Assistive Technology: Putting A Stop To ‘Other’ing in Society

I have not had many experiences with assistive technology over the years but I will attempt to share my thoughts regarding the role of technology in levelling the playing field for students with disabilities or to enhance learning.  I have taught 2 students with hearing impairments over the years and they each required a microphone in order to hear what was going on in the classroom.  The 2 students approached this difficulty in differing ways however.  One student needed a sound system used in the classroom and thus students and teachers would talk into the microphone in order for her to hear.  The other student had a system that transmitted directly to his hearing aids and was therefore able to hear without the need for an amplifier.assistive-technology-1  It was interesting to see the other students’ reactions to the different systems.  In the first case, many of the students loved using the microphone for presentations and class discussions.  The microphone became similar to a talking stone that indicated when others should listen.  It became a bit more cumbersome at times but overall, it was a very positive experience.  I have also taught a student who had a personal laptop with Kursweil in order to help him take notes and complete assignments.  Students in all cases were very supportive and understanding.  I think one aspect that is often forgotten is the teaching around equity and what it means for student success.  I often hear the argument about fidgets from students that they believe it’s unfair if certain students receive special tools to use in class.  This is due to the fact that before any teaching is done on metacognition, students tend to see fidgets or even assistive technology as something that they should all have access to. When I first begin these conversations with Middle Years students I often give students a learning styles type of personal evaluation to start the conversation.  Then we talk about how each of us learns best.  Finally I have the kids do some writing about how they like to learn.  Photo Credit

The key here is to remember that the same solutions do not apply to all cases.  That is why pre-teaching around metacognition and student success is crucial.  The meaning of what success looks like for each student must be considered by both parents, students and teachers alike.  It may also mean that it is not simply those with physical or mental disabilities that have need of assistance.  These assistive technologies may mean something as simple as a pair of glasses for someone with poor vision or as complex as speech to text software for those who cannot speak.  Students often want to try some of the technologies to see if they fit with their needs.  However, I always make it clear that a person doesn’t wear glasses or hearing aids if they weren’t needed.  In the same way, evaluation of needs for learning supports is critical.  As we seek to help evaluate which students are in need of which specific aids, it is paramount that we keep in mind that not only should we as teachers seek to find tools but also to break down unjust barriers to enhance student success.    equity

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For example, it is not possible to remove someone’s inability to walk, however, we can remove barriers that keep that student from achieving.  Whereas equality provides the same supports for everyone, equity is much more fluid.  It encompasses anyone and everyone who may need a little help.  As Naomi states, the biggest barriers to successful AT integration are access and training.  Natalie also points out the need for PD on this subject as many teachers have little or no training and LRT’s are stretched thin.  In the video below, Sam is able to attend college classes and even take his own notes using his Ipad and computer.  Were Sam to have been born in another century, he would certainly not have access to these sorts of opportunities.  The world has been opened in an unprecedented way and the future will surely only continue to give freedom to those in need of some sort of assistance.  Sam can now feel like he can contribute and manage his own learning.

Those with extreme disabilities are in no way different from others.  As is mentioned by Henry Evans in the video below, if we both want to go 60 kph, we will both need a piece of assistive technology called a car.  Therefore it is also important to remember that assistive technology is not a sign of weakness or a problem.  Those who struggle to complete certain tasks have been ‘othered’ by society for long enough and by constantly keeping them down, we reassign power to those in the centre.  Unfortunately, it is often because of assistive technologies that students are viewed as different, strange or weird.  Because they are often very visible, it is crucial to have meaningful conversations with students at the outset about how we each learn in different ways and what equity looks like in the classroom.  I usually begin each year with these types of discussions for that very reason.  Not only does it help each student to take part in some self-reflection about their own learning style, it also allows us to discuss the ways in which we support one another as a learning community.

It will be an exciting time for students in the coming years.  Technology will allow those who have been previously marginalized to not only participate but also to thrive in our classrooms and in society.  I often have to repeatedly reevaluate my practice keeping in mind the various needs that exist in my classroom.  I still struggle with this and I wonder what tech tools or practices exist that allow teachers to plan with student success in mind?  What is the best way to implement these strategies?  Should we still be considering learning styles when we talk about AT?  Let me know in the comments section below.

Disconnect to Reconect

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It is surprising to think that the little devices we carry with us have such a hold on us.  We constantly check in on our Facebook accounts, take photos, post them and check for likes and shares.  Very few of us go without cell phones for more than a few minutes let alone a few days.  The concept of unplugging has become a bit of a buzz word these days and the concept has been explored by tech wizards and numerous blogs.  Unplugging or detoxing has been lauded for it’s merits as an activity to cleanse the mind and the soul.  But is it all it’s cracked up to be?  Is it necessary to unplug when everything we do is linked to tech and social media?  Life is about finding balance and it just seems as though in the fight between screen time and living in the moment, screens are winning by a long shot.

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The reality is that it’s actually healthy to take breaks from social media and technology from time to time.  Many studies have shown that cognitive function and memory are affected by constant social media checking and idle web surfing.  The brain is like a muscle.  Although it doesn’t move, it does require time to develop and grow after new information is added.  We could consider this processing time.  In fact, studies have shown that taking a break from screens and tech periodically can recharge the brain and improve memory.  Here are some other interesting stats…

  • 84% of cell phone users claim they could not go a single day without their device. (source)
  • 67% of cell phone owners check their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.(source)
  • Studies indicate some mobile device owners check their devices every 6.5 minutes. (source)
  • 88% of U.S. consumers use mobile devices as a second screen even while watching television. (source)
  • Almost half of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls. (source)
  • Traditional TV viewing eats up over six days (144 hours, 54 minutes) worth of time per month. (source)
  • Some researchers have begun labeling “cell phone checking” as the new yawn because of its contagious nature. (source)

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I think we’ve all experienced situations such as the ones mentioned during the debate by Dean, Janelle, and Kyle.  I still find it incredibly rude when someone is in the middle of a conversation and the other person pulls out his/her phone.  As stated above, you may have even compulsively pulled out your phone when you saw someone else doing it (much like yawns being contagious).  Now I am not saying that I am without reproach in this regard.  I too carry my phone with me almost all of the time.  I do try to keep it in my pocket when in social situations and having kids has really opened my eyes to the dangers of not living in the moment.  I have been at countless swimming lessons, soccer games and play dates during which not a single parent was actually engaging with their kids or watching them at all.  What could distract these parents from watching their 3 year olds having a blast in the pool or scoring a goal?  As I look around the field or pool deck I consistently see moms and dads hunched over cell phones and tablets, unaware of what’s happening around them.  I am not in a place to judge at all.  Maybe these parents are responding to urgent emails.  Maybe they are preparing something for work the next day.  But, I can imagine that at least some of these parents are engaged in social media activities.  Here is another viewpoint on unplugging shared by a teenager named Lane Sutton, a tech and social media wonderkind.

So, I practice being in the moment.  I make a concerted effort to be in every story, joke or activity with my kids because they are such little sponges.  They notice what we may not always perceive.  My little girl said to me the other day, “Daddy put your phone away and come outside with me.”  She’s 2 and she is already realizing that with my phone in front of me she does not have my full attention.  I realize that we will never be able to denounce technology.  It is now too ingrained in our lives.  Social media has a stranglehold on the way in which we interact with the world.  Even my 87 year-old Grandmother checks her Facebook profile on her Ipad daily to see pictures of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  The key has to be moderation.  Take some time this week to take a break from social media and screens and take part in an activity you love without posting the results or waiting for likes.  Enjoy the smiles on the faces of your family members without snapping a photo.  Get some exercise without posting your workout to social media or fitness apps.  You’ll find rejuvenation of mind, body and soul.

Here are some other great reasons to unplug:

1) Leave behind jealousy, envy, and loneliness

2) Combat FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

3) Find solitude (there is value in having alone time)

4) Life is happening right in front of you (don’t miss out for FOMO)

5) Promote Creation over Consumption (take time to create something)

6) Once the device is gone the level of addiction can truly be understood (as we all know when we have forgotten our phones)

7) Life is about flesh, blood and eye contact

Everything in moderation, as someone once said.

-Almost everything will work again if you unplug for a few minutes….Including you!-  Anne Lamott

 

 

 

 

 

Is Social Media Making us Unsocial?

Growing up in the 21st century means that childhood is defined by, and inextricably linked to, social media.  Children as young as grade 2 or 3 now have personal devices.  Children in elementary and middle school have multiple social media accounts even though many of these require minimum ages of 13 or 14.  It has become a way to connect, to chat, to post our thoughts, feelings and emotions.  It provides answers to questions, gives feedback, and affirms or negates our feelings.  It acts like a catalog of all the information available to us which is shared by others.  It documents our lives in incredible detail if need be.  Social media helps students connect with other students across the globe, collaborate together, post progress and receive feedback.  It is a force of the 21st century world and it is a crucial part of our lives that cannot be ignored.

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However, can we accept blindly every new app and innovation that comes along without knowing how they impact us?  Of course we should right?  I mean, technology is always good, it always moves us forward, it always makes life easier and simpler.  After-all, many of today’s modern conveniences were once new inventions as well.  The difference here lies in the deeply personal aspects of these social media platforms.

As Alison Graham explains, the goals of social media platforms are connections and socialization but it seems that the more we participate, the less social we actually become. Personalized technology that becomes so ingrained in our psyches that we literally become addicted to the likes that somehow indicate we have worth in this world.  Herein lies the problem, with the blind acceptance of social media platforms, it shifts focus away from others and onto the self.  As time goes on, the socializing aspect for which the apps were designed ceases to be the true driving force behind their use.  The self often becomes the true reason for the constant posting and checking for likes.  One researcher even tells of a young man who’s desire to take the perfect selfie drove him to suicidal tendencies.   It tends to drive narcissism to the point where phycological trauma can occur.

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People will argue that these anxieties have always existed and that alarmists are making too much of what we call social media addictions.  When I was growing up, social time with friends was just that…time to socialize.  Talking and laughing about what had happened that day, riding our bikes to another friend’s house to see if we could organize a soccer game.  Some would argue that we look back at our childhood through rose coloured glasses in which we see a delightful world free of stress and anxiety.  Of course stress and anxiety still existed before the age of social media.  However, the difference lies in transparency of lives lived completely in the online environment. If your social status, well being, and self worth comes completely from what is said about you on social media, it’s little wonder that students can not handle being without their phones.  A recent CNN documentary called #Being 13 looked at 13 year olds across the United States and their lives lived on social media.

  • 61% of teens said they wanted to see if their online posts are getting likes and comments.
  • 36% of teens said they wanted to see if their friends are doing things without them.
  • 21% of teens said they wanted to make sure no one was saying mean things about them.

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The Huffington Post released a study in which parents were asked if children were more susceptible to mental health problems in this day and age.  The results indicated that social media was one of the driving forces behind mental health issues for youth.  This is something that cannot be escaped whether it’s negative feedback on a selfie, bullying comments posted on your Facebook wall, or being left out of a group of friends.  The digital online life follows students back to the privacy of their homes each night. Compulsively checking and rechecking to see what others have said about them has become normal for many teens.  This new phenomenon, which has been deemed lurking,  tends to lead to late night with little sleep as students scroll through feeds, answer texts or hit like and follow to show that they are “socially engaged” in popular culture.

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So what does this all mean?  First of all, as adults in a digital world it once again comes back to the idea of modelling proper social media use.  What warrants a post or picture being placed online?  Who will we allow to see it?  What message are we trying to convey with this content?  I always ask my students to THINK before they post anything.

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Secondly, it’s important to set limits for social media use.  This falls on the shoulders of the parents but it is something that can be discussed at school as well.  Have students reflect meaningfully on how much they are online.  What are they doing during those hours and are they balancing for a healthy lifestyle that involves enough sleep and exercise?  It’s perhaps unfair to compare our childhood with the one in which students now find themselves.  However, it is more than fair to help students find a balanced and healthy approach to life.

 

 

Internet Equality: Bridging the Digital Divide

If you’re old enough to remember a time before the internet, you’ve seen the world change a lot in the past 20 years.  People can access all types of information, take classes online, and even make a living online in a variety of ways.  Students can work collaboratively online while teachers can monitor their learning using a variety of tools.  As I’ve reflected this past week on the rights and privileges that accompany access to technology and the internet, I’ve been struck by several things.  It seems as though access to technology becomes yet another instance in which the less fortunate and those on the margins are further disadvantaged.  I have stated before that teaching in a community school has opened my eyes to the needs that exist right here in our own city.  Trying to help students learn becomes exceedingly difficult when they are experiencing deficits in lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy.  Add to these the lack of access to the technological advantages of some other schools in the city and it is clear to see that some students in Regina will simply have greater chances of success than others.

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This argument can be extended to the rest of the world as we see the same types of issues on the macro level.  For example, internet users per 100 people in the developing world are between 90-99%.  This includes countries in Europe, North America, and Australia.  While countries in the developing world are at 9-20%.  It shouldn’t surprise us that the countries with the highest access rates are also the countries with the highest quality of life and lowest unemployment rates.  I do not mean to draw unnecessary correlations between internet access and quality of life but it is yet another factor to add to the already long list of disadvantages for people living in these countries.  Facebook has recently become a major player in the push to increase access to the internet for those in the Third World.  However, the question that is always asked of large companies seemingly interested in philanthropy is “what’s in it for you?”  Big companies clearly see that in these undeveloped parts of the world, the potential for profit is huge. In this case it is much like the Europeans that first landed on the shores of Africa and South America.  Just as the colonizers saw opportunity for exploitation in these “new” lands, big internet players see enormous potential if they can corral potential future users of their product or service.

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This is why it is crucial that the internet remain an open and free environment that is not predicated on who pays more or has more political connections.  The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer.  It was supposed to help everyone have an equal opportunity to access information, make connections, and have a voice.  Individuals and companies alike should have the right to access information and services at comparable speeds to anyone else.  However, if big companies have monopolies in certain areas of the world, they will be the ones deciding who has access to what, for how long and at what speed.  For everyone to have an equal chance at internet access and usage, internet access equality must be in place to allow individuals to access information and promote services regardless of their socio-economic status.  Why is this important?  Well, for one thing although it is clear that socio-economic status is a huge factor in the future prospects for students, the current popularity of open education means that opportunities are available but inaccessible to those without information technologies.

As Aleph Molinari discusses in the video found above, the internet is “a basic social necessity of the 21st century and therefore it should be considered a right not a privilege.” With 5 billion people in the world who are digitally excluded, what will be the state of the digital revolution we are experiencing in North America and Europe if only 30% of the world’s population are included.  In essence this indicates that 70% of the world’s ideas, insights and innovations are completely untaped.  In Molinari’s model, RIA, community centres with computers and internet access are provided to communities in need of these services.  The centres are also equipped with educational software to enable both youth, seniors and everyone in between to have access to what they need to improve their lives.  They are also built with sustainability in mind.  Users are given opportunities to learn how to use computers and build connections and networks while learning to also become digital citizens.  This is one model but there are many others.

With the influx of new immigrants and refugees to Canada and other developed nations, we need to be providing training and opportunities to people who can lend their voice to digital conversations around war, reconciliation, peacekeeping, citizenship, immigration, politics, etc.  They also need to be able to access and navigate the myriad of forms, databases and information hubs necessary for survival in Canadian society.  For anyone who has ever tried to navigate the CRA or Government of Canada websites to retrieve a form or file a claim, I think you understand what I mean.  Now imagine that you don’t speak English or French, you’ve never used a computer before and you’re trying to register your baby for a SIN number.  It’s not just newcomers to Canada that are faced with this issue.  First Nations reserves across the country are also faced with this reality.  Low income urban neighbourhoods are another example of citizens with little to no access to technology or the internet.

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So, what’s the answer?  What is the role of educators and indeed all digital citizens in building a bridge across the digital divide? There are a number of positive options you can be involved in.  Volunteer at a local library to teach newcomers to use computers. Make an online connection with someone in a developing country to help them practice their English.  Donate to an organization that supplies computers or digital centres to underprivileged communities.  Raise money through fundraising with your students to provide technology for underprivileged communities.  Above all, remember that because you are already a part of the digital world, it is incumbent upon you to fight for the inclusion of those whose voices are not heard.  Do you agree that internet access is a right for all people? If so, let’s fight for it and fight to protect it.

 

Who am I ? : Social Media and Identity

What do you want to be remembered for?  It seems that increasingly, what people will be remembered for has less to do with our accomplishments and more to do with what information can be found in our digital footprint.  I attended an interesting breakout session at our Regina Teachers’ Convention on Friday which got me thinking about what people see online when they search for me.  In this session, several scenarios were presented in which teachers became embroiled in situations that led to suspensions or termination due to social media or online identity issues.

Teachers have run up against many legal issues in recent years with the ability to share freely and openly about anything online.  Students and parents now have access to the pictures and musings of many school staff members. Some teachers have chosen to simply stay out of the social media arena as a preemptive defensive manoeuvre. Permanently sealed off from any possible attack based on online profiles or posts, these teachers may feel that they are protected but are they missing out on something worthwhile.  After all, the information and support available to teachers online is extremely helpful.  In addition, if you aren’t controlling your digital footprint, who is?  So how should teachers be presenting themselves online?  According to Ulrike Shultze, social media tools have a great deal to do with how people form their identity.  From a sociological perspective, the tools we invent to help shape our world also shape us.  In essence, it is a multi-faceted question because at any given moment, individuals are able to perform multiple identities if they so chose.  Social Media has expedited this factor immensely.

If we are to be the curators of our own personal online identities, what are the steps necessary to ensure that what people see is a professional and organized picture of who we are.  Teachers and students alike need to take control of their digital identity and make it something that they can be proud of.  Stephen Anderson has some sound suggestions when it comes to online identity curation.  Firstly, it’s important that teachers and students make a habit of googling themselves.  Control of your online identity can not happen unless you are aware of what is out there.  It is often surprising what pops up on the first page of a google search about yourself.  My blog page appears as 3rd on the google search list after a list of possible Luke Brauns on Facebook and another Luke Braun’s Twitter account.  Only 2 of the images in the image search are of me.  One is my About.me profile picture and the other is my Twitter profile picture.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  That’s what I’m trying to figure out.  My public online persona is certainly somewhat limited if you compare it to other teachers in the educational technology realm.  In some ways I feel as if my digital footprint is already quite professional, however it could always be better curated and available.  I hope to build a brand that is both professional and accessible.

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Photo Credit: www.Bullishdata.com

Secondly, establishing a brand can help build your digital identity based around a common idea or theme.  This does not mean the marketing of a commodity but marketing yourself as an individual.  In other words, what positive points would you like to highlight about yourself.  Thirdly, claim a space or set of spaces online in which you can control what information is made public.  This could be a blog, a Twitter account, an About.me page or a personal domain.  These spaces serve not only as promotional tools for you as a person but also allow you to control what is published about you.  Lastly, try to keep track of what personal information regarding your identity is online.  One simple way tot do this is to set up a Google Alert to notify you when your brand is mentioned online.  This can be done by telling Google a list of keywords to search for.  They could include your name, your blog or twitter account or even your brand.  The results will show up in your email inbox so you know who is talking about you online.  Take steps to delete information that you do not want as a part of your online identity.  Remember, take control before someone else does.

Perhaps we need to stop thinking in terms of digital footprints and more in terms of digital tattoos.  As teachers, are we held to some higher standard for online identity?  Certainly if we consider other professionals in public service positions, there is some notion of responsibility to maintain a certain image in the public eye.  Teachers often argue that there exists a divide between personal and professional identities and that teachers have the right to a personal online identity that should be seen as separate from their public persona.  Unfortunately, the public may not see the difference in these two categories. Due to the fact that teachers work with children, and that they provide a public service to society, the notions exists that teachers should be held to a higher standard when it comes to our online presence.   I believe we have to start increasing professional development opportunities related to the curation of online profiles.  What are your thoughts? Should teachers be held to a higher standard when it comes to online identity?

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Selfies and Self-Worth

Header Photo Credit-Jason Howie via flickr cc

I remember when I signed up with Facebook in my first year as an undergrad student.  I could’t believe the myriad of possible connections that existed as I discovered old friends and acquaintances that were all part of this massive online community.  Now it seems like Facebook has always existed and is one of the places where most of the people in my age group connect and interact online.  Since then, the addition of each new social media app has made me feel older as I have more and more to keep up with online.  Gone are the days of checking email and then logging off.  We are always online and always connected.  I often feel like Fred Armisen, stuck in a technology loop wishing for something like “Mind-Fi” to make it easier for me to keep up with the world around me.

For the students I teach, it’s a very different story.  Visual identity is a key factor in the use of social media for the students in my classroom and I believe this is one of the reasons many students are migrating to these types of social media apps such as  Snapchat, Instagram, Kikand Youtube .  It seems as though the visual aspect of these social media sites has in many ways come to define the youth of this generation.  Photos or videos can be instantly uploaded from almost any device.  Gratification comes from the comments/likes and many of these apps function much like messaging apps or have the capability to chat with friends, groups, or one to one.  As stated in the video below, there are several reasons behind the success of these types of apps.  Authenticity and ease of use are huge factors in the adoption of Snapchat by teens especially.

Students use these social media apps effortlessly and are often connected at various periods of the day even when at school or work.  It’s effortless because it’s already a part of them.  Students in this generation have never known a world without Wifi, or constant connection and communication.  The ability to broadcast every moment of your day to your friends, family, or even to the world has become ingrained in the lives of our students.  However, it has become clear that social media use among teens has its downsides as well.  In her op ed piece for The Guardian, June Udorie outlines several dangers of constant social media use among teens.  The loss of necessary sleep for proper development is concerning as teens spend late night hours updating and connecting on social media.  Yet, perhaps a more concerning issue is the mental health risks associated with social media use such as anxiety and depression.  In a recent documentary, called #Being 13, CNN examined what really goes on in the world of teens on social media.  Data concerning social media interactions between 500 thirteen year old students in schools across the United States was collected and analyzed.  Students and parents were interviewed about social media use concerning their perceptions.  Some students claimed that they accessed their social media profiles 100 or more times per day.

The use of these apps is extremely addicting, especially for teen girls who often derive self-worth from online connections.  Girls are now being pressured by main stream media ads but also through advertising on social media platforms not to mention the pressure coming from their networks of friends and acquaintances.  For the sake of the mental health of our students, the education system must take steps to address this issue.

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Photo Credit-Anthony Stone via flickr cc

While it is true that students today are growing up with amazing opportunities for online learning and connection, educators must always be aware that students are under increasing pressure to always be ‘on’ or ‘perfect’ as they curate their online presence.

I don’t discount the potential for social media tools to make a positive difference in student learning in the classroom.  However, there must be an examination of how students are using these tools in their own lives as well.  This is certainly why topics like digital citizenship have become more prevalent in health education and social studies courses over the last few years.  Parents and teachers alike must be active in teaching students to evaluate self-worth based on factors other than how many likes or comments their status or photos generate.  We must demonstrate sound use of social media in educational settings.  We must teach the ideals of good citizenship at home as well as in the classroom in order for students to transfer these ideals to the digital world and be transformers of social media for positive change.