My ePortfolio

©2011 Brian Farrell

As a culminating task for my masters program, I was required recently to create an ePortfolio illustrating my journey and progression through the program. While the forced reflection was good for reminding me of how much I’ve achieved over the past few years, it was also an eye opener in terms of how much more there is still to do and learn. Of course the ePortfolio could be an indefinite work in progress, but I did need to finalize it as much as possible for my program. The fruits of my labour should be viewable here (don’t be fooled by the similar layout to this site – you’re at the right spot!).

I’m happy to be finally done with my program, and will hopefully now use some of my newfound free time working on other things like my awful Japanese language skills and playing around with photography. Balancing the commitments of the program with full time work has been a challenge, but in the end, I’m happy to have completed it.

Braille as a Text Technology

An example of braille integrated into another assistive device, in this case a handrail at a Japanese train station (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Tokyo, Japan, October 17, 2010).

As part of a culminating course in my masters program, I recently reread this article that I wrote last year, and thought I’d share it again here. I’m sure there is a lot more to this technology than what I’ve simply covered here, but I really enjoyed learning about something (braille) that I knew very little about previously. Enjoy!


In a society that places a high value on the ability to read and write, those with visual disabilities were once at a tremendous educational loss and not able to participate fully in society. The current technology available to those with physical disabilities today is extensive, and means that many more people are now able to access, read, and author written texts. In the course of our history though, this is a change that has only occurred recently, and assistive technologies such as the braille system have been incredibly important in driving this change.

Braille is a standardized and tactile system that was developed by a blind man faced with the inability to view, and therefore read standard texts. In 1829, Louis Braille codified and developed a system of raised dots that would allow blind readers to use touch to discover texts, and while some modifications and additions have occurred, this same system largely remains in use today. Braille was inspired to create his system after learning about a military system using raised dots that would allow soldiers to communicate in the dark and without speaking aloud (Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 2010).

Rather than a distinct language, braille is a system of writing, reading, and transferring knowledge. Based upon the standard roman alphabet, braille also incorporates other written symbology such as punctuation and letter accents, without which the organization of written texts could prove difficult. This is an important distinction of braille from other reading technologies for the visually impaired, as it places an emphasis on the written word as it would be viewed by a sighted person. Where an audio recording may also serve to deliver a written body of work, its absence of explicit punctuation means that this technology may limit the listener’s understanding of standard grammatical structure used in writing.

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Similar to learners of other languages, learners of braille may gain an ability to read and access texts at differing levels. Like any other learners, “…findings show that braille patterns are processed in a variety of different ways by different people and in different conditions” (Millar, 1997, p. 249). It is certainly possible for one to have a learning or other disability in addition to a visual impairment, and so the education of a braille reader needs to be differentiated much in the same way that it may be for a fully sighted learner.

Unfortunately, the adoption of braille has not been incredibly widespread. Other assistive technologies such as audio recordings of written texts are often preferred, as they do not require the listener to have any special knowledge of the unique braille reading system. Braille requires an upfront commitment to learn and understand a formulaic system of communication, and in the case of someone who is born blind, this development occurs when a learner is also trying to gain a grasp of a language in its audio or spoken form. While this is realistically similar to the effort required of a sighted learner who is first learning to decode our written structures, the fact that there are other audio alternatives available for visually impaired learners can often mean that braille is not fully pursued. Indeed it has been estimated that braille readers constitute, “…fewer than 10 percent of the estimated number of persons who are legally blind in the United States and slightly fewer than 40 percent of the estimated number who are ‘functionally blind’ (defined as those whose ability to see is light perception or less).” (National Federation of the Blind, n.d.) This can easily create a vicious cycle, as fewer users of an assistive technology such as braille mean a corresponding decrease in those able to teach and transfer this knowledge to a new generation.

Braille incorporated alongside typed text (photo by Brian Farrell of Eric Hill's "Where's Spot", Ventura Publishing Ltd., London, 1988).

Like other writing systems, braille does have its limitations in functionality. Legibility can often become a problem, as a text can easily become altered by a reader who presses too hard on the pages on which it is transcribed, creating changes in the level of braille dots on the page (Millar, 1997, p. 138). Similar alterations can occur if a braille text becomes worn or otherwise damaged, and these frustrations are compounded by the fact that a blind reader, obviously unable to visually inspect a paper book, will not discover these deficiencies until he or she attempts to access the text.

Further, the requirement to indicate each letter of a word separately can mean that braille texts are many pages longer than their roman alphabet written counterparts. This challenge has meant that several systems, or ‘grades’ of braille have emerged, each with different characteristics. Grade one braille is a system that replicates only the 26 letters of the alphabet and punctuation, grade two braille, the most common system in use, incorporates contractions to shorten words, and grade three braille goes even further in shortening entire words to serve as a sort of shorthand (Omniglot, 2010).

Due to its historical era of creation, braille has been a pioneer system in advancing the abilities and education of previously disadvantaged and disabled people. While many more advanced and technical systems have emerged since the advent of braille, the idea of creating a system that would allow the blind to read the same texts as sighted people meant that an enormous gap in understanding and education for the blind could be bridged. Of course, the functionality of such a system can often depend on the assistance of those without a visual disability, and the limited portability of large braille texts has meant that digital audio solutions for the blind have thrived as an alternative.

The implementation of braille has meant a heightened awareness of the needs of those with disabilities, and the system has served as a model for further developments. The very idea of non verbal communicating by touch and feel has been applied to a variety of applications. Sidewalk strips using raised plastic guides of different levels that can be felt underfoot, braille-like dots on paper currency, and employing a variety of different edging, shapes, and sizes of coins are all similar applications. While many of these advancements are primarily intended to benefit the visually impaired, they can often prove useful to a sighted individual, and they do serve to heighten an awareness of the needs of others.

The future of printed text appears to be in flux with the advent of more and more advanced digital technologies, and braille is undergoing a similar period of questioning and transition. Still, braille remains an incredible enabler in breaking down traditional barriers, and its highly codified and touch-based foundations have served to expand the possibilities of non verbal communication for us all.

Highly visible and physically raised plastic panels along a walkway (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Yokohama, Japan, October 17, 2010).


Canadian Braille Authority. (2010). About Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Biography of Louis Braille. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Braille Literacy. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Millar, S. (1997). Reading by Touch. London, UK: Routledge.

National Federation of the Blind. (n.d.). Estimated Number of Adult Braille Readers in the United States. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Omniglot. (2010). Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from

Learning Online – the Ultimate in Flexibility

Storm at Sea © 2011 Brian Farrell

The past few weeks have been chaotic to say the least, and the future is far from certain. After leaving the devastation in Japan, my fiancée and I headed to Thailand to start our spring break. The constant rain and sporadic power outages in Koh Samui encouraged us to change our plans slightly and move up our next flight to Singapore. This was an incredibly fortuitous decision as the airport closed there the next day, and all ferries stopped – the Thai navy eventually had to send an aircraft carrier to evacuate tourists from the area due to the massive flooding. I then had the pleasure of checking out the Singaporean medical system due to an ear infection, and we’ve since returned to Japan and a broken refrigerator full of rotten food. It would appear that lady luck has not been on our side lately, but really it must all be kept in perspective, and considering the tragedy a few hundred kilometers north of here, and the situation unfolding in a still flooded Thailand, we are indeed incredibly fortunate.

Throughout all this, I’ve been working on two of my last courses (only one more to go!) in my masters program. My program is entirely online, and the past few weeks have further reinforced the tremendous flexibility in this type of learning system. My professors have been incredibly accommodating and understanding, but they’ve also been able to offer alternatives for me that simply wouldn’t be possible in a traditional classroom environment. I’ve been able to submit assignments early or late, I’ve been able to contribute in some form or another to the ongoing discussions, and I’ve been able to keep my classmates updated on my situation, all while moving through different countries and time zones. While uncertainty unfolded around me, my masters program was a constant steady link that has helped to keep me grounded.

I’ve just finished a paper where I found that taking an online course does not impact (positively or negatively) on student grades in traditional classes. This is strictly a quantitative measure though – the qualitative benefits of learning online continue to shine through.

Taking an Online Course Does Not Impact Regular Classroom Performance

I’ve embarked on a smallish study where I’ve been looking at the impact of students participating in online courses. I’ll publish more complete details, including references to some of the relevant literature later, but wanted to post a bit of a teaser first.

Upstairs or down? ©2010 Brian Farrell

I decided to contrast the GPAs of students who are enrolled in 100% face-to-face (f2f) environments with students who are taking one online course, and the rest of their courses in a f2f setting versus the GPAs of the same students in the previous year. While I haven’t done a complete statistical analysis yet, the preliminary data is showing that there really isn’t a significant difference between theses two groups. In general, the whole group of students experiences a small drop in their GPA from tenth to eleventh grade, but the drop is pretty consistent. It was about a 4.5% drop for the 100% f2f group and a 3.5% drop for the mixed online and f2f group. I’d almost stretch this to say that taking an online course actually helps student performance in their f2f classes, but I’m not sure the data supports this big of a leap in reasoning.

I’m personally not surprised by these results, as I’ve been an online learner for years, but hope that they can add to the ammo when talking to parents about the potential ‘distraction’ and ‘juggling act’ of a student taking an online course. Online classes are different, but not different in a bad way.