Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reflection on the conferenceing experience

A humorous instructor of mine back in high school wasn't a huge fan of taking her class down to the school computer lab; so to get around our school's technology policy, our teacher joked that since books, pen and paper were technically technology, we were in fact using technology all the time. While this was obviously a little bit tongue-and-cheek, it's true, really: even modern technology is so diverse and can be applied in so many different situations and classrooms. My learning partner is a chef's instructor at a cooking school; I have no formal, professional classroom instruction under my belt, but am writing about the education of students with special needs (e.g. students with physical or cognitive disabilities). Therefore, when we selected the theme of "technology in the classroom," we agreed to write about our own subject matter as I wasn't sure what technology in these fields could possibly have in common. I believe we both were under the impression that “technology in the classroom” would remain an extremely loose theme, but that our fields would have completely different reasons for technology use; and, similarly, that the roles we play as instructors would be completely different.
Of course, I shouldn't have been so skeptical. Throughout the conferencing experience, it became clear that our results are nearly identical. Technology is an incredibly powerful force in the classroom, and benefits and empowers all kinds of people in many diverse educational settings.
Jonathan found that technology works great in a cooking school. In many cases, a picture is worth a thousand words, and computers and iPads greatly illustrate this adage. Jonathan described how students can watch videos of culinary techniques, which can obviously be paused, re-wound or replayed as needed. It is easy to see why this multisensory approach would work better than trying to jot down directions all the time or look at paper diagrams. Of course, you can't pause a video to ask the computer a question, so this hardly minimizes the role instructors play. Instructors can, however, feel freer to provide a self-directed learning approach to their classes, helping out as needed.
This is certainly true of assistive technology as well, which does not teach any specific subject matter, but can help out with its comprehension and application. Professional AT educators and mainstream teachers alike can often use a similar self-directed learning approach: granting a certain amount of latitude to students in terms of the pace they are comfortable in learning and utilizing technology in the classroom. When I discussed the article “Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction” by Julie Muellet, Eileen Wood, Jen Hunt, and Jacqueline Specht, I described this self-directed learning approach in action: when provided with a dozen different types of special education technology, students self-selected which products they were most comfortable with, and eventually gained the skills to help their peers and only call upon a tutor as a last resort.
If I were a professional in the AT industry, I might offer students guided training programs to learn how to use their technology, but allow power users to skip the training if they don't feel it's necessary. As a mainstream classroom teacher, I might give a student with a print disability wide discretion about how he wants to direct the learning experience to suit his needs (e.g. whether he is more comfortable recording my lectures in audio format, or perhaps bringing a laptop or iPad into the class to take notes that way). As a person whose idea of cooking involves throwing some meat into a pan and placing it into the oven, I didn’t know the first thing about cooking school—but it’s great to know that technology allows many different kinds of instructors to play similar roles. This was the most valuable information I learned from my partner.
The conferencing experience was certainly a step outside my comfort zone, given that my learning partner and I have never met in person, and had to arrange to meet totally independently rather than relying on structured "group time" in the classroom. Nevertheless, in this age of globalization and efficiency, this is a very important skill to have.
Mueller, Julie; Wood, Eileen; Hunt, Jen; Specht, Jacqueline (2009). Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal Spring 2009, Vol. 3 Issue 1, 13-23. Retrieved from

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Assistive technology: a unique self-directed learning opportunity

In considering the role that a course instructor plays with respect to assistive technology, it is clear that technology is only a means to an end, and definitely does not replace course instructors. What I see is that it affords instructors the opportunity for students to take a self-directed learning approach to their usage and application of assistive technology throughout their course work. The reality is that assistive technology is not an exact science; each student has individual hurdles to overcome, and would respond best to a different set of accommodations.

In “Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction” (2009), Julie Mueller, Eileen Wood, Jen Hunt, and Jacqueline Specht, beautifully illustrate these claims in describing a writing study that was conducted for individuals who wanted to improve their writing but whose disabilities formerly stood in the way. For example, the participants were individuals suspected of having learning disabilities and for whom remedial writing programs were only marginally successful (p. 14). Throughout the study, it was clear that individual students responded very differently to the myriad assistive technologies that were offered. There were eleven technologies offered in the computer lab, including text magnifiers, word predictors, software to read text aloud, and voice dictation software (p. 16). Trained tutors were available to teach people to use the software, as well as to assist with technical difficulties (p. 16). The participants’ goals were varied: some wished to improve their personal writing while others wished to write professional letters (e.g. to their landlords).

Throughout the study, participants gravitated towards the software that helped them the most, and concentrated on using it (p. 16). Also, students’ reliance on instructor assistance varied greatly as well. In the beginning, tutors were viewed as the experts and had to assist with even the most rudimentary tasks, such as opening the programs (p. 19). By the end of the study, many participants became much more independent and often did not require help from the tutors (p. 19). Students were sometimes able to act as peer tutors, using techniques learned from their peers (p. 19).

Technology is the toolbox that allows students who need it to build and shape their learning environment so as to get the most out of it. Ultimately, within reason, students should be able to select which tools suit them best. I believe the role for an instructor with respect to technology is to offer their expertise or enforce specific requirements where they are deemed to be necessary, but otherwise allow students to integrate technology into their learning environment as they desire. In other words, a self-directed learning approach works best, allowing students to use technology as it makes sense to them. In my own school days, groups of students were often taken to well-intentioned training programs to be shown how best to use their assistive technology. These one size fits all approaches always seemed very inefficient to me. The power users usually figured out the material long before the sessions began, and, occasionally, had more knowledge than the trainers themselves; meanwhile, they were taken out of class to attend these sessions, and would have probably benefitted more by skipping the training. Others struggled to keep up with the pace of the class, and would have appreciated more one-on-one support.
This is why I believe teachers and experts alike should provide extremely wide discretion to students about technology use in the classroom. Of course, teachers have specific learning outcomes that need to be met and rules to be enforced. Technology is as much an art as a science, however, and instructors need to recognize that all students will use it very differently.

Mueller, Julie; Wood, Eileen; Hunt, Jen; Specht, Jacqueline (2009). Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal Spring 2009, Vol. 3 Issue 1, 13-23. Retrieved from

Assistive technology: an important trend in special education

Technology is invaluable for everyone, but it is especially important for students with disabilities. According to Marino, Sameshima, and Beecher (2009), education is the key for people with disabilities to realize enhanced academic, social, and employment opportunities (p. 187). When I refer to “assistive technology", I am referring to the computers and technology that assist people with disabilities to participate alongside their peers and overcome their barriers. For example, a person who is unable to read normal print, due to a visual or physical impairment, might rely on a computer to read their textbooks aloud in a human-sounding voice; while a student with a learning disability might use literacy software to assist with spelling and structuring ideas. This post will describe a definite, desirable trend to integrate assistive technology and, more importantly, the students who need it, into learning environments, despite the challenges with implementing complex technology.
TPACK (technology, pedagogy, content, and knowledge) ( is one general model describing how educators should think about technology in the classroom. Essentially, this model, which can be represented as a Venn diagram, addresses “the complex interplay of three primary forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK)” ( If desired, the Venn diagram can be viewed by visiting,  but essentially, the model emphasizes that technology, content, and pedagogy cannot be viewed in isolation; rather, instructors must learn “the new kinds of knowledge that lie at the intersections between them” ( Throughout my experience attending mainstream, public schools in British Columbia, I noticed rather playful, overly relaxed technology policies: ostensibly set up to integrate powerful technologies into the classroom, but often seeming like an afterthought—often a brief bi-weekly trip to the computer lab to work on research, but little more than that. Yet the myriad of models such as these illustrates that technology must be integrated deeply into the classroom for students to get the most out of the pedagogy. For instance, where technology and pedagogy intersect, one must search for ways to deeply intertwine technology use with the pedagogy, rather than adding it on as an after-thought.

As I’ve said, special education technology is even more empowering: for students with disabilities, who use it to open whole new vistas of opportunity. In “Enhancing TPACK with assistive technology: Promoting inclusive practices in pre-service teacher education“ (2009), Marino, Sameshima, and Beecher define assistive technology quite a bit more specifically: “devices meant to scaffold students' cognitive processes in order to enhance each individual student's unique processing abilities and maximize learning outcomes“(p. 188). They expand upon the TPCAK model to “[add] assistive technology as a means to promote inclusive educational practice for preservice teachers” (p. 186). In essence, the authors argue that instructors should have a fundamental knowledge of assistive technology alongside mainstream technology so that they have a better idea of how to adapt learning environments to make them more inclusive, as well as how to advocate for students to help them realize their full potential. This knowledge should be gained throughout normal preservice training.

The authors give an example of a fictitious student who has an IQ of 120 and a learning disability in reading who wishes to graduate from a four-year university (p. 189). It has been determined that he excels when chemistry and other complex, expository texts can be listened to verbally rather than read (p. 189). With some basic disability-related training, an informed teacher would be able to advocate for the disability resource center to have the students’ textbooks recorded in alternate format (p. 189).

At the moment, the authors indicate my own view based on my experience throughout the education system: that the goals in the adoption and implementation of assistive technology have not been realized; this is partly due to lack of instructor training, but also, deplorably, due to instructor resistance (p. 188). The authors state that teachers should be willing to assist professionals with coming up with a plan to accommodate students in class, and should document students' progress and technology usage (p. 190).
In truth, at first blush the authors’ position seems a bit strong; I certainly don’t expect mainstream teachers to be intimately familiar with the workings of all manner of assistive technologies. On the other hand, I certainly understand the position of bringing your very best case scenario forward and being willing to compromise. As a student with a disability myself, I am extremely respectful of the kinds of accommodations that my students may require. Whether a student requires my Power Point presentations in advance due to not being able to see the overhead projector; wants me to wear a special microphone so that he can hear my lectures despite his hearing impairment; or needs to discuss accommodations for a piece of work that presents a disability-related challenge, I would of course be eager to assist. It is incumbent upon educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodations along these lines, and I would defer to professionals hired by the school or institution for accommodations I may not be familiar with, such as those required by low-incidence disability groups. On the other hand, as an instructor, one is in a unique position of being able to pass knowledge along to as many students as possible, and to do the best job one can to make sure their students are successful in their studies. Therefore, I do believe instructors should have at least some knowledge of the various disabilities that they may encounter in the field, and the mindset to be empowered to think about what accommodations they might be able to make around the classroom. Needless to say, of course, instructor resistance or purposeful or willful exclusion is not something I would ever have in my classroom.
On a personal note, I would say two things to people who don't believe they have any duty to provide disability-related accommodations. Firstly, assistive technology often blends into the mainstream more than you might think. For example, as a blind student, I had portable audio players and tablet-sized productivity devices way before those devices found their way into the mainstream. Word prediction is an accessibility feature which has been around for a while; Apple says it "can help students who have dyslexia or cognitive challenges" (Word Prediction, n.d.). Low and behold, this feature, marketed as QuickType, is making its way into the mainstream; watch for it on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches in the fall. So, you see, assistive technology often benefits everyone. Finally, AT empowers everyone to receive the educational credentials they need to participate in society on as equal grounds as possible. The benefit for them is great, and the net gain of society is too—and in the end, that's what education is all about.
Apple (n.d.). iOS 8 - QuickType.

Apple (Canada) (n.d.). Education - Special Education.

Marino, M. T., Sameshima, P., & Beecher, C. C. (2009). Enhancing TPACK with assistive technology: Promoting inclusive practices in preservice teacher education. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(2), 186-207. Retrieved from (n.d.). What is TPACK?.