27 June 2008

Click-Speak is Back!

A quick post to say that Click-Speak is back! It now works with Firefox 3.
Now you can upgrade.

Regular post below...

Future Near: Universal Speech Recognition

In a discussion on Enda Guinan's blog what began as a conversation regarding trying to explain to people what we [those of us in AT-related jobs] actually do when we go to work transferred over to a conversation involving speech recognition, which is one of the things which provides the wow factor when we demonstrate. From there, we got into the question of universal speech recognition, as in the question we are always asked, "is there a way that I can listen to the professor and have that converted into text." The answer is, "no, not really." But there is another answer, "the future is almost here." Very soon now we might be able to start saying yes.

Actually, we have been able to convert what the prof, or lecturer, or teacher is saying into text. It has just been difficult. The Liberated Learning Consortium has been doing this for a decade, and five years ago at an American Community College I outfitted a few deaf students with laptops equipped with ViaVoice speech recognition software, and their instructors with wireless microphones linked to receivers on those laptops. We got the instructors to train their voices on ViaVoice, and then, whatever they said in class arrived in a Word doc on the students' laptops. The accuracy was great, but the words came unpunctuated, which drove half of the students crazy (this is part of what the complex Liberated Learning system has tried to solve). And anything any other student said was, of course, lost. And... yes, getting the faculty to participate was not easy.

The world, however, is changing. The first paragraph of this post was dictated through jott.com. I have "fixed" it, but I have shown you where I fixed it. Green means that jott added a (?) and got the word wrong. Purple means that jott added a (?) and got the word right. Red is punctuation which I had to add. It isn't perfect - it never will be. Enda's name came out "___ duh _______" which is not correct. And yet, it is mostly correct, and the punctuation is there.

So now you can see speech recognition accuracy without voice training. Now you know where we will be very soon.

This is important. It means that we are perhaps only a year or two away from truly being able to have almost everything said in a classroom transcribed and available to those with hearing, attention, and learning issues and differences. That will make everything different for a whole range of kids - but let me focus on how this will change education for everyone.

When I have taught online courses two differences appear. First, online teaching is really hard - you can never "wing it" - everything has to be prepared and it is much more work to monitor online discussions than real-life ones. But second, you have this extraordinary record of what was said and who said it, what was discussed, what was asked, what was misunderstood, what was very difficult. It is all there, and not just fragmented in memory. You can go back and say, "wow! that didn't work," or you can say, "look at this, I really need to mediate this better." Perhaps more importantly, students can go back and say, "did I hear that right?" "did she say what I thought she said?" "could I have said that better?"

One promise of universal speech recognition is that ability to bring one of the best features of online learning into face-to-face learning. And bringing that in will enable a teaching and studying revolution.

It is close. Very close. Try jott.com today. Get a bunch of your friends to try it. And then start imagining what you could do with this kind of power in your classroom.

* jott.com is North America only for the moment. SpinVox is available in the UK and Ireland, but it is not inexpensive.

- Ira Socol

Worth reading: Liz Kolb on the Mobile Web. Paul Hamilton on Awesome Highlighter and Firefox.

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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

24 June 2008

Coercive Technology

(long and only marginally coherent yet again - don't worry, the next post is better)
the original clicker post, linked badly in the IHE comments, is at "instant anachronism"

Towards the end of the most recent Inside Higher Ed battle over clickers in the classroom a fascinating battle broke out among Southern California academics.

Dr. Frederica Shockley, Professor of Economics at Chico State University, jumped to my baited comment regarding the idea that if clickers increased attendance (through mandatory use), electronic monitoring ankle bracelets might do the same. "I ask multiple-choice questions, but I also ask a lot of numeric questions," she wrote. "If 25% or more do not answer correctly, I go over the material again. I don’t go over as many chapters, but my students seldom ask me to slow down, and students are making more A’s and B’s. The questions and the students’ responses often become the catalyst for interesting class discussions. Clickers are an additional expense for students, but apparently many of my students think that the benefits outweigh the cost. In an end of the semester survey 70% said that they would prefer taking a class using clickers than a class not using clickers. About 30% of my students prefer a class without clickers because they have to attend class in order to get a good grade on their clicker responses. I do believe that California taxpayers who subsidize my students prefer that they attend class, and clickers are far cheaper than ankle bracelets."

Which brought out "LogicGuru" - who seems to be Dr. H.E. Baber of the Department of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

Dr. Baber acknowledges teaching at "a private college" (though that hardly suggests that it is unsubsidized by the government - private colleges in the US benefit from, among other things, not paying taxes, having their tuition paid through subsidized federal loans, and copious research grants), and then goes on to say, "If they want to come to class and participate to get their money’s worth that’s their business. If they want to waste their money and get lousy grades, that’s their decision. I don’t take the roll, I don’t use clickers and I have no interest in locking on ankle bracelets: I’m a professor not a cop.

"We provide a resource—classroom teaching, individual help, advising, a good academic library, technology and all the facilities they need to learn and do well. If students are motivated, I’ll give them everything they want—I’ll talk to them, work with them as long as they want, see them on weekends, correspond with them by email, and do everything I can do to help them achieve their goals. If they’re not motivated, I will not bully them, impose attendance requirements on them, or make any attempt to motivate them. They’re adults and it’s their decision."

Dr. Shockley fires back: "I agree with Professor LogicGuru at Private College when he or she says that he or she is not obligated to taxpayers. However, I am in a different situation, and I believe my expectation that students attend class is entirely reasonable. If you think requiring clickers is equivalent to “browbeating” my students, how do you explain the fact that 70% of them would prefer to take another class with clickers than without? Are 70% of my students masochistic?"

And Dr. Baber answers: "Masochism isn’t the issue, Shockley. At least 70% of my students would prefer not to got to college at all if they could get well-paying middle class jobs without it. That’s not my business. I don’t care what my student’s want or what makes them feel good. They have a requirement to meet which, I believe, is legitimate. If they want their working papers they’ve got to satisfy that requirement. I’ll do everything I can to help them but I will not do anything to motivate them. I do my job and they do theirs. They’re grown-ups and make choices."

Then, Dr. Ellis Godard, a Sociology Professor at CSUN (California State University – Northridge) jumps in: "I pity the students of LogicGuru, who doesn’t care what they want and “will not do anything to motivate them". Like it or not, teaching is a performance; if you weed out all that’s entertaining and motivating, you might be left with some incredibly dry (dare I say, boring) presentations. You can discount their reactions as not your business — but if your business is teaching, you might consider whether they’d learn more, more readily, and more permanently if they were motivated. And if you think all of the motivation is to come from the material itself, regardless of performance elements, that alone may explain why 70% of your students don’t want to come. I probably wouldn’t either."

I was entertained by this explosion among academics willing to identify themselves (rare in this setting), but I thought it was also remarkably revealing. And when I read back through the debate, the revelations came in bunches.

Obviously, Dr. Shockley sees herself as an arm of the state. It is her job to build a compliant workforce. That is why the state pays her. That is her job. Thus, when she uses technology she will do so to reinforce the values the state determines are important - attendance, punctuality, responding when asked to respond.

Dr. Baber sees his job differently because he sees a different master. He is there to offer a service to the students. It is a simple service - sort of a fraternity initiation. Do what I ask and you get the credential you need. He suggests, I think accurately, that there is little connection between this initiation process and the jobs his students seek. And thus he makes the decision that he will help if he can, but he will not coerce. When he uses technology it will be as one more way for students to access the things they will choose to access.

Dr. Godard has yet another vision of the faculty's function in the world. He is there to persuade, to convince, to evangelize. His purpose is more deeply 'religious,' he is paid to convert. When he uses technology he will do it to inspire, to entertain, to seize attention - in exactly the same way that medieval Catholics used the technology of the great cathedrals.

So, in the clicker controversy, two of these professors are on one side but for differing reasons. One is on the other. And while, if I peruse the three professors websites, I will likely find that I am more likely to politically agree with Dr. Godard and even Dr. Shockley before I'd fall in line with Dr. Baber, in the end I have to agree with Dr. Baber's thoughts here. Not because I like his attitude toward his job, but because he is the only one not being actively coercive.

There are lots of ways to use contemporary technologies. We can inform, communicate, engage, break though barriers - and we can also do other things. I watched a BBC News story this week which documented how local councils in the United Kingdom seem to be watching almost every bit of human behavior with their CCTV cameras. George W. Bush feels perfectly within his rights to open your mail without a search warrant. Employers spy on employees. Parents spy on kids. Spouses spy on spouses. Companies tempt you to do stupid things with flashing links on their websites. As Michael Bugeja tries to say - every technology has its purposes, good and bad.

So let me throw out two anecdotes:

(1) If you're a long time reader you know I spent a chunk of my life in police work. After I quit and ended up in small Midwestern American town, I noticed something. Each morning I'd drive past the town's school. And at least three mornings a week a cop would be hidden somewhere along this stretch of road - the only route out of the town. He'd be in a driveway behind large shrubs. He'd be in an abandoned gas station hidden by the old pumps. He'd be on the grass of a park between two large trees. In each case his radar would be on.

Eventually I asked the town's police chief (he and I coached sports on adjoining fields), "Wouldn't it be a better school zone speed control if the guy was just parked in front of the school as obviously as possible?" "Well, probably," he admitted, "but I guess he'd rather catch people." I laughed. I think I said something about how most police agencies embraced a slogan something like "to serve and protect," and very few painted "to enforce and imprison" on the sides of their vehicles - though the reality often seemed different.

So there is guidance: "I'm sitting here in my police car to remind you that there are children crossing the street and you should drive slowly and carefully." And there is coercion: "I am going to force you comply be threatening you with randomly applied harm."

We could make classes more engaging and involving. We could make the education either more apparently relevant or more valuable in its own right. Or we can force you into compliance with digital monitoring.

(2) I sat near the departure gate in O'Hare's International Terminal waiting for the 7:00 pm overnight to Dublin and laughing with a friend about security screening. We'd just watched the intense examination of the shoes of a six-month-old child. A TSA worker sat nearby. "You wouldn't believe," she interrupted us to say, "what people hide in their babies' stuff." "Bombs?" I asked. "Weapons?" "No," she said, "but all kinds of things, like bigger bottles of shampoo or sunscreen."

Yes, that is why the US government spends billions on airport security. That is why travellers are routinely inconvenienced and harassed. We must prevent excessive amounts of sunscreen from being carried onto our planes. I could have told the TSA worker that I bet that if we took a vote in this terminal right now, 95% would rather save the airport fees which pay for security, and would rather get through security faster and with less hassle, even if that meant contraband sunscreen on board. Honestly, 95% would probably feel the same way even it that meant contraband cocaine on board. Because the only reason we put up with this nonsense is that we do not want to get killed.

All the rest is "mission creep." We're protecting you, and while we're protecting you we will also pursue a vast assortment of our own agendas. This is the idea that simply because we can do something, we should. We can watch for neighborhood crime, but we'll also check out who might be sunbathing topless. We can look for terrorist chatter, but we'll also see who might be buying things and avoiding sales tax or VAT. We can protect our children on their way to school, but we'll also notice who is bringing their child across school district or LEA boundaries.

We can filter the internet, so we should. We can monitor or teenager's whereabouts, so we should. We can drive attendance with clickers, so we should. We can compel some kind of cursory night-before-class reading with clicker quizzes, so we should.

I think coercive technology design is a problem in a number of ways.
  • When we filter the internet we stop teaching responsibility, respect, discretion, and appropriate use.
  • When we force students to attend anonymous lectures through clicker-use grading, we eliminate any incentive for the instructor to actually make the course worth attending, and any incentive for the student to do any more than show up.
  • When we monitor our adolescents continually we actually prevent their ability to develop judgment.
  • When we overstep our security mandates we drive activity deeply underground and push those activities further from social controls (this is true when we stop teens from drinking on a street corner - wouldn't we rather have them there then driving out into the woods where no one can see? and it is true of internet limitations in libraries - in the town I now live dozens of teens are on-line in any coffee shop but almost none in the public library: the library filters access to many innocuous sites and will not let anyone under 18 use the wireless system)
  • When we use our technology principally as an entertainment system (even a really bad entertainment system like PowerPoint), we contribute to the notion of learning as a passive activity.
  • When we insist on a single technological solution independent of student need and comfort, we are simply substituting one form of tyranny for another. If the printed book caused problems for a 1/3 of the population, requiring that everything always be in digital form will also likely cause problems for 1/3 of the population (a different third, of course).
Technology can help transform education. I absolutely believe that. But in order to transform education technology must be democratically employed. It must open access, add choices, increase opportunities, improve flexibility. If it does not do that, if it is employed in pursuit of 'efficiency' and coercion, it will instead lock all of our current failures in place.

The comments on the Inside Higher Ed article demonstrate this pattern. One side doubts the value of the lecture course as a pedagogical system, and the other side insists that the clicker makes the lecture course just-enough-better to justify its continued existence. The clicker enforces (a) attendance, (b) reading, (c) response. It makes lectures "measurably" more palatable. Reading these you'd have to wonder exactly how terrible these courses were before being "improved" by the clicker. No, you won't, we've all sat through them. We know.

Back when I first took on this clicker issue, I quoted a friend, "We had a demo of our clicker system at the [institution where he works], and it was magical how people felt empowered by having any input in a classroom at all. It was demoed with a class full of teachers, and they were so energized it was sad to see, because it shows how used they are to being passive vessels in learning. It is clearly a transitional technology, and a more politic guy would have found a way to say that, rather than jumping in their face. But that's why America needs you."

I'm not sure that America needs me, but I do think that America does need to think about how technology can change education, and not how technology can prevent education from changing.

- Ira Socol

Worth reading: Education in Finland (relating to the link above on internet filtering). Goldfish on Privilege - One and Two. Patricia Donaghy on PDF Xchange.

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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

20 June 2008

In Praise of Distraction

(Warning... long bit of thinking 'out loud'...)

Long ago I sat in an undergraduate lecture hall. The course was architectural engineering - steel structures. I sat there reading the New York Daily News. The comics pages or the sports boxes. Usually I held the newspaper up, blocking my view of the professor and his view of me.

"You drive him crazy," a friend told me. "Every day he calls on you and asks you some absurd question to see if he can catch you, and every time you give him the right answer, and you don't even really look at him. He just can't handle it."

Today I sit in a room with multiple computers, one with multiple screens, and 16 tabs open in Firefox (still Firefox 2, see below). Two are email links. No, three. The television is on. The window is open. Twhirl is feeding Twitter updates to me.

I have five things I am writing. All are open in Word or in Google Docs. I've conversed with a student. Had long email conversations with three different people at my university, written about 6,000 words today. Set up a computer. Learned about the Little Ice Age on The History Channel. I've discussed architecture with Rufus and assessment with Dance. Argued the Irish EU vote with friends - no, I guess it was more of an attempted explanation. Watched Germany beat Portugal.

Am I the poster child for multi-tasking or the poster child for tech-enhanced ADHD?

And therein lies the question.

A collection of things came together for me in the past week or so, about attention, about distraction, about the web generation.

One of my favorite profs gave me a great article by Dr. Noah Sobe on "The Subject of Attention.""It is important to note that Montessori understood the child’s "intense attention" as purposeful and not as an expression of involuntary, distracted perception. Her realization that "fixedness" was possible did not, for Montessori, disprove the notion that the child’s attention might also shift rapidly and distractedly. Instead, this stable attention, when placed alongside an observed instability of attention, suggested both a surface and techniques for shaping the individual."

Sobe looks at what he calls
the "pedagogy of attention." And he looks at the markers we usually use for determining a student's attentiveness, and wonders about that.

Coffee-on-the-Keyboard (who is my kid) put up a great post on resource discovery. And discussed the way information comes to him and the way he seeks information. One of the things I paid attention to today was his follow-up on Twitter.

And I've been relistening to Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and heard a part where he describes what might be the beginning of the phenomenon of "tech distraction" in 1949 or 1950. Dean Moriarty tracking three baseball games at once, one on television, two on the radio.

Grad Student Madness brought me to an Atlantic article wondering if Google was destroying our brains. "I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

The New York Times (relentlessly anti-technology as they are) published a piece on Silicon Valley companies struggling with the distraction of email. Yes, that was classic weak journalism. Of course. It pretends that no worker without a computer was ever distracted, and it accepts statements without links to, or quotes from, any relevant data. Still, it is in the Times, so people will believe it, and quote it. "The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work."

All right. Listen, put me in a quiet room to study or take a test and the most likely product of that will be nothing. Zero. Nil. Nada. Let me loose among my distractions and I can be the most productive guy in town.

It is not that I work despite the distractions. It is not that at all. It is that the distractions contribute to my ability to pay attention, to function, to get things done. These inputs collide and contribute to a whole. Perhaps they also allow micro attentional shifts which give my brain breathing space it does not get when, say, a teacher tries to pour a continuous stream of information into me.

In this I think of the metaphor of moving through a very dark night. You can not really see anything in the zone you are staring straight at. All that is visible there is dark. And if you turn on your flashlight you will see only exactly what it is shining on - and you will have no chance to see anything outside that beam of light. But if you relax and stop staring you steadily become aware of all the things going on around you.

Does all this make me strange? Does it make me normal? Does it require me to avail myself of special educational needs services?

I will say this. I sure know that not everyone works best this way. I have a sister whose highest comfort comes from an isolated spot with a book. I doubt she was ever truly happier or ever truly more attentive than the years she spent at university curled up in a corner of the library at Edinburgh reading 17th Century novels and early church history with the dark Scottish day outside. I have friends who range all over the scale between my sister and I.

What I know from this is that "the classroom," as we know it, can not work. The perfect environment for study and productivity for one group of students will be poisonous to others.

For the past 150-200 years or so we have, as a society, come to believe in a certain paradigm of attention and productivity. Attention means focusing on a single task at a time. Productivity means doing one thing at a time. This made perfect sense in the mills of Dickensian Britain or the factories of Horatio Alger's America. And it made perfect sense when the function of schools was to train pupils, through repetition, to work in those mills and factories.

Before the rise of Protestantism was joined to nascent Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, these concepts did not exist, because the world did not need people who would repeat the same exact task all day long (long boat oarsmen being the exception). In those first half million years of human history multi-tasking was a given, as was divided attention. You needed to be both hunt and avoid predators. In order to hunt successfully you needed to pay attention to hundreds of things. Any subsistence farmer does the same. As does anyone building their own house. As does anyone sailing a ship, tending a flock of sheep, raising a family, cooking a meal, serving as a soldier.

In all of these learning/working environments "attention" was what your typical educator or pundit today calls "distraction." It was (and is) far closer to the idea of having 20 windows open across multiple monitors than it is to any activity in the typical classroom. What is the wind doing? What does the sky look like? Does Thor look like he's getting tired? What's moving behind that tree line? What animal left these tracks? I wonder if the dream I had last night means anything? Does this look like our last hunt/sail/mission?

We'd now call this "multi-tasking," pretending it is both new and difficult. I'd call it "human-tasking." It is one of the definitions of human operation. Sharks have one thing on their minds. Ants go about their business pretty single-mindedly. Humans take in the world, and assemble what they know through the most complex set of observations. And those observations are additive. If I watch how the students around me in the classroom behave it can actually help me understand everything from history to philosophy to economics. If I watch the rain begin to fall out of the clouds it may help me understand both science and poetry. If I overhear teachers talking I might be better prepared to understand Gramscian definitions of power.

Not every person does this the same way. Not every person handles the same quantities of information. There have always been the people who succeeded both ways. Sea captains who needed to handle a million bits of data constantly, bakers who operated with fewer inputs. Those who learned something the first time they saw it at age five and those who, despite the hundred times you've showed them, still can't quite record a television show for later viewing.

The classroom, the very structure of school, collides with these facts about human beings. By insisting that students - more-or-less - learn the same things at the same time in the same way, we limit learning in dramatic ways, removing context, removing thinking time, removing space for individual processing, and the option of a differing learning order.

This is why technology is so essential in the classroom. (see, you knew that if you stuck around I'd get somewhere) Not because technology is the only way to offer a varied learning environment, but because it is the only way we can do this without tearing down every school building and abandoning our idea of the school day.

Technology - computers, mobiles, etc. in all their configurations, linked to the internet - can allow each learner to adapt the school environment to their own needs. Those like my sister can roam the stacks of old libraries and find that book to concentrate on. Those like me can let the world flood in.

Resistance to technology is often (see any tech column on Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education) based in the belief in "gaze." The idea that if a student is not staring at a teacher, they are not learning. That's a powerful belief, but it now seems a historical blip in the history of the human species. 200 years, maybe 400 if you really want to stretch it, out of all the time since we climbed out of those African trees.

But technology is actually the humane way. The human way. It lets humans get back to their natural ways of learning.

At an end-of-the-semester party, a fellow student who'd sat next to me through seminar after seminar said, "He's amazing, I've never seen anyone work harder in a class. Everything he hears he looks up, then he looks up what that suggests. Then he answers email. Then he emails the class about what he found. Then he looks at a newspaper site. Then he looks something else up." I said, "Wow, you noticed." She said, "It was amazing to watch."

See. Neither of us was looking at the teacher. Both of us were learning.

- 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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

17 June 2008

Firefox 3: Not Yet

Just an alert. Firefox 3, the widely anticipated new version of the world's most accessible browser, will not work with the key components which make Firefox accessible. Notably Click-Speak and Accessibar will vanish if Firefox 3 is installed.

Here's hoping we get updates soon for these critical software packages. Until then, there's nothing wrong with Firefox 2. Stick with it.

- 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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

15 June 2008

Fixing Access at the Front Door

The post below is just an angry rant unless I follow it up this way...

How do you make your office, whatever your office is, accessible from the start? That is, how do you offer real access from the moment people walk in your door?

This will mostly be about access to information and communication - which is where my knowledge base is greatest, but...

Obviously physical accessibility is essential, and sensory accessibility is essential. Your car park needs to be properly designed so that spaces for those with mobility issues are located logically near the ramps which get those visitors into your building. The ramps must be in place, and the ramps must be better than any "legal minimum" if it is at all possible - especially if this ramp might sometimes have ice or snow on it. The ramps must have ridged markings at the curb (kerb) points for the canes or guide dogs of those with visual limitations. Signs must be clearly visible, indicating the way in. The doors must be electric, or at least very easy to open and constantly monitored for those who might need assistance (buy yourself a $50/£25/€30 USB camera linked to your receptionist's computer if need be).

And please, make sure the reception desk contains at least one significant area set at wheelchair height. At a university where I previously worked/attended, the disability services office featured a uniformly high reception desk which made it impossible to converse with anyone in a wheelchair. Like the experience I described in my last post, that said everything.

But all right... on to the discussion of ensuring information and communication access...

Let's start here: Picture Menus and Braille Menus. Is your office/reception area less accessible than the McDonald's down the road? Why would that be? Have picture menus and braille menus available, and by menus I mean directories, lists of names (faces on the picture menu) and common issues (say, a symbol representing homework in a school office). Back when I lived in New York my favourite Chinatown restaurant was a tiny noodle shop on Mott Street named "Gim Beck." Gim Beck had no English-speaking staff at all. I can neither speak nor read Chinese. But ordering was never a problem. The menu had pictures surrounded by words in both Chinese and English. We communicated largely by pointing. And service was as good as the food. That's a lesson I've never forgotten - the power of non-alphabetic and non-verbal language to allow communication across all sorts of barriers.

Next... Make sure you have a publicized (on your web site) and posted (in the office) mobile phone number that people who are deaf, or people with verbal communication issues, can text-message. This can often be the most effective way to communicate. You could spend $1700/£875 /€1110 on a UbiDuo set up, but a simple mobile phone will accomplish the same thing and allow people who need this system to phone you from anywhere. The text-message has levelled the communications field for not just the deaf, but for those with dysgraphia, and, via tools like Jott.com and SpinVox, for those with limited dexterity. It is an essential communication technology in your office.

Now you need a publicly accessible computer. Yes, you need this. It need not be a great, hot-shot, brand-new machine, but you need to have one. Preferably a Windows PC (if you want to save money). You could either have a desktop on an adjustable height table or you could simply have a used laptop which can be moved to where the user needs it. But it needs to be equipped with (a) headphones, and (b) a mouse or trackball other than a touchpad if it is a laptop. It must also be set up with access software, starting with a desktop shortcut that allows the user to alter the Windows Accessibility Settings (you can set this so that altered settings expire in a certain amount of time or upon user log-out).

Why do you need this computer? You need it because every document you have in your office right now is in accessible form if you allow it to be manipulated. It has been years since I've seen any print item which did not originate as some form of digital text. And if it is digital text, users can make it any size they want, they can make it any font they want, they can make it any colour they want. They can use WordTalk to have it read to them (or the speech function in Adobe Acrobat Reader, or NaturalReader, or - if you want to maintain control over the document - Microsoft Reader). They can even convert it to Braille if you want to go that far. We need to stop blocking access which already exists. When we print something out we immediately limit the number of people who can read it, and we waste paper. Print forms and information as needed, and otherwise keep them in accessible digital form.

In addition, the user can fill out forms (in Word or in PDF) even if they struggle with handwriting. And if you have installed Click-N-Type this can be done even by a user who might really struggle with typing. Filling out forms is where this whole "issue" began. Not only do digital forms make life easier for many users, they sure make life easier for the staff which would otherwise struggle with handwritten words.

So, for the cost of a computer you might have been ready to trade-in or throw out, a headset (steal one on your next airline flight if money is that big an issue), and a collection of free, downloadable software, you have opened access dramatically. Of course you will have to develop folders on this computer filled with your documents, but that's not really difficult, is it?

What's next? If there is essential information on your website, make sure that computer is not just on-line, but is equipped with Firefox, with Click-Speak, with gTranslate. (Your website should also, at a minimum, direct people to free, on-line text-to-speech software (such as SpokenText), though it really should be speech enabled. If you don't want to spend money on that link a blog off your homepage and put everything essential into blog posts which are speech-enabled through Odiogo (this site uses this system).

This is all so basic, because your business, institution, organization can not really be, in any true way, accessible, or in any way compliant with laws regarding access, if people can not get in the front door, and can not interact with necessary "entry" information.

- 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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

13 June 2008

Blocking Access from the Top

When you want to understand an educational institution's attitude toward people with disabilities, it is often helpful to start at the top. When you look at the top you can discover the priorities and attitudes which flow throughout the institutional structure.

This isn't to suggest that there may not be great people who are really trying beneath a disinterested or openly hostile point of executive power, nor to suggest that there may not be disinterested people or active resisters beneath a committed and active center of executive power. Those situations surely exist. But the attitudes at the top will usually be a significant way of measuring the potential for progress.

So I learned something important this week when I walked into the suite of Presidential Offices at my university. I was there for "another issue" but the attitudes toward disability immediately became the dominant thing.

"I would like to find out," I asked, "how I could meet with someone from the President's office, regarding 'x' because I have tried what seems like every other route through the university bureaucracy."

"We have a form you can fill out," the receptionist responded, "and someone will review it and get back with you." She reached into her desk and pulled out a clipboard with a paper form on it.

"Is that form available on-line, or in some accessible form?" I asked. "I have trouble writing."

"access to information and communication is a civil right for people with disabilities"

The receptionist could have responded in a number of ways:

She could have said, "I'm sorry, we do not have that yet, but I'll be happy to fill out the form for you."

Or she could have said, "I'm sorry, we do not have that yet, but I'll be happy to help you fill out the form if you would like."

Or she could have said, "May I get your information and have someone get back to you?"

The apology would have been nice. The suggestion that a flaw in the system might be corrected in the future would have been even nicer. But the essential thing which might have been offered, which should have been offered, was a way around the problem.

But what the receptionist said was this: "The president's schedule is prepared weeks in advance, it wouldn't make any sense to have it online."

A non-answer combined with a refusal to help or even concede that this was anything more than "my problem."

"according to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), "there is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services" (Waddell, pars. 3-5)."

I took the form, scribbled my information as best as I could while muttering about "Section 504" and "federal law." I could tell the receptionist was annoyed. I typed her name onto the memo function on my mobile before leaving the office. I like to remember who I've been talking to.

Small thing? Yes.

Deeply revealing? Of course.

If we notice that the university president's office does not even have the legal and social skills training to deal with a very simple expression of disability concerns it becomes clear why the university's library is inaccessible and why accessibility software is not on university computers and why university faculty has no idea what makes a PDF accessible and why the office for disability services is widely reviled by the students who use it. It even explains why not even the educational program aimed at preparing teachers to work with students with special educational struggles to 'get it.'

I left the office and considered opening up my laptop in the corridor, connecting to the nearest Wi-Fi router, and filing an OCR complaint right from the President's IP address. But I decided to wait. The university president has a PhD in education after all, perhaps, if her staff forwards my concerns, she can learn from this "teachable moment."

And what did I learn? Now I understand much more clearly the lack of concern, the lack of urgency, throughout the university regarding either complying with the law or simply "doing the right thing." When leadership doesn't care, it is difficult to expect those below to be much better.

- 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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

09 June 2008

When to "give up"

I get asked this question a lot. Most recently by commenter Vera on my post about Peter Høeg’s book Borderliners. "...at what point (what age and what reading level) do you think a teacher should give up trying to teach a struggling student to break the alphabetic code and instead have the student rely on technology to read to them for the rest of their lives?"

Let me make it a metaphor. "At what point should a teacher give up on trying to teach a struggling student to walk everywhere and instead have that student rely on technology to move them for the rest of their lives?"

I do this switch not to mock anyone, or to sound derisive, but to point out that we often forget that alphabetic decoding is one skill for the purpose of getting recorded information into our heads. It is a convenient, effective skill that is very helpful to most people, but it is just one skill in a whole "toolbelt" of skills we need, and depending on the person it will be used more or less or not at all.

Just as walking is one way for a human to move from place to place. There are lots of ways, and there are lots technologies that can (a) replace walking (cars, elevators, wheelchairs, bicycles, trains, buses, airplanes), (b) enhance walking (canes, walkers, skateboards, skates), or (c) combine with walking (escalators, moving sidewalks - even ramps and stairways). And if we are good "teachers" we help our students to pick the most effective way to move based on lots of criteria, beginning with the students' individual needs and capabilities.

For accessing information, "literacy" includes decoding voices as well as alphabetic texts, comprehending images, understanding films and television, making sense of graphs and charts and music. It involves the comprehension of lots of sensory inputs - aided and unaided by technology, delivered in person or delivered by technology (and books, print, the alphabet are all technologies).

So we teach what is appropriate and what is helpful. For your typical two-year-old we don't waste energy on alphabetics but they still take in a great deal of information - via sound and sight and touch and taste and smell, and they learn what a McDonald's sign looks like and what "home" looks like and what books sound like and what an electrical outlet looks like and maybe even about dangerous smells. But we don't say, "you can't eat and you can't be safe until you know how to read."

Just as, if we have a child who is learning to walk or who is having a problem with walking we don't leave them in the middle of a room. Sure, we keep helping them work on walking, we might even bring in technology such as an infant walker, but we also provide alternatives that make it possible for them to get from here to there. We don't leave them in the field - Christina style - and hope that they can drag themselves around.

So, there is no timeline. as long as we think a person can possibly learn to walk we keep the efforts up, we keep going with physical therapy. But we also get them a wheelchair or a walker if that's what they need. And even if they can walk, but, let's say it is hard for them to walk five miles to school, we drive them or provide a bus. We do that even if they live a half mile from school and the walk might be difficult. And we do that even if the walk wouldn't always be difficult - if it would be fine if it was a nice day and they had little to carry but today it is - raining, snowing, freezing, way too hot, or they have to lug in their science project.

With reading, we need to realize that we cannot lose by embracing technology. Text-to-Speech, especially the best Text-to-Speech systems which highlight the word being read (be they paid like WYNN, Read-and-Write, or Kurzweil 3000 or free like WordTalk or Microsoft Reader), can only improve sight-word recognition while demonstrating the value of reading. Text-to-Speech cannot hurt but it can help, and it can surely provide access - and providing access - proving that there is something in those books that the student will want or need - might be the only way to provide students with an incentive to keep trying to decode. After all, if you had no interest in moving from the couch, you wouldn't learn to walk either.

At some point, of course, you let your student judge his or her own progress. Reading via technology is slower - in most cases - than reading via ink-on-paper. It is typically more cumbersome as well. But if the student is not gaining on the decoding in a way which promises its utility, it is OK for them to stop, to use that time differently. To get better at using the technology which is useful, and to get better at making technology choices.

Want another metaphor? My father always told the story of how he went into the Army needing glasses. But after just a year of commanding a tank - and doing all that artillery spotting (essentially doing eye exercises all day) - he didn't need glasses at all. If the child in front of you needed glasses, but might benefit from eye exercises, you'd provide the technology (those eyeglasses) and you'd encourage the exercises. You probably wouldn't take the glasses away from her because she wasn't doing well enough with her exercises. And if, after, two or three years of doing the exercises there was no functional difference in her vision, you'd accept the fact that technology was the primary solution.

Because I've dealt with adult learners a great deal in my work, I meet hundreds of people who have worked on decoding for decades, with no appreciable result. Sometimes, whole years of their education have been devoted to doing nothing but working on decoding. And while they've been doing that they've never learned one thing that was in all those precious books, and they've never learned the information acquisition skills they need to survive. Do you doubt that? Go down to any employment centre in the US or UK, and you will find the place filled with these victims of an education system which refuses to "give up."

The solution, the way decisions are best made, lies in empowering teachers and students to make choices. Any systemic or institutional decision made for "all kids" or "most kids" or based on quantitative research will - guaranteed - be the wrong decision. Any decision based in "miracle narratives" ("I was blind but after taking these vitamins I can see!") will be at least as bad. We are not discussing "the average child" or "the average dyslexic" (neither of which exists), nor are we going to base policy on the exceptional case.

Instead, we will "solve this" by making individual decisions with individual students. We will help students get to the reading technologies they need, and we will stop forcing formulas on humans.

Because some school administrators can run marathons, and others need to drive to the shop six blocks from home, and a few might need some technological help to get from the kitchen to the bedroom. And the students in their schools? They are every bit as diverse in their needs.

- Ira Socol

Blog Round Up - Ewan McIntosh on Unleashing the Tribe. Unlocking the Classroom on Deficit Theory. Lon Thornburg on "the one." Prone to Laughter on student failure.

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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

02 June 2008

Additive Access

In 1959 the Prince Edward County Schools in the American state of Virginia shut down for five years rather than comply with federal desegregation orders. And all across the United States high schools and universities have chosen to meet the federal Title IX requirements that athletic opportunities be the same for males and females by cutting the number of sports for males, or limiting the rosters of male teams.

This is how much some educational administrators hate the idea of truly serving a diverse student body. They will destroy the opportunities for all kinds of kids to prevent the success of those they do not want to succeed.

I thought of this last week when a Community College professor wrote to me about video captioning.

She said that her school was telling faculty to take uncaptioned videos off of their websites and to stop using uncaptioned videos in classes.

Now, I'm all for captioning. I truly am. But I know something about this Community College. I know that they have no accessible materials program at all. I know that they do not have accessible computer labs. I know that their faculty has never been trained in the creation of accessible class materials. And I know that 90% of their library (at least) is inaccessible content.

But damn if they're not gonna draw the line at showing an uncaptioned video.

This kind of move is nothing but an attempt to destroy the political credibility of the disability rights movement. If "they" can convince "the majority" that embracing rights for those called "disabled" injures most students in some way, they think can convince that majority to reject the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504, and similar rules in the European Union. It is the same cynical hate-filled attitude which builds male anger against women by wiping out boys' athletic opportunities. The same cynical hate-filled attitude which told frightened white parents that it was better to not have public schools at all than to have to share those public schools with black children.

You never create access for a deprived group by denying access to anyone. By definition, that does not create "access" at all. The New York City Subway System does not shut down stations while awaiting the installation of elevators. We don't close our libraries until we are sure that every book is digitized. We don't stop everyone from crossing the street at the corner of Main and First until speaking walk signs for the blind are installed. And University of Michigan leaders did not shut their football stadium until they solved their wheelchair access issues.

We don't do those stupid things because that is not how access and opportunity is widened. Instead, the New York City Subways has an access plan which describes how elevators will be installed - over a specific period of time - in all 400+ stations. And likewise libraries that give a damn have scanning programs in place, and/or have joined cooperative efforts with libraries for the blind and organizations such as Gutenberg.org and Bookshare which build their accessible collections steadily. And communities that consider the range of citizen needs never rebuild an intersection without making street crossing safe and accessible for everyone. And even the University of Michigan finally yields to the force of law and agrees to build access into their obscenely expensive stadium remodel.

And we thus do not deprive students of the value of videos in the classroom or online because they are not captioned. That is equally stupid. Because, hmmm, I want to ask this Community College's administrators, is every class in every classroom captioned? Is there a sign language interpretor in every class and every classroom? If a video cannot be shown without captioning, then no professor can speak without an interpretor.

So, if someone says something this dumb to you, you need to immediately ask to see your institution's Accessible Materials Action Plan. You need to know how quickly the institution is captioning videos, for example, and how you - as an instructor - get a video moved up the priority list. You need to know what software is available so you - or one of your students - can caption the video and where the workstation is where this can be done. You need to know how you or your student will be paid for this job. And then you can ask how soon all library books will be digitized and accessible, and who on campus is ensuring that every PDF, every classroom handout, every exam, test, or quiz, is fully accessible.

Because there is only one way to build access and opportunity, and that is to add. We don't need fewer books, we need books scanned or digitally archived as they are purchased, and we need a plan for digitizing old books, even if it is just one per day. We don't need fewer videos, we need a team working to get the videos captioned, starting with those used in any class with a hearing impaired student. We don't need fewer toilets, we need a plan to make one more toilet facility accessible every... (month, year, whatever). We don't need to block off stairways, we need to build ramps and lifts alongside.

We need to have a reasonable plan to add access constantly and consistently. And if we have that, and we follow that, we will be in compliance - not just with US and European laws - but with our moral responsibility to treat people fairly as well.

Yes, resources are required, there are always costs to rectifying past inequities. But honestly, I don't look around the US or Europe and see any dramatic lack of resources. The money spent on desserts at McDonald's each year could go a long way to solving all of these issues. The money being spent on a War on Iraq, or on America's new Berlin Wall along the Mexican Border, or the subsidies used to support building the world's largest airliner, would get it done. It is all a matter of a society making choices.

So do not let any school administrator bully you. Insist instead that they do their job, and create a plan which will truly bring universal design to your educational institution.

- Ira Socol

Take a look at the ViaScribe technology behind "liberated learning." Every classroom can be captioned.

Late Addition ALERT! Stanley Fish tackles the Disability Rights Movement in The New York Times - placing us alongside polygamists and NAMBLA for the sake of his argument.

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

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book