Utilize Online Tools for a Better Teaching Environment

Throughout my post-secondary career, only one professor has used any kind of online media within their classes. Sure, the others used Blackboard or Desire to Learn, or some other form of Learning Management Systems (LMS), but most in a not so effective way. Most LMS are used to simply drop course documents (slides, syllabus, essay topics etc.) and not create an online collaborative classroom. In my case, I want an accessible online classroom where I can log in from anywhere in the world (learning should know no bounds) to: check in to what the weekly plan for the class is, visit some discussion boards to have a meaningful and interesting discussion with fellow classmates and my professor, check my grades and see my work marked online and maybe, if the professor is really advanced, to check out a blog or some element of gamification incorporated into the class. I enjoy my in-class sessions (mostly), but for many of my classes, there is nothing about the in-class experience that could not be replicated to an online classroom, except the personal face-to-face element. For some, that is very important, it just isn’t for me. I enjoy lectures (when the professor is passionate and interested), but I enjoy lectures a lot more when they are recorded online and I can pause, rewind (do we still say rewind?) and go back and re-listen to them as I need to understand the point being made. I want accessible learning.individualized learning

Learning for me is an on-going venture; one I never plan to stop, and it does not make any sense why the way in  which we learn seems to have taken a stand still approach. The world has changed leaps and bounds from when I first stepped into a post-secondary classroom ten years ago. We have watches that can send text messages, TVs that bring 3-D graphics into the home, and social networks that allow you to instantly share information with someone across the world. With these advancements, why can’t instructors still not utilize online systems to allow a more universal learning environment? Not only will it allow the typical student to access the information anywhere and participate at a time and location convenient for them, but it also allows alternative learners (those who don’t learn via lecture and tests) to learn in a way that fosters their learning style. Having content online allows anyone to alter it to suit their needs in a way that makes sense to them. We have an understanding that each of us is different, and each of us learns in a different way- so why do we not utilize great tools that can help each person learn their way?

We students pay a lot of money to attend post-secondary education in Canada and yet we do not get a lot of say in how we learn. It’s time we get to make an impact on our own learning experience, use tools we find helpful and have professors who have a knowledge of these tools. I want to see a more universal online approach to learning, with the same caliber of education I can get during an in-class experience.

 

 

 

Gaming, digital futures and Curtis Bonk! | Day 2 at #DEANZ14 Conference

Sara Humphreys:

Wonderful overview of a conference I am sure we all wish we could have attended!

Originally posted on Disrupt & Transform:

Last week, I managed to attend a day of the DEANZ conference, a great opportunity to catch up with those involved in research and practice related to e-learning and distance education in the schooling and tertiary sectors.

While one day couldn’t really capture the conference as a whole, there were a few takeaways for me that made me wish I’d managed all three days!

2014-05-01 09.18.58Keynote:  David Gibson – Games and Simulations

Associate Professor at Curtin University, David’s focus is in supporting university departments to further e-learning design as part of their programmes.

His keynote made some exciting (and mentally stretching!) points about the way gaming structures can enhance learning pathways. For example:

  • He…

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Call for Posts!

We are starting the next leg of our project where we will give undergrads more of a voice on this site (and hopefully, in how their classroom and courses are implemented). Please share this poster with your humanities undergrads, share with colleagues, or submit a post! We want to know how undergrads are using digital tech in the classroom or what they think of the tech in the classroom. Are smartboards useful? what about smartphones? Tablets? Laptops? The deadline is August 15th  and this post can be listed as a publication on a resume!

 

Deadline is July 31st - send to studentvoices@trentu.ca

Deadline is August 15th – send to studentvoices@trentu.ca

 

Blackboard Jungle -BW

Ramps like us, baby we were born to run

One of the most exciting facets of disability in the 21st century is the gadgets. The motorized chairs, the innovative prosthetics, the art-like ramp architecture. This innovation is torpedoing daily, as folks with disabilities enter higher economic brackets & positions of power, and as the baby boomer generation ages and moves into disability.

But that excitement is also fuelled by fear – a fear of ‘doing it wrong.’ I am invited to speak about my life as an artist with a disability frequently, in large part due to my rock n’ roll style, and casually accessible language. Language is one of the biggest reasons that barriers still continue to exist in the ways that they do. The Canadian population lives in a nation-state that has drafted this mosaic politic of celebrating diversity, but it also serves as a means of invisibilizing those very different needs and histories. If we are all different colours and we are all Canadian, than we have always been and there is nothing to atone for.

Disability is a scary one of those ‘diversities’ because no one understands it fully. I mean, you can’t always see it, everyone experiences it differently, it demands creativity, and above all, it is impossible to predict how it will be impacted by its environment, and vice versa.

The current law-enshrined recognition of disability in Ontario is called the AODA, and it is set up to ensure that progress in greater accessibility follows a linear momentum of change, implementing financial fines on those businesses and public structures that fail to comply. Beyond this legislature, rights-based disability thinking involves the relationship individuals living under the state have to the social assistance programs in the country, still largely seen by the public as drains to the economy, and a liability.

What does this have to do with post-secondary educational models? Potentially, everything. Let me introduce you to Raul Krauthausen.

raul1-300x300

Krauthausen is a disabled man living in Berlin, who bought himself a 3D printer just over a year ago. After making various projects with his new toy, he decided to use the printer to print himself a ramp.

“I decided to print a ramp because I am a wheelchair user. I often have problems getting into places with just one step in front of the entrance. I thought it would be good if I could carry one with me on the back of my wheelchair, not too big and not too heavy.”

Krauthausen had never created a prototype for a ramp-object before, but like any savvy Google generationer, he watched how-to videos on youtube, and has experimented with 26 prototypes of ramps now with his printer.

He hasn’t been innovating alone. In addition to accessing the self-published, pedagogically participatory universe of youtube tutorials, he has been consulting with other communities regarding his ramp project on a site called Thingiverse, offering up the latest version of his ramp prototype free to download, and inviting others to share & improve upon its design.

The goal for him isn’t just the object but its means. The cost of printing his ramp is 50 euros. Because the percentage of the population to use disability related innovations, their cost is quite often invariably high, resulting in an even smaller about people that can actually afford the devices.

Ramp art & innovation is certainly a fascination of mine, not only because of its creation of access, but its figurative demonstrivity. Krauthausen’s ramp is fun & sexy! It withstands the load of his chair, while being a fun colour, and stealthily stored in his backpack. His co-conspirators on the internet even encouraged him to experiment with lego as materiality, which he reportedly accomplished in 30 hours, with over 600 lego pieces.

Another man 3D-printed a prosthetic hand for his son. For $10. This is quickly becoming the future. And with 3D printers being available for public use in many cities, it will be.

No longer needing to wait for institution to revolutionize and then meet individual needs, the individual is at once able to connect to a network and innovate in spite of isolation. And through this previously isolated reality, cyborgian dreams become realities.

Esteemed scholar Margarit Schildrick writes about the disabled body after Deleuze, citing it as the ultimate ‘queered body.’ Through an elegant unpacking of Deleuze & Guattari’s idea of assemblages, we understand that an autonomous sexual self is a myth, and in fact, a relationship with a caretaker, with a prosthetic, with a smartphone, is a demonstrability of our networked selves and current overlapping realities.

In the classroom then, to engage with social & digital media is deploy a litany of stratagems present across boundaries of physical institutional structures, less-limited by economic status, even serving to offer an interrogation of past mechanisms of innovation. The Internet possesses semblances of capitalism, however is equally as available as an anti-capitalist tool.

Disability, as I’ve mentioned, is integrally unpredictable. To ‘embrace’ disability then, is to learn a fly-by-the-pants creativity that offers innovation in each seminar a student uses Skype to attend class, in each closed captioned tutorial exercise, in a learning of cultural products & practices belonging to marginalized communities not your own, but shared in a communion of education as global/local networkings.

What Using Google Docs in the Classroom Tells Me: We Need to Change Everything

I have been experimenting with Google Docs – I realize loads of teachers use this resource, and I am definitely not writing a how-to guide here. I am not even extolling the virtues of Googles Docs. Yes, it allows for online collaboration, and it’s relatively easy to use for those who have a fear of “digital anything.” What I am writing about here is the relief that students clearly felt at being able to collaborate without a central figure telling them how to learn. .

Students want to control their learning path – they need guidance but not a gatekeeper. While Don Tapscott and I don’t always meet eye to eye, I am on board with the concept of actual student-centred learning, which is very hard to achieve. The very structure of the university is not set up for student-centred learning. The current model of the classroom still privileges a factory, industrial model. The desks are aligned in exact rows; students sit as units of production, and the factory supervisor or professor supplies knowledge to the units. Just to prove my point further, it might make you more than a little queasy to know that students are regularly referred to as Basic Units of Funding (BIU). Each student reported to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU) in Ontario (and I am sure this is true at ministries of education nationwide) is worth a certain amount of money. Clearly, post-secondary education requires funding, but from the way the MTCU configures its relationship to students to the actual architecture of the classroom, students are to be processed rather than actively engaged with. Ken Robinson, in his talks for the Royal Society and TED , has been telling us about this problem for years, but what have we done about it?  What I have discovered in using cloud computing tools (like Google Docs) in an industrial classroom is that these tools show us just how outmoded the university system really is. The good news is that these tools can transcend the industrial classroom.

I have been reading up about how others use Google Docs, and there are ideas bandied about like “stump the instructor” – in this particular assignment, students ask the teacher questions that they think might stump the teacher. This is an exercise in positioning the teacher as gatekeeper – the “holder-of-the-knowledge.” In other words, the digital tool is put into service of a certain type of learning. I mean, students could just write a question on a piece of paper and hand it to the teacher, so what’s the use of the digital tool, in this case? When Google Docs is used for actual collaboration, something incredible happens: students take control of the classroom and they love it. Unlike having students give a presentation where they mimic the professor (in essence), Google Docs allows them to take on an active role in constructing the class.

It can seem chaotic at first, because as the students log in and take on their Google ID (or if they do not have a Google Plus account – and most don’t – they are given animal identities like “anonymous liger”), they all seem to be randomly roaming the document as a bunch of cursors…..

All Together Now

but then something wonderful happens – they start to work together on one (digital) page that is a hybrid of the word processing application they use AND the social networking sites they interact on. Guess what? They collaborated brilliantly and productively. So much so that I could not keep up. Next time, I will use “time outs” where we stop and look at what everyone has done and then go back to the document. I should add that the Doc was up on the big screen so everyone could see on their screens and for those without the ability to connect (only 2 people out of 30), they could see as well and also share with classmates. The screen actually create a hub for us as we collaborated.

Students were answering the questions I asked on the Doc enthusiastically and passionately – and they also answered each other’s question on the doc!  The conversation on this digital page was electric, and when I asked students why they were so enthusiastic about this particular tool, they said that they felt at ease communicating in this format. They felt empowered by being able to add their thoughts without feeling pressure to answer (and, therefore, be judged) me directly. Instead of me being “the boss” they must answer to – I was just another roaming cursor adding to the document. Interesting – no? I think the impulse by some teachers will be to condemn “this generation,” who need to learn social skills and so forth. I have not seen a decline in social skills (there are as many rude middle aged folks as young folks, I’ll wager). No, the point here is that the need to communicate collaboratively is as strong as ever but the venue has changed, and post-secondary pedagogy is way behind. Native digital users communicate through online collaboration (e.g. social platforms) and teachers need to get on board or lose student interest and vitality. You can dig your heels in a wish for a better time or join in and have a blast.

Here is a snippet of what we produced in real time (note – students used bolding, color, and italics but all was erased in  the cutting and pasting of that document to this document):

Google Docs Transcript

Question One (I know, this is really a series of questions, but they are linked!)

In both Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, the lead characters leave reality, enter fantasy, and, in the end, return to reality. Are Alice and Dorothy changed by their experience? Does the fantasy world challenge the norms of reality? Does the fantasy world support certain norms? Does the return from the fantasy world negate the social criticism found in the fantasy world? For that matter, what social criticism did you detect in either story?

So?  Any answers?

Alice and Dorothy return from the fantasy world with new perspectives of their own world/reality.  (SM, MB, GM)

In Dorothy’s world, the fantasy does challenge the norm of reality when she first sees the colourful and abundant flowers, which she wishes were in Kansas. (GM)  The colours and “aliveness” of Oz really influence Dorothy’s worldview in that she is so taken aback by the brightness

I don’t think Alice and Dorothy are changed by the experiences but they bring the changes with them when they return. (Ed)

That’s an interesting point. What did Alice “bring back” with her?

Answer to purple text: Alice brings back a different view for her sister and a brief lapse back into her childhood, (as read to us by Sara). (Ed)

Alice brings back the value of imagination and wonder which children were taught to grow out of in order to have a successful adulthood. Alice introduces the idea that fantasy cannot/should not be defined by age. This is a positive spin on the story, which is important – most often, it is seen as defining girls as“civilizers.”

The fantasy world definitely changes the norms of reality but only in the Western sense of norms. (Ed) That’s true

The criticism of reality dissipates at the end of the story, as Alice and Dorothy discard their adventures at the end of the story, but the reader may change his/her perception of reality based on the fantasy world. (Ed)

Good point-why would dorothy want to return to such a grey place (kansas) when she could remain in the colourful world of Oz?

Dorothy wants to return to Kansas in order to be with her family; her auntie and uncle. Maybe to her the beauty and fantasy of the Oz is worthless in the light of her loved ones. (GM) Interesting point – and Em certainly changes

In terms of social criticism-in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy remarks that her land is civilized-there are no witches or wizards there…perhaps alluding to the isolation that different people face? The witch then explains that while there are bad witches, there are also good witches maybe challenging people not to judge those who are strange to society? (BK) I think this is a really good point. There is a lot of diversity in Oz and Dorothy also frees a lot of oppressed peoples

Is there any significance in Alice growing and shrinking? Also, is there any significance with the rabbits white glove that he drops, Alice picks it up, and then puts it on? (BK)    Yes.

I believe that the size changes represent the power of adults in society. Adults hold the power in society and when Alice grows in size she is able to exert more power over the other characters.    YES!

the size changes can be seen as Alices perspective changing … in the end alice turns into a giant and she is able to speak up against the nonsensical trial. YES!
the size change can represent the changes the body goes through in adolescence?

Perhaps- as much as a female wants to grow(for lack of a better word) they are constantly brought back down? (BK) Any advancements that were made for women in society were shortly lived before they were brought back down to size?

Children were previously viewed as passive in their own intellectual and moral development.  Alice has to learn how to take an active role in her own development (whether she’s making herself smaller or bigger).  Perhaps this is the author’s way of endorsing the agency of children.

Since Alice always has problems when she grows bigger, maybe since children are smaller they are able to do and see things that adults cannot? (GM)

The growing and shrinking could represent her lack of experience, or in this case her feeling inferior to something she doesn’t understand, and she grows as she begins to understand and get some measure of control over a new experience.  For instance, she shrinks when she realizes she can’t get the key but stops when she calms herself down enough to think.  In regards to the Rabbits house she is completely thrown by the change of (attitudes? behaviours?) in this strange world but begins to grow when she believes she can exert a manner of control or understanding. (Ed)

(MH, MM)Their experiences do change them in the sense that the characters are no longer jaded, they have a newfound understanding of the world around them in the sense of understanding people and how not all people are who they appear. It does challenge the norms of reality in the sense that it makes a kind of makes a mockery of real culture, like when Alice is falling through the rabbit hole and consumerism follows her as she looks at the different items surrounding her. The fantasy world supports the norm of childhood curiosity and actually encourages it, by way of providing many things intended to encourage the child to question, study and judge the world around them (example being the curiosity of Dorothy in whilst in Oz of her surroundings and the strange people she meets, or Alice and the vivid and somewhat terrifying world that surrounds her).

I think Alice comes back more mature than before her journey because she’s experienced life on her own. But how do we know that? We only have her sister’s view of things…but an interesting idea. Because it’s HER story, does she have power?

Alice brings back to the world a willingness to fantasize that adapts to fit the world it is now a part of, which she passes on to others in the world, such as her sister.  It’s not the full, intense fantasy of Wonderland, as it does not seem to directly alter the physical world, but it is a mental fantasy that transforms the world through perception–a fantasy about Alice’s still somewhat mystical future and a romanticization of the “real world”. (Carly)

In Alice in Wonderland the criticisms are rampant.  At the end of her adventures there’s a massive ‘dis’ of Western courts.  The croquet game is a parody of how lucid rules and regulations are.  The tea party was discussed in class.  With the baby the duchess was caring for the critique was how much value we put on children, in this case a baby is represented as a pig. (Ed)

Steering Our Own Systems: Reminding Ourselves that We Wield the Tools in Our Epistemic Culture

SPECIAL GUEST POST BY NANCY SMITH, LEARNING SPECIALIST, INSTRUCTOR, AND ACADEMIC COACH

When it comes to your credit card, has the information on the computer screen ever been believed by others over what you thought was your balance? Have you ever felt a pang of uneasiness by news about the latest lone biohacker’s breakthrough? Has the interface of a program changed without preamble so that taking time to navigate was forced on you in that moment?

In our epistemic culture – where we foreground knowledge and champion the drive to access everything, all at once, now – these experiences are common. The way in which we interact with our tools solves some problems but creates and amplifies others. The computer and related technology magnify our ability to do work.

The problem of our epistemic culture has never actually been our tools or technology but what gets amplified along the way. This issue is  tripartite in structure:

  1. our awareness of ourselves within our world
  2. our recognition of our power and how we exercise it
  3. and our appreciation of our resilience

When examining complex human activity systems, the observer is central, as put forward through Heinz von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics. We can all use tools. For example, we can all Google that the etymology of cybernetics is “steersman.” But how do we keep our awareness that we google (lower-case intended) the etymology of a word? According to von Foerster, the steersman sees the system he is in and watches how he steers within this system, being responsible and accountable for steering.

I would add that we are easily distracted when watching ourselves and our steering within the systems, very similar to standing between two parallel mirrors and viewing the image reflected to infinity. Caught up in the reflections, we momentarily lose our awareness that we are steering and it is our activity alone that causes the oars to move at all.

Related to our awareness of the causal relationship of our steering is our recognition of our power and how we use it. A highly illustrative example is the individual who, while travelling along the highway, set cruise control on the motor home and went back into the kitchenette of the vehicle to make a sandwich. As you would expect, the RV ran off the road. The individual successfully sued the company; the judge ruled that nowhere in the owner’s manual did the company directly state that the driver needed to drive the vehicle. We can surmise that the driver believed that cruise control was synonymous with autopilot – which is yet another example of opportunities to lose our recognition of our power and, in so doing, abnegate it. Cruise control and autopilot are merely tools we use to magnify our ability to do work.  Our ability to do work, our agency, is our ascendancy to act.

Our awareness of our efficacy and our performance of our power, in turn, help us realise and value our resilience where resilience is arguably our most definitive characteristic. Resilience includes buoyancy, elasticity, adaptability, an overall expanded comfort level with adversity, and, ultimately, an enhanced scope with knowledge within our epistemic culture. We have a matrix of strengths which includes using our tools and our curiosity to see relationships and understand them and this matrix of strengths is the very impetus to actualise our resilience.

So yes our tools are changing us and with our added resilience, we want more, demand more, and expect better tools. But make no mistake that we are the agents, each adding our contribution to our systems. We are the ones steering every moment of our day.

Editor’s note: please see Allen Kempton’s post on tech rationality that are more reflective of Kittler’s view that we do not produce technology but technology produces us for a counterpoint to Nancy’s excellent argument.

The #CSUN13 Experience: Social Media and Accessibility

Each year the worlds of disability & technology collide at the International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference hosted by California State Northridge University Centre on Disabilities (@CSUNCOD) at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, California.  This year, I found myself fortunate enough to attend.

Image of my conference name tag lanyard on my Macbook keyboard as I planned out my sessions

Photo: My #CSUN13 badge of honour

I’ve been working in the ‘Accessibility field’ for almost 4 years. Much of my job as as the Adaptive Technologist with Accessibility Services involves the direct technical support of the various assistive and adaptive technologies used by the students registered with our office. Assistive / Adaptive Technologies, or ‘AT’ as it’s commonly known as, can be anything from an ‘off-the-shelf’ device that has been modified or ‘adapted’ for use by someone with a disability, to a device that has been designed specifically with disability in mind to enhance or maintain that person’s abilities.

I became aware of the conference affectionately known as CSUN about a year and a half ago while following a couple of the regular conference-goers on Twitter. After a week of following the hashtag #CSUN12 on Twitter during the conference last year, it was obvious that this was the place where technical ‘accessiblistas’ gather. The conference has developed quite a reputation for showcasing the the latest and greatest improvements, developments and research in web, technical and educational accessibility. I had to go.

My plans came into fruition (a big thank you Trent University) and a simple tweet mid-January of this year announcing that “#CSUN13 was a go”, with #CSUN13 being the hashtag used on Twitter to aggregate all CSUN 2013 related information, immediately connected me to others who were heading to the same event and the networking began. It turns out, there was quite a Canadian contingent represented at the conference, notably many from the GTA who travelled upon the ‘CSUN Express’ on Air Canada Flight 777 direct to San Diego the day before the official start of the conference.

So there I was, sitting at a patio table by the bay in late February less than two hours after my flight landed in sunny San Diego. I was surrounded by a dozen or so individuals, all of whom I had just met in person for the first time. Web developers, project managers in the financial sector, private accessibility consultants and even a federal government employee with authoring expertise on Section 508 (America’s Rehabilitation Act, specifically, how federal agencies make their electronic & information technology accessible to those with disabilities). Companies like Wells Fargo, RBC, Scotia Bank, Paypal, Nuance, CGI, oh, and myself from Trent University, all represented at this table. It was shortly after this photo was taken that things really started to sink in: this whole ‘accessibility thing’ is far bigger and further reaching than I had ever imagined. #CSUN13 was off to a great start.

Photo of CSUN conference attendees on the Patio at Sally's in San Diego.

Photo: Patio in February? Done. via George Zamfir (@good_wally)

The A11Y Community makes this an exciting time to be working in the accessibility field. ‘A11Y’ is the abbreviated numeronym for computer accessibility with the ’11′ in ‘a11y’ representing the number of characters missing in the full word ‘Accessibility’. It should come as no surprise that social media is at the heart of flourishing communities, and the a11y community is no exception. I’d make the argument that if you’re not actively plugged-into or following the current discussions and trends in your profession (be it social networks like Twitter, discussion forums or blogs) you are missing out on some of the best professional development opportunities available. On the social media front, I should mention, searching Twitter for posts tagged with #a11y is a great way to find current trends and hot-topics related to technical & web accessibility for ALL users, regardless of disability or level of impairment.

I was able to attend two separate tweet-up’s while at the conference. The general conference tweet-up that brought together all ‘socially-minded’ conference goers for an informal face-to-face networking opportunity, and a tweet-up hosted by the Make WordPress Accessible community that brought together developers & users aiming to improve the accessibility of Themes used in WordPress. WordPress is a popular content-management system that powers many websites and blogs, such as the Digital Communitas site here. Themes change the ‘look and feel’ of a particular site, much like a design template in Microsoft Office. Most WordPress themes are created by freelance developers, and quite often lack the accessibility features that are required for users of screen reading & assistive technology. The Make WordPress Accessible community was created to promote the awareness of the need for accessible WordPress Themes, and equipping the developers of Themes with the resources needed to create themes with accessibility in mind.

 Picture, shot from the hallway at the WordPress Accessibility tweet-up

Photo: A shot from the back of the room at the WordPress Accessibility Tweet-up at #CSUN13

The reality is, that while the web seeks to be a collaborative and unifying place for all, it still remains inaccessible to many. It’s the tireless and relentless force of a11y community that aims to change this by increasing awareness of the issues and changing the habits of those involved in the creation process. I heard a great deal of discussion during sessions and informally around the topic of ‘Responsible Design’ and holding yourself accountable for not only the quality, but accessibility the end result. Everyone at every level (R&D, developers, project managers, user experience & interface designers, etc.) is a stakeholder in the accessibility of a product, application or website. An excellent analogy I heard was that of baking chocolate chip cookies and thinking of accessibility as the chocolate chips. Adding the chocolate chips in after the cookies have baked is not the same as adding them in during the appropriate mixing step. Accessibility as an afterthought or ‘add-on’ should not (and can not) continue to exist for the betterment and advancement of an inclusive web experience for all.

Technology continues to change and enrich the lives of its users. While this is true regardless of ability, it is especially true for those who as a result of their disability, rely on it for routine activities. Have you ever witnessed, first hand, someone without vision navigate a computer interface using only a keyboard, shortcut commands and screen-reading software? How about using an iPhone with the screen off and utilizing gesture based accessibility navigational shortcuts and using the dictation & text-to-speech abilities of Apple’s digital assistant ‘Siri’ to read and reply to messages and navigate the web? It’s extraordinarily impressive, encouraging, and a testament to the efforts of those in the accessibility industry to create products useful for everyone.

Photo of the vendor trade show (Microsoft booth) at the 2013 CSUN conference.

Photo: The Microsoft booth, one of many vendors represented at the showcase during the CSUN conference.

The CSUN conference also plays host to vendor exhibits in a ‘trade-show’ style setup where companies showcased their latest and greatest assistive technologies and services. It was an impressive setup with many, many vendors and cutting edge assistive technologies, but I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by not only the vast number of products that seemed similar, but the exorbitant cost associated with many of these technologies. Take, for example, one of the magnification systems commonly used by those with low vision. They can, at best, be described as a ‘digital camera on a stick that attach to an external LCD monitor’ yet some have price-tags upwards of $2500 (!) attached to them. It’s unfortunate that costly AT equipment often adds another layer of ‘inaccessibility’ to many.

When the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was drafted back in 2005, it created the framework for an inclusive province where no matter what a person’s ability, they could fully participate in life within the province of Ontario. Such legislation does not (yet) exist elsewhere in Canada, nor does it exist in the US. While much can be said about our government’s dedication to and  efficacy (or lack thereof) in enforcing the AODA, the spirit of an inclusive province remains. As an Ontarian attending this conference, it was encouraging to hear the AODA brought up on a number of occasions as an example in positive light. Way to go Ontario.

I made a conscious effort when planning my schedule to attend sessions across the multiple conference streams to make sure I got an excellent variety of technical, theoretical and practical take-aways. The hardest part of choosing the sessions was knowing there were other sessions running simultaneously that were just as interesting.  I heard of blind instructors controlling classroom technology via gesture-based commands on touch panels with audio output at NC State University, and saw employees from Google demonstrate latest developments in accessibility across the Google suite of applications including Apps for Education, YouTube captioning and Android. I saw Mozilla demonstrate their brand new mobile operating system, and showcase the accessibility in their Firefox browser. I listened in on expert panels discuss breeding accessibility into the corporate culture, explain some of the fundamentals of accessible rich-internet applications, and how to develop accessibility in IT policies, procedures and practices. What a wealth of information, and in all honesty, complete information overload.

When the sessions came to a close on Friday evening, and things started to wrap up, I found myself struggling to comprehend what all had just transpired those last 3 days. A month later, it’s still somewhat hazy, and I’m still processing the events of #CSUN13. What is clear, is that I departed Toronto not entirely sure what I was heading into, my wildest expectations were completely shattered and I returned home with a new-found appreciation, awareness and desire for promoting the for the world of technical accessibility. Overwhelmingly positive conference experience? I’d say so.

The Rebirth of Storytelling

In Walter Benjamin’s, “The Storyteller,” Benjamin laments the gradual decline of the story as oral practice and narrative form in modern society.  He remarks, “[b]y now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling, almost everything that happens benefits information” (4).  By “information,” Benjamin is referring to the news that people receive and share through a variety of mediums.  Benjamin’s argument is that people rarely feel the need to tell stories, as modern society is more concerned with the dissemination of information, not an oral recitation of an old myth or epic, as the Ancient Greeks and other cultures used to practice and perform.  According to Benjamin, the only way a story retains its influence is by withholding key pieces of information.  Good stories, such as those given to us by ancient poets and writers, have a “geminative power” that seeds in the brains of readers, making them curious of what the true meaning of the stories is (5).  In order to do this, time is needed to allow the story to be told, the reader to be affected and interpretive, and the storyteller to perform his/her tale with effectiveness.  Benjamin laments the loss of time in the modern era and he notes how our concept of time affects how we view death (at least when he wrote this piece – ed.). He is not just being morbid, he is making a valid point that I will expand on.  Death now occupies the usual places separated from everyday life: hospitals, hospices, battlefields, the newspaper, the graveyard – and also morbid sites that post images of accidents and autopsies.  But in these digital depictions, the smell and immediacy of death is absent.  Death was an important factor in oral performance because the desire to pass on a story became similar to passing on a lineage – necessary before one dies.  However, in modern times death is viewed as an interruption to progress:

Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one; think of the medieval pictures in which the deathbed has turned into a throne toward which people press through the wide-open doors of the death house.  In the course of the modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living.  There use to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died . . . Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs (6).

We seemingly cannot communicate death anymore.  No longer are we experiencing the desire to speak against the reality of death.  A spoken poem is in itself an art and this performance, even if the subject of the poem is death, denies death, since speech requires such life and force, especially if the poem is to be performed well.  In the absence of death from our lives the need to remember how to live becomes less important.  We are also living in an age where our existence is structured by the concept of time.  Modernity brought about clock time and along with the ever ticking clock came the invention of the modern work day.  As modernity moved forth there seemed less time for remembering myths and performance (4). As Benjamin notes, social conditions transform how and why we narrate life and its experiences.  The need for information in the modern age requires factual information, not myths about gods, the romance of the epic, or the honesty of a poem.  Industrialism led to late capitalism; hence, the story’s economic value is now a factor.  Therefore, the oral performer must have an economic worth to make capital.  The “gods of industry” hold strong sway over what we now read and watch.

Since Benjamin focuses so much on oral performance, he tends to put print stories aside.  He places the spoken word on a platform far above the novel.  The novel, he states, is a product of print culture, which parallels the advents of modernity, from the post-Medieval era to the post-modern era (2).  The novel was (and is?) the dialogic voice of an industrial age, an epic age, and an era of continuity; of non-stop action and change; of resignation to our industrious fates.  The decline of oral performance may be regarded as a natural occurrence, if one considers that time did not permit oral story telling to occur.  We are simply too busy (too “important?”) to tell stories and, hence, the art was lost for more efficient communication.  Storytelling as an oral form does not make money in the way a mass-market print text can: end of story.  As Benjamin elegantly laments, once again, even the short story – the closest successor of the oral story – has become abbreviated.

Benjamin’s essay becomes poetical when he explains the desire to renew the oral story.  He is nostalgic for orality and is troubled with the age that surrounded and the culture that expanded from the invention of the printing press and the commercial value that this invention bestowed.  It made the art of storytelling into a commodity that others, including booksellers, publishers, editors, and readers, all had equal shares in.  Whereas oral performance involved two parties, the speaker and the audience, reading, in particular reading a novel, is a silent, solitary activity.  Benjamin makes a pointed argument that storytelling requires community and builds community, as well.  It is an art that, similar to poetry, works to find certain ‘truths,’ or local values.  Hence, the storyteller becomes a sort of prophet, or, as Benjamin asserts, an “authority” over values and beliefs.  When I stop to think about it, there are so many authorities that give us information (with or without the moral of the story).  Our information age does not seek meaning, but more information.

But perhaps all is not lost. If we invoke Walter Ong’s work in orality and literacy, then we do not need to lament but consider that changes that are expected to occur when a new communicative technology comes along.  In fact, Ong states that print production requires a text be performed in many ways, not always directly to an audience.  Print culture may encourage indirect performances, such as through a taped or recorded performance, or from one reader to another.  This is where digital story-telling comes in: digital story-telling encourages oral performance and many are taking advantage of the internet to record readings and performances of texts.  Digital/social media may very well be the medium for a new era of oral performance.  Whether the performance of old epics, poems, lectures, or personal stories, digital story-telling is a new way to practice storytelling and share it with an interested audience.  What is important is that digital storytelling is encouraging the participation of individuals from every walk of life.  The individual becomes capable of sharing and, in fact, the bottom-line of profit margins do not guide performance.  On youtube, digital storytelling has taken off.  Performers get feedback and can edit or perform their stories in different ways accordingly.

The relationship between ancient oral performance and modern digital storytelling is quite simple: digital storytelling requires the speaker to perform a native story, or scripted performance, which is persuasive and confessional.  Both rely on the creative energies of the performer and the skill of creating a narrative.  Online video, video games, lectures online, etc, all are grouped within performance.  Specifically, digital storytelling usually requires a performance of a personal piece of writing by a performer, but sometimes this is not the case; rather, the performer performs stories ancient and new.  Both Benjamin and Ong reflect on the evolutionary process of telling stories this process is continuous and a necessary aspect of human social evolution.

Edited by Sara Humphreys – all quotations have been verified and linked to a pdf file found at Slought.org, a non-profit arts oriented think-tank based in Philadelphia.

Found in Translation: Multi-Sociality, Disability, and Digital Media

If you were to look at my undergraduate transcript, you’ll quickly and quizzically notice that I’ve ‘multi-tasked’ my educational areas of interest as many times as my browsers on any ether-day.

In my first year at Trent University, I took Spanish 100, with the aim of future work in Latin American countries, and a year abroad. I found the language relatively easy to engage with, given its similarity to French. I did all my homework, participated in the class seminar and lab seminar, though I found the latter surprisingly challenging.

But about three weeks into the course, a curious thing happened; an event that changed my life forever. I received an email, one that I inspected almost too swiftly, considering it to be spam. It appeared as this:

To: Jes sachse
Subject: mama (fss)

Text:
I have a daughter. I live in Peru. I want to chat.

Angela

It was, before almost deleting the message, the letters ‘fss’ that caught my eye. FSS is the acronym for my disability, Freeman Sheldon Sydrome. At this realizing, the wheels began spinning, and I then vaguely recalled registering on a disability community website years prior, where I might have shared my email.

Not a moment before the thought completed itself, this person popped up on my MSN Messenger (yes, I am dating myself here. too bad I didn’t say ICQ). She sent me an instant message saying “Hola”, to which I replied excitedly with the two phrases I knew in Spanish: Hola! Mi llama Jes. Yo soy Canadiense!

My earnest studentship gave the person on the other end of the chat the indication that I spoke Spanish, and she immediately launched into too many questions too fast, which had me scrambling around my student apartment for my beginner textbooks and dictionary.

With a bevy of books on my lap, I realized quickly that this was slowing me down, and not necessarily the best way to chat with this woman and find out why she had contacted me. It was then that I dissevered the free translation website, which allowed me to plug in Spanish sentences, and render them into English, and draft my replies and do the reverse.

In two hours that flew by like two minutes, I learned that Angela lived in Peru with her husband and three children, the youngest of whom was diagnosed with Freeman Sheldon Syndrome. At a year and a half, Esmeralda had grown into a lively little girl, but faced many challenges associated with a disability that is quite rare. The genetic lottery is 1 in 150 million for FSS, and today there are approximately 65 known cases- which means that in certain countries, physicians have little to no experience with FSS.

The culture of disability in Peru is one of shame. Angela confided that the doctors had accused her being an alcoholic, and a a drug addict, to have produced a child like Esmeralda. Children with disabilities often live lives segregated from the rest of society, in care and education institutions.

Angela’s community had raised money for her to buy a computer, which the internet cafe in the neighborhood allowed her to run a line to her home, so that she could research and try and connect with other parents of children with FSS. Which led her to me.

Our relationship was a welcomed addition to my already full course load. We chatted for about two hours every night, with a webcam (minus sound). Angela asked countless questions that had been keeping her up at night. “She snores loudly when she sleeps – is this normal?”

“Her feet are like this. What are your feet like?”

Her other children, Franco and Fiore would be in the room as well, giggling and pushing their faces up to the screen. As the months passed, I used free translation less and less, but not so much the phrase ‘No entiendo’.

When December approached, I stared at the OSAP I had remaining in my bank account, a sum indicative of a shy little recluse, living thriftily and not drinking. Then I had a thought: what if I visit Angela in Peru?

Because of the rarity of FSS, and the genetic mutation involved in its production, I had never met another person with FSS in person before. I suppose I too had turned to the Internet at one point, but Wikipedia’s summary was a little terrifying and diagnosing.

If you Google image searched FSS in December of 2005, four images might have come up; eyes blacked out, medical shots portraying bodies that bear facial similarities. But Angela exchanged photos of Esmy, and we discovered that she looked remarkably like I did (and was affectionately given the nickname ‘Latina Jessikita’).

Arriving in Lima by myself, I was met at the airport by Angela and her husband Raul, who lived a rural village called Huaycan-Vitarte, about a hour from Lima city proper, and speak only a few English words between them. I can recall the challenge of the taxi ride to their house, how much more challenging it was without the facilitation of the Internet, and yet how different a community experience it was to be in person with Angela and her family.

Through the Social Media Project, I was reminded of this adventure when I begun to think about Modern Languages and the Internet. When we talk about the technology of the book, we inject a fear into the apparent ‘scattered’ organization of the Internet, and the loss of ‘print’ and the mastery we have.

In Mark Poster’s book “What’s the Matter with the Internet?”, he discusses an interview with Baudrillard, and his fear and refusal to merge with machine. He sees his typewriter as subject to his process, and the manuscript as a tangible; a product to consume. And that has been a technology to certainly shape the 20th century. But the 21st century has shown digital media to be not simply objects of utility, but an entire shift of cultural process. We have entered an era of pervasive and perpetual production.

“The screen is a permeable, seductive interface that joins computer and person into a synthetic cyborg. [...] And with this disappearance, I argue, so vanishes the citizen of the nation, the subject formed in the bosom of the nation-state in the age of first of print, then of broadcasting.” (114)

Baudrillard declares “Cyberspace is not of great use to me personally,” when asked about the potential that new technologies offer him. He demonstrates the same fear and ignorance that pundits like Mark Bauerlein do- Bauerlein, being more dismissive and insulting the intelligence and educational desire of today’s youth, and pointing to the digitization as culprit. But as we move away from false fears that ‘print is over’, and ‘social networking is a distraction’, we begin to examine the shift into a multi-sociality that is in fact shifting access to texts in much grander sense.

My experience as new student in a Spanish language course, was that it was the constant, consistent exposure to the language that remedied my learning, rather than the grades in the half hour tech lab, or practical quizzes.

Today, I have several Facebook friends who communicate in multiple languages. Recently, the Microsoft Bing browser has developed a new tool. When these languages appear on my news feed, which is set to English, the browser acknowledges that it is foreign to me, and asks in a hyperlink if I would like a translation.

Presently, in print, the English language is staggeringly dominant. However, digital media stands to influence a multi-lingual reality – one which no longer needs to privilege English. Hypertext markup language (HTML) itself is not inherently English, either.

The further development of these language technologies stands to have a remarkable impact on the Digital Humanities. Perhaps, Baudrillard and Bauerlein dystopically would caution that this new language freedom might create temporal communicators. Reading accounts like the personal narrative I shared above, the authenticity of my practice in the Spanish language spanned only one academic year. After returning from Peru, and completing the entry level course, without regular use, I slowly lost the learned use of the language.

However, I would like to link this technophobia to a greater dystopia of this century, that can be connected to narratives of ‘progress’. Is it necessary for human pursuits of language to take on the form of a consumption? Should I have learned ‘Spanish’, so that I always have ‘Spanish’? What about the language practice I learned in chatting with Angela, the language of CTRL+P, of ALT+TAB, of the computer grammar that could not replicate Peruvian Spanish, the influence of Quechuan words that faded under the force of Spain’s terrible colonization? These words were not in my textbooks either.

They were in the large hands laughing, pressed apron pockets of Abuela, who taught me names and sounds, as I taught scar lines and surgeries; and both, a resilient womanhood. The inherent challenge to nationalism that these global networks incite, threatens of course, those in the dominant power groups. If English becomes less solely necessary, as the reality of the framework and participation in the Internet, we will see increases in attempts to control this shift, undoubtedly. But utopically, we have present a newer opportunity of networking ourselves, that grants certain citizenship to anyone connected to one or any variety of portals.