31 January 2009

Curling up with... Literacy

I love to curl up in bed with a good... story.

I am, in fact, one of those people (I think this includes more males than females but have no evidence) who has never outgrown the childish delight in absorbing favorite stories again and again ("Damn," my dad once said, as he read One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish to my then young son, "I hated this book the two hundred times I read it to you and I hate it now.").

So, at night, I can drop into bed and fall asleep to Turner Classic Movies playing familiar movies, or my computer playing the LibriVox recordings of books I already know. Slowly, my mind takes over. I stop watching the screen and just hear the words, or I even stop really hearing the words, and the world of these stories surrounds me, and leads me off to sleep.

Or by day I can sit and listen (or watch and listen). I've done a great deal of this these past seven weeks as I've tried to keep myself engaged recovering from surgery. Yes indeed, curled up in bed or on the couch with my computer and WYNN or CLiCk-Speak (or Hulu or direct download NetFlix). This wild winter raging outside the windows. New worlds, and new ranges of information flowing to me.

Am I reading?

A New York Times writer named Virginia Heffernan isn't sure. She is the author of this month's anti-technology tirade in that paper, amusingly titled Click and Jane. Let's skip Ms. Heffernan's confusion about her role as a parent, that her three-year-old child's attitudes toward what is a "book" and what "isn't" undoubtedly reflect her own beliefs, and get to the heart of what this author misses:

"Point missed entirely," says "Scott" - commenter number 5 on the associated blog (I was commenter number one! something I've never achieved before on The Times's site). "A book once published becomes a thing. It makes no difference if it is on a computer, bound in covers, serialized in a magazine, or written on the sky. The concept of “book” is not hard to teach children. The software was not trying to trick or fool Ben, it presented a book and wanted feedback on the contents. What Ben read was a book. How he read it was unimportant. Opportunity for learning missed entirely."

It is not that Ms. Heffernan doesn't realize that on-line literacy is literacy. She does avoid that mistake. It is that she - as so many "cultural conservatives" (a term I of course use provocatively) - does not understand that human storytelling is both (a) what really matters, and (b) remains a constantly evolving thing, continuously changing itself as technology changes.

These different technologies aren't "easier" or "more difficult," or more or less complex, or more or less important to our cultural history. They don't "require interpretation and imagination" or "not require" that. The cave paintings of Lascaux required active imagining and sophisticated symbolic conversion, and the film clip above (from Hitchcock's Rear Window) requires a really complex imagining of what is outside of the frame and behind the darkened windows (just as any decent first-person shooter video games does). The construction of worlds by a reader from limited authorial description is not the exclusive domain of those who absorb stories through ink on paper.

And Ms. Heffernan's child will not end up 'not appreciating literature' because she uses a Kindle (or reads her books and watches her films on her phone) and doesn't line her shelves with leather-bound volumes, if literature - of all types and in all forms - is a cherished part of her family home.

So I'd like us to stop. Please, just stop. When you read on a computer screen you are, indeed, reading. When you read Braille, you are reading. When you listen to an audiobook, you are reading. Even when you are watching a film, a TV show, or playing a narrative-based game, you are effectively reading. No, your brain isn't translating visual symbols, but it is absorbing, interpreting, analyzing, and filing information. It is building a unique "reader developed" world within the construct created by the "author." Reading changed when the Greeks started putting spaces between the words and adding vowels and punctuation (some things those ancient Hebrews skipped). Reading changed again when books became affordable and could be carried home. And again when a wide range of types of literature appeared in print (because, you know, perhaps reading Ulysses is a bit different than reading Middlemarch). Reading changed when film arrived. It is changing now. It will change again.

So stop worrying. A "book" is an idea. It is a conceptual thing. It is a story set down in a specific set of words and/or constructed images. What matters is that our children, our students, engage the broadest possible range of stories, and learn to work with them, learn from them, and to develop their own, so that they may spread their own ideas.

Unless, of course, I wasn't really reading Ms. Heffernan's story at all. The Times won't deliver where I live, so I have to read on the computer, and I listened to a lot of it.

- Ira Socol

26 January 2009

The Toolbelt as School Policy

I believe in "Toolbelt Theory." I believe that it is our job, as educators, to help students assemble the learning and communication tools which will support them across their lifespans. And to teach them how to to keep that tool collection up to date as they, their circumstances, and the world's technologies change. If we do not that education is simply babysitting plus a few random facts which may or may not have meaning a decade from now.

This is not a "Special Ed" or a "Special Needs" issue. This is about every student. Every person.

Students, of course, can not build their toolbelts, and learn to keep them up to date unless they try out tools. Try them, and learn to compare and assess them. Do I use the alarm on my phone or send text messages to myself through Google Calendar? Do I prefer Microsoft Word or the Google Docs Word Processor? Natural Reader or Microsoft Narrator? Ghotit or the spellcheck in Firefox? QWERTY keyboard or Dvorak or Phone keypad - or Speech Recognition or handwriting recognition?

How do you start this? How do you continue this? What would a school's policy look like to make this happen?

We evaluate so many things about students every day, let's start this by requiring that students evaluate at least one thing every month. And let's begin that by asking them to evaluate Information and Communication Technologies.

In my class last semester we made PowerPoint Books or Microsoft Reader books. Of the almost 60 students, more than two-thirds tested them on very young students (ages 5-8, mostly "special needs"). Almost every one of those students expressed preferences.

"I liked the computer voice."
"I liked the teacher's voice."
"I'd rather read the book."
"I liked that the pages turned by themselves"
"I liked that I could click and make it say it again."
"I liked that I could draw on the page."
"I'd rather read my favorite books the old ways, but I'd use this sometimes."

So, right from the start, you have options and preferences, and, with a bit of coaching, those preferences start to build 'data-based decision making' on the part of the students. What works? When? Why?

Audio book, print book, computer book, that's a set of choices the youngest students can begin to experience. Just as fat pen, thin pen, fat pencil, thick pencil. Or sit at a desk, sit on the floor, stand in the back of the room while listening to the teacher. Or when to take breaks, or what time to work on different subjects.

And you don't just test this once and write it down on some school form. You encourage students to try and keep trying, to bring in different options each time, to start to record their "whys" carefully. Building a record the students themselves can check back on. Yes these are anecdotes, but as the years of school, and the experience of making choices multiplies these anecdotes do what they always do - they become data.

As students get older these toolbelt experiences expand. What kind of keyboard? What about speech recognition? What kind of calendar? What kind of planner? What kind of book or digital book? Which literacy support system? When to schedule classes? Which email system? Of course as they get older you begin to expect that they start researching and bringing in new things beyond simply the choices known to the school and teacher. Because... there are always new things.

Think of this: If you just did this once a month, a 16-year-old would have at least 100 experiences with testing and choosing. With evaluating and considering. With planning their own interactions with the world, with negotiating their way through that intersection of their own capabilities and the way the world works.

This may not seem essential within many schools. What's the old joke? The only place that wouldn't surprise and confuse a modern day Rip Van Winkle is a classroom? But it is essential for survival in the world. When my university's email interface changes I need to make a fast analysis of the best way to convert the emails into speech. When Jott drops its free stuff I need to find a replacement which works. When I find limits in Google Notebook I need to evaluate Zotero and other solutions, and I need to know - through experience - how to do that. The same would be true if my work tools included a cash register terminal or the new computer system built into Ford Trucks.

Making it policy? A grid of what's been evaluated each month belongs on every grade report. It needs to be available to the students and the parents and, of course, each succeeding teacher. It needs to be a "must do" because it will help define future success far more clearly than any silly standardized test of "content."

Imagine if your school made this important? Imagine how much better prepared all your students would be when they graduate into the future which awaits them.

- Ira Socol

23 January 2009

The Sound of One Hand Typing

Working in the the "assistive technology" field you find yourself on some strange missions. Once, a colleague and I spent an hour searching a used office furniture warehouse, turning every office chair upside down. We were looking, as we explained to the confused staff, for a "left-handed chair."

Yes, they laughed.

But a left-handed chair is a real thing. It is a chair which can be adjusted (height-wise, etc) with the left hand - an important thing when your client is a young man who works in CAD design and has lost all use of his right arm in an accident.

We found the chair, but we needed other things. An appropriately left-handed mouse device. A numeric keypad we could move to the left side of the keyboard, and a keyboard where he could type efficiently with just one hand.

In other case, helping a hotel pool maintainer, also without the use of his right arm, move up to desk clerk, we needed to find a left-hand typing solution. In this case, unlike the one above, this would be a multi-user computer. At busy times up to three or four employees would jump on the same keyboard in quick alternation.

There are lots of reasons to seek keyboard alternatives. First, text entry systems should be chosen for comfort and function, and not left to the crap delivered with most computers. Second, people have unique needs and preferences. Third, my guess is that more people are injured by their keyboards than by any other workplace device: The way the human wrist is forced to bend to type on a flat-straight keyboard buts terrible pressure on certain arteries, causing permanent pain. Fourth, we already know that many of us now type faster on phone keypads than we do on the 'old' keyboards. Finally, not everyone has two working hands.

So when a question about one-handed keyboards recently arrived on a list serve, I watched the options offered with great interest. So what if this question comes to you?

As is often the case, Charlie Danger is a good place to start. He begins with the free re-mapping of your Windows computer keyboard with downloads from Microsoft.

I've had great experiences with the Half Keyboard (or here), a mini-keyboard that merges the left and right halves of the traditional QWERTY board into a 'single half.'

The Half QWERTY (or here), though much more expensive, has the advantage of functioning as a 'regular' keyboard when multiple users are on the same machine. (This proved the perfect solution for a one-handed hotel desk clerk I worked with - there just was not good room for multiple keyboards.)

The Frogpad (or here), which began the conversation, is great for those who can learn it, and who have the necessary multi-finger dexterity.

OATS has a couple of great solutions, the "phone keypad" based Dkey with phone-type predictive spelling, and the gesture driven Qwriting. Both completely free, of course.

Tapir is another free phone keypad based solution.

For a physical version of the phone keypad, the Cre8txt system is a wonderful solution. "[T]his device [claims the website] captures the writing skills that so many young people have developed themselves using their mobile phones. It probably isn't going to surprise you to know that most young people can touch type at phenomenal speeds without even looking at their mobile phone."

And just to suggest - Speech Recognition, either Dragon or within Windows Vista (or simply using Dial2Do) - is always another solution.

The trick is - as always - that we have a flood of choices. Choices we hardly ever see in workplaces and never see when schools begin to teach "keyboarding." Choices which enable rather than disable or frustrate.

The way you "type" simply does not matter. The words, the ideas, the communication - that's what matters. Using two hands, or one, or none.

- Ira Socol

21 January 2009

Re-imagining Ability

When I taught my class last semester (“Special Education Students in the Regular Education Classroom”), I ran across a roadblock. The future “Special Education” teachers who filled the room clearly saw a bright line between “able” and “disabled.”

This is not surprising. The field they are entering exists because of this perceived difference.

Early in the course I suggested that I could “disable” any of them. That I might speak in a language they did not know (I asked them to read and pronounce Irish, for example), or that I might speak using words they did not know, using, for example, British educational jargon rather than American, or that I might ask them to choreograph and perform an interpretive dance as their second paper.

For some these concepts got the point across, but not for most.

So I decided to try to get them to “re-imagine ability.” I gave them a series of possible “tasks” and asked what “assistive technologies” they would need to complete them. One was getting from a neighborhood on the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan (near the United Nations). Another was bringing a refrigerator from a store into their kitchen. A third was getting from the street to a meeting on the 88th floor of the Sears Tower.

View Larger Map

Many of the students responded with comments about maps and map reading, about reading directories, about measuring doorways, but none understood the basic concept. They were all completely unable to perform any of these tasks without massive technological and human assistance. And the amount of assistance needed varied greatly across the student group.

But I pointed out to them even those they probably at least needed some kind of shoes/clothing to cross Brooklyn, at least some kind of assistance or at least a strongly woven cloth strap to carry the refrigerator, and if not the elevator, at least the stairs (a vary early assistive technology) to climb the Sears Tower. Not to mention a bridge to avoid swimming more than half a mile across a wild tidal strait in New York, or a truck for the refrigerator. Some, I'm sure, could have swum the river. At least two or three might have been able to, given enough time, have jumped and pulled and climbed up 88 floors without stairs. One guy might have been able to lug at least a fairly small (full-size) refrigerator from Sears to his house, and yet...

If they needed help would they be "disabled"? And what of the other four dozen?

This began to work on their thinking. Yet, every day they spend in our College of Education reinforces their traditional thinking about “ability.” “Ability” is everything “they” (the kind of students who go into education) do well. Reading, writing, speaking like a middle class protestant white person, answering questions with definite answers. “Ability” is not being able to attend to 25 things in a simultaneous mode, or entertain a class with jokes and stunts, or dream up really exciting fictional worlds, or a million other things that kids can be great at. No one is sent to the Resource Room because they throw a ball badly or can’t tune a violin or are unable to navigate an urban street scene effectively. I need special permission to turn some paper documents into electronic versions but the Dean of the College prints out her emails for reading without having to declare herself “disabled.

I'm not suggesting that individual differences in capabilities don't exist. I'm not very tall. That makes some things more difficult than if I was. Tom Shakespeare is right. It is not "all social" - we are born different, we end up different. Some of us struggle with things in ways others don't. Reading sucks for me. I wish it was easier. This month so does walking. And I sure wish that was easier. Still, I can fix my own computer (some of the time), and if you can not, do you need a government affixed label?

Back in May 2008 (on "Blogging Against Disablism Day") I suggested on my blog that we not allow anyone into an elevator without a note from a doctor, that we require that people with eyeglasses get special permission to use them, that we not let anyone ever convert digital text to paper, just to expand the realm of disability. Because as long as we think “disability” exists, it does indeed exist, and it limits who we are and what we can achieve

- Ira Socol

20 January 2009

Hope and Commitment...

...sure beats fear, division, and the belief that government cannot do anything.It is a day to believe in the possibilities of our shared future.

15 January 2009

Why "Standards-Based" and "Accountability" are dirty words

Who wants to be against standards in education? Who wants to be against "accountability"?

I do. And you should want to be as well. Especially now, as a new American administration wrestles with altering No Child Left Behind, and the rest of the world tries to meet the expectations in the United Nations Article 24 on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Really? Don't I get angry when a state like Texas lies about it's graduation rates and discipline and gives fourth grade reading tests to twelfth graders to make their scores look better? Don't I despise bad teaching? Don't I have high expectations for every child? Don't I want schools to be properly equipped, and staffed with well-trained professionals, and operated with diverse and advanced curricula?

Yes I do. But, none of that is what these words mean in our political contexts.

When people say, "standards-based" they mean that their goal for school is to homogenize students. The "standards" - after all - are nothing but a set of metrics by which an industrial product is rated. "Accountability"? That's how well teachers homogenize their students.

And these two awful, anti-human strategies lie not just behind Teach for America and Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and KIPP Academies, they lie behind every bit of the legislation known as NCLB, and far too much of the exam-based British education system.

As long as all students are expected to have, essentially, the same "outcomes," we will never have "Universal Design," we will never have "Inclusion," we will never have actual "equality," because equality requires that we accept and embrace human diversity in ways "schools" just cannot imagine.

Not every human can move the same way, hear the same way, see the same way - we sort of know this though we really struggle building classrooms which treat even these differences with any level of equality. What "we" can't quite wrap our minds around is that not every human will ever learn the same way, read the same way, write the same way, discover Argentina on a map the same way, or understand time the same way, and that every time we create a "norm" in our classroom we make those who are somehow "away from the norm" somewhat less than fully human.

And every time we speak of "age appropriate goals," "grade level expectations," and "academic standards" we force students into a two-tier system. We create disability, and rob people of their human right to develop in the way that serves them best.

So when President-Elect Obama's future Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls education, “the civil rights issue of our generation,” he is absolutely right, but I'm not sure that he understands that this civil right begins with individually appropriate educational support for every student, and not the "evidence based practice" which is code for treating education the way a steel mill treats iron ore.

Inclusion, real inclusion, means abandoning our notions of "standards," of "accountability," of "evidence." It means abandoning many of our basic conceptions of what schools look like. It means embracing the individual learner and not the group.

So what would I put in a new national education law? I might start with asking every teacher and administrator to embrace the "Whys" on Inclusive Education as stated by the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education.

Why Inclusive Education?
- Valuing some people more than others is unethical.
- Maintaining barriers to some students’ participation in the cultures, curricula and communities of local schools is unacceptable.
- Preserving school cultures, policies and practices that are non-responsive to the diversity of learners perpetuates inequalities.
- Thinking that inclusion mostly concerns disabled learners is misleading.
- Thinking that school changes made for some will not benefit others is short-sighted.
- Viewing differences between students as problems to be overcome is disrespectful and limits learning opportunities.
- Segregated schooling for disabled learners violates their basic human right to education without discrimination.
- Improving schools only for students is disrespectful to all other stakeholders.
- Identifying academic achievement as the main aim of schooling detracts from the importance of personal and moral development.
- Isolating schools and local communities from one another deprives everyone of enriching experiences.
- Perceiving inclusion in education as a separate issue from inclusion in society is illogical.

Then I might make some specific regulations. Yes, regulations. This my own "ECRE" - Every Child has a Right to Education:

1. Every student will have an Individualized Education Plan which considers the best ways, times, and places for that student's learning needs.
2. Every student will have individualized curriculum and individualized assessment strategies based at the intersection of current individual capabilities/needs and lifespan needs.
3. Every student will be placed with faculty members most appropriate for their learning needs.
4. Grade level or age will never be used as a primary guide to a student's learning needs - neither holding a student back nor making impossible demands.
5. Student interest will always be considered as a gateway to curricular knowledge.
6. Subjects will be integrated, learning will not be considered an isolated academic exercise.
7. All staff will be fully trained in human learning diversity.
8. Every student will have appropriate technology available to allow maximum participation in curriculum and maximum access to their own learning and communication opportunities.
9. All curricular materials and all school information will be available in formats which may be altered to meet specific student learning needs.
10. Every student has a right to group instruction and individual instruction as appropriate - technology which allows for individual instruction will always be available.
11. Every student has the right to fully participate in the academic, extra-curricular, and social activities of the school.
12. Schools will be judged according the individual growth of their students, and their ability to meet the widest range of student needs. Aggregated scores or grades will not be collected.

And it is time to stop supporting educational research which treats students as if they were a mass production item. Instead, we need to support research into tools, techniques, and strategies which support individual human learners. This would be a 180 degree switch from the Bush Regime's research agenda.

So, if we're to make 2009 the Year of Universal Access, we need to begin by saying "no." "No" to the catchwords of this past educational decade. And we need to start saying "yes." "Yes" to students as individuals. Not labels, not groups, not cohorts, but humans.

- Ira Socol

artwork Inclusion/Exclusion by Michael Hager of Washburn University (c) Michael Hager

13 January 2009

Accepting Technological Change

Nicholas Negroponte is many things, good and bad I am sure, but one thing he may not be becomes obvious from the following quote: He may not be someone who can see beyond his own understanding of technology.

"Learning is many things," Negroponte says in GOOD Magazine, "one of which includes reading. Another is the ability to control, create, and collaborate. Books have sizes for reasons. Keyboards have a size, too. Surely we are not going to force children into literary expression with their thumbs. A laptop is a window, a contemplative experience, nomadic not mobile. The cell phone is a point of contact, a burst medium, interruptive in both good and bad sense. It is a lifeline in any sense. The device itself, however, should not be confused with connectivity. Laptops need to be connected too. Would I want an unconnected laptop over a connected cell phone. No. No more than I would want to be driving a car with brakes and no steering wheel."

"Books have sizes for reasons"? "Keyboards have a size, too"? Could these statements somehow be true?

There was a time when "books" were carved into stone tablets. Later they came as scrolls on papyrus or a very thin lambskin, written without punctuation or even space between words. At some point they became large leather bound "books." Or small pamphlets. Or the original "pocket" poetry books young swains carried with them on walks in the fields with the lassies they romanced. Mass transit created the desire for the contemporary paperback (something to read on the streetcar, el, underground, subway) and the "tabloid" ("Berliner") size newspaper (because turning pages of The New York Times on a rush hour Lexington Avenue Express train requires an advanced degree in origami). Along the way, each new variation seems to have opened reading up to more people.

Keyboards have, in their short lifespan, moved from steeply-sloped narrow configurations to the flat, wide keyboard I'm typing on now, to the semi-QWERTY of my Blackberry Pearl to the miniaturized virtual form of the iPhone or Storm. How we use them has changed as well. "Typing" - as we know it, that is "touch typing" - was created for secretaries to quickly convert the boss's handwriting, or shorthand, into a "typed" form. If you notice, those who "write" - that is create - on a keyboard are often much less exact in their typing techniques and often do need to look at the keys. Now half the population types with their thumbs. We type different things than we used to, in different ways, on keyboards unthinkable just a few years ago, with amazing new technologies (predictive spelling). Again, the more the "fixed" notion Negroponte sees has faded, the greater the variety of people who can join the party.

Negroponte is committed to a "form" for his technology. Yes, he's invested years in the OLPC computer, and yes, it is a brilliant thing. But while he and his team were hidden away working, technology changed, and the mobile phone grew up, and whole new visions and understandings of how information flows developed.

We do this all the time. We mistake the thing for the reason. The "reason" in Negroponte's case is global access to information, communication, and education. But the "thing" is a computer form that he is comfortable with - even if the mobile phone that every family already needs might be the more logical system for the users he wants to help.

The "reason" behind learning to read in school is to offer students a gateway to the information and culture they need. The "thing" is the bound book with alphabetic characters printed in ink - even if other delivery systems have arrived which might make more sense for many students.

The "reason" behind learning to write in school is communication and creativity... well, I could go on and on.

Technological change is difficult. A professor of mine commented last semester on his confusion when he collects student phone numbers these days. "There used to be just two or three area codes in a class," he said, "but now your phone number is more likely to say where you came from than where you live now." There are many people still confused by the fact that more than half of our phone calls are made to people, not places. Or that text messages have replaced many calls, and have morphed into something different entirely.

A New York Times article on the "death" of the Polaroid Photograph brought these issues together for me. As did Karen Janowski's blog on Obsolescence.

Information technologies only last until a new technology supersedes it. The first cave painting probably dealt a blow to those early human artists who drew only in the dirt, and it has progressed from there.

So, it might seem odd to someone under, say, 25, but there was a time when people really wanted to see their photographs right away, not wait 3 to 5 days after dropping them at the drugstore. So Edwin Land developed the Polaroid, and it changed many things - from parties to asking for that part at the hardware store (now you carried a photo of the broken plumbing piece in) to, yes, amateur pornography (which no longer had to be placed in the hands of that kid in the FotoMat). Whole art forms sprang up in response.

Polaroid never displaced traditional film because it couldn't do "everything" film did. Duplicates and enlargements were expensive and difficult. There were limits to the cameras. We might think of this in the same way we'd say that cassette audio books couldn't fully replace print. But digital photography swept away both "film" and Polaroid - and most photo stores - because it did everything both could do. Not at first, of course. I remember my first Sony digital camera which recorded its images on a floppy disk. Great Zeiss lens, but... you understand. Beyond that, digital photos have changed, fundamentally, the way we take, see, and share photographs.

Some may miss film, darkrooms, all those photo albums and shoe boxes crammed with pictures. That's legit. Still, if we "bring pictures" to a share at a family gathering these days we are most likely to plug the camera into the TV and show them, or we have already posted them on Flickr. The experience is different. It has changed. But it is not necessarily worse.

Photography no longer means "film" or silver oxide or physical prints. You no longer have to sweat for years with an enlarger and trays of chemicals to be a photographer. Hell, now you can be a photographer with nothing more than that phone you've got. But this has not destroyed photography, nor has it invalidated the work of those old artists of film. If anything, it expands the audience and opportunity.

The same is happening with "written" communication. It too is becoming unbundled from the "thing." And this bothers people. Someone in a class last semester said that listening to a book was not as legitimate a way to read because it was "easier." The National Endowment for the Arts still doesn't think you are reading right now - whether you are using your ears or your eyes to take this text in. Others talk of the smell of paper, of holding the book, in ways reminiscent of those lamenting the vanished photographic darkroom.

And Nicholas Negroponte thinks a phone is just a phone, and won't give up the specific size and weight of his laptop computer. And that writing with thumbs is somehow not "writing" but typing on a QWERTY keyboard is.

But the world keeps spinning. And it is essential - in this Year of Universal Access - to remember the reasons why we want children to read, to write, to listen, to see, to understand. And for us to focus on giving them those operational, comprehension, and analytical skills they'll need to work with the flow of information coming their way. And then we have to prepare them for a world in which the delivery and interactive systems for that information will be ever changing, and ever expanding, so that they can grow up into learners able to make the best decisions for themselves - given the world they will live in.

Technologies change. Yes, they even change reading. That's all right. Reading is something apart from the technology. Helen Keller read one way. I read another. You might read a third way. Who knows what your students will do.

- Ira Socol
who is finally starting to recover. thanks.

06 January 2009

2009: The Year of Universal Access - Part Two

"But this vision works only if experience — we’re back to that word again — is redefined. If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count — even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary. Hillary Clinton made that argument when she ran for the Senate. Voters agreed that a multifaceted life filled with experiences, if not experience, made her ready to serve. Barack Obama presented a version of that argument as well. His was hardly the traditional résumé of a presidential candidate, but his potential employers (the voters) gave him credit for a fierce intelligence and lessons learned from life."

Lisa Belkin was talking about the Senatorial hopes of Carolyn Kennedy when she wrote this in The New York Times last week, but her argument represents the second essential part of making 2009 The Year of Universal Access. Belkin, making a woman's rights argument, and speaking about lawyers, corporate execs, and other 'white collar/white female' situations, frames it this way:

"In the past, you would start at Point A — the mailroom, the associate level, the boss’s assistant — keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone and make your way toward Point B, putting in hours and getting your ticket punched along the way. A few people jumped the line because of luck or connections. (Those who aspire to serve in Congress sometimes “pay their dues” by playing for the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. or starring on “The Love Boat,” which are all less relevant qualifications for the job than financing city schools.) But there was a recognized path, a defined progression, a road map from here to there."

In my last post I wrote about the technology and the technological rules which must be present if we are to have Universal Access. But as Lisa Parisi commented there, those technologies must be available as needed, as desired, and without the labelling of students.

Belkin says, "If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count, even if none of your activities take place in an office." I'll say it differently: "If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count, even if none of your activities occur in the classroom, or are accomplished in ways prescribed by your schools or teachers." This is the fundamental change we need. This is the fundamental switch which our contemporary technologies have allowed us to make. And this the fundamental alteration in attitude which allows us to take advantage of all the access technologies in the last post to create real liberation education.

I decode on a below first grade level, but I've read Ulysses three times and a hundred critical writings about Ulysses. I can not write with a pen on paper. It is either so slow that I can not record my own thoughts or it is completely unintelligible, but I have written books. There are a million tests out there that I - if forced to 'take' them in 'traditional' ways - would fail, yet those tests would keep me out of jobs that there is no doubt I could do, and do well.

So in this Year of Universal Access we have to break through the barriers of 'labellism,' of 'credentialism' that is really just a hazing process used by those in power, and through that biggest barrier in education - the privileging of the instructor's preferred method.

Labelling: It accomplishes nothing. It is always arbitrary. It is always destructive. It is aways limiting of legitimate human choice. Which is why we don't call those wearing eyeglasses "special needs." And why we don't send those who throw badly to remedial classes while other students get to visit the library. And why we don't tell those who can not sight read and perform symphonic music that they can not graduate from high school. And why we let just about anyone take elevators in tall buildings - not just those who have documentation proving that they can not climb stairs. Students need to be shown the tools available, and they should be helped in learning how to pick the best tool for their specific situation.

Credentiallism: There is nothing wrong with asking someone to prove that they can perform a job. There is something very wrong when people are told that there is only one narrow path to that job. Telling a student that he/she can't do sixth grade science because he/she reads at a first grade level is a classic example of credentiallism run amuck, as is requiring "good" handwriting when the assignment is to tell a story or prove knowlege. This goes all the way up. If I can prove my unique level of knowledge, the formatting of my PhD thesis is just nonsensical credentiallism.

Method Privilege: So much of school is about method, not knowledge gain. It makes no difference whether I've read Ulysses in ink, or via audiobook, or via computer file. But almost every third grade teacher thinks this makes a huge difference. There is no study anywhere which suggests that decoding alphabetic symbols of ink on paper is the world's best method of transmitting information. Likewise, a handwritten note is only superior to a text message if the receiver chooses to think of it that way. Writing with a computer (or mobile phone) spell-checker is not, in any way, inferior to having your college educated mom "look over" your homework. There is nothing wrong with looking things up on Google or in Wikipedia that isn't also potentially wrong with looking in the library (pick the first book you see) or opening up Encyclopedia Britannica (might be wrong or at least out of date). Method is often best left to personal choice. The end result - learning, sharable knowledge, discovery - that's what matters.

On the last post Lisa Parisi said, "I had a conversation with my 13 year old this week. "Do you know who the classified students are in your class?" I asked. "Yes." And she starts listing them. "How do you know?" "They get to use calculators and computers, they get extra test time, they get asked constantly if they understand what is going on." "Do you ever get to use any of those? Do your teachers ask you if you understand?" "Only when they ask the whole class. If I don't raise my hand, they don't ask." My frustration is over the fact that 1. she knew all the classified students as if they had labels on them and 2. she was not able to use any extra tools, whether she needs them or not. Christine and I work constantly make sure that tools are available for everyone so no one feels isolated and everyone gets what they need. And, as you said, it is not so difficult to do so today. So what is the hold up?"

What is the hold up? We could do away with 90% of "special needs" today, and instead make all those tools and resources available to every child to use every time "this way" would make education work better than "the old way." Stigmas would drop away, as would the self-limits of low-expectations. Student interests would create groupings rather than measurements of single abilities. Students would find lifespan methods to support their learning.

2009. In the year we inaugurate a president with few of the conventional resume checkpoints, a president who defined his own way to campaign, to fundraise, to reach out to voters, we ought to accept the same from our students.

In this year of Universal Access, pull off those labels. Let the "LD" kid read the hard book. Let the "smart" kid use the calculator. Let anyone who struggles with a word's pronunciation use text-to-speech to figure it out. Let even the calmest kid have a fidgit toy if he needs it that day. Let everyone choose their way of demonstrating knowledge. None of this means that you can't encourage kids to try new things, to test out different ways to communicate, but it does mean that you no longer make your preferences the only routes to success.

After all, you have no idea what communication tools will be essential ten years from now. Nor do you know how any particular students needs will align with the jobs or learning environments in their future.

Yes, we need to re-think our definitions of experience to liberate many. And we need to re-think our definitions of what 'success in school' means to liberate many, many more.

- Ira Socol

02 January 2009

2009: The Year of Universal Access

It is time to stop making - and stop accepting - excuses. It is now 2009. The tenth year of the 21st Century, and more than a dozen years after court and US Department of Ed decisions made it clear that everyone has a right to information and communications in real time and in 'equivalently effective' forms. 25 years after the Macintosh PC appeared and 15 years after "Windows95" created standard, accessible, computer platforms. All the reasons, all those "we wish we coulds" have now fully expired.

It is time to make 2009 the Year of Universal Access: in education. in employment. in communication.

Because I, and so many of us, are tired of still fighting the old fights - over and over. Because so many are still left out because people in power are lazy or intentionally uninformed. Because we will not start digging ourselves out of the huge mess we are in without the contributions of everyone who could contribute if we'd grant them their basic human rights.

Let me tell you a story:

Back in 1997 I was a student at Grand Valley State University, struggling in my fourth (or so) attempt to get a Bachelors Degree. I was also working for GVSU, for "Academic Computing/Instructional Technology" and had just shifted from being a "Tech Monkey" (pulling and terminating network cable) to being a network programmer/troubleshooter - back in the days when you had to program "PROM" (Programmable Read-Only-Memory) chips on network cards if you were going to build sophisticated connections.

As a student I was battling with those old proprietary RFBD books-on-cassette. Remember those? You could only play them on a specific, really embarrassing looking cassette players that screamed "RETARD" if you carried it. The books were usually read onto cassette by very bored minimum-wage work study students who not only routinely mispronounced everything, they literally fell asleep at times while reading.

These experiences had two lasting affects on my thinking - I despise specific text formats - even Daisy Readers - because all I wanted back then was a book-on-tape I could listen to in my car or my walkman - something "universal." And I never knock computer voices in text-to-speech, because I know that the alternative was often much worse.

For writing I was totally dependent on the kindness of professors, along with careful scheduling to avoid taking classes requiring in class writing assignments.

Then I signed up to participate in a research project for ADHD college students. And I met a wonderful person and brilliant researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Schaughency, who started to ask the right questions. Her questions lead her to ask me two things: First, she said, "There are computer software programs that read to the blind, so there might be things that will read to you." Then she said, "Tell your boss to give you an old laptop that you can use for notetaking and writing in class."

Those questions lead me to Ray Kurzweil and Jim Fruchterman, to WYNN 1.0, and to a conversation with my boss who looked at me and said, "If there's stuff out there that will help you I bet it will help a lot of other students. Take the year and see what you can find that we can bring to campus."

Remember. This was 1997. To get big monitors we needed massive CRT displays that weighed a hundred pounds. To get text-to-speech sound we needed super-premium sound cards. To run speech recognition we needed very expensive RAM upgrades. To swap keyboards without restarting the computer we needed special "hot-swap" boxes that the BigKeys keyboard people made. To even plug headsets into the front of the computer we needed special add-on boxes that we purchased from Andrea.

At the end of the year I came back with a flood of solutions: Zoom-Text, WYNN, ViaVoice, Dvortyboards and BigKeys, and all sorts of other things. "Should we build a special lab here?" my boss asked, indicating the computer center. "No," I told him, "I'm too old for a resource room, I want at least one fully accessible station everyplace we have computers." And so in every lab, on every campus, we installed adjustable tables, giant monitors, scanners, fully equipped workstations, and created boxes of "check-out-able" alternative keyboards, mice, and headsets. Then we created web and paper-based instructions for all this. Then we trained every computer lab worker. Then we met with every freshmen English faculty member, discussed "learning disabilities" with them, and explained how these new tools in their writing labs might help. Then we created an email newsletter about accessibility that went to every department chair in the university.

In 1998 this was all quite difficult. I made hundreds of phone calls, thousands of pre-Google web searches, bought scores of products and tested them myself, sat through dozens of meetings with reluctant administrators. Not many obvious traces of our efforts - create@gvsu - remain, but the access - to a large extent does. Hundreds of students with disabilities have succeeded at GVSU in the decade which has passed, often, to a significant extent, because the right tools were available. But it was expensive. It required much "original" research." It took a massive amount of effort. And it required my luck at having, "the best boss ever."

So, again, here's why 2009 must be our year of universal access.

Because now, it is really quite easy. Now the information is all out there, free and available (though if you want to pay me, or anyone else, for a bit for advice, I'm sure we can make a deal). Now Windows Vista comes with Speech Recognition. Now a $60 scanner will convert text to digital form and free text-to-speech solutions will read it. Now you can download an entire suite of AccessApps for free. Now Adobe Acrobat Reader 8 reads to you for free. Now all kinds of free software turns mobile phones into access tools. Now, if you need to buy the "expensive stuff" you'll pay less - in actual dollars (or Euros) - for fabulous software and hardware than we had to pay a decade ago.

So, again, there are no excuses. No excuses for inaccessible web sites. No excuses for school computers without text-to-speech, speech recognition, screen magnification, and text-converting scanners. No excuses for computer environments anywhere without choices of keyboards and mice (including on-screen - including scanning switch-access - keyboards). No excuses for employers, or schools, requiring "keyboarding" on specific keyboards. No excuses for teachers or employers who will not text their students or workers - allowing media conversion for messages. No excuses for rules against - or network blocks on - important access tools, whether those be web sites or installed software or mobile phones. Security can no longer be an excuse to deprive people of their civil rights. Of course we are long past excuses for physical barriers, including adjustable computer desks.

So I'm asking you to act in 2009. To act every time you see an inaccessible school or public computer. To act every time you notice a rule which blocks access (no phones in school, for example). To act every time you see any government agency or public institution (banks? schools?) fail to provide alternative ways to access content. To act every time you see a barrier.

Act: Say something. Complain. Follow up. Lecture. Demand answers. Get in "their" faces. Be clear: "The time for excuses is past." "The time for "I didn't knows' is long past."

Universal Access is not a pipe dream. It is a real thing which now is there for the taking, if in 2009 we will simply start demanding that we take it.

- Ira Socol