25 November 2008

The Four - or Six - Freedoms

My dad used to tell me about "The Four Freedoms" - Franklin Roosevelt's goal for a post-World War world and his reason to fight.

Freedom of Speech and Expression.
Freedom of Religion.
Freedom from Fear.
Freedom from Want.

"The Russians," my dad would say, "took the last two seriou
sly. Everybody ate and invading armies were kept away [not that fear was wiped out]. The Americans worried about only the first two - and even then - not if you wanted to say you were a communist. The Europeans," he argued, "tried to do it all." This is part of what made my dad a classic "Social Democrat," me too.

I think
we, especially we in America - even as we celebrate the iconic Thanksgiving holiday - often forget the whole of what FDR was suggesting. These were not independent ideas, these Four Freedoms. They are interlinked parts of what makes a society whole. A person who is hungry lacks the essential ability to be free in other ways. A person in fear lacks the same. A well fed person who cannot speak her mind is a prisoner.

"For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple." Roosevelt said, "They are:

"Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all."

We live in a world where too much fear, and too much want, are accepted. We also live in a world where expression of one's loves, thoughts, and intentions, are too quickly curtailed because they do not conform to some majority viewpoint. And we live in a world in which - in too many places - from Basra to American towns - systems of belief are imposed by those who believe that their religion is "the right one." And in every one of those cases, diminishing one freedom, diminishes them all.

But there are other freedoms, implied in Roosevelt's great address but not explicitly named, and I would like to name them.

Inherent in the Four Freedoms is freedom of opportunity. Not "Freedom of Opportunity" the way US Republicans would describe it - the right to be as rich and irresponsible as you want. But Freedom of Opportunity as the right to use your potential in a way that is yours. The right to make the most of yourself and be comfortable in your society. That implies freedom of human movement. It implies freedom live one's culture without intruding on others or being intruded on by others. And it implies two other things:

Freedom to Learn - this seems so essential. People must have, as a right, access to the tools and information they need for their own education - at every stage of their life. And the must have, again, as a right, access to environments which support their educational needs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it this way, "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit." and, "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

I'll put it another: Education must meet the student, and the student's needs. It must be accessible in every way - physically, by proximity or transportation, technologically, emotionally, intellectually, and strategically. Students have a right to have their learning needs treated as at least as important as the school's needs or the teacher's needs. They have a right to learn in the way that is most effective for them. And a right to develop at their own rate. They have a right not to be labelled, and a right not to be abandoned.

Without that "Freedom to Learn" many of the other freedoms will remain permanently out of reach.

Freedom to be Other than "Normal" - Humans must have an inherent right to be who they are. To not be forced to undergo unwanted "cures" for societally-imagined "disorders." To not be drugged for anyone else's convenience. To not be forced to waste vast amounts of time working on skills which are not just impossible, but are avoidable. Humans have a right to be "disabled" if that is ok with them. The human race need not be entirely white, English-speaking, Protestant, conventionally literate, walking, driving, passive learning, long - single-strand - attentional, "emotionally balanced" for best consumption, and with an IQ of 100 (+/- 10).

"We" have a right to be a wheelchair user, and still move through our society. A right to be dyslexic, and still have information and communication available to us. A right to be deaf, without being forced to have implants in our brain. A right to have "an IQ of 70" and still be treated with respect - or the right to have "an IQ of 140" and not be bored to death and humiliated by school. A right to see differently, attend differently, learn differently without being separated from our peers and denied other basic rights and privileges. A right to be different and to not be treated as either a "nothing" or as an infant.

And (why I have my Toolbelt Theory), humans have a right to know which tools exist which might help them lead full lives, and the right to access those tools, and the right to choose their own tools, based on their own needs and preferences.

It is Thanksgiving (here in America) in a tough time (around the globe), and we might be tempted to lower our aspirations. But this Thanksgiving I'll remember that Franklin Roosevelt stood up - yes - he stood up, which wasn't easy - at a time when much of the world was shrouded in horror, and articulated a vision of a world, of a global society, that was worth fighting for. Let us do the same.

- Ira Socol

Most of FDR's speech in RealAudio (31 minutes)
Last part of FDR's speech - The Four Freedoms - in RealAudio (4

The first four images are Norman Rockwell's paintings of The Four Freedoms. The fifth is by William Ayton for the the United Nations. The sixth is from the Center on Human Policy, and is a T-shirt that Adam introduced me to.

Alert! Please Vote! I'm trying to make the case to President Obama regarding investing in educational technology and universal design as part of the economic stimulus. It's not just great for schools, but "broadbanding" our schools and making them ICT-accessible would provide jobs and opportunities in every corner of the United States. Go to ObamaCTO and vote for Universal Technology for Schools (make it "3 votes" - you're allowed to do that), and keep this issue on the front burner.

24 November 2008

Christmas Shopping, Part 2 - Under $100

Christmas Shopping, Part 1

Suppose you can spend a bit more than the "under $40 (or free)" gifts I suggested in the first Holiday Gifts post, what kind of "gifts of access" could you bring down the chimney?

(1) Great headsets: These matter. They support Speech Recognition, and if comfortable, help with text-to-speech. I love this one (priced here) from LTB, but other choices abound, such as this Plantronics behind the head model, this one from Logitech, or this very cool one from Creative. Pick what's comfortable, what's cool, whatever, but get a noise cancelling mic, and be sure it is a USB headset, that's always best for Speech Recognition. Anyway, $40 to $90 in the United States.

(2) The Gift of Jott and/or SpinVox: A friend of mine said, "Of course Jott is worth paying for." And if it helps, then, why not? For $3.95 per month, or, well, you can go up to $12.95/month or buy minute packs, you give the gift of speech-to-text conversion and safety on the road, the ability to remind yourself of things or take notes - and much, much more. SpinVox, which does "the opposite" - converts your voicemail into text. I pay $5.00 per month on Alltel.

(3) A Canon LiDE scanner with OmniPageLE: Convert any text into readable digital text with these cheap ($50 to $100) "backpackable" scanners which don't even need to be plugged into an electrical outlet (powered by USB alone). They come with a great "light" version of OmniPage that is one of the best optical character recognition (OCR) systems available.

(4) The "Personal Version" of NaturalReader: NaturalReader is a fabulous free product, but for $50 you get to add instant mp3 conversion, reading within Word and PowerPoint, and two AT+T Natural Voices. If voice quality and ease of use matters, it's only $50.

(5) A ScanR subscription: ScanR converts photographed documents (or whiteboards) from your 2 megapixel or better mobile phone camera, into readable digital text. You can use it a few times a month for free, but for $3 or ₤2.50 a month you can use it all you want.

(6) Alternative Mice: Fix those dexterity or stamina issues. How about 3M's Renaissance Mouse for $55. Or a Logitech Trackball ($50 to $70). Or the wireless Mouse Pen ($56). Or the BIGtrack Ball ($79 or $99).

(7) Alternative Keyboards: So many choices to make computer users more comfortable (and don't forget the free Click-N-Type On-screen version, a perfect match with the Renaissance Mouse), but for $50 you can have a Dvorak keyboard. For ₤25 (UK only) you can have an ABC keyboard. For $60 you can have a Microsoft Wireless Ergonomic Keyboard with built-in magnifier.

(8) Skype Subscription: Keep people in touch, and think about combining Skype with hands-free control in Windows Vista. You could help un-isolate a person. Add a webcam and let people see for themselves.

(9) Under $100 mp3 Players: Sure iPods are cool, they're also expensive. How about a Sansa Fuze for $80? Or a Zen Stone for $40. Either will hold a lot of books, which, if you want to buy, you can buy if you can't find everything you want for free.

(10) An unlimited texting plan for a mobile phone: For $60 to $100 a year you can give the gift of texting, and all it can accomplish in alternative communication.

but you could also buy five copies of The Drool Room and pass them out to friends.

- Ira Socol

Note: Lon Thornburg is collecting Christmas AT Gift Ideas at his AT Blog Carnival - for last minute shopping (December 15) release.

22 November 2008

Five Lessons for Educators from a Bad Week on Capitol Hill

As I watched the United States Congress and the "Big 3" Automakers this past week I began to realize how much this looked like "school at its worst."

So, with that in mind - five lessons from this past week in Washington, D.C.

(1) When you treat people differently for no apparent reason, people will see it as unfair.

If American automakers came to "see the teacher" about a problem, they had at least some reason to suspect that they'd be treated the same way the last group of "student supplicants" were. After all, they'd just watched others - others who had arguably "screwed up" far worse than they had - been handed everything they had asked for, and more (in this case US $25 billion per company with no strings attached). But instead they found that the rules had changed without anyone being told. These "students" were told that it was all their fault, and they were told that they would be held accountable for what that last group of students had failed to do after the "teacher" had helped those guys. And they were sent home to complete some "extra homework" before the "teacher" would talk to them again.

The result? People in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc are furious. They see themselves as having been treated unfairly. Whatever the merits of the "teacher's" case here, the only thing that comes across is arbitrariness and discrimination. Johnny Citibank and Tommy AIG are still flying their corporate jets, still shelling out millions and millions in sports sponsorships, still getting their big salaries while doing virtually nothing to alter business practices. Frankie Ford and Gerry GM? They've been punished.

I see this happening almost every day in school "discipline" or academic "discipline." Student A gets extra time but doesn't use it well, so Student B is punished. The student with the influential parent gets more chances than the student without. Student A was "the last straw" - so Student B, who did the same or maybe less, gets treated much more severely.

And kids get very angry, for very good reasons.

(2) Appearances matter. So does hypocrisy.

When Johnny Citibank came to "school" to ask for help his mom drove him (he flew on his corporate jet), and his mom gave the teacher a ride on the way (the congress members flew along, that is how they travel). Nothing was said of this. But when Frankie Ford rode to school with his mom (flew on his corporate jet), the teacher used this fact to "prove" that Frankie is lazy and spoiled. Frankie is angry at being treated this way, so is his family, so are his friends.

Though those in power usually think those below them are idiots (read what many US university faculty have to say about their students any day on sites like Inside Higher Ed), those students are typically very keen observers. They know that "appearances matter" more for some than for others. And when they know that, they have either stopped listening to you, or have lost all respect for you, or both.

(3) Humiliation is not pleasant.

If you say people are stupid, you will not make them your friends. So, when Frankie Ford went to "school" this week he was told he was an idiot and a terrible person. He was told that over and over. But that wasn't enough for "the teacher." All of Frankie's friends (customers) and family (workers) were told that they were idiots and terrible people as well. (Over 8 million Americans bought "Big 3" vehicles in 2007, over 6 million will buy those in 2008, and Congress told every one that they were "stupid" - who else would buy a car "nobody wants.")

Ever see this in a school? Ever hear a teacher or some other adult belittle a whole class? a whole school? Yes, of course you have. And I always want to tell students that when that occurs, they should just leave - but I can't - because that's not an option for them.

(4) Do a little damn "homework" before holding a conference.

When Frankie Ford and Gerry GM went to "school" to talk, they were pretty unprepared. This is surprising, and it is not surprising. Consider, for example, how many times the US financial "bail out" plan has changed since August. People know they are in trouble and that they need "more time" (money), but they don't quite yet know how to use that time (money).

In this situation it is really up to the "teacher" to help define these things because they hold the power. So the "teacher" might have said, "We can give you $15 billion now in loans, but we're the first secured party, and we'll talk about this in January when we all know more." This is the same as saying, "OK, I know you can't figure out how to catch up on all this late work right now, why don't you just worry about assignment X, get it done, and then we'll talk again." But instead, this "teacher" just started yelling, and added another vague homework assignment, the equivalent of, "You just have to get it all done, so right now go home and write a plan to tell me how you'll get it done." (An assignment I saw just last month.)

The key here is that the "teacher" needs to be the one entering these kinds of meeting with the plan(s), not the student. Unless the student has already been given actual power and control ("I'll do these three out of five assignments and my grade will just be based on those.").

(5) Don't depend on old and mythic information.

Gerry GM and Frankie Ford faced a blizzard of misinformation and myth at "school" this week. They were berated for every decision they had made since 1973 and given no credit for anything they have done "right" recently. In fact, the "teacher" seemed to know little more about Gerry and Frankie than the "over coffee" rumors they had heard in the "Teachers' Lounge." And they were constantly compared to other "students" who, of course, have advantages which Gerry and Frankie can't possibly match.

So yes, Frankie can apologize for the 1974 Maverick and Gerry can apologize for the Pontiac Aztek and your student can apologize for setting fire to his desk in eighth grade, but what's the point? If no one acknowledges efforts to do things well, if only the past and the mistakes are remembered, why would any "student" bother?

"Teachers" need to know the whole story, or they need to ask and allow "students" to tell it, without pre-judgment. They need to rely on current facts, not old tales.

The US Congress is, essentially, a worthless group. They have been spineless for eight years, and now they are just clueless and abusive. But at least they offered us a critical lesson this past week: We educators should never let ourselves be like those guys.

- Ira Socol

19 November 2008

Christmas Shopping

Yes, we're in the middle of a "global financial meltdown." Yes, things look grim. But Christmas is coming (or your Solstice-related holiday of choice), and you do want something under the tree, in the stocking, by the menorah.

So let's keep it inexpensive, but, let's make it meaningful.

Have a friend with special access needs for information and communication? Why not give them an AccessApps drive. For less than $10/₤5/€6 you can buy a 2gb Flash Drive and load it with this brilliant software suite from Scotland's RSC. The download and install is as simple as it gets, and the drive offers a full suite of programs - including the full OpenOffice suite - that will run on any Windows computer. (full list of included programs)

Is there a teacher on your list? There might be a book that will change their thoughts on "disability." You could do worse (I would of course say) than The Drool Room (by Ira David Socol)- $16/₤13/€14 - It's also available as an accessible pdf from lulu.com. (Audiobook in progress) The Drool Room tracks a dylexic, adhd student through school and beyond, and looks closely at the dynamics of the classroom from this "outsider" perspective.

Or, Peter Høeg’s Borderliners ($12/₤10/€11). Borderliners is a stunning look at good intentions in education, and at how those intentions are received by children "on the borderline."

Or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. ($12/₤10/€11) Haddon's book is a must read, a fascinating portrait of life on the Autism Spectrum.

If they'd prefer a film (we don't all like to read, after all), there's Taare Zameen Par, a wonderful Indian film about a dyslexic boy (pricey, at $35 the only place I found with it in stock).

If that teacher would rather have a book about classroom practice, Liz Kolb's Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education ($35) is a great choice.

You could also spend almost nothing, and give your teacher a CD with the pdfs of great reading from FutureLab, like Learner Engagement, or Designing for Social Justice: people, technology, learning, or Perspectives on early years and digital technologies, or What if...? Re-imagining learning spaces, or any of their other wonderful reports.

Or simply re-construct a friend or family member's browser as a gift. Install Firefox with Click-Speak or FireVox. Add dictionaries, dictionary switchers, translators, mappers. Set up their bookmark bar for fabulous sites like Ghotit and Google Maps, Gutenberg and the UVA ebook library and the Literature Network, SpokenText and VozMe. Or make it bigger, move on to setting up Skype for them, or installing the free Natural Reader, WordTalk, PowerTalk, Microsoft Reader.

And don't forget those school kids - Google Earth, GraphCalc, Firefox Dictionaries to support language learning, Google Notebook, Google Calendar (which will text their phones when appointments or due dates are coming), Google Docs, Lotus Symphony for those kids sitting with Microsoft Works on their home computers.

Or give the gift of setting up a mobile phone to take advantage of Jott or Dial2Do, AbbyMe, ChaCha or 4info.

There are surely a thousand other choices, but you get the idea. Don't spend a fortune this holiday season - make it an "Access Christmas" instead. Contribute to making the world a more open place, where we all the right to reach for the communications and information we need.

- Ira Socol

12 November 2008

Guest Post: Fear vs. Educational Possibility

I was going to open this post with a quote from Allen Ginsberg, but then I realized, it isn't my generation that worries me.

I recently got to see Jeff Keltner, one of Google Apps' for Education evangelists, present on the advantages of cloud computing and Google Apps for universities. I learned a few things—Google Apps is free to education and non-profits, Docs Spreadsheets now have an automatic form input, Google Moderator is like a pre-meeting Today's Meet—but I was ultimately disappointed. Not by Mr. Keltner, but by some faculty members who chose to dominate the question period.

Google Apps is used by Arizona State University, Trinity College Dublin, and dozens of other universities and colleges. So it's obviously legal and the lawyers make sure it's FERPA-compliant, and we can worry about other things, right?


In the half-hour Q&A, only one question was asked about the educational affordances of the Google services (no, it doesn't support LaTeX or MathML). Every other question was about the EULA. That might be unfortunate anywhere, but we weren't assembling as the faculty of the nuclear physics, this is a top-rated College of Education.

Remember, of course, that institutional users are covered by the institutional agreement, not the consumer EULA, and don't see advertisements.

No one asked about resources or communities for teachers and professors. No one asked about examples of how to use the tools in classrooms. No one even asked "Why? What would we gain?" Instead, everyone wants to play lawyer and internet privacy expert.

Why? Those don't seem like exceedingly fun jobs. No one in this room, not even me, knows exactly what privacy measures are in place down in the IT department. We don't understand the interplay of FERPA and the US PATRIOT ACT. We don't know if we hired anyone to install the local e-mail system or built it from scratch.

The Law, though, is the perfect excuse for fear. The Law says we can't. We'll get in trouble with The Law.

Too often too many members of the faculty are so afraid of losing control—even of something they don't actually control, like e-mail—that they'll call on the big, mean Law to protect what's "theirs." They are paralyzed by that fear; they can't move.

And if they can't even give up control of their e-mail servers, how will they ever give up any control to a learner-centered classroom?

- Sent by a friend who'd rather remain Anonymous

Just a note on Google Apps. For free (zero money) your school (primary, secondary, higher ed) can have a self-branded (.edu), institutionally controlled, email and interactive document system - a system which encourages collaboration, accountability, accessibility, and maybe even creativity. How much is your school paying for an email system? Whate else might you do with that money?

11 November 2008

Armistice Day and SocioCulturally Defined Literacy

A New York Times Op-Ed piece got me thinking this morning...

So I began with this quote from one of the great bits of American literature:

Whereasthe Congressof the united states byaconcurrentresolution-adoptedon the4thdayofmarch lastauthorizedthe Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe body of an Americanwhowasamemberoftheamerican expeditionaryforceineuropewholosthislifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentity hasnotbeenestablished for burial inthememorialamphitheatreofthenational cemeteryatarlingtonvirginia.

In the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of

enie menie minie moe plenty other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they'd scraped up of Richard Roe

and other person or person unknown. Only one can go. How did they pick John Doe?

Make sure he ain't a dinge, boys.

make sure he ain't a guinea or a kike,

how can you tell a guy's a hunredpercent when all you've got's a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?

. . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead...

The day withal was too meaningful and tragic for applause. Silence, tears, songs and prayer, muffled drums and soft music were the instrumentalities today of national approbation.

from The Body of an American, from John DosPassos 1919 (The USA Trilogy).

How do we express the horrors of war? How do we transmit those memories to generations long in the future?

Thanks to Paul Hamilton

Stanley Kubrik's Paths of Glory

and a reinterpretation...

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque.

"We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."

T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.

and, of course...

"It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict." Alexander Watson says in today's Times...

and perhaps also a reminder of the many forms of literacy used by humans, the culturally-defined nature of literacy, and the many ways in which we might bring these experiences to our students.

- Ira Socol

07 November 2008

Bringing the "Back Channel" Forward

Whenever you "teach," there is a "back channel." It has always existed in every classroom, every lecture hall, every on-line learning environment.

It includes, "Hey, what did she say?" "This sucks." "I don't understand." "That's stupid, why doesn't he answer the question?" "Do you know how to do this?" "When is that paper due?" even, "C'mon, come to the party with me tonight."

In other words, students are talking, or passing notes, or rolling their eyes at each other as you talk, or asking for answers, or help, or complaining, or wondering, or wishing you'd get to stuff that somehow connected the topic to their interests.

I really began to appreciate the value and potential of this back channel a couple of summers ago taking an International Education course. Every time some claim was made Google searches exploded across the room, followed by emails: "That's not true." "Go this link." "The UN says this..." And after that burst of activity someone would interrupt the class with a new data set or collection of opinions.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

So I wondered, could I create a dedicated Twitter-like stream that would make this back channel public? Bring it from the back to the front? No, not just me, many of us have wondered the same thing - including Google, who has built Google Moderator to do something very similar if you are in a school using Google Apps for Education (which will be my next post).

The idea was to allow this stream to run in parallel with the primary classroom experience. Make it quite public. Almost - but-not-quite - central. And in my case, to make it incredibly easy, do-able without registrations or log-ins.

So on Tuesday I tried this in my undergraduate class. I used Today'sMeet which is the creation of my son - so this is very cool. I set up an extra laptop and a second digital projector, aimed at a wall alongside the big screen, and I posted the link.

The first few posts were simple. "Hi" "Hello" "What's This?" But within fifteen minutes it had accelerated wildly. There were "tweets" (if you will) about the stuff in the class, and questions, and doubts, and worries. There were "procedurals" - "where's the sign in sheet?" "Is the due date still...?" There were requests, "I wish he'd talk about..." There were concerns, "This is distracting me" "More than Facebook?" "About the same" By the time the class session had ended, over 200 comments in all.

Every few minutes I looked up at the screen and checked the conversation, and typically I adjusted the discussion, or picked up on a question being asked there, or commented on an answer or a comment. In a big class it gave me real access to far more students than I can possibly get by watching for raised hands. And it let me - and the class - hear from many who never raise their hands. Honestly, I could even judge, much more clearly than usual, what was connecting and what was missing. As an instructor - I loved it.

OK, yes, I know this is a highly controversial idea. On Classroom 2.0 one teacher, not an anti-technology one, says of an experiment like this: "Kids today are fritzy enough without trying to listen and do several other things at the same time. To me this is the consummate use of technology to no real benefit and it plays right into the scatteredness of many kids today. It allows students to talk throughout the entire presentation. I just don't get it. I may not be articulate enough to explain myself but I just keep thinking of Leno's comment to Hugh Grant after Grant's dalliance with a lady of the night...."What were you thinking?"'

But on another blog, another teacher references using another "chat room" technology: "It also demonstrates the power of the backchannel. I personally believe that the backchannel is the greatest unharnessed resource that we as educators have available to us. It does not threaten me nor bother me that you learned as much if not more from the backchannel the other night -- in fact, it makes me feel great that I facilitated the connection." So, as in everything else, there's a range of teacher response.

But what I watched was student response. In the room Today'sMeet began to overwhelm Facebook and Email use in the room. The distraction technology became engagement technology, just as using polleverywhere switches mobile phones from distraction tool to engagement tool. And we all learned more using this than we would have without using it.

And that's not even touching on the ways this kind of technology supports the shy user, the user with speech issues, the user having trouble with the English Language, the user who'd rather be able to think through and even edit a statement or question before asking it.

Today'sMeet is free, requires no registration or log-in. Just create a room and point your students to it. To see an example - our conversation on Google Apps - look here.

- Ira Socol

05 November 2008

New Media, New Democracy: Power to the Unempowered

On Tuesday morning I went to vote in Holland, Michigan. There the first person I met at the polls was checking picture identification under Michigan's new "suppress the vote" law.

But I saw a problem. The poll worker was checking the addresses on the IDs. This is not allowed. The ID is only to prove identity. And there might be many reasons why a person's ID might have an address different from their voting address. This is especially true in a voting precinct that includes many lower-income rental housing units.

So I said to this poll worker: "You are not supposed to be doing that." And I explained why. The response? "You should call the City Clerk." I wanted to just say, "Wrong again, pick up your phone and call, this should not be the voter's responsibility." And I might have muttered it. But I voted, then I went home. Then I called the City Clerk (who agreed that I was right, but didn't quite see much urgency), then I Twittered-The-Vote.

"#votereport 49423 Holland, MI ward 1 precinct 2 telling voters they must vote by affidavit if address on ID doesn't match reg address. Wrong" I Tweeted.

Then I got in my car and headed toward campus. Fifteen minutes later, as I was putting fuel in the car, an email arrived on my Blackberry. It was from a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, which - I need to make clear - seemed mighty unexpected. "Saw your vote report," the email said, "Please call me."

And then I was driving and discussing elections and technology with a writer at one of the world's premier newspapers (I'll admit that no matter how much I disagree with their political views).

And this morning, his report is in The Wall Street Journal.

This is incredible. An obscure voter in an obscure corner of the United States now can make a problem with democracy massively public in a heartbeat. That changes the power structure. That changes our ideas of control of media. In fact - as the power of SMS in many budding democracies has shown - as the power of Barack Obama's new media efforts have shown - that changes lives in huge ways.

And that changes what our students must learn regarding communication.

I've said here before that if you are a traditionally empowered person: wealthy, white, Protestant, English-speaking, "Traditionally-abled," understanding the power of these new media technologies may not be that essential. But if you are the kind of student we typically discuss on this site, the ability to leverage these new technologies will often make the difference between life success and life disaster. This is true at critical moments - elections, confrontations with police, battles for rights in education. And it is true in everyday life - communicating with teachers, employers, and their peers.

If you are not teaching these technologies, you are damaging your students' opportunities for success. Because if you are not teaching the tools of power, you are condemning your students to powerlessness.

- Ira Socol

02 November 2008

Election Day in the United States

This is an unusual election in the US, for though neither "education" nor "special needs" has been an important topic, it has indeed been a topic - which is highly unusual.

After eight years in which US education has been severely damaged by horrendous policies, and in which people "with disabilities" have been badly hurt by the management of everything from health care (where disability now often denies a person insurance), to the Social Security Administration (3-year waits for eligibility appeals while people go bankrupt and starve), to the "Justice" Department (which has almost stopped enforcing the ADA), to Transportation (with cutbacks in transit funding that would have made more systems more accessible) - America definitely needs a change.

And politicians have begun to notice. They have figured out that many Americans have children, or parents, or grandparents, or friends with special needs. And that those people might make motivated voters. That's great. Motivated voters - especially in potentially close elections - motivate political leaders.

So what matters? What really matters in this election?

In an earlier post I talked about how Alaska Governor Palin represented the worst in hypocrisy about the needs of people who are "not mainstream." This is to be expected of someone willing to divide the nation into "real" and "fake" halves, or "pro-America" and "anti-America" halves. If a person is willing to see those kind of distinctions she is surely ready to see those with needs different from her own as at least unimportant, and probably as dangerous. She also, since then, has proven this hypocrisy further. A day after calling for full funding of Special Education she opposed an attempt in Colorado to pay for exactly that. Solutions have cost, Governor Palin, and not every family can rip off the Alaska Treasury with fake per diem expenses to cover their children's special needs expenses.

But enough of that: What does America need on the way to Universal Design and Universal Acceptance of Human Differences?

1. Universal Health Insurance - nothing would make a bigger difference.
2. Better funding for early childhood and K-12 education.
3. A guarantee that any school which receives any government money accept students without regard to ability/disability/ethnicity/religion, and help get students to the school when parents can not.
4. Guaranteed parental leave policies for all workers, and guaranteed vacation time so families have more time together.
5. Higher minimum wages so that families can properly support their children.
6. Aggressive enforcement of ADA and Section 504 laws.
7. Improved mass transit funding everywhere in America, so people can get to school and work (and even church).
8. Improved access to affordable higher education.
9. Improved support for building affordable and accessible housing.
10.A commitment to future technologies which support universal access.

Now, it is up to you decide whether these solutions are best supplied by "the market" and by a political team committed to an across the board spending freeze and increased tax cuts for millionaires, or by a political team that thinks competent government has the ability to make society better.

- Ira Socol