Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 1

November 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last weekend was the British Dyslexia Association’s first conference on Dyslexia and Technology in Education, with invited speakers, workshops, and demos of assistive technologies. As a newcomer to the field, this really helped me get a better picture of current practice, and what some of the big issues are. Over this week I’ll be posting some of my reflections on common themes and points of interest that particularly struck me while I was there.

First, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a constant worry about costs, and a need to look for affordable solutions. The phrase “in these difficult times” seems to get used a lot: the recession is hitting schools hard, and it is even harder for independent learners who aren’t at school or university, and so don’t have access to the Disabled Students’ Allowance. In fact, recession or not, it’s hard to imagine a time when people wouldn’t want to pay less for software if they could! And yet, the surprising fact is, there are a huge amount of free solutions available which seem remarkably overlooked. One of the speakers, Craig Mill, introduced MyStudyBar, a free toolbar containing a range of free, open source applications. These include mind mapping software (compare to Inspiration at £70.80 or MindGenius at £68.40 for a single educational license), voice recognition software (compare to Dragon Dictate at £122.55, or Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional at £356.42), and text-to-speech (compare to ClaroRead at £154.80 or Read&Write at £168.00). Other similar options were also presented, such as the ATbar for web browsers, or the FX Toolbar for Word. That’s not to say that some of the paid-for solutions aren’t perhaps worth the money, if you have money to spend — they may be more stable, have more features, integrate better with other software, and are likely to have better documentation and support available. But if you buy all of them together, that’s a lot of money to spend, and the simple fact is that not everyone can afford it. Another speaker, Maggie Wagstaff, talked of the tendency in education to ‘start at the top end’, and buy the most advanced, specialist software available, such as Dragon, when actually a better solution would be to start from the bottom, using free solutions even such as Sound Recorder (comes as standard on all Windows PCs), to get users used to speaking their ideas, build confidence in hearing their own voice, and see how they get on. They may then move to the voice recognition tools that now come free with Windows or MacOS. The advanced software should only be needed for advanced users! Also, even if a school or university is willing and able to buy these expensive solutions, the learners may not be able to afford these solutions at home, or after school, and the speaker also pointed out that using software that is also available at home can help maintain engagement between home and school, so more thought needs to be given to affordable solutions, particularly for early learners.

This is linked to a general question that’s been on my mind, about why people don’t use more free software. My gut feeling is that the big software companies simply have better marketing, and if you’re new to the area, are under a lot of time pressure, find it hard to do the research (perhaps through the sort of reading difficulties you are trying to solve) or are not particularly tech-savvy, it would be very easy to believe what the salesmen tell you. There was, for example, a demonstrator at the conference showing a portable reader that takes a photo of a page of text, and then reads it aloud to you, with about 90% accuracy (which actually is just low enough to be a bit annoying). This cost around £700. Alternatively, after a little googling, I’ve found mobile apps that claim to do the same thing for free or at least under £10 (provided you already have a smartphone). I think another reason is that people are stuck in the mindset that ‘all good things cost money’. When one of the speakers showed a picture of a child’s hands being covered by a screen to obscure the keyboard when learning to touchtype, there was an immediate question from the audience of “where can you buy that?” The screen in question was a piece of cardboard — other audience members suggested a tea-towel instead. But I’m sure if you sold a black plastic sheet with branding on it for £14.99 people would buy it. (I think the other sad reason for people to get put off free software is that the wonderfully clever programmers who are happy to spend all their free time writing code just for the fun of it seem to have much less interest in writing the ‘boring bits’, like the manual!) Yet I think that the tides are turning; through mobile app stores users are becoming more exposed to free and cheap software, and many of these address specific needs (see the BDA Technology website).  Another speaker, EA Draffan, introduced the EmpTech database, which allows a user to search through an extensive collection of reviews and information about assistive technologies by features that are most relevant to them, which includes searching only for freeware solutions. There is a wealth of great software out there, and as people become more skilled at information searching they may find that the solutions have been out there all along.


E-Portfolios: Modern Day Hagiographies

November 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

I filled in my e-portfolio yesterday, making a record of my learning progress over the last term.  Apart from the less than enjoyable aspect of having to rewrite everything when I discovered that the upload function not only uploads, but also deletes webform content, it was generally a very useful exercise.  Filling in the forms gave me a good opportunity to reflect on my progress.

However, once the reflection had been completed, the forms filled in, and the document saved, I began to think what the document itself actually represented.  It occurred to me that despite the very useful and honest reflection, what I had actually produced was not a neutral document.  It was tailored to the people I was expecting to read it.  The language and thought patterns I had used were dictated by the form and format, the implicit expectations associated with the medium and language contained in the guidance documents.  In short, I had entered into a highly structured context, operated within that structure and produced something that was highly stylized.

Furthermore, despite the useful reflection, the structure and language of achievement embedded in the form meant that I had created an idealized representation of myself: a self with a rigid focus, clear achievements, clear goals, and clear paths to further achievement; as opposed to the much more mundane identity that seems to regularly appear, where focus is questioned, achievements are lucky and goals are aspirational.

Of course no document is neutral and almost all documents are likely to contain a particularly representation of the self.  For example, right how, by using language of structure and the self, and hinting at power relations between author and reader, I am entering into a particular discourse which itself structures my thought and expression.  In doing so I have (although more consciously in this case) adopted a particular identity position.  However, while here I have decided to enter into this discourse myself, it is arguable that there is little room for agency in the case of e-portfolios.  Here the identity position one can adopt is determined by the structure embedded in the format of the forms and the language surrounding it.

Perhaps the purpose of e-portfolios, then, is to get the student to adopt an ideal student identity position.  Then through a process of normalization, the student adopts this position in other areas of their work.  However, I suspect this in itself is an idealized view of identity construction.   Instead I wonder if the e-portfolio is really a kind of modern day secular hagiography.  The structures surrounding it inevitably lead to a stylized and idealized biography of studenthood, which serves to propagate and perpetuate institutional concepts of the ideal learner and the ideal student: a retrospective biographical tool, used to promote a particular future.

James Robson

The timeless concept of books

November 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

So far I have been successful in resisting buying an e-book reader. Companies such as Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony, have been introducing sleek and smart-looking e-book readers into the market over the past couple of years, with more in the pipeline. Whilst the main reason is financial prudence, I also do not feel I am quite ready to move on to e-book readers. I am, however, attracted to the idea of e-book readers, especially its portability and storage capacity. Having just shipped half a dozen of boxes worth of books due to relocation and paid a hefty shipping cost for them, I am enticed by the idea of simply carrying an e-book reader with me onto the plane, and transporting my library of books electronically. Whilst I have not purchased an e-book reader, I have bought several e-books online, some of which are available for free on Amazon. Being able to purchase an e-book with a few mouse clicks makes it more convenient to lay my hands on titles that I am eager to read or are not yet available in print. From the publishing point of view, it is easier for aspiring or first-time writers to publish their work and reach out to a wider audience.

Yet, like many electronic gadgets, e-book readers are not able to withstand the test of time as well as printed books. New designs and functionalities can make old devices obsolete or less appealing within a short period of time. Scratched or cracked screens or low battery life may ruin the reading experience. Although printed books are just as vulnerable to wear and tear, unless there are missing pages, they are often still very much in readable condition, and are less costly to replace.

Despite the attractiveness of e-books, I am still drawn to conventional printed books. To me, there is nothing like spending half a day in a library or a bookstore, browsing through the massive collection of books, flipping through the pages, then making the decision on which books to buy. Perhaps it is the materiality of books that I am attracted to – its cover, its spine, its lettering, the type of paper and font, etc. I can do without my collection of vinyl records, cassette tapes and CDs, and can live with having my albums digitalised, so long as the quality of music is not compromised too much. However, I cannot imagine not owning printed copies of my favourite books.

I suspect it is more than just the materiality of books that I am drawn to. Perhaps it is the overall sensory experience that one may feel when reading a book. Perhaps it is the “soulfulness” of books that makes them so attractive. I cannot say for certain. But I am reminded of a book written and illustrated by Lane Smith, titled “It’s a book” (A video clip of “It’s a book” can be viewed here). This tongue-in-cheek book tells a story of a donkey’s encounter with the book “Treasure Island”. The story begins with the donkey asking his friend, a monkey, about what he is reading. The monkey replies nonchalantly, “It’s a book”. Still not understanding what it is, the donkey goes on to ask a series of questions such as “How do you scroll down?”, “Does it need a password?”, “Do you blog with it?” and “Can it text? Tweet? Wi-Fi?”, to which the monkey gives the same answer, “It’s a book”. Exasperated, the monkey hands the donkey the book. Taking a first glance at the book, the donkey still does not seem convinced of its appeal, and even says there are “too many letters”. It is only when he reads the book that he become captivated by the story. In the next few illustrations that follows, the reader sees the donkey transfixed by the story. He pores over it for hours before saying “I will charge it up when I’m done” to the monkey. Such is a wry testimony of what a book can provide us. It may not be able to do the fanciful things like blog, text, tweet, but it does what it does best in a simple yet elegant fashion, that is, to tell a captivating story. That, I believe, is the timeless concept of books. Regardless of its form, whether printed or electronic, the essence of a book lies in its text. The medium is secondary. For now, I am happy reading printed books. I am not quite ready to move on to reading e-books, but I think I may do so in time to come, when these devices become more affordable, or when the technology becomes more ubiquitous.

A Digital “Life Portfolio”

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

A rainy afternoon on the Internet led to me reading old emails from what felt like a lifetime ago – emails from school friends moaning about how rubbish our parents were; discussions about our geography teachers mysterious absence for the past few weeks and the naïve yet seemingly necessary conspiracy theories derived from this; and of course never-ending reveries about girls.  These emails prompted two thoughts or feelings – firstly the nostalgia of growing up and school life; and secondly, a real sense of a life trajectory and real feeling of distinction between the person I was when writing those emails, to now.

Digital or E-Portfolios are typically used for students to keep track of their learning experiences and outcomes throughout their various endeavors inside and outside of the classroom or workplace – providing the ability to reflect on their experiences, to scaffold future learning, and may also be used to evidence experience and attainment to others.

But, is this the only thing that is worth documenting or reflecting on, perhaps not.

After my ancient email reading outing I began to think about the potential that digital communication and social networking, coupled often with widespread and intense usage, have inadvertently created what I’ll call a “life portfolio”.

A “life portfolio” is not an entirely new concept; we have all reminisced about the “good old days” when returning to visit old friends, all hidden behind sofas when a parent mercilessly shows a video of you singing in a school musical which they insist on sharing with what seems like any willing visitor, that graduation photo on your windowsill – these “life portfolio” artifacts surround us all.

In many cases a rich and naturalistically collected electronic archive of your life is also available to you – without even knowing consciously you’re contributing to it.  An archive that is chronologically marked, well indexed, and which has a genuine and authentic feel to it – social networking site data.   When looking at old messages, photos from what feels like a past life, past wall posts that make you wince – you can’t help but feel sentimental, and also realize how much you and others have changed or perhaps have not.  Both of these facets are important to our development in learning terms – they provide the opportunity to look at a life trajectory and understand where you have come from and an indication where you are going, helping inform you on future pursuits; and it also provides an opportunity to learn from past experiences through reflection and evaluation.

Looking at the fundamental reasons why social networking sites provide an effective digital “life portfolio”, it could be argued that these are important qualities that all good portfolios should aim to encompass.  Their naturalistic and lived-in nature due to the fact these portfolios are not rigidly structured, and when one is using the site and technically contributing to this portfolio – it doesn’t feel forced, most won’t even know they are; the richness of the portfolio can also be very immersive – there are text messages, links, conversations, photos, videos, comments, and so on – which are also vitally linked together in a web of social interaction and discourse.

In conclusion, social networking sites like Facebook which many people now live through, provides a unique opportunity to really look back, reminisce, and reflect. It can quite rightly be argued that this type of portfolio might be incomplete, lack real structure, it maybe not entirely accurate, and so on – but should we really need to strive for this when talking about a life story, which seldom features total cohesion, structure and accuracy.  A “life portfolio” is about capturing what can be easily and naturally captured, leaving you to fill in the gaps, dot the I’s yourself – to personally unlock its true value.

Bhaveet Radia

Time is Money. It’s Time to Get our Money’s Worth?

November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can earn money but you cannot earn time.

                                    (Kevin Hung, 2011)        

 When a friend of mine uttered this statement, I couldn’t agree with him immediately, as I was already trying to come back with a winning argument. But I couldn’t. It’s true: Once time has passed, one cannot earn it again.

Having this discussion with my friend made my think about the purpose of using technology to enhance learning—to make time more efficient in a more systematic way. For decades, many technologies have been created and tailored for this particular purpose, but how many of these educationally-orientated technologies have really succeeded? In other words, from how many technologies have we really gotten our money’s worth?

On the 7th November 2011, I attended a seminar in Oxford, ‘An impact to the idea of restructuration’ by Professor Richard Noss from the Institute of Education. His talk focused on how technological tools can help students shape the meaning-making process in mathematics, particularly discussing how the participants’ new and prior mathematic knowledge were developed and integrated by using these tools. His study showed that students were able to achieve what the tools intended to teach them—in other words, the tools were successful. However, one could argue that the lessons taught by these tools could just as easily be taught with a pen and paper. The only convincing reason to argue for the use of the tools was that they reduced the students’ recording time (counting numbers) while they tried to figure out the intended distributed meaning. So are these tools worth it? Why spend a large sum of money in investment in a digital interface to enhance learning when this ‘learning’ can simply be achieved by a cheap method?

Many educationally-orientated technological tools or games were invented to ‘make time’, but too frequently, it is difficult for students to understand the purpose of the tools. In many cases, technical problems or overly complex interfaces made learning more difficult, or else students have to ‘make time’ to fully understand the purpose of the tool. In a way, when designing an educationally-focused tool, it is important to understand its purpose and how practical it can really be. I suppose that, as a consumer, money is always well spent if a purpose is achieved—in this case, because learning was actually accomplished, it was.

From under or above the table? Where does educational technology come from?

November 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Very 'Small' People Talking to One Another Under a Massive Table

What a Scary Picture!

The core idea of this post is that the constitution of an educational technology can be informed by implicit values (i.e. from ‘under the table’), just in the same way it can be (or, more specifically, can be claimed to be) informed by explicit values (i.e. from ‘above the table’). Before going into this, however, I should confess that I got this idea while dreaming about my doctoral research – I wish I could have an on-off switch fixed in my mind so that I could force myself to stop thinking about such matters (i.e. my thesis) while sleeping! So, this blog is dedicated to those who spend daytime dealing with academia and night-time escaping from it!

The ‘dish’ I want to present to you today is the so-called ‘educational technology.’ Educational technology can essentially be seen as the ‘product’ of ‘messy’ and heterogeneous social, cultural, economic, political, tactical, organisational and managerial ‘ingredients.’ In other words, an educational technology can be shaped by a ‘cocktail’ of values that might go beyond,  above  and even against the often educationally, pedagogically and technologically oriented considerations we might expect. So what? Three ‘take-home’ messages can be drawn from the previous two sentences. First, the shaping process of an educational technology should be democratically informed, meaning all actors, stakeholders and shareholders have a seat at the planning table on educational technologies, thereby being able to negotiate interests and needs and ensure that power and control are fairly distributed among these groups. Second, ‘the academic tribe’ should be keen to provide critically ‘context-rich’ (rather than ‘context-free’) analyses of educational technology constitution and use, thus ‘digging up’ those hidden values. Third, the ‘consumer ‘ (i.e. the user) of the ‘ready meal’ (i.e. the already constituted educational technology) should seek to do ‘detective work,’ checking carefully and in a politically astute way those ingredients used to make the technology. In conclusion, have a safe meal!

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