Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana & Look Around: An Introduction

“Asana is a simple way to stay on top of your classes, assignments, and student club activities. Before you get started, it’s important to understand how to set up Asana.” – Asana.

The Digital Communitas project, Student Voices, is actively soliciting blog posts, vlogs, and mp3 audio from post-secondary students at Canada’s universities to share their experiences in the classroom with digital media. Sara Humphreys, our fearless leader, has challenged both my colleague Shannon Haslett and I to come up with a blog post which meets the precipitous of the guidelines of the call for posts. I have come up with the idea for a series of posts under the title “Get Your Head Out Of Your Asana.”

One of the tools we use to communicate with each other and control workflow for Student Voices is through an app called Asana. Asana is project management software intended to replace the need for email by making work more “social.” In learning to use Asana, I visited its “Getting Started” page, and immediately noticed the language they used to sell you on their product especially its big-headed and “new-agey” marketing rhetoric. Looking at Asana critically, I thought it would be fun to pick on it to create a series of posts which comment to what level digital technology provides a source of assisting in our education and to what level they provide us with a distraction from learning. How much attention is the twenty-first student paying to Wikipedia and YouTube in the classroom as opposed to well-trained instructors? Or engaging with projected PowerPoint presentations instead of with their peers for in-class discussion? Or looking down at their various digital devices instead of observing the world around them? Where platforms such as Asana or Blackboard provide excellent tools for managing and synthesizing information, to what extent are they becoming a priority for institutional investment at the expense of learning resources whether digital or physical? Is ease of access and coded interactivity truly more important than the information we engage with? Could Marshal McLuhan have been right? Has the media, or the tool, really become the message?

Cool app or Kool-Aid?

Asana was started up by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and ex-Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein in 2008. Their goal is to revolutionize the way we communicate with each other by basically ridding the need to communicate needlessly via email and other, presumably, face-to face means (no more virtual water cooler chit chat), so more actual work can be produced. It professes to replace perceived idleness with efficiency yet it is a bit oxymoronic; replacing traditional digital communications with social communications so you can communicate less.

Ironically, Asana also refers to a yoga position which literally translates to the art or “mastery of sitting still.”  There is no real ‘sitting still’ embedded in the Asana software despite its name, unless they are referring to the ideas that are stagnating. It claims “[y]ou’ll spend less time reading and writing emails and more time getting work done.” Less time reading and writing… hmm. In actuality, it replaces not idleness with efficiency but creativity with efficiency, for out of boredom and dialogue, ideas are born. In the humanities, the work being done is about people and their interaction with (fill in your specialization here).

So, is Asana a good tool for education? What Asana proposes is digital Fordism or Taylorism, where we work with parts never being able to conceive of the whole. And isn’t trying to understand the big picture what a good education is really about?

In their own words,“Asana is the single source of information for your team.  Add projects, tasks, and comments as you go, and you’ll instantly build a team archive that’s easily accessible whenever you need context or information.”  Unfortunately, Asana is about Asana.  It’s mission to keep our heads in our Asana and out of other digital and physical spaces.  However, the truth behind the rhetoric is that Asana can only provide limited information and context, obvious to anyone who takes the time to logout and look around.

 

 

 

 

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)

The Digital Classroom: Catering to Idealism

One more theorist inspired post from me, once more applying ideas towards technological learning environments. This time I will examine the issue from a perspective inspired by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard was a French theorist, writing in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. He covered a broad range of ideas, but some of his core themes were that of simulations, consumerism, media, technology, and signs/symbolism. His bibliography is quite lengthy, and since I can only include so much, this article will use some ideas found in The System of Objects, Simulacra and Simulation, and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Again, I must note in advance, this post will seem very non-supportive of technology in the classroom, but I want to again note that this is not my position, rather that this should provoke thought about the origins of said technology, and the political/economical/ideological motives behind equipping classrooms with technology. By understanding these underlying themes, we can have a fuller understanding of the true meanings and ramifications of technology in the classroom. It may be a harsh reality to face and some may rail against such claims, but technology in the classroom does in fact have many downsides to it, most of which are the fault of said ideological influences.

As one of the arguments for supporting digitized classrooms, technology is slated to combat boredom, to cater to new ways of learning, and create new methods of teaching. However, I want to point out the most obvious fact: teaching with technology is still teaching. It is not replacing teaching or teachers, and thus will become subject to the same miseries, or even worse distractions, than traditional methods eventually. Digital interfaces in a classroom hold the attention of younger generations and students because they are a novelty. A techno-generation of students will view digitally enhanced classrooms much in the same way rebellious children today view the traditional methods. It is a circular process. The idea of learning and the attitudes towards that is what needs to be changed to allow the full effects of technological enhancements in the classroom to be felt. We are deluding ourselves into believing that technology will save the classroom, or that the fundamentals will somehow be different and more effective. Not that this is naivety, on the contrary, that is the very goal of technology, which allows it to flourish and invade our body. But we must be suspicious.

In the mad rush to equip schools with technology, the reduction of technology to merely a sign is evident. I do not mean to deprive digital interfaces of their ability to fundamentally change the classroom, but the symbolism of a digital classroom is stronger, and arguably more important. This movement is a modernization, to pull into the 21st century one of the oldest social environments. Digital interfaces serve as a sign of modernity, of a technologically savvy and triumphant society. Traditional methodologies are not seen as rational, nor 100 percent efficient; there is always a piece of technological equipment that can be created to achieve this, though always within limits imposed by dominant social structure. In short, technologically advanced classrooms serves to further legitimize our technocratic society. It is more the idea of an advanced classroom that is appealing to many than the practical application of it. The actual implementation is a nothing more or less than a worthy goal of society, though successful integration would be a “token” of power.

Referencing back again to my first post about surveillance and data collection, we come to a concept Baudrillard detailed in Simulacra and Simulation. He believed that we bring the sacred objects in life into a scientific order, in an effort to control them. He gave the example of museums effectively “killing” Egyptian mummified corpses; that we write our own ethnographies. The world has become a museum; everything is an exhibit. Though this work was written in 1981, it has been amplified to the infinite degree by the internet today. Social media is a prime example; we build our own exhibits for ourselves, and prostitute our images. Our data is collected, and advertisers have their own museums about us, the consumer, and cater back to us so we can continue to build on our own exhibit. In a similar way, this works in the classroom as well, if the technology is set up in such a way. The statistics of how well we perform in certain areas lead to an exhibit of our academic profile and abilities. We have seen how advertisers have invaded digital academic tools such as Blackboard; theoretically they could advertise to the student particular devices or programs that best suit their academic abilities or deficiencies. Additionally, schools or programs that require applications can see a deeper/rational/synthesized evaluation of a student, or even a host of students, through simple things like data collection and analysis. An exhibit of a student or classroom can be quite revealing. Nothing is private, and everything is oriented towards efficiency and economical benefits. Schools have a vested interest in having top performing students, advertisers make money from the data, and other companies make money from people purchasing the programs. Although this idea of an exhibit of the student may seem like a logical step, do exhibits and statistics always demonstrate the potential or true abilities of a student? As Baudrillard suggests, there is more and more information, but less and less meaning.

This idea of the exhibit of the student somewhat leads into the idea that people believe technology adapts to them. Any little learning deficiency, interest, etc, is seen as an individualization, personalization, a focus on them. This is wrong: everything is coded, predicted, anticipated, and such “adaptations” are designed to dupe you into believing technology is working for you. Any “adaptation” is an orientation to a paying consumer, or creation of adaptive ideas for profit in patents. Problem with math? Try this new teaching program! I see you like science; try this new data collection program! Perhaps if a new development is made requiring non-existent technologies, it could be an adaptation, though it is not an adaptation for the sake of the person, it is for the sake of filling another gap for profit. Point is, technology is not working, or doing the work, for you. If we have digital interfaces in the classroom as an example, they cannot “work” unless we utilize them. It is what WE do that matters. We manipulate it, and it does what it is told. Ultimately it is the programmers and corporations YOU are working for, the opposite of what we believe technology is doing. Every quirk has a niche and a price; there’s an app for that.Governments and companies both are pushing for this equipment, as it benefits both of them. Given the recent revelations of widespread data being monitored by government agencies, it can be debated whether or not this is actually in the student’s best interest.

Relating to this, technology opposes progress just as much as it promotes advancements. Advancing too far, too fast will kill it; it is only logical that it organizes itself against too fast of progress. It is in its best interest to go slow, and “adapt” to situations that come up instead of preventing or pre-empting them. This is economic play. Baudrillard discussed at length in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place how speculators make money of things that never really happen, that do not catch on, take off, what have you. The same effect is being applied here. Economic powers are speculating the worth of technologically enhanced classrooms, and speculating off the students. Why else would companies be interested in equipping schools with tablets, e-readers, computers, and so on? Advertising, media, promotion, money.

Baudrillard suggested objects and technology grow like an organism; it evolves, it has waste, it has obsolescence. Technology, of course, is the exact same. Every year we see it, the new Apple products and the mad rush to purchase these expensive devices that undergo minor changes that are often aesthetic only in nature, a planned obsolescence designed to suck money out of the masses. In the classroom, this is the greatest danger of technology. It is expensive, and cannot be replaced at the consistent rate of growth it is experiencing. There will always be a school that is out of date, and then the point of digitally enhanced classrooms is lost, as methods become obsolete as fast as the technology. Again, economics are at play. We must also deal with the waste; where does all this go? The amount of waste technology produces is astounding, and is only growing.

There is another problem, regarding specificity of technology. Again, I noted in my first post that many instructors are incapable of fixing problems with the rudimentary technology in the classrooms. Baudrillard noted the increasing specialization in “gizmos” and technology in general. This is part of the plan; there are jobs out there for people who can fix these problems, so the people who really need to know (instructors) are not taught. Here is an example, though it is not exactly about learning with digital interfaces, but it paints the general picture. In my final year of high school, all of the clocks broke and everything fell out of time. All the buzzers were 8 minutes behind, and not a single clock in the school was correct. It remained this way for quite some time because apparently there was only ONE PERSON in the entire municipality that was licensed and trained (aka entitled) to fix the clocks. Great. In terms of actual classes, why do students have to wait for IT help to get the lesson going? It would be more much efficient if the instructors knew how to work these things, and then both students and instructors would not lose out on 10-15 minutes of class every week.

It boils down to this: money. Baudrillard asserted that the cultural mosaic does not exist, rather there is only one “culture,” and this one is the capitalist centralization of value. Everything can be given a price, and now that education and instructors are increasingly under the economic scope, economics are extraordinarily important, especially given the enormous focus on economics today. This centralized tendency to reduce everything to monetary value is extraordinarily demeaning, and is certainly a backwards progression. Technological advances in the classrooms are suffering from this, and as noted in this post and my last one, it is solely due to money, presumably greed.

There is a great technocracy at play here. It is evident in all of the above issues. It is also evident in the prevailing attitude about technology: if you do not have it, are not up to date, or non-proficient with it, you are socially ridiculed. Although it is not the social “castration” Baudrillard suggested happened to those who lost their driver’s licence, the principle is still applicable. It is an expectation of people today, an expectation that everybody has cell phones, social media accounts, mp3 players, and so on. Technology is not to be halted; those who have not come under technology are backwards, morally and socially. This idea allows it flourish, and continuously creates pretexts for development, pointless or not. This is one reason why we consider the traditional classroom model out of date, and legitimizes the push for digital enhancements.

The final idea I will explore about technologically advanced classrooms is that of a social paralysis. Baudrillard suggested technology does not actually create communication; I believe this to be a result of given historical time-frames (1968), and I will say technology DOES in fact create communication, but a non-standard type or form of communication. It cannot be denied that objects such as Smart phones or other media platforms are killing true human interaction and relationships. It may seem contradictory: does social media not count as human interaction or relationships? Not in my mind. Social media deludes people into believing this, but subtly we must be aware that we do not really have 900+ friends. It is merely an exhibit; social media does not give us the opportunity to learn how engage our peers in the flesh, and digital interfaces in the classroom pose the same threat. I feel that speaking with colleagues and engaging in open dialogue in seminar settings allows the best ideas to be birthed and grow. Technology cannot, and should not, be allowed to isolate students from not only themselves, but from the instructor. If indeed technology does not create or foster standard communication, this is what it should (at least in part) facilitate.

To wrap things up and keep it short, it is suffice to say that we need to really take a step back and look at digitally enhanced classrooms as something more than an educative tool. It was quoted in The System of Objects that “there is something morally wrong about an object whose exact purpose is not entirely known.” Technology in the classrooms is this. Very few people know every line of code that goes into these programs, the underlying motives, etc, for this equipment. It is a consumption of technology, and Baudrillard left us with an excellent definition of consumption: “an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” Technology is the sign, and there is so much at stake for all parties that everybody wants their piece of the pie, economically, politically, and so on. By considering some of the more sinister aspects of technology, and figuring out how to mitigate them as best as possible while being as open as possible, we can make progress in this endeavour.

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.