if students, faced with the question of "what is normal?" had a quick chance to look at global newspaper websites to determine whether most people followed the "home team first" or "home team last" principle?

Cognitive load, and engagement

The role of the technologies - as used above - is twofold. First, it becomes a seamless accommodation, allowing learners with "lesser" levels of access to the curriculum to rapidly "catch up." Don't know those Hurling terms? Not sure which team is home? You can, if you are brave enough, stop the class and ask, but with contemporary technologies you can find it out yourself, and you can make those connections in the way that best serves your own needs. Second, it offers personal engagement, allowing the student to interact with the information in a personally-directed way as the group interaction runs in parallel.

This not some distraction via multi-tasking. This is human learning. It can only be seen as a distraction if you perceive education as a one-way transmission system. It can only be understood as "multi-tasking" (in some bad way) if you think that, while driving, one should only be looking continually straight ahead out through the windshield. (Of course we all know teachers and drivers who do believe these things.)

If, on the other hand, you understand that learning is something which occurs individually, and that it happens best when new data can be linked effectively with the learner's own brain, and if you understand (or admit) that outside of school the human brain handles a flood of different inputs on a continuous basis (we can be both cold and hungry, we can know both that we are walking toward home and that the billboard up ahead has changed, we can understand both that it is about to rain and consider the range of places of shelter up ahead which we can run to and still be concerned with finding the right present for that girl's birthday), you will immediately see the advantages of using technology to expand how students interact with incoming information.


This is not about "disability," at least not if you define "disability" as narrowly as schools define "learning." "Disability" in school terms is a line in the sand which separates the "normal" from the "pathological."

Eyeglasses are fine in any classroom, and books are rarely set in 4 point type, because up to a certain point schools understand that not everyone sees perfectly. But if you are one step out of that "normal" range then schools call you "disabled" and getting help gets much harder. You need not be able to 'speedread' in school, but below a certain rate and you are off to the 'resource room.' You need not be from a wealthy family, but if your parents have not given you the proper white, middle-class social skills, you will be unwelcome in most classrooms.

But I can disable anyone, anytime. I can talk about things which they have no background knowledge of, and act as if they should know. I can put them in a place where they do not understand the language. I can schedule class on the 20th floor and turn off the elevator. I can whisper rather than speak in a normal voice. I could apply British spelling rules (and grade spelling) with American students or apply American spelling rules (and grade spelling) with British students. I could offer a required course only from 2:00 am to 3:30 am, or I could require all students to stand up through the whole class, or class could be held out on the street in a neighborhood that might make every middle class student feel completely uncomfortable. I could even, socratically, refuse to allow books or written notes and demand memory only.

Does that sound ridiculous to you? Maybe, but none of those are any more ridiculous than the typical rules of the classroom feel to any of us who are "different" in dozens of different ways. Your rules mess with our cognitive processes by forcing us to waste energy catching up physically, or culturally, or in terms of communications systems.

Let's go back to the start. Americans report sports scores in a reverse format from the rest of the world. We can either stress out all American sports fans by forcing them to change (or we could, I suppose, force everyone else to change under threat of Bush invasion or Clintonian "obliteration"), or we can explain the difference and allow each group to see these scores their own way via flexible technology. We can expect every student to understand what we are talking about as if they were clones of the teacher, or we can stop and condescendingly explain every thing in our own way (or spoon feed it if we think the student is disabled), or we can use and teach the technologies of differentiated instruction in ways which build engagement and independence.

- Ira Socol

great blog comment of the week: On Inside Higher Ed - On Texts, Tech and Teens: "Come to think of it, what is so wrong with emoticons in writing? In a way, they are simply invented punctuation marks. In another way, they are visual additions to writing. Writing (in the Western world)has had many visual additions through the ages, such as ornate capitals in medieval manuscripts, modern typefaces (which convey meaning!) and poems that take a certain shape. I don’t use them because I think they are hokey, but maybe that’s because my vocabulary of emoticons is limited." - Grocheio, Asst VP Planning and Institutional Effectiveness at Shorter College. What a great statement! Are emoticons more or less annoying than e.e. cummings lack of upper case letters? I think of Robert Ferlinghetti's poem Fortune (actually "7" from A Coney Island of the Mind) - one of the first modern American poems I discovered, and think of how the arrangement of words on the page added meaning beyond the words alone. Aren't emoticons the same thing?

great blog post of the day: Technoshock of the Digital Immigrant at Paragraph City. I think it's a wonderful parallel tale of what I have told above - just more coherently written.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

24 April 2008

Links to Great Stuff

I am crazy, busy - but that doesn't mean we can't stay in touch - here are a few things I think you'll want to investigate...

From the Education Subject Centre at the University of Bristol the new edition of ESCalate News is out with a focus on Harnessing Technology for Education. Every article is worth reading - they cover Interactive Collaboration for Undergraduates, Creativity in Technology Rich - Flexible Learning Spaces, The Potential Impact and Influence on Education of Web 2.0 Technologies, No Cost Technologies, Higher Ed and the iPod Generation, Virtual Worlds, and much more.

Enda P. Guinan (National University of Ireland - Maynooth) has a fascinating post on his blog regarding accessible podcast creation issues and solutions. Podcasting creates a phenomenal level of cross-platform and cross-capability information access, but, of course, it needs to be done "the right way" for that to be true.

Unlocking the Classroom has an important post on what schools need to achieve universal access beyond the technology which I typically discuss here. At the base it is politics and social policy - always.

On the Mobile Learning blog, a look at the mobile internet "tipping point." Many of us see the mobile replacing the laptop in many ways as the "universal tool" - and welcome this as a way of both lowering costs and increasing access, but we need the availability on the ground - as they say, before this becomes something we can depend upon fully in education.

Dr. Brian Friedlander has posts about the new Pulse Smartpen and about WriteOnline. And Paul Hamilton looks at what you can do with Animoto.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

23 April 2008

Cognitive Change

"Here’s what I think: learning styles may exist (although the studies that show that they do are generally specious), but they’re largely useless in determining how to teach specific material well. You teach according to the material, not according to theoretical learning styles." - "Michael" commenting at Paragraph City.

"Michael" is a university professor who is very angry with me, who feels "sorry for me," because, well, I'm struggling with his reasons. He says that I "create totalizing narratives in which you are the hero and everyone who disagrees with you, even slightly, is the villain," and he thinks that I fail to show the proper deference to distinguished scholars and faculty. Perhaps he also thinks that I am asking him to change his way of doing things - a way that he likely feels is 'effective teaching.' Perhaps he also thinks that I am accusing him of not really upholding a democratic vision of education.

As I said, it is hard to tell. He is an anonymous commenter. But who he is does not matter, what he is saying - a not unfamiliar sentiment among those who call themselves 'teachers' - does matter. It matters a great deal.

“…effective education is always jeopardy either in the culture at large or with constituencies more dedicated to maintaining a status quo than to fostering flexibility.” – Jerome Bruner in The Culture of Education.

Last night I listened to a podcast of an interview with Harvard's Chris Dede, who studies technology and cognition and who has extensively investigated the differences in cognition between the neo-millennials (people brought up learning with online and other digital tools) and their teachers, and I thought of "Michael"'s assertion about teaching: "You teach according to the material, not according to theoretical learning styles."

Think about this. Really consider it for a moment. According to "Michael" it is only the content which determines pedagogy. You would teach the Romantic Poets in the exact same way no matter who was in your classroom. You would teach Chemistry in the exact same way no matter who was in your classroom. You would teach reading in the exact same way no matter who was in your classroom.

Sounds ridiculous? Yes, but... In schools all across the United States standardized curricula make "Michael"'s very assumption. Michael Bloomberg, the "Education Mayor" of New York City firmly believes in this philosophy. So do many, many reading researchers I have read, all of whom wish to sell a single system that will be applied to all children.

Students, and their learning styles, learning differences, cultural differences must be bent to the norms of the teacher and the school. Schools and teachers need not bend to the differences of their students. Bending that way is 'indulgent" to "lazy, whining" students overflowing with a sense of "entitlement." (all terms from comments on Inside Higher Ed, see post below)

So how is that working for us? What's the end-result of assuming that all of our students learn the same way? that the delivery should be determined by the content, not the learner?

Well, in the US barely more than a third of its students can ever achieve "proficiency" in anything. The US high school drop out rate may actually be close to 50%. US college completion rates are brutally low. And perhaps all those failures explain why this "great democracy" now "has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of its prisoners." (The New York Times, 23 April 2008). Maybe, just maybe, teachers like "Michael" are leaving a few too many students behind.

Last fall I wrote a paper on cognition and technology after noticing that so many of the texts on the topic seemed to avoid the question of culture. Here's part of what I said:

"In the field of education, and particularly U.S. education, cognition is treated as a science which transcends the impact of culture on the human brain. ... In this view this science seems to adhere closely to the generalized attitude in education that cultural dynamics are less important than other influences on learning – that a classroom can be essentially the same type of architectural construct no matter what continent – that educators may be trained in the United States for service in Kenya, Trinidad, or Malaysia – that a student in a French-speaking neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York should be following the same general curricular schedule as a student in the monoculture of Zeeland, Michigan, or a student in the wealthy walled communities of Boca Raton, Florida.

"In the fields of anthropology and psychology there is a differing stream of thought. "People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence of these," Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama wrote in 1991. "These construals can influence, and in many cases determine, the very nature of individual experience, including cognition, emotion, and motivation."1

"What might this all mean for cognition in education? How do we look at the ways these different "construals" control what occurs in the classroom? At how they impact what occurs in every formalized learning environment? Or, indeed, how they effect what different parts of increasingly diverse cultures "know"? This is vital not simply because of racial, ethnic, religious, and lingual diversity, but because in periods of rapid change – such as this moment in time, different generations can become separate cultures, seeing the world in such significantly different ways that the very acts of cognition may no longer be mutually understandable. In schools, where one generation is "educated" by another, a communications gap of this sort can make almost everything impossible."2

It is this gap which I see in schools and universities today. Teachers like "Michael" are operating under one cognitive framework, and they are teaching to those students who are either trained in that framework through parental training or those who may be particularly gifted in complex code-shifting, but they are not teaching that mass of neo-millennials whose cognitive processes have been more clearly shaped by the emerging culture. And, of course, they are not teaching to that mass of students whose differing cultures or genetics might also mean that the cognitive process works differently.

The kind of straight-line thinking basic to Anglo-American education assumptions - that "undistracted," "single-focus," "book-based," "sit in the room," style is one way of learning. But, as I have said in my posts below, it is an educational style dependent on the proper Protestant training of young children, on certain attention capabilities, on certain literacy and listening capabilities, which are present in fewer and fewer students as the population changes and as technology allows a return to a more natural information flow - learning as a less linear, less structured, more random, and more community-based activity than it has been in "the book era," the past four hundred years.

The advantage of accepting that different students learn in different ways, that the teacher must accommodate the student and not the reverse, and that the student and not the content should be starting point for pedagogy, is the chance to see if US education (or British education to a somewhat lesser degree) can reach beyond the one-third success rate. Can reach out to students who are different culturally, genetically, attitudinally, and generationally from those who run the schools and the classrooms.

Perhaps my requests for this change are a "totalizing narrative" which casts educators such as "Michael" as villains unfairly. But at some point I think all those in education must stop and look at the impact of their own choices on our society.

- Ira Socol

1 Markus, H.R. and Kitayama, S. Culture and the Self. Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation Psychological Review. American Psychological Association. 1991, Vol. 98, No. 2, p.224
2 Socol, I. Irreconcilable Authority: Cognitive Theory, Culture, and Technology in the Twenty-First Century Classroom. Unpublished (as yet) Michigan State University paper. 2007.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

22 April 2008

Accommodating Possibility

That New York State now has a legally blind Governor offers an opportunity for a level of public education about accommodations that should not be missed.

Because when even people completely uninterested in disability are faced with a newspaper story such as "A Blind Governor Adjusts, and So Does Albany" from Monday's New York Times, we all need to jump in and share this with our students, with our colleagues, with our administrators. And we probably have to share it with explicit explanations of what's important - in order to ensure that it is not simply read as a "charity case."

"Usually at night, in the Executive Mansion or at his family’s home in Harlem, the governor listens to the recordings on the designated phone line. They run up to five minutes each and can pile up quickly, taking hours to absorb.

“Last night I had 43 messages, all of them five minutes in length,” Mr. Paterson said in an interview. “That would be 215 minutes worth of material — over three hours.”

He stayed up that night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. listening to the recordings, which covered everything from his prepared remarks for a press conference on energy to articles on economic growth in The Economist. But that was only enough time to get through half of them."

First message - please stop wondering if you are offering people with a difference (in this case blindness or a print disability) some kind of "unfair advantage." The Governor of New York nightly exceeds the 'extra-time on tests' situation and still only gets half of it done.

Accommodations do not give an advantage, they don't even make things equal, they only make things possible.

Yesterday, I pointed out to some faculty members that I had learned to be much more efficient in reading then when I had begun graduate school. "There is no way to skim using text-readers," I explained, "and before you know what research articles are like you really end up 'reading' every word." That, the way I use text-readers, probably meant I was spending 4 to 6 times as many hours reading as many of my classmates. "But now, I know what to read, what to skip, what to go back to based on what I need." Now, I perhaps spend only 2 to 3 times as many hours reading as other students in the same place in the program.

They had never thought of that. So, it was important that I told them.

"Given the volume of material he must take in, he tries to find ways to do things faster. He listens to very long articles or books on a special tape recorder for the blind that plays at speeds so fast, it is difficult for others to comprehend. “You get used to listening to that Alvin and the Chipmunks voice,” he said."

Second Message - Technology enables independence but technology must be learned. AT Specialist (and blogger) Karen Janowski wrote to me recently, "I realized back in the 90's that so many of my students were engaged by technology and it supported and built upon their strengths. How come I was the only one who noticed this? The typical response (even today) is to assign a paraprofessional to students which encourages dependence and learned helplessness. Other students are so beaten down by their challenges and the obvious solutions include providing text-to-speech so that their reading struggles do not hold them back from accessing the curriculum. It seems that we want students to do poorly, we want to deny them opportunities to succeed, we want to withhold technologies that will promote success and independence. We want to continue to use methods that focus on remediation at the expense of accommodation for the deficit today. It is maddening. The solutions are there - we need to empower students."

The Governor of New York does not want to depend on others to read to him. Surely he could create staff for this job, but he does not want to. He wants to read independently and when he wants to. Only technology can allow that. But unless that technology is offered, is evaluated, is trained. Only if time is available to really learn the effective use of that technology, will it be effective.

Much has been made of the fact that David Patterson was lucky to have informed, wealthy, committed parents, who managed to get him out of the schools in the City of New York (which would not support him this way) to another school which would. And in that parental ability to force change may lie a big component of his success. Now, just as President George W. Bush was forgiven for all sorts of adolescent/young adult 'indiscretions' (and apparent student laziness) and was still able to attend an Ivy League university, and I believe that those 'redemptive' options should be open to all students. I believe that all students, even those without wealthy and politically powerful parents, have the right an education which supports them in their quest for independence.

"Since he cannot read from a prompter, the governor tries to commit his speeches to memory, by listening several times to an aide’s recording of the speech. Delivering an address just from memory can be nerve-racking. “It’s like a high wire,” he said. “You trip, there’s no net."'

Third Message - It will never be easy. The things 'you' take for granted will always be much harder for 'me,' and success will be much rarer among similar students. Consider this, could the current US President have been elected if he had no choice but to fully memorize all of his speeches? If he could not have quickly checked his notes during debates? Or this, could your school's principal or superintendent or your college's dean have gotten where they are if "two hours of homework reading" every night really meant six or eight hours every night?

"He also uses humor to poke fun at his disability, offering anecdotes about how he once showed up at a press conference wearing two different-colored shoes, or how as a young man he would occasionally miscount the number of subway stops on his way home and get off at 145th Street instead of 135th Street. “Back in the ’80s, you didn’t want to go there at night,” he said, laughing."

Fourth Message - Stop treating us as victims and start supplying services. We're people just like everyone else, stuck with certain issues which make some things difficult. We don't want your sympathy. We want you to be fair, to understand just a tiny bit, and to allow us to find and use the solutions we need. The Governor of New York does not suggest that he needed a person guiding him through the subway back in the 1980's, but he may be pointing out that today's trains, with understandable announcements of stops, would have made his life just a touch easier. Of course those clear announcements (along with visual maps that light up the upcoming stop) make subway travel easier for everyone (especially tourists). And, you know, no one needs to bring a note from their doctor to make use of those assistive technologies. Isn't that an amazing idea?

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

20 April 2008

Passive Learning

[a long reflection on the recent Inside Higher Ed debate on the internet in the classroom]

There are always those who learn best by doing nothing.

They sit back in their chairs and wait. The professor or teacher or minister stands at the front of the room and delivers received wisdom to them. They write that down in their notebooks. Then they go home, read the text line-by-line in prescribed order. Read their own exact notes on what the professor or teacher or minister has said. And then they are perfectly positioned to remember and repeat this knowledge.

"An instructor’s job is not to entertain students. It is to convey knowledge that the students need — as determined by the institution that student chose to attend. Often the subject matter is not as entertaining as the Internet or a friend’s email message. But that is not the student’s decision to make. If the student knows better than the instructor and the law school dean about what they should study, then why are they attending law school? This modern sense of entitlement in students is frightening. They are there to learn under the tutelage of the instructor. The instructor and the institution know better – that is why they are at the front of the room and the student is in the seat. Let the instructors do their job as they see fit and acknowledge that the student’s role to listen." - "Peter"1

The problem occurs when schools - rather than churches - embrace this style of learning above all others. Because the problem with this type of passive learning, of receiving received wisdom, is that it does not work unless teacher and student share the same exact world view. If the "systems" can connect exactly, and the desire is to replicate the teacher within the learner, then... yes, open the connection and let the data pour from one vessel to another.

Think about this: Who succeeds? Who are the classroom stars? Back in third grade it was the quiet girls who were most like the female teacher (herself a former English major from a "good family") - the ones who "loved to read," who were "good at paying attention," who "worked hard," who had the "support of their family at home."

In high school it was probably the boy who most resembled each teacher - the "studious types" who were "really interested in the subject," and came with a "natural curiosity," and who, outside of school, "focused on their schoolwork not the other stuff."

In universities it is the students who will "grow up" to be professors and who will be, in a dozen years, indistinguishable from their former teachers.

"Reality: strongly-motivated students, with strongly-motivated families, make education happen." - "Buzz"1

And in all of these cases the perception will be that these students are succeeding because they are superior, because (as "Buzz" above puts it) they come from superior families, because they are "the elect." How gratifying it must be to the self-perception of the faculty that those who are the most superior students are those most like themselves.

This is the important sub-text of the conversation at Inside Higher Ed regarding the University of Chicago Law School (Hey, you! Pay Attention!). Students such as "Ryan G" who says, "If you see a class with a some raptly paying attention to the instructor while others appear distracted, you may also be seeing different learning styles. Sorry, but not everyone learns by watching a talking head for 50 minutes. I *can’t* learn that way and never have been able — which almost resulted in me not graduating high school. However I did finish high school, college, and eventually medical school (back when we didn’t have laptops in class.) Though I finished med school only by never actually going to lecture, running the note-service, and teaching myself in a way I can learn. (And despite not attending the talking head shows I graduated in the top of my class from a top 20 US medical school.)"1 are wrong even if they have succeeded, because they have not followed that "true path," they have not suffered in the "right ways," they are simply not enough like those who teach them.

"The best training a quality attorney can have is attending class with a professor whose teaching style forces the student to dig deep for the importance of the message when every cell in the body is screaming to be released from the tortures of boredom." - Kathy Anderson, Director, Diversity & Equity at Cal State University - Monterey Bay1

This is the Protestant, ableist message. There is one route to salvation, and that path runs straight through conformity and obedience. And only conformity and obedience, only staying on the one straight path, will prove that you are a member of the elect, that you have been chosen. That path is hard, and difficult, and uncomfortable, as it must be because that is the way we filter out those who do not belong.

"I feel compelled to ask the following question: what is wrong with having to listen to a boring professor or a boring lecture? Plenty of us had to do that when we were students. A lecture may not have provided us with instant gratification, but we were taught to respect the professor no matter how boring his/her lectures were." -"gianstefano1

What if students have a different world view?

A friend of mine recently talked about the class she is teaching in diversity in education. She told me about the conversations she had with her students regarding religion, and how difficult it was to get the conversation started. I told her how important this conversation was for teachers and pre-service teachers, and I suggested that she say this to her students:

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where you went to church according to your schedule, not just at specific times determined by the church? Might they have a different view of the school day and the school schedule?"

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where it was considered perfectly acceptable to stare off at the walls and windows during church services? Might they have a different idea of what 'paying attention' meant?"

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where no one read individually in church? Where people moved all the time during the service? Where art, music, taste, and smell were all considered essential parts of religious learning? Might they have different ideas about reading, sitting in class, or how curriculum is delivered?"

Of course a large number of their students will be from a culture just like that - Catholics. That little group that makes up about 25% of the US and perhaps a third of children in public schools.

Remember, John Calvin and other Protestant founders railed against those ornate churches with their 'teaching art.' They railed against the openness of the Mass. They railed against the complex and diverse delivery system of Catholic dogma. They wrote everything down in books which they handed out to ensure that everyone received the exact same revealed word. They set worship times and insisted on attendance. They held services in plain white buildings. And, yes, they knew that some children were born pre-destined for heaven while others were born pre-destined for hell.

And when they got their hands on public education in North America - beginning in 17th Century New England - they made schools look and operate just like their churches. Catholic multi-tasking was most definitely "out," as were Catholic flexibility, the Catholic notion that celebration (Saint's Days, even Christmas in those early days) could be educational, and subjects like art and music. This system of operation has changed very little over the ensuing centuries.

In fact, if you listen to those who are "born right," and who are thus entitled to the passive learning, the only thing that has changed is the corruption of the student body which has strayed ever further from the perfect path.

"Mr. Socol, students used to know how to pay attention, even when the lecture was boring, and still managed to learn something. Adding cell phones, ipods and laptops for todays students who were born for the “short attention span theater", is throwing water on a grease fire. Students seem to no longer have the skill to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Blaming the lecturer is the lazy persons copout." - "Bored by lazy students"1

vs. Active Learners

So, if a student brings a different style, different methods, different intentions to the classroom, it is understood as a moral failing and a threat to the established order, and, perhaps, a threat to God. The argument is rarely about what is being learned, or about how the student is developing, and it is almost never about a student's right to determine what they need educationally, it is always about "following the rules"

"Maybe they would film it on their cell phones and post it on You [T]ube so their friends who cut class could watch it during some other class. I think this is why students aren’t learning: they aren’t paying attention. Unless it is part of the lesson, nothing that isn’t class work should be allowed during class time." - Dr. Jay Bernstein - Kingsborough Community College1

The obvious question for Dr. Bernstein is why not, "film it on their cell phones and post it on You [T]ube so their friends who cut class could watch it during some other class"? As Jerry Pattengale, AVP for scholarship & grants at Indiana Wesleyan University, noted, "I assume that few classes over 100 can make a strong case for the need to have live professors v. YouTubing lectures—if the professor still remains available online and in special on-campus gatherings."1 Does it really matter if I attend the class at the required time or get what I need from it in a way, at a time, when it works better for me? What if I, as a student, decide that I have, or need, a different path, or a different timeline, to knowledge acquisition? What if I, as a student, need to filter this "received wisdom" through my own world view, or through a knowledge base different from that of the instructor? What if my way of learning requires multi-tasking, or requires time spent - effectively - staring at the stories in the stained glass windows at times, even when the 'priest' is speaking? Does it matter to the professor, the teacher, the school, the university if I make those decisions for myself?

Apparently it does, because in the view of the entitled passive learner, the class instructor has received his or her powers in much the same way as the old kings of France - by divine right:

"The classroom is the professor’s domain. It is his or her kingdom. Their will is the law. If you don’t like it, do not take that class. Can’t change class? Then go to another school. Otherwise, stop whining. Buckle down. Read your cases. Pay attention. Handwrite your notes. Learn what the professor wants you to learn." - "John3L Law Student"1

It is all there in this future lawyer's words. The power is in the hands of those who have received it. Follow the path or go to Hell. And following the path requires absolute commitment to the ways of the elite, the ways of the past. Sit down. Shut up. Read your book. Write that down one-hundred times.

A fight against faith...

A friend of mine once told the story of being both a Catholic and the graduate of a Catholic university and arriving as a new faculty member at a Christian college. One of the first courses she was assigned to teach included, as part of the curriculum, the study of The Reformation. She called up a friend and said, "I don't know what to do with this, what do I really know about he Reformation?" "What do you know?" the friend asked, "You know that we're against it."

When I first began graduate school I followed an adviser's advice and joined a list-serve called "SpEdPro," a collection of academics involved in American "special education." (for a sense of the attitude which prevails on SpEdPro see this site by one of its active members) After just two months I became embroiled in a huge battle because I expressed "post-modern" thoughts on the subject of "research proven solutions" for students with differences. My arguments that this kind of prescriptive solution set blamed the student and not the school whenever a disconnect occurred were roundly denounced as heresy. I was a relativist witch in this modernist Salem, arguing against all notions of truth. Like a self-styled latter day Roger Williams I fled - to this blog (notice the name). Like Rhode Island, it is a small place. Unlike Rhode Island, I can't yet see my efforts as a success.

The problem is that this is a faith-based fight. If you can believe in the superiority of the passive learner, of received wisdom, you will never be able to see the rights of students who are different - whether they arrive from Catholic backgrounds with weird notions of time, movement and distraction, or who come from families with African or Caribbean or South American backgrounds with odd ideas about reading as a community activity, or who appear at school with brains genetically established differently in terms of attention, or who may have been born with differing capabilities in reading, or writing, or learning speed. You will never see that they are equal humans who have the same right to success.

You may see them as charity cases worthy of your sympathy as long as they "try hard enough" to act, to be, just like you. But you will not see them as equal. You will not see them as "Holy." You will not see them as being on the correct path to the light.

On another blog someone calling himself "Dave Stone" said this to me: "Ira–what you’re suggesting sounds to me like "defining deviancy down," taking unacceptable behavior and making it OK by lowering the standards of what’s acceptable. I can buy your Calvinist argument to a point, but this isn’t a matter of mere WASPy repression. There’s a functional reason why Protestants wanted people to shut up and pay attention: being present for the Presence and the ritual mattered less, listening to what was being said mattered more. It seems to me that a college classroom is more about paying attention to what’s going on than basking in the glory of the professor."2

And this is the mistake Protestants often mistake about Catholicism and educators too often make about students who are different. They believe that "being present for the presence," and the ritual itself, are not educational, are not dialogue. They believe that the only actual way to learn is to "shut up and pay attention." They can not even imagine that one might ask deep questions while staring at the images in the stained glass, or that the process of moving through the Stations of the Cross could include intellectual interaction, or that considering the Eucharist can be as essential educationally as reading today's chapter and verse. They can not imagine that the smell of incense or the light of the candles has true value. They, of course, can not conceive that showing up for an afternoon mass is as valuable as getting up early (with its assumption that you haven't spent Saturday night in an Irish pub), and sitting in silence alongside all of your neighbors, each reading the exact same text at the exact same moment. Failing to live up to the Protestant ideal makes you, at best childlike (this is why American Protestants send 'Christian Missionaries' to entirely Catholic nations), at worst, demonic.

"It may be over-parenting, but 18-21 year olds, are still in need of how to be a student and how not to be a plugged-in, distracted, slave to technology. You go Chicago!" - "Kristy, Compass Montessori High School"1

Yo — U-Chic is an Ivy-level law school. The Socratic method. Like getting an immediate “F” if you’re not prepared for class. The real thing. Not a bunch of Billy Ayers-types, singing Kumbaya and holding hands. Professional stuff — like passing the bar exam and impacting millions of people." - "KCG"1

"I applaud the move by the University of Chicago Law School to preserve the sanctity of the space of the classroom for teaching purposes." - Steve Katsinas, Professor at University of Alabama1

Two last thoughts:

First, I sat at a Seder Saturday night and listened to the story of "The Four Sons" and considered how, in this most ancient of Jewish celebrations the idea that education is for all, and that, in order for education to be for all, it must be individualized, is enshrined. I also noticed that in this holiday, probably the longest-celebrated Holy Day in the western world, ritual and props and tastes and smells are all used to support a communal literacy approach to learning.

Second, I remember sitting in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York not so long ago. I had brought a friend who was new to the city in to see, and a violent storm had broken out at the moment the 3 o'clock Mass was beginning. So we sat down and joined. We joined an incredibly diverse crowd, which, among other things, included every conceivable age and dozens of languages. Yet, we were all part of this, held together by the thin yet powerful threads of ritual but also supported in our own needs by the stunning diversity of teaching methods surrounding us. Yes, I heard the priest, but just as much I let my eyes move about the space, finding what I needed in the art, in the vastness of the Gothic space, in the sounds around me. Perhaps I was not learning what everyone else was. Perhaps I was only learning what I was ready for at that moment, and what was essential to me. That, I realize now, is a stunningly different concept of education than the one we meet in our schools, but I wonder - is it truly less valid?

If my education had been individualized from the start - as Judaism suggests - might I not be ready to truly learn on my own - as the cathedral suggests? Might that not be a better way?

This is not a debate that I will win. As Max Weber so clearly put it, capitalism and Protestantism march hand-in-hand. And we live in a culture dominated by both. Other arguments will always be infantilized, and labelled as odd and exotic - just as all of our kids, and all of us, who are not passive receptors of knowledge are labelled this way.

But even unwinnable fights are sometimes worth fighting. That battle against The Reformation did not quite work either - surely not in the self-proclaimed "advanced" nations - but it did preserve an alternative, and it did allow the western world to see a choice.

Maybe that is enough of a reason to keep arguing.

- Ira Socol

Related posts - Considering Universal Design, Not Getting to Universal Design, Humiliation and the Modern Professor, Technology and Equity.

1 quotations are from those commenting on the Inside Higher Ed article: Hey, You! Pay Attention!
2 from the comments on a post at the University Diaries blog

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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18 April 2008

Technology and Equity

Dr. Lance Nelson, Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University of San Diego, says on Inside Higher Ed, "A classroom is for human interaction; if one wants an on-line education, why not do it completely on-line?" (actually, he said, "why not do it completely on-line>" - but I will assume that's a missed key and an unused spellchecker and not a "greater than" sign).

An anonymous "gianstefano," responding to same story of the University of Chicago Law School shutting off internet access in their classrooms, says, "I feel compelled to ask the following question: what is wrong with having to listen to a boring professor or a boring lecture? Plenty of us had to do that when we were students. A lecture may not have provided us with instant gratification, but we were taught to respect the professor no matter how boring his/her lectures were. To my way of thinking, you turn off your cell phone when you go into class, and you should turn off your computer as well. This is a lesson in civility, for starters."

So, I've tried to deal with computers and disability in the classroom, and the notion of what Universal Design for Learning means, the changing nature of cognition in this century, and the potential use of mobile phones in the classroom, even why we bother to continue to pay teachers, but now I really need to talk about equity in education - and whether educators want to restrict access to education to the elite, or whether they are interested in expanding the idea.

Let me begin with my phone, which measures 10.7 cm (4.2 inches) long by 4.8 cm (1.9 inches) wide by 1.25 cm (0.5 inch) deep, and weighs 96 grams (3.4 ounces) [conversions thanks to Google search]. It cost me something less than $150 (US). Thus, it is substantially less expensive than a laptop computer loaded with (even student-priced) Microsoft Office software. It is substantially smaller and lighter than a laptop as well. And, with this single device I no longer need (a) a phone, (b) a camera, (c) a calculator, (d) a GPS system, or (e) an alarm clock.

But with this tool, and my internet connection, I can take notes in Google Docs (or build spreadsheets). I can look up things I need to know. I can even avail myself of the one spellcheck system which really supports dyslexics, English-language-learners, or anyone with significant spelling difficulties (ghotit.com). I can scan printed text in, and have it converted to text. I can listen to podcasts. I have access to a few million on-line books, and perhaps a billion on-line journal articles. I need not buy extra methods of storing data since I can back everything up to my Gmail account - and thus need not waste time or money acquiring either paper notebooks or flash drives - or searching for, or remembering to bring, or carrying - those items. I can also convert speech to text and text to speech.

In the words of Alan November, this phone is one magnificent "learning container." And it is my container. A container which supports my learning strengths and difficulties. A container that I can afford which serves me well.

Should I get to use it in my education?

Dean Saul Levmore of the University of Chicago Law School says no. He wants me to do things his way (though he may balk at buying me alternative devices). Apparently Dr. Nelson and Dr. Bernstein of Kingsborough Community College say no as well. Many, many faculty members at all levels of education join them. Just as an undergraduate prof of mine prohibited baseball caps in class. A number of us wore the caps to keep the classroom's flickering fluorescent lights out of our eyes, but this prof saw them first, as some kind of affront to dignity and polite society, and second, as "a way to cheat." "You will put your quiz answers on the brim of the hat," he told us. None of us had thought of that, but I suppose we could have done it, though I was left trying to figure out what kind of vision one might need to read notes stored that way.

I probably can not change their minds. As I have said here before, education is pretty much run by those who have succeeded in education the "traditional" way. They have neither the requisite empathy for real change which extends opportunity, nor the motivation. But perhaps I can work on those outside the system now, and perhaps I can make the voices of those demanding change a bit louder so that eventually they will be loud enough to truly be heard.

This matters because it is not simply a question of disability (see post below), or economic equity re: disability (the wealthier your family is the more likely you are to receive effective accommodations in K-12 American education, on US college admissions tests, and in college itself), or simply economic or social equity (rich white kids come with all sorts of built-in supports beginning with parents who read to them and ending with working far fewer hours while in higher education, thus needing to multitask less). This matters because allowing true media and tool choice in education is the first essential step toward bringing those traditionally left out of educational opportunity in. Students who learn to use the learning containers, the learning tools, the learning supports which are both reasonably available to them and which work best for them have a much better chance to break through all those other barriers - disability, difference, poverty, quality of primary and secondary education, level of parental education - and have a shot at succeeding.

Let me go back to Alan November, here discussing his own child: "[I]t is safe to say that Dan is not totally engaged at school. He is not self-directed or globally connected. For instance, he isn't allowed to download any of the amazing academic podcasts available to help him learn, from "Grammar Girl" to "Berkeley Physics." He is not connected via Skype to students in England when he is studying the American Revolution, for example,which might create an authentic debate that could be turned into a podcast for the world to hear."

"He cannot post the official notes that day so those who subscribe to his teacher's math blog via an RSS feed can read what's going on in his class. His assignments do not automatically turn into communities of discussion where students help each other at any time of the day. His school has successfully blocked the cool containers Dan uses at home from "contaminating" any rigorous academic content. It is an irony that in too many schools, educators label these effective learning tools as hindrances to teaching."

Now, the learning styles that Mr. November are describing are not necessarily for everyone, but denying students access to these tools is not just wrong educationally, it is discriminatory and elitist and ensures that education is nothing but a means of social reproduction. Those that have will continue to have. Those that don't, well, they'll be left behind.

After all, our society requires school for almost every path to even limited success. Just try and take the bar exam or the med boards or become a teacher without having attended a school. The old arguments about faculty being "king in their classroom," or, "if you don't like it, don't come to school," betray a willingness to keep educational success to the few, so that competition for the best jobs is as limited as possible. This doesn't mean that I advocate abandoning all rules and all forms of respect - instead it means that I believe that educational structures must change to adapt to new realities - realities of population change, of differing expectations, of differing modes of cognition - or education, which has traditionally not quite worked for three-quarters of the population as it is - will be even less effective.

Rod Bell, Adjunct Professor at College of DuPage, says on the Inside Higher Ed debate that IT (or ICT) is "disruptive," and he means this not necessarily in a bad way. Last year's CAL Conference (Computer Assisted Learning) in Dublin was entitled, "Development, Disruption, and Debate" for important reasons. Dr. Bell says, "[T]he question is not whether information technologies (IT) disrupt the lecture model—of course they do, especially if IT is a means of further extending education to the population. The question is whether professors and educational institutions can exploit IT to the general benefit of society."

I often think the question comes down to whether you think there is potential value in the disruption, or whether you think that the current systems - or the systems of the 1950s - work - or worked - so well that nothing need be changed. In my anecdotal experience the answer to that often (though hardly necessarily) comes from whether those old systems have made you a winner or a loser.

Most of the educational systems I have experienced have tried very hard to make me a loser. Where I have succeeded best are the places where the traditions were most disrupted. Neil Postman designed schools, colleges without grades, and universities willing to embrace alternatives to even the most required courses. Thus, I vote for finding out what disruption can do for us - for all of us.

- Ira Socol

Afternote - I'll present the alternate attitude, from one of my favorite professors, who just blogged on this question: "On a more personal note, I have loved that my students bring laptops to my classes. This despite the knowing that they are playing Scraboulous and/or checking email some of the time. But I can’t really complain about this since I doodled (and otherwise goofed-off) during class hours through my extended stint as a student (from middle school, that is about as far back as I can remember, to grad school). In fact I have gotten in trouble about my doodling even after becoming a professor.

"What I have found though is that having students with their laptops with wireless internet access, enriches my classes in ways I could not have imagined. More often than not, I find students conducting Google searches, tracking down articles, nailing down obscure facts, in ways that directly connect to what is being discussed in class. My students often share what they have found with me and the other class-participants.

"I see no reason to be threatened by this, in fact I believe that this enhances student engagement with the ideas, and that is always a good thing.

"The fact of the matter is that students can goof off even when there is no technology (as I did and continue to do so at meetings) when the topics being discussed appear irrelevant and/or boring. This just raises the bar for us as instructors, pushing us to try harder to make our classes interesting, challenging and engaging."

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

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17 April 2008

Humiliation and the Modern Professor

In my fourth try at collecting an undergraduate degree I finally found real help. Struggling once again I signed up to be part of a multi-university national study of ADHD American college students. One of the first things they did was to have a "beeper-person" follow me to classes for a week, recording whether I was paying attention or not in 20 second intervals.

This was quite an amazing thing to live through. In one class the guy sitting next to me whispered, "Hey, that chick over there is staring at you." I told him what she was doing. "Wait," he said, "I've got it. Grab your crotch every 20 seconds. See what kind of report that gets you."

The next week they talked to me, showed me all these graphs, talked about when I took medication, and then said, "You really ought to take notes in class. It might help you stay engaged." "Notes," I said, "sure, why not." I had, literally, never taken a classroom note in my life, or at least not any which contained words. I had great notebooks from art classes and architecture classes, but that's a little different.

Still, I had seen plenty of people taking notes. I could do that. I went to the bookstore and bought a notebook and a pen.

Another week goes by and they ask, "Did you take notes?" "I did," I told them. "What did you do with your notes?" they asked. "Do?" I said. "You said to take notes, so I took them." I passed the notebook over to the profs running this study. What they saw was what my writing looks like when I'm hurried, or stressed, or, ok, what it looks like anytime that I'm not copying text from something else. Letters randomly strewn on the page, often backwards or upside down, sometimes on top of one another, sometimes going left to right, and sometimes going right to left. "Can you read this?" they asked. "Hell no," I said.

There's a sequence that is developing here, and it is a side story but an important one. Most university support staff tell students with attention, reading, and writing issues that they'll, "Get them what they need." But most students with these issues have no idea of what they need. They either know nothing, or sometimes worse - they know only what secondary school specialists have told them, which, unfortunately, is often useless.

"Hold on," one of the profs said, and went out, coming back a few minutes later with another member of the Psychology department faculty. And now I met the woman I call "the best special education teacher I have ever had." And we spent much of the rest of the semester together. Later on she would say, "You know computers, and there are computer programs that read to blind people, I'll bet there's one that will read to you." Which led me to Arkenstone and WYNN and into a whole career. But first she said, "You work in Academic Computing, right?" I said that I did. I was a self-described "tech monkey" stringing network cable. "See if you can find an old laptop that you can use to take notes. Notes are useless unless you can read them."

Then she paused and said, "Find yourself a notetaking buddy in every class, and compare every week, because you have no idea of what notetaking means, do you?" I admitted that I didn't. It is not something often taught. One more way schools expect you to know something that they've never explained.

And thus I became the "first kid in the class" with a laptop computer. And this was a crazy thing. "Could you please sit in the back?" one professor asked, "I think that will distract the other students." Another was deeply bothered by the sound of my typing. Still another by the computer's fan. Others were threatened by the idea that I'd hand in written work via a floppy disk. This seemed to them to enable cheating. In every class I had to explain myself to the professor, to other students, to everyone. Two semesters into the experiment I stopped going to some of the classes because I hated the attitudes - not the best academic policy, but one does grow tired of walking around all day with a giant "DISABLED" sign stapled on. Still, I stuck it out. It took years but I got the damn degree.

When I went back to graduate school something wonderful had happened. I remember walking into my first class and realizing that everyone had a laptop. Every single student. Now, suddenly, I was just one member of the class. Yes, I was more likely to have ear buds close by, though I was surely not the only one. But if someone noticed that I had one bud in at various times (listening to text) I could now easily claim insolence ("I'm listening to iTunes") instead of disability - which is really a nice choice to have.

So, here's why I'm telling this story. There are lots of professors out there determined to go back to the old days. Lots of professors determined that those with disabilities or other differences will always be clearly labelled and separated. Oh, of course they will never say that. And they are really not evil people. I think that they are just clueless, and inflexible, and uninterested in the needs of diverse students. I think that they have other priorities more important to them than expanding opportunities. They will say otherwise, and they will usually "mean otherwise," though the impact does not change. They will say that they want to block out distractions. They will say students need better manners. They will say that "technology has no place" in their classrooms (defining "technology" as anything created since they were born). They will say, "You can do without this for this hour, it won't kill you."

I need not point out too many examples of this. You'll see these arguments every week on Inside Higher Ed and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and in newspapers and magazines, and on faculty blogs. This morning I read one more at Dr. Margaret Soltan's University Diaries, and I decided that I had to say something clear in reply.

Because, they will say, "You can do without this for this hour, it won't kill you." And I need to say, "Yes it will. It will kill me academically. Either it will humiliate me to the point where I will be less of a student, or it will humiliate me to a point where I will not bring my essential tools to class, or it will humiliate me enough that I will simply leave your school. And I am not alone. I am not alone at all."

The issue here is that laptops in the classroom represent the first real chance at Universal Design for Learning - the first real chance to allow every student to choose the media format most appropriate for their own needs - the first real chance for students who are different to be accommodated without labels, and I'll be damned if I'm willing to give that up for the vanity of a few faculty who cannot figure out how to teach with the greatest information and communication tool humans have ever developed.

There are too many in education who long for those "old days." And perhaps we should have a few universities just for them - they can cut their own quills, make their own ink and paper, set their own type by hand. I don't care. I'll let them chop their own firewood if it makes them feel a bit more like medieval scholars. But it is vital to remember that those "old days" sucked for most students. American schools - by their own measures - fail two thirds of their students (that is, those students fail to become "proficient" where that is expected). The college drop out rate is extraordinarily high among even those who try it. And even those who succeed usually report disinterest and disengagement.

In other words, the world these educators want to return to is a world that was really only good for them, and people just like them. And I'm sorry, that doesn't sound like a good thing to want to preserve.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book