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This CNA video featured Jonathan Tiong, a “disabled” valedictorian of NUS’s Class of 2021. He might be conventionally disabled, but I consider him “differently abled”.

He is an inspiring and timely reminder for students of the ICT for Inclusion modules I will be facilitating in December. In particular, I will highlight the every day technologies like the Internet that has enabled him to study and work. Jonathan said:

… the pandemic has brought about the benefits for people especially with physical disabilities because it takes away a lot of our limitations… just give me the laptop and Internet and I can do a lot of things.

He has a message for the rest of “abled” society: 

… society’s way of defining success should change for people with disabilities. I think the only reason why I’ve got the attention that I have… is because I’ve met the traditional markers of success. Good degree. Good job, prestigious company.

Jonathan added: 

…we need to acknowledge the fact that living with a disability is hard in itself. And every day, the people with disabilities out there are winning their own battles…

Digging deeper, his message is about how we still focus on equality — the traditional emphasis opportunities and success. We need to shift our gaze and efforts to equity, i.e., giving greater access to those need it more.

Why is there still resistance to educational technologies in SPED and inclusive classrooms? I sense that many of the pre- and in-service teachers who take my modules fear the parents who worry about the fabled “screen time” monster. They might also have bought in to the media’s narrative that mobile devices do more harm than good instead of following the research.

In this CNA article, Jonathan also provided another insight about the barriers of rules and money. Commenting on his final year of study during the pandemic and his current employment:

“A lot of the time we are told by administrators that: ‘Oh we can’t do this because – rules.’ Or ‘because we cannot lor.’

“But a lot of accommodations are actually a mindset thing,” he said. “People seem to have this concept that if you want to accommodate the disabled, we need billions of dollars. I don’t think that’s true.”

For instance, being allowed to work remotely at his present job has not cost his employer anything, he said. “It’s a matter of will and decision-making.”

My agenda is simple: To challenge them to think of every day technologies as enablers for learners in special or inclusive classrooms. These students need more and better access to these tools, not less. Enabling and educational technologies do not have to cost much or anything at all. The real barriers are stubbornness and ignorance.

Come October I will be facilitating online modules on ICT for inclusive education. This is part of a larger course set that I have been involved in since 2016.

As with most courses, the allocated time is extremely tight, so we uncover only the basics. But there are two broader issues that I wish we could address in greater depth. These are some quick thoughts on the deficit model and equitable education.

The first thing I take issue with is the deficit model of special needs and inclusive education. If you watch the videos below, you might note how the “disabled” are concerned about how they help they receive is often based on charity or pity.

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The interviewees shared their hopes and dreams, which are no different from yours or mine. So instead of just focusing on overcoming their disabilities, we might also develop their nascent or untapped abilities.

The second issue that does not get enough attention is equitable opportunities in education, not just equal ones. This long used reference illustrates the difference between treating people equally and with equity.

Treating everyone the same is a hallmark of equality. The problem with equality is that the most disadvatanged start at a much lower point and the help does not boost them enough to level the playing ground.

The idea of fairness drives equity. This means giving those that need it more help than those who do not. This is like giving the poorer more money to tide over the current coronavirus pandemic and less (or nothing) to the rich.

How does ICT fit in?

In terms of equity, I see the marginalised and disenfranchised given at least as much access to current technologies. Where there are specialised enabling (assistive) technologies, I say we put in the time, money, and effort to develop and provide these to those who need them.

As for overturning the deficit model, I say we focus on technologies that enable the so-called disabled to develop and share what they can do. This might be everyday tools we use like YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok.

I hope to be able to conclude my modules with these thoughts or sprinkle them when they arise organically. This way I focus less on content that expires and more on mindsets that last a lifetime.

If you asked me to define “technology”, I would say that it is any tool that helps us perform tasks more efficiently or effectively.

A stick is technology whether it is used as a lever, a spear to fish, or an instrument to write on the sand. It helps us lift a weight more easily, increases our reach, and externalises thought respectively.

These days, however, I would define technology as any tool that you have now that you did not have when you were growing up. For older adults, this might be the mobile phone. It is something that has great utility, but gained prominence outside a period of fearless learning.

Modern technology not static. A mobile phone used to mimic a landline; it is now a small computer, camera, and a myriad of other devices compactly squashed in our pockets.

The current and modern mobile phone is a good example of an ICT — an information and communication technology. It can be used to find information, possibly repackage it, and then share it. I might use my phone to check for definitions of technology, devise my own, and then blog about it.

IT tends to be one-way — think about the transmissive powers of television, PowerPoint, and wifi. IT tends to be highly regulated or controlled by someone or a group in authority.

ICT, on the other hand, is two-way or multi-way. Think about social media, video conferencing, and torrent seeding. ICT relies on decentralised and socialised control. Its norms and expectations are negotiated over time and within communities.

There is no single way to define technology, IT, or ICT. Their meanings can change in context. Mine is education and these are ideas that provide a foundation for how I begin to teach others how to integrate technologies. This is how I see T.

Last night I concluded an evening class on ICT for Inclusive Education.

I was hoping that this round would allow me to provoke more thought on the differences between equality and equity in inclusive education.

As a refresher, here is one of the better visualisations and descriptions of equality and equity.

To that end, I wanted to share three videos at various segments: A Netflix trailer for Atypical, a feature on Greta Thunberg, and the winner of this year’s America’s Got Talent, Cody Lee.

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I only got to the first two videos and this was my intended message.

The main characters of all the videos were somewhere on the autism spectrum. All rely on some form of technology to be human and realise their goals — Sam needs noise-cancelling headphones because he is sensitive to noise, Greta uses social media to monitor her movement on climate change, and Cody has his keyboards and YouTube videos.

These are people with special needs and they are born into better circumstances than most. They are supported and enabled by their families and peers. They can compete on equal footing and even exceed the normal and neurotypical.

What about the rest who are not born privileged? They cannot be treated the same; they need to be treated fairly. This might mean giving more help and resources so that they can live their best lives.

Providing such help is a complex and messy process. For me, one of the starting points is special needs or inclusive educators. They need to know WHAT some technologies are and HOW best to incorporate them for teaching and learning.

They also need to know how other issues surrounding technology and pedagogy affect the two — issues like political will, policy, budgets, parental perspectives, social norms, etc. The burden is also on such teachers and educators to stay current with such issues and work from within the system to effect change.

I have read about the pushback against “personalised learning”, particularly in the USA, for a while. The latest is this article, Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning.

It might seem strange that attempts to help learners are met with resistance from the people at the frontline of helping them. The rhetoric, and perhaps the possible reality, is that computers and corporatised solutions threaten the jobs of teachers.

The actual reality might be that there are other factors that reduce teaching positions, e.g., shrinking budgets, poor test scores, political mandates.

Singapore’s reality was and is our low birthrate. As a former faculty of Singapore’s only teacher preparation institute, I saw the demand for teachers plateau and now see it in gentle decline.

When I started educating teachers 20 years ago, I would hear preservice teachers occasionally remark during our ICT classes how computers were going to replace them. That did not happen then and ICT is not the cause now.

We have yet to “personalise” learning in the mainstream Singapore classroom as much as edtech vendors might like. We do not have computerised standardised testing like many schools in the USA.

Our personal and personalisable technology is stealthily hidden in students’ bags, locked away in carts, or white-elephanted in labs. ICT is still like good-to-have bottled water and not must-have tap water.

Our edtech vendors are thankfully not as aggressive or creative as enrichment tuition agencies. The latter offer a different sort of personalisation: Exchange money, drilling, and sweat for better grades, never mind if you actually learn anything.

So in the USA and Singapore, we have depersonalised personal learning. It is corporatised and mechanical ICT in the USA; it is the avoidance of meaningful ICT and being test smart here.

When I facilitate ICT classes for educators of children with special needs, I try to create a shared context while they pursue their own focus areas.

One way to create a shared cognitive context is to use videos. The video I embed below provides some important reminders about leveraging on ICT whether we are “normal” or “special”.

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The videos feature Carly Fleischmann who has severe autism and cannot speak due to an oral motor condition.

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Carly was largely silent for the first decade of her life. Then she reached for a laptop which literally gave her a voice. ICTs have allowed her to pursue her dream of interviewing celebrities.

I use these videos to illustrate that technology should:

  • Enable, not just enhance.
  • Be in the hands of the learner, not just the teacher.
  • Focus on ability, not disability.
  • Be used to create, not just consume.

Carly has a YouTube channel and book to her name. She might seem to be the exception instead of the rule.

I say we break that stupid rule by empowering all children and learners — special and ordinary — with ICT. I say we stop making excuses and find ways to enable instead. I say we stop old and outdated behaviours that are teacher-focused instead of being learner-centred first.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20/20. People who say this mean that things look clearer once you get past them. It is easy to look back and see what you have accomplished.

It is also easy to paint a picture rosier than actually was. Our memories are more fickle than we would like to admit. One of my favourite sayings is: Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Like it or not, we forget more than remember [Decay Theory]. We Instagram-filter our memories as we snapshot them [Interference Theory].

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So when ISTE2016 made this declaration, I clap and I caution.

Let us celebrate successes, but not congratulate ourselves prematurely. Things may have changed, but they are not representative of every context, even in the so-called first world.

For example, participants at ISTE were having wifi issues.

We know of teachers who are still behind or trying to get over the “how to use tech” barrier. If you conducted a study, I would wager that a significant portion of “professional development” gets stuck at technology awareness and basic training.

Singapore embarked on the ICT Masterplan 4 this year, but teachers still complain about access and connectivity. They are not just talking about technology (poor signal, blocked resources), but also about policy and practice.

I mention these not to play down the achievements of any system attempting and embracing change. It takes guts, persistence, and time for change to happen and there will always be laggards and brickbats.

But let us not give naysayers fuel for their fire.

I say we admit we have failings, address them, and learn from them. I say we not whitewash underlying problems. I say we challenge rhetoric with reality.

I have not facilitated an evening class for a long time. My last time was probably an advanced ICT course for instructional designers several years ago.

I avoid evening classes because they take up family time, i.e., dinner, watching YouTube videos together, bedtime rituals. I am also always buzzed after each class is over so I find it hard to sleep.

However, it helps when the learners are active and receptive to change.

One of the things I did was to lead my learners through a roughly hour-long experience on what it means to merely enhance with technology and to enable learning with it. I did this by getting them to collaboratively concept map in groups.

Concept mapping: Enhance or enable?

One set used a whiteboard, another used a mobile app, while others used an online tool. I impressed upon them how a whiteboard map might be easier to do, but it was not as manipulable, archivable, sharable, or media-rich. An online concept map is viewable and editable to any or all and does not suffer from bad handwriting.

The mobile app was disconnected from the web and was thus a mere enhancement of what could be done on a whiteboard. The online map enabled cross-team collaborating and critiquing.

While there some value in enhancing learning, there is greater value in enabling it. Consider how some autistic folk interact with others in Second Life, how the mute speak with voice apps, or the blind consume with screen readers.

This makes sense in the case of learners with special needs. But as I pointed out yesterday, all of us have special needs. Why stop halfway at merely enhancing instead of going all the way by enabling with technology?

Why have school wifi only to block sites technically instead of having a social management system?

Why get students to tweet quiz answers to you when they can reach experts or tap cultures different from their own?

Why use two or multi-way communication mobile apps for one-way dissemination?

Why operate in fear or worry and seek to merely enhance when you can go boldly and learn from mistakes by enabling?

Late last year, the OECD released a report that declared that using educational technology did not guarantee good results.

The press had a field day with it, nay-sayers gleefully taunted “I told you so!”, and anyone associated with enabling change with ICT questioned their lot in life.

Well, this was not quite true for the last group of people.

While some suffered a dent in confidence, other educators moved beyond this argument and focused on what was and still is important: Enabling powerful and meaningful learning by students regardless of results measured only by narrow-beam tests.

The argument that technology does not help is old and invalid.

The press and nay-sayers focused on the negative and forgot to point out that the ineffectiveness could be due to teachers who do not know how to marry new tools with new strategies.

Consider a person with a hammer (old tool) and who is an expert at hammering (old strategy). Now give them a Swiss Army Knife (new set of tools). They might struggle to use the tools (poor strategy) or resort to hammering (using the old strategy regardless of tool affordances).

The argument is old because we already know that for something like a wide range of ICTs to be effective, there must be broad acceptance, regular use, and rigorous professional development. There must be changes in teaching behaviours before we try measuring the effectiveness of ICT.

How you measure effectiveness is also important. Schools and the OECD used tests. Do these test for knowledge, attitudes, and skills that are a result of ICT-enabled learning? For example, are the tests open, collaborative, and Google-enabled?

No, they are not. It is like the tests are designed to measure how someone can run in a straight line when you actually need to determine how well they can climb up a tree. The body motions look similar when the person is miming the actions, but climbing is very different from running. The tests are simply invalid.

Say no to the nay-sayers because they do not know what they are talking about. I have told you do. Now you tell them so!

There are so many things to consider when trying to make decisions about educational technology. Be it for a class, a school, a district, or an entire country, decision makers consider cost, sustainability, adaptability, and a host of other important considerations.

However, most complexities can be whittled down a simple core. Whether you marry someone or not might boil down to love or circumstance. Whether you adopt an ICT tool, platform, or strategy could boil down to three types of questions.

Most of the time it is edtech vendors that make pitches. Are they using marketing speak (that you do not understand) or education speak (that you do)? If it is the latter, are they using buzzwords or meaningful terms? This will help you distinguish the ones who are out to make money and those who actually care and deserve to get paid.

Is the technology primarily in the hands of the teacher (like “interactive” white boards) or do they belong to the learners (like mobile or wearable devices)? If your agenda is to promote learning that is authentic, lifelong, and lifewide, consider what students have in their bedrooms. Do they have IWBs or mobile phones? How much ownership do they have of a learning management system (LMS or LMess or hellMS) versus their YouTube channel or Instagram feed?

Do you and the vendor use words like “aid” and “enhance”? Or do you make the case for “empower” and “enable”? Are you investing in technology that relies on old strategies so that the ICTs are mere add-ons or options? Or do you have a clear direction towards technology-mediated pedagogies that nurture technology-enabled learning?

Any reflective decision maker worth their salt will realise that there is a lot of noise in the search for signal. Tune in to what is important. In the area of educational technology, the right frequency is the learner and learning. Everything else is secondary and noise.


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