Saturday, June 30, 2012

Technology in Special Education – The CrossRoads

One of my favorite subjects for talk these days,
It is not this morning that the world woke up to the role of technology in education, yet it remains the matter of arguments, discussions and disagreements. Education paves the way for technology and then we wonder and worry about validating the payback role of technology in education. I came across a study published by the U.S. Department of Education on Technology’s Role in Education based on the Findings from a National Study of Innovating Schools’
While the study says that “Technology is not an easy route to transforming schools, but it definitely is an exciting one.” It also talks about how the use of technology in education is impacting the ecosystem that the educational institutions have built over the years,

· Adding to the students’ perception that their work is authentic and important.
· With a simple approach increasing the complexity with which students can deal successfully.
· Dramatically enhancing student’s motivation and self-esteem.
· Encouraging greater collaboration between teachers & students,
· An increase in their technology and pedagogical skills.
· Greater collaboration within their own school.
· Contact and collaboration with external school reform and research organizations.

While the increasing awareness of the use of technology in education is widely impacting both the context and content of the education, I have been curiously involved in thinking what could technology bring to the field of special education. My thoughts as usual have been beyond the basic cost-benefit analysis and more towards exploring the untried possibilities.

In my current recent stint of working with Asha, I figured a few things:
  1. With the special children who are often identified to have some distinguished abilities, the use of technology might give them an array of possibilities with no compromise, depending on an institution’s specialization in different aspects of technology.
  2. Technology unfolds a wide range of potential specialties that can be leveraged in special education, ranging from click controlled elementary learning - to drag n drop match making - to creatively painting an imagination on a computer  screen - to typing - to navigating the world of internet - to photo/video editing - to computer graphics and the list goes on...
  3. Between the regular schools and technology we often see a transmitter– receiver relationship, the technology teaches/demonstrates and the students learn. However between the special school and technology I noticed a mentor-researcher relationship, where every child is a special researcher of technology, offering the latter a spectrum of new possibilities wider than the spectrum(ASD - Autism Spectrum Disorder) they biologically belong to.
  4. Given the evolving waves of technological capabilities, the trainers and educators not only get the challenge and opportunity of learning and investigating these methods of education but also contributing to the ongoing research in this area.
To name a few technologies that probably all of us have grown to take on its face value, but it takes an effort from us to reveal their values to the special education groups, are:
  • Microsoft Office: You might say it is the most value-making and handiest piece of software on the MS earth, which is probably right and so is that for the teachers making special efforts to train these children on basic skills. While the tools like MS Word and Excel shortens their lesson preparation assessment and reporting time, PowerPoint can help them build easy-to-deliver interactive lessons on the most difficult portions of their academic curricula. While I was talking about the capabilities of this suite of handy software to the group of teachers in my training sessions, I was not surprised to see their applications explored within a small computer lab, let alone the real field they operate in! 
  •  Apple iPads, the oomph of this magical device is not just in its impressive gadget-status, but also in its applicability and sheer relevance to what fwe could possibly do with it in special education. The touch that is defined as the first known sense to these children, is what makes the genesis of these devices and no wonder goes beyond fun, speech, phonetics, emotions, behaviors, teaching, learning to create design arts. The tiny icons on the home screen representing the apps housed in this magical device, indicate towards the seamless possibilities of invention to their border less developers around the globe. 
  • Design tools like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDRAW or even the more advanced AutoDesk 3D Max. As someone observed in a workshop, the so called normal people like us can’t use the magic wand or lasso tools with the same precision and accuracy as some of these kids.
  • SMART Technologies bring a series of smart learning options, some of which have potentials to become fundamental to the area of special education. Some appealing products from SMART that I particularly like are interactive whiteboards, Smart slates, Smart IRS, Smart tables and so on. I couldn’t help imagining their massive role in the line of special education. 
Schools and organizations have witnessed the spirits of innovation as a tool to bring students and people together, the same applies on the educators, the teachers & trainers. The real win of technology would be if the elementary educators could reap a good portion of what technology has to offer to the world today. If the technology which is originally brewed by their own science, maths and social lessons, could come back to schools serving the educators, the spirit of innovation would go a much longer and glorious way in transforming our lives.

On the other hand the technical demands posed by technology use are just the tip of the iceberg. Teachers must be able to select, adapt, or design technology-enhanced materials that meet the needs of their special students.
With that I would say, every reform takes time for full manifestation. In the mean time it requires patience, collaboration, individual contributions and answers to all the basic questions that come as "things to do" for that reform to take place. That's where we need technology barons, enthusiasts and volunteers like you and me to intervene and play our part. How can we do that one step at a time, please read my post on Asha - A hope to fly.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Asha – A Hope to Fly

I was taking strides to my mission of this year, I am a technology volunteer for ASHA - Academy for Severe Handicaps & Autistic. I am working with Bhavna, Shashank, Sunny, Vamsi, Jansi, Tanu, Raju, Emil, Satwik, Manav and Vedas and 80+ other students who make this school a home of their imaginations.

These children are as normal human beings as you and me are. They have got their share of excitement, love, pleasure, inquisitiveness, agreements and disagreements like you and me. So what if they don’t communicate like us, they have their own unique ways of expressing themselves which is often termed and perceived as ‘difficult’. I beg to differ though. These children exhibit a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The term "spectrum" refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment, or disability, that children with ASD can exhibit. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, but others are severely affected. ASHA is helping and training children diagnosed and placed across the spectrum.**

First and foremost fact to learn about Autism is - Each individual with Autism is unique and what makes them furthermore special is their extra ordinary abilities which could range from exceptional visual, academic or creative skills to great sense of humor – amazing skills that have gifted the world with some of the most renowned scientists, artists, advocates, writers, linguists, painters, sculptors, poets, educators and we would never miss to mention the creator of Pokémon - Satoshi Tajiri!

Research says that about 40 percent of autistic children have average to above average intellectual abilities. No wonder, many people on the spectrum take deserved pride in their characteristic abilities. That is probably the most important realization and reflection that we - as a society owe them.

I have no hesitation whatsoever in acknowledging that a lot (if not all) of the mundane usability or functional testing work that I have come across in the software world could be brilliantly done by some of these students, with much higher precision, because these kids grow sharpening the edges of perfection and precision like none of us. A special child in my computer class makes it a point to remind me every time he passes by, that the right place for the spectacles clenched over my head is actually on my nose and the piece of dupatta (a shawl) is better suited around my head than wrapped around my neck! I have been surprised and touched by such non verbal and non-eye-contacting interventions registered by them to the minutest (often ignorable) details, while we are still wondering about the early intervention therapies to diagnose their social and communication disabilities! I couldn’t help but to ask myself - do we really need to intervene the natural developmental path they are up to? As I explored further, I learned that all of us have actually gone through a natural yet humanly intervened model of evolution that was devised to keep track of our developmental milestones. For these children since the developmental milestones are usually forced and hard-to-meet, the early intervention techniques help speeding calculated steps towards these mileposts.

While Asha and many such organizations do their best to embrace Autism, it’s the time for us to put our best foot forward by staying aware, then acknowledge and accept Autism: 

As Parents: Most crucial part is to understand and acknowledge that your child has no limits of learning and excelling, so arresting him/her in the boundaries of your perception of their skills would be unfair on your part. Introduce them to colors while allowing them to hold the pair of paint n brush and you will find them filling never-seen-before colors to everything which otherwise looked drab and achromatic to the other spectators like you and me. Please notice the color of the butterfly and elephant in these pictures.
As a Society: I honestly feel we have a clear and better space for these children in the mainstream of social existence. It’s only the matter of finding & including them in. If we as a society could remove the obstacles of unawareness, lack of education, myths and negligence, new opportunities will emerge reflexively.

As a School: Regular schools must collaborate with special education centers and participate in improving the behavioral learning patterns and abilities of the special children. This could help find the possibilities of mainstreaming the special children to regular schools, fostering a broader sense of acceptance and action.  Seclusion could never be a solution, it’s often a choice imposed on these children and their families which we need to strike off. Like any other children in your vicinity, they like a creative company, a learning fair, a reader rabbit and a master Sam. What does it indicate - a need of collaborative & synergistic education. Children are better explained to and best understood by their peers in the group and nothing should deprive them of this synergy. A common child has a lot to learn by a special one and a special one is always at a giving end. Schools are the best places to nurture & celebrate this synergy. So bring them together, make them feel equal and complemented.
As You & Me: Most of us have taken pride in being socialites, friends, employees, engineers, bosses, businessmen and women, bureaucrats (and the list goes on…). Can we not now consider it a time to be volunteers, or possibly we already are without a realization! So let’s join the two ends of You and Me and make a Tech-Volunteer club that offers help in understanding and implementing technology for special education. Anyone who knows what Information technology means to the global development, should be a potential evangelist in special education. If you know what Apple iPad is to you or your kid and browsing restlessly to know how Windows 8 surfaces for us by the end of this year, take a moment to imagine what the fundamental technology of a touch pad could bring to these children of special skills & tremendous potentials. 

If we can shift our focus from in-born disabilities to the nurtured capabilities, we will introduce to this generation a new world of possibilities that we are not yet aware of. As someone says, if they don’t learn the way we teach them, let’s teach them the way they learn. (more... my next blog)

By the way, the second picture  in the first collage is a portrait of mine drawn by a very special child and the smiley is drawn on an iPad by another special child who was asked to express how did he like coming to the school. I wish to become this special to the world.

** Attributions:

Monday, June 4, 2012

To the people, for a dream nation

A poem written by me during my high school days. It has made me to believe in it in much stronger ways ever since...

फिर कोई इंसां न इंसानियत को तरसे
कि चैन-ओ-अमन का सावन जी भरके बरसे।
फिर किसी नाज़ुक के अश्क फिज़ा में बिखरें,
कि शबनम--गुलशन की रंगत कुछ इस तरह निखरे।
वो ऐसा हल तफ्ह्तीश कर मेरे दोस्त,
कि आज हर हिन्दुस्तानी वो रास्ता अख्तियार करे,
जो फिर इस ज़मीं को जन्नत की शक्ल में साकार करे।
ग़र जो समंदर हैं तो तूफां आयेंगे
सिकंदर वो जो तूफां से प्यार करे।
शीरीं हम मिलकर मुल्क़ का वो नक़्श तैयार करें,
कि हर मशरिकी नज़र मेरे क़ौम का दीदार करे|

Closest translation in English
May no human beings be deprived of humanity,
May there be bountiful rains of peace all around
May there be no tears of the delicate children in our environ
I wish so is the beauty of the dews in my nation's garden
Lets' find a way my friend for every landsman to choose a path today
that manifests the heaven in this land tomorrow
If there are oceans, there will be storms.
Champion though is the one who loves the storms.
Friends, lets craft a future of our country in unity and dignity
So the stranger’s eyes treasure the mesmerizing beauty of our nation forever.