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.

Virtual Reality: Step into the Future

The intention of this week’s blog was to discuss a piece of educational software or media  and do an in-depth analysis of its potential and drawbacks in a classroom setting.  Since we presented this week, I had already done quite a bit of research into Kahn Academy and its ability to aid teachers in flipping their classrooms.  Since most of my limited readership has already been forced to listen to me for a full hour, I will look into a piece of tech/software that I think is very cool.  The idea of virtual reality is not something new but it is becoming more accessible.  In fact the New York Times just released a new film that can be viewed using a smartphone and Googles cardboard VR headsets.  Using a pre folded piece of cardboard, a smartphone, and Google VR Apps/Software, virtual reality can be brought into the classroom for little to no cost.  This is especially true for schools with higher socio-economic status due to the fact that most students will have their own devices to use with the viewers.  The possibilities are really endless when it comes to these virtual field trips.  However, are students simply consumers or can they interact in these virtual worlds?

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Many of the Google expeditions are based on the core sciences/social sciences and provide a different perspective to traditional textbook and lecture teaching.  Not only that, students can also capture and create their own VR experiences to share with their classmates and with the rest of the world.  Take Unity 3D as an example.  In this platform students can not only use an avatar to explore Egyptian or Mayan ruins, they can also build and create their own virtual representations to be explored by others.  In WiloStar 3D, students can take virtual secondary and post secondary courses in virtual environment using an avatar to interact with other students and professors.   Using the IOS or Android Apps from Google, sound and images are recorded in sync for others to enjoy in 3D.  Here are some other virtual worlds with an educational theme or focus:

It seems as if the rise in VR technology has pushed it into the mainstream.  Even in the 600th episode of The Simpsons, VR will make an appearance in the couch gag to open the show.  During the gag, a URL will appear on the screen which will direct viewers to the Google app in which they will be able to use their VR Cardboard viewers to enter the world of the Simpsons.

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The headsets can be ordered from Google or you can try your hand at making your own following the directions in the video below.  Here is the link to the template needed to make your very own headset.  With such an affordable tool, the possible benefits for students are many.  With the teacher as a guide, students can now visit world heritage sites, ancient ruins, archeological digs and much more.  Students can explore, analyze, discuss and get a true experience of what it’s like to be in these amazing places.  This software seems like it fits very well in the constructivist/connectivist school of thought in that it offers choice and freedom for students, allows them to build on preconceived knowledge, allows discussion and social interaction, and engages students in a meaningful way.  In addition, students will be able to interact with vivid objects in a sequential pattern that will mimic real world experience.  This will invariably lead to deep and meaningful learning experiences for students because they will see the effects of their chains of decisions within the VR app.

There are numerous advantages of using VR in the classroom and this technology may hold the key to the reason why our current system still sees many students falling through the cracks.  As William Win stated, “Since a great many students fail in school because they do not master the symbol systems of the disciplines they study, although they are perfectly capable of mastering the concepts that lie at the heart of the disciplines, it can be concluded that VR provides a route to success for children who might otherwise fail in our education system as it is currently construed.”  A second advantage of VR in the classroom addresses the all too familiar problem that arises when some students have mastered concepts being taught while others need remedial support.  VR allows students to literally become participants in their own learning which inevitably boosts motivation.  According to Dr. Veronica Pantelidis, “virtual reality allows students to progress at their own pace without being held back at a class schedule while also motivating them to learn.”

As an example, here is a tour of the amazing and historical Buckingham Palace.  On the screen you can click to move your view around the room as the tour is happening.  Using a VR headset, you can tilt your head to look around the room and advance to explore things you see or hear in the tour. Active rather than passive experience is a key benefit to VR in the classroom which is just one of many possible benefits including;

  • Immersive experience means no distractions
  • Immediate engagement: useful in today’s world of limited attention spans
  • Exploration and hands on approach aids with learning and retention
  • Helps with understanding complex subjects/theories/concepts
  • Suited to all types of learning styles, e.g. visual

So, why aren’t we all rushing out to spend money on this new technological trend?  Simply put, the recent rethinking of Ipads in the classroom has school divisions reevaluating what educational technology should look like.  Cost is a huge deterrent as well, even considering Google cardboard.  Finally, it is also clear that the technology may not lend itself as easily to teaching in some subject areas and depends on BYOD policies that can be problematic for some schools and impossible to implement in others.  Despite all of this, I do think that we will begin to see more VR in classrooms as costs come down and VR software specific to curricula is built.

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What do you think?  Is virtual reality the next trend in educational technology?  Let me know in the comments section below.

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