Assistive Technologies Don’t Just Bypass Learning, They Improve It
Mainstream colleges and universities could benefit from increased use of assistive technologies for learning, but there are some educators who feel that allowing students to use assistive technology is like cheating. As someone who works at a college where these learning tools are used every day in every class, I’d like to clear up a major misconception — that using assistive technologies is akin to cheating or cutting corners. On the contrary, these tools facilitate learning, and all of us, different and “normal” learners alike, should understand what the tools can do for us.
Recently, I showed an attorney how to use Dragon Naturally Speaking (NaturallySpeaking). He was having trouble keeping up with filing all his legal briefs. Now he simply summarizes them verbally and then software types them. Problem solved.
I use Dragon when I do public speaking, so I can go back and review all my “uhs.” I also use it for e-mails and writing papers because I suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. There are students at all colleges who struggle with poor handwriting, or dysgraphia, fluency in word processing or producing logical writing. How many of them would turn in better papers if they could complete them without having to type? By the way, the home edition of Dragon costs less than $100.
A college student who is an auditory learner at Harvard should be able to use a text-to-speech system. He or she is not trying to bypass the learning process, but rather is using a tool that caters to his or her individual learning style. Using Kurzweil 3000 assists students with decoding issues, fluency and reading rate issues; language learners and people with poor working memory, reading comprehension or attention disorders.
Many top students around the country have trouble organizing information or focusing on specific subjects. Inspiration is an assistive technology that provides students with templates, like concept maps with shapes and texts, to help them through the writing or thought processes. There also are free versions of such planning software.
I would also note that assistive technologies include simple things everyone uses, like an alarm system on your cell phone, or Microsoft Word, which allows students to see changes as they make them, submit a draft and ask a fellow student to comment on it. I’d be lost without my Google calendar.
Technology is becoming cheaper and ubiquitous. One will be able to access the technology everywhere. Struggling students will continue to develop innovative ways to help themselves instead of it coming from the top down. There is an initiative called Raising the Floor which supports the idea that you should not need access to wealth to have the technologies needed to be successful. There are many free and inexpensive technologies available; the monetary gap is closing rapidly. There continue to be major improvements in assistive technologies, yet some schools still argue that if you allow students access to these learning technologies, you are giving them a “crutch” or an excuse not to learn the traditional way. Is an open-book exam excusing students from learning, or enabling them to learn by using technology? I find it ironic that we live in a society where I might be required to wear corrective lenses to drive, and would be fined if I didn’t: but if I need a reading system to access a textbook, it is considered cheating.
There are pitfalls. Students who use a note taker in class do not learn from the note-taking process, and such a bypass system can harm one’s self-esteem and confidence. I’d much rather see these students use a Livescribe pen, or even Kurzweil along with effective learning strategies: two-column notes or the Cornell note-taking method to interact with the notes, add annotations and clarifications, and use highlighting in various colors to improve vocabulary and understanding of concepts.
The issue comes down to embracing or not embracing the concept of universal design, a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. Regardless of the college or university, those involved in education should, I believe, work in every way possible to challenge and motivate all students by providing each learner with options for acquiring information and knowledge and for demonstrating what they know.
Melissa Wetherby is coordinator of educational technology for Landmark College, which serves students with learning disabilities or ADHD.