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.

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It’s Just Business: Corporations in Schools

There is no shortage of examples of ways in which corporations have partnered with education over the years to offer financial support.  Coca-cola, Crayola, Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Addidas…the list goes on and on.  Financial support is something that, in this day and age, schools cannot afford to turn away.  Government funding for public education has been dismally low ever since the recession and as is evidenced in the recent decision by the Sask Party government to renege on their earlier funding promise.  School districts are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to funding, especially in the United States.  In many districts, funding is granted due to performance of the school or district in question on various academic and standardized tests.  This makes great business sense for companies because they are able to build community relationships, while also garnering support from partnerships.  In Calgary Public schools for example, the Board of Education is entertaining the possibility of more corporate involvement in their system.  The truth is that corporations want to be involved in public education but they also want some recognition.  The important consideration becomes whether the corporate involvement in schools is actually providing enhanced learning for students.  In many instances this decision may come down to a trade off of funding or support for corporations in exchange for some advertising exposure for students.  So what is it that corporations want in partnerships with public education?

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This depends on the individual situation.  There are legitimate companies who truly want to bring educational improvements to the classroom but it is a rare occurrence to find situations in which funding or support is given without any expectancy of return.  The returns wanted from these companies vary but they can prove to be detrimental to the learning happening at the classroom level.  One of the biggest negatives in these situations is the possibility of creating ‘haves and have nots.’  For example, if Coca-Cola is going to provide funding for a new school gymnasium, they will want their name to be associated with a successful school.  Therefore, schools who already have success in academics or athletics will probably unfairly attract corporate sponsors.  This leads to a disparity in school districts and the further alienation of at risk students.  Another problem arises from the advertisements and marketing geared toward students.  In one instance, M and M’s produces a primary level math text book that teaches students to count using their candy.  McDonald’s sponsors the Go-Active Fitness Challenge which, to me seems quite ironic.  Unless the goal of the challenge is to work off the calories from your latest Big Mac.  These kinds of programs encourage consumerism among students.  The strategy is called Trojan-Horse Marketing and it gives companies access to one of the biggest untapped markets of future buyers.

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Many parents are worried about the public schools having these types of business relationships because of the potential impacts on kids.  In this documentary called Corporations in the Classroom, teachers and administrators both share differing views on the role of businesses in the community.  Some in the education community feel as though having corporate sponsors is a necessary evil in order to be able to fund the programs and learning experiences that truly inspire students.  On the other hand, some feel that although companies should feel a responsibility to schools and communities, support should come without strings attached.

The other issue in corporate involvement becomes apparent when corporate educational partners have a vested interest in testing.  Pearson has become a hot button issue with many educators due to their involvement in virtually all aspects of our education system in Canada.  The standardized tests are often written and provided by companies like Pearson, who also provide textbooks and learning resources for schools.  In these instances, especially in the US, standardized test scores are linked to government funding.  Therefore, once again, the schools from higher socio-economic areas will tend to score higher on these tests thereby resulting in more funding.  The No Child Left Behind policy resulted in increased testing for students with funding linked to success on these tests.  Dean Shareski would certainly argue that the Pearson example in Canada is an extreme one and that the majority of corporations involved with schools are invested in improving education and enhancing learning.  As he stated during the debate on Tuesday, “it is naive for educators and school divisions to think that we can do this on our own.”  I think it is a telling sign of where public education ranks on the list of societies’ priorities in this day and age.  If a little bit of extra advertising is what we are concerned about, the question should be asked, how much advertising are our students exposed to on a daily basis?

Is it really so bad that we have corporations vying for a spot at the table of learning?  It seems as though the balance must always be struck but the key question has to be are we putting students first?  That’s the bottom line.  Every monetary decision must be framed in this way.  Are we doing a disservice to students or are we enhancing the learning that is happening in the classroom?  Once we lose sight of students best interests, it may be too late and the soul of education will already be gone.  Have we gone too far?

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To Speak and be Heard

As I reflected this week on the ability of my female counterparts to express themselves online, it became abundantly clear that many women and indeed people who are on the margins of society simply do not feel safe commenting in online spaces.  Depending on where you live in the world, the ease with which you may take part in meaningful conversations online will differ.  However, the differences are not simply geographical.  Those who are operating from a base of, often unseen, power will have much more social capital and therefore agency to participate in online discussion and be heard and validated without fear of reprisal.  These power bases can be socio-economic, gender-based, age-based, sexual orientation-based, race-based, class-based, and even ability-based.  Peggy McIntosh‘s work on white privilege is one example of how certain people in society operate from a base of power.  Here is another visible example of how privilege plays out in society.

Should we be surprised that people who are marginalized are experiencing feelings of fear and insecurity in online spaces because of who they are?  Not at all.  The human race has always been fearful of what is different, and for this reason, our prejudices are reflected online often times with more intensity and ferocity than occurs face to face.  Privilege exists in degrees and therefore some people will experience more while others experience less.  As shared by equity matters, it is “constructed and normalized by the established frameworks of society – narratives that have been developed based on the power struggles of history.”  As the narrative is reinforced, privilege is also further normalized. When I first began studying about this topic, I went through a variety of stages as I grappled with the reality of what I was reading.  At first, I denied it existed.  Then, I felt guilt. Finally, I realized that I could either be a part of the system or seek to change the discourse in order to foster change.  Over the past few years I have done an exercise like the one below with my students in order to get them to think about privilege a little bit.  Students at the front of the room are closer to the basket and therefore, have an easier shot than those at the back.  The comment “that’s not fair” comes almost immediately after I explain the game.  However, students soon realize the intended lesson and I have had some very meaningful discussions on equity with students who will hopefully continue to explore what privilege means in our society.

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Photo Credit: http://www.Buzzfeed.com

The online attacks on marginalized society members who are brave enough to speak up are a sad commentary on the state of society.  Racism, bigotry, sexism and hate are everywhere.  This is clearly evident in the amount of comment pages that have been shut down by news and media sites over the past few years.  Due to the fact that there is really no accountability for what is said online, it becomes challenging to receive justice in these cases.  Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to know how to respond when attacked online.  Many countries do not have express laws addressing online harassment.  In addition, because it is often the marginalized who are the victims, there are few resources available for support in these situations.  In a 2014 PEW study, women and minorities experienced online harassment far more often than others and young women in particular were also experiencing more severe forms.

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As Kristy Tillman’s article in the New York Times stated, “anonymous communication certainly has its place on the Internet, but it is important to understand how our social ills are exacerbated when users are not required to be accountable for what they say, and how that disproportionately affects some individuals more than others.”  There are crucial steps that can be taken together in order to change the discourse and allow all members of society to feel the freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the charter. The first step is for those with agency to continue to lend their voices to the conversation.  The role of those with agency is thus crucial in addressing the issue of privilege and harassment.  If there is silence on this front, we are unequivocally signalling a surrender of equity, decency and respect for the human spirit.  Secondly, it is imperative that educators continue the slow and painstaking work of teaching about privilege at all levels.  To build on Justice Murray Sinclair’s words, education will be the key to changing the narrative and ensuring a disruption of social “norms.”  As we begin to recognize and do away with pieces of discourse that serve to divided us as people, there can be progress.

However, as Justin Ford explains, the best way forward does not come from pointing out the ills of society or playing the blame game.  It starts on the individual level.  It starts with me.  By recognizing the ways that I interact with privilege everyday, I can begin to, through small actions, equalize the playing field.  This may mean examining the way I treat women.  It may mean examining the way I treat minorities or my attitudes towards those with disabilities.  As I engage in these small daily exercises, the privilege will be recognized, confronted and dealt with.  It will not be easy.  Giving up something that gives you power or advantage is never easy.  Neither is learning to read or do math.  We model reading and mathematical strategies to students all the time.  Isn’t it time we started modelling examination of privilege as well?

 

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.