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For kids that we label normal, technology is often limited to enhancing or supporting the learning.

For kids with special needs, technology enables the doing and learning they might not be capable of otherwise.
 

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Now here is a thought: Why do we not think that all kids and all learners are special? We are. Why do we still believe that there is a normal or an average? Have we not heard of the end of average?

So if we are all special, shouldn’t technology be used to enable instead just enhance?

Two things prompted this reflection — an interview I watched on YouTube and interactions I had with a special breed of teachers.

A few weeks ago, I watched an interview of Ris Ahmed on YouTube [focused segment]. The actor explained how “Asian” meant very different things in the UK and the USA.


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I can vouch for what Riz Ahmed said because I lived in the USA for several years and had to minor incidentally in socio-political geography to educate those around me.

Now fast-forward to the present. For the last few semesters, I have interacted with pre and inservice teachers who are pursuing diplomas in special needs education (SPED).

I find the “special” in SPED to be a misnomer. It has different meanings in different contexts and it is an insufficient catch-all term.

If you go to almost any school system in the USA and are labelled “special”, you are atypical. You might have a genetic, physical, or behavioural condition that distinguishes you from “normal” or typical. The label is generally a negative one.

In Singapore’s context, being in a special stream of schooling might be a highly sought label. Being a student a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school is a mark of academic excellence. For some history on SAP, read this NLB article.

However, the special-as-atypical meaning is more dominant now in our context. This is because students with special needs are more visible and are given more equitable opportunities than before.

Despite the “special” label being more common, those of us who consider ourselves typical might still gawk at atypicals. This is because our social circles do not overlap as much as they could.

This is why a newer term and phenomenon is on the rise. It is called inclusive education. This could mean including students with hearing impairments or ADHD or certain forms of autism in neuro-typical classrooms.

Inclusive education recognises that atypical students need more or special assistance while not isolating them all the time from the larger world. This is big step forward in special needs education. It might just be the equivalent of bringing the “real world” into typical classrooms.

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.

Today I continue my journey as a consultant by revisiting experiences I used to facilitate almost ten years ago. I have designed ICT-focused modules for a group of allied educators whose work revolves around children with special learning needs.

As a teacher educator in NIE, I used to facilitate a core classroom management and special needs awareness course. Back then I relied on PBwiki (which became PBworks) and Google Sites to provide rich learning experiences.

Back then, the content of the course was centrally planned by a committee and content was stuffed awkwardly into an LMS. Once student-teachers graduated, they could not access the resources. I decided to use open wikis to provide continued and timely access.

The wikis are open to this day. Google is good at leaving things as is; PBworks annoys me at least once a year by asking me if they can claim the space.

This time round I am experimenting with the newly minted Google Spaces to provide a springboard for accessing numerous other online resource, tools, and platforms.

Google Space for CAE/SEED course on ICT for Inclusion.

Some things have changed in the area of ICT for special needs and others have stubbornly remain entrenched.

The ICT-enabled learning possibilities for individuals with special needs is immense. I have been collecting online references for a few months and the possibilities are mind-boggling and heart-warming.

Like most socio-technical phenomena, the problems lie in human ignorance, indifference, and inertia. One word encompasses all three: Administration. The group that should support and enable instead enforces and blocks.

Administration is typically multilayered, and while bureaucracy is generally a pain, I have been fortunate to work with a layer that has given me some freedom. I will use that leeway to design learning experiences that are active instead of archaic and meaningful instead of mundane.

Why do I do this? I believe that every one has “special needs” when it comes to learning. Each of us lies somewhere along a continuum of preferences and abilities. A course designed by an administrator ticks boxes and reaches for the low-hanging fruit. A course designed by a learner tickles and challenges.

A few months ago, I tweet-wondered this out loud.

I ask again: If we can now work just about anywhere, what could modern offices offer?

As an educator, I also ask: If we can study anywhere, why do the majority of classrooms still look like classrooms? Why do they not look more like a Starbucks, as this educator envisions?

Mindsets. They not only shape thoughts and behaviours, they dictate design and implementation.

Let me give you an example. I still get requests for contacts for vendors who can construct “special rooms” in schools.

NIE collaborative classroom in 2009.

NIE collaborative classroom in 2009. Photo by William Oh.

There are not many good reasons to have special rooms. Having a place to show off when visitors come a-knocking is not a good reason. Having an excess of funds is not a good reason to build a special room.

Having rooms that challenge pedagogy, perplex teachers, and enable meaningful, powerful learning is important. But do we need special rooms to do that? What messages does that send if we do?

Every room should be special. That way they become ordinary and accessible to all. Every teacher should have professional development to learn how to integrate technology effectively. Every student should be consume and create because of technology-enabled learning.

To do any less is to make lame excuses while spouting 21st century rhetoric.

Several years ago, I listened to a comedic musician by the name of Stephen Lynch. His songs are very politically incorrect and he sings what most people would not even dare think.


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One of those songs is Special which contains the phrase “a little bit special”. If you have never heard Lynch, you might want to lynch him.

Having a special need is no laughing matter though. Not only do you have what most would consider a handicap, you are also likely to be marginalized or even ostracized.

But not everyone with a special need is brought up to think they are inferior. Some are even labelled savants, like Stephen Wiltshire.

 

Wiltshire is autistic. He was in Singapore to draw our skyline from memory. Read more about Wiltshire’s visit here and here.

The press coverage of Wiltshire’s visits led me to three tangential thoughts.

What if his ability was normal and we are actually subnormal and underperformers?

In some places, Wiltshire’s autism would have kept him in the handicap special box and hidden from view. In others, he would be labelled superhuman with his ability and shown off.

We are all special despite what our one-size-fits-all schooling tells us. We need to break out of the mindset we have been schooled in. We are all valuable even though not all of us will be famous. We need to learn to ignore what society, our peers, and maybe even some of our parents tell us to see how special we are.

We are all a little bit special.

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Depending on where you are, being special can be a good thing or a bad thing.

If you are in Singapore, being special in our educational system is good because you are among the schooling elite. Elsewhere, like the USA, being special is not so good because you have special needs. It is a matter of context and perspective.

I have discovered that I am special in my work place in a bad way.

I might be the only academic who takes care of a non-academic department. This is somewhat ironic given that we are the Centre for e-Learning. But that is not the special bit.

There are separate work emailing lists for academic and non-academic heads. As some folks do not know quite where to place me, I sometimes miss out on important notifications.

Thankfully there are a few alert staff who spot this operational flaw and try to deal with it by including me in the distribution or providing the information as an urgent afterthought. But that rarely happens because to TO and CC lists are either very long or automated.

I guess this is what happens when you are “special” in a one-size-fits-all setup. This is a reminder to me that we are all special in some way and it is important to treat people that way.

Email is one thing. The telephone is another.

Earlier this week, I realized that my office phone number was accidentally assigned to someone else. I have had this number in my five years at this work place. It is the number used by people who I give my business cards to. This number even followed me when I moved from one office block to another when I took up my appointment.

I discovered that a new staff member has been assigned to my old office. In setting up a phone line, the system (or more likely someone in the system) gave him my current office number instead of giving him a new one.

Again, this reminds me that a whole comprises of many parts. For operational efficiency, it might seem prudent to look at the whole. I think that is why someone just followed a fixed process.

But if you ignore the parts that make it whole, seemingly small problems like these eat away at the integrity of the whole.

This latest incident took three days and four different people to sort out. Imagine me spending time explaining the same problem over and over again. Imagine the total man hours lost on this. Imagine me losing confidence in a system designed to help me work.

My takeaway is that the parts are sometimes more important than the whole. To make an organization special (in a good way), you need to treat its people special (also in a good way). It might seem like a lot of effort, but it is better in the long run.

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