Developing Professionally Online and Off

I’m excited to today start co-teaching the second course of a fantastic graduate-level educational technology program that we’ve been running in-house at my school. The COETAIL@YIS program gives us a chance to look at the role that technology plays in education and how we can best equip educators and learners with the skills and tools that they need to be successful in their schools.

Walking Alone © 2011 Brian Farrell

In its delivery, this program stands in direct contrast to the masters program that I’ve just completed in that it involves several face-to-face meetings for each course, where my masters was completed entirely online. While students in the COETAIL program complete their assignments largely online in the form of blogging, they also regularly get the chance to meet and discuss issues with their peers.

Having been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, and coordinator for many years, I’ve certainly grown to appreciate the flexibility that this form of instruction can provide, and definitely can’t discount its merits entirely. But I am very excited to be working with a group of learners in a more traditional classroom setting that also incorporates online components. I will get a chance to attend my masters graduation in Vancouver in a few weeks, but will be arriving without having actually ‘met’ anyone in my program. This stands in stark contrast to students in the COETAIL program, who have already had the opportunity to regularly talk and debate with their colleagues. While all of the courses in my masters program involved asynchronous discussion components of one sort or another, I’m not certain that discussion posts in a forum can ever fully replace the kind of dynamic conversations that can happen in a live classroom. Where I often felt very much alone in my journey through my masters, the classroom space of the COETAIL environment is very much a collaborative group atmosphere.

I know that whenever I walk away from any workshop or conference, I always reflect that the personal conversations and networking that occurred at the event were likely the most valuable components. There’s a reason that I just ordered a book for our elementary learning support teacher called “Whole Body Listening Larry”. Learning in more formal environments is likely very similar. At least as far as group environments are concerned, for me, it comes down to a simple notion that learning online is a matter of content, where learning offline is a matter of context.

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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).

Bibliography

Canadian Braille Authority. (2010). About Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from http://www.canadianbrailleauthority.ca/en/about_braille.php

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Biography of Louis Braille. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from http://www.cnib.ca/en/living/braille/louis-braille/

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Braille Literacy. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.cnib.ca/en/living/braille/literacy/

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 http://www.braille.org/papers/jvib0696/vb960329.htm

Omniglot. (2010). Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from http://www.omniglot.com/writing/braille.htm

Learning online does not impact classroom performance

As part of my grad program, I’ve been looking into online learning and its effects on student performance and grades. I’ve posted about this a few times already, but wanted to share my research in its final state, and so I’ve included the full paper below.

In a nutshell though, I found that taking an online course causes no impact on student grades. I looked at grades of students in traditional face-to-face (f2f) environments and compared these with grades of students taking one online course and the rest in a f2f format. While both of these groups did experience a decline in their grades from tenth to eleventh grades, the decline was at essentially the same rate in both groups. The difference between the two groups, at less than 1%, is negligible and reinforces the value and integrity of online learning.

At the end of the day, those who are successful, continue to be successful whether in classes that are 100% f2f or partially online, and the inverse is true of those who struggle in their classes – they continue to struggle in either environment.

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.

Success in Online Learning = Communication

Online learning is not new. Despite some administrators’ passion for triumphing online courses as the next frontier in education, it really is a format that has been around for a decade or more (I took my first online course in 1999), even if it hasn’t necessarily been common in every school for as long.

Online learning is exciting in its flexibility and ability to connect students globally, but it comes with its own unique challenges and frustrations. I’ve been involved with online learning as a student, teacher, course designer, and coordinator, and so I feel that I have a fairly sound understanding of what these challenges are. Fundamentally, I believe that online learners most often run into trouble with their online courses because:

  • They fall behind or fail to plan their time effectively
  • They lose interest in their course
  • They don’t fully understand the content and ideas being communicated through their course

Don't lose the forest for the trees

Essentially, they fail to communicate on some level, and because online learners are often isolated from others, they can easily become lost and forgotten about if they don’t themselves speak up.

Effective communication then is the primary key to success for online learners. Students need to proactively communicate with their teachers to ensure that they are able to meet deadlines. They need to engage in the conversations and discussions in their class. And they need to seek clarification and answers when they run into problems. This is of course a two-way street; students need teachers and peers that are receptive to an effective online conversation, but they must be equally willing to foster this sort of dialogue.