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Education Tower 413
University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary Alberta T2N 1N4
The most recent addition to educational technology - the Internet - a "network of networks" (Berners-Lee) and its media application - the World Wide Web - "an abstract (imaginary) space of information" (Berners-Lee) are revolutionizing post-secondary education (Garrison, 1999; Pittinsky, 2003; Tapscott, 1996; Twigg, 2001). Online learning, often used simultaneously with terms such as e-learning, distance- or computer mediated- education can be defined as teaching and learning through the primary medium of Web-based computer resources, minimally including hyperlinks and/or the Internet, and synchronous and/or asynchronous communication.
This paper is a portion of a wider research platform into Blind Online Learners. The research has been contracted with and funded by the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University and through the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The questions guiding this research are: 1) What is it like to be a blind post-secondary student enrolled in online learning?; 2) What design characteristics best facilitate learning for blind students? and; 3) What is the impact of blind students engaged in online learning? The current paper focuses on the third question, exploring whether it is advisable to pursue online education with blind post-secondary students.
Neil Postman is the Chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at NYU and author of 20 books including The End of Education (1995). His chapter in the newly released, The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Impact of the Internet on Higher Education (2003) "...addresses six key questions about technology and media, answers to which might provide some insights into the ways e-learning may intrude itself into our institutions of education" (p.184). The following paper will address these six questions within the context of Disability Studies, and specifically blind online learners.
Question One: Is There a Problem?
Postman's first question is "What problem gets solved by this new technology?" (p.187). He provides examples of "...technologies that are not solutions to any problem that a normal person would regard as significant" (p.188). Within the present context, we need to ask what problem gets solved by offering online learning to blind post-secondary students. It is an issue of social justice that blind post-secondary students should have full and open access to the full range of educational experiences available to any other post-secondary student. So the first response to this question is to broaden the scope and ask what problem gets solved by offering online learning to any post-secondary student. The demographics of post-secondary institutions are shifting. Citing eighteen studies, Thompson (1998) profiles the distance learner as (1) older (2) female (3) employed full time, and (4) married. Levine (2003) adds (5) part time. Online learning has the potential to meet the needs of this student population, whereas traditional post-secondary education is impractical for the majority of contemporary students.
Now we may return to the specific population of concern - the blind post-secondary student. One of the problems is that information, including but not restricted to course texts, is inaccessible, untimely, and/or in an inefficient format (Chandler, Hu, Arndt, White, & Smith, 2002). Digital information via computer mediated education is accessible through bits thus capacitating choice in format and 'user-pulling' rather than 'provider-pushing' (Negroponte, 1995).
Question Two: Whose Problem?
Postman submits that most technologies solve some kind of problem for somebody. However, the problem is often one significant for the powerful, and not for the majority. Postman explains, "we need to be very careful in determining who will benefit from a technology and who will pay for it" (p.189).
Two problems were described above - models of education provision that do not meet the needs of older, working, part-time students, and inaccessibility of information to blind students. Both are problems for the students, who, as described below, are often the underdogs within the educational system. However, the problem appears to have been hijacked, or even harsher - bastardized - by the corporate culture of universities. In his introduction to Greg Cappelli's (Senior Equity Analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston) chapter in The Wired Tower, Pittinsky writes, "as much as many of us would like to hold on to the idealistic notion of a university operating outside the daily financial grind of revenues, expenses, and budgets, today's institutions of higher education are complex businesses" (p.41). Cappelli specifies two university goals in offering online learning: (1) to better serve their existing or potential student bodies, and (2) to penetrate a wider potential student base (p.59). It is clearly the latter that pervades the discourse of the chapter (and beyond?). Cappelli dedicates a number of pages to privatization and the competition and collaboration between for-profit and public institutions and companies. He writes, "postsecondary education is clearly an area where select e-learning for-profit companies can capitalize on the increased demand for lifelong learning" (p.50). A solution that apparently solves the problems of two groups - one powerful, and one weak, may proclaim the motives of the latter group in public discourse, while using the motives of the first group to shape the plans.
Question Three: Creating New Problems?
In We Know Who We Are, Ferguson (2001) empirically demonstrates the impact and the oppression of socially constructed notions of disability, professionalism, and in this case - vision, on people with disabilities, those who care about them, and society as a whole. In one chapter, he traces the decline of Braille teaching and usage to an increase in prevalence of blindness beyond the capacity of school boards to provide special education teachers proficient in Braille, and a misapplication of the concept of stigma. Oppressive attitudes toward the Blind created a myth that reading a Braille book, thus establishing oneself as identifiably blind, is more stigmatizing than functional illiteracy. Ferguson uses an example of a child who was denied Braille instruction because she could read 10 words-per-minute using a text magnifier; a good Braille reader can read 250 words-per-minute.
Ferguson's is a prime example of what Postman means when he states that the solutions to problems usually result in some new problems. The solution to the problem of stigma was to cease teaching Braille thus promoting functional illiteracy. Online learning as a solution for the problem of inaccessible information might further exacerbate this problem. This may become another excuse not to teach Braille. 'They do not need Braille with technological devices to assist their education.'
The other danger, always a threat when considering schooling for persons with disabilities, is that the system will become segregated and the options further restricted. Professors may no longer see the need to make reasonable accommodations for blind post-secondary students in traditional face-to-face classes, if they see the place of such students outside of the building in front of their computers. This brings us to the next question - "Who and what might be harmed by a technological solution?" (p.191).
Question Four: Potential Harm?
Postman explains that there is always a cost to technological solutions; there are winners and there are losers. Much of his discussion of technological harm is based on an example most fitting to the context of this paper - the teachers. Donovan's (1999) review of the literature painted a bleak picture of faculty receptivity to online education. She summarizes, "in situations where faculty are made to feel that their collective jobs are threatened, or that they will not be supported to change the ways they teach and incorporate technological innovations in teaching, then the adoption of distance education will continue to encounter barriers to its diffusion" (p.55).
Question Five: Language Changes?
Postman urges us to explore the way in which incorporation of new media changes the language we use, and the reflexive shifts in shared meanings of phenomena. I cannot help but feel optimistic given the current context of the overlay of disability and technology. Wolfensberger (1972) has dedicated a career to helping people understand socially valued roles, and how to use socially valued means to help devalued and oppressed people to assume these roles. Disability falls near the bottom of the totem pole in terms of what is socially valued in our culture. Technology, with its associated science and economy, sits near the top. Fostering technological roles with the blind cannot help but have a positive effect on language and then on social value.
Question Six: Power Differential?
Postman highlights the importance of this sixth and final question - "What sort of people and institutions acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?" (p.197). There are widespread concerns of a digital divide, and further, of whole cultures and countries wielding dangerous power through information. Spender (1995) writes, "instead of drawing upon the diverse resources and perspectives of the global village, the odds are that the views of the most powerful will be imposed on the rest of the world" (p.140).
This question pulls together themes of the preceding five. Access to the full range of educational delivery options and to information in a functional format has the potential to protect the power of blind learners. The resulting changes in language and in discourse has the potential to promote socially valued roles. However, the user- or student-based plans might be usurped by systems and procedures that capitalize on the economic benefit for the provider, thus increasing the power of the University. Specific casualties of this derailment might be the segregation of blind learners to online systems and de-emphasis on Braille teaching in favor of technological solutions. The other casualty might be the university faculty who suffer in the day-to-day reality of competing goals and as yet undefined future directions.
Berners-Lee, T. Frequently Asked Questions. Available online at:
Chandler, J., Hu, D., Arndt, K., White, J., & Smith, V. (2002). The beyond compliance coordinating committee: Reconceptualizing disability at Syracuse University. Conference Presentation. Second City Conference on Disability Studies and Education, Chicago, June 14 & 15.
Donovan, T. (1999). Unpublished Candidacy Paper. Distance Education, the University and Faculty: Academic Culture and Faculty Receptivity. Calgary: University of Calgary.
Ferguson, R.J. (2001). We Know Who We Are: A History of the Blind in Challenging Educational and Socially Constructed Policies: A Study in Policy Archeology.
First Book in The Critical Concerns in Blindness Series. San Francisco: Caddo Gap.
Garrison, D. R. (1999). Will distance disappear in distance studies? - A reaction. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2). Reprinted at: http://cade.athabascau.ca/vol14.2/garrison.html
Negroponte, N. (1995). Being Digital. New York: Vintage.
Pittinsky, M.S. (2003a). Five great promises of e-learning. In The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Impact of the Internet on Higher Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 201-220.
Postman, N. (2003). Questioning media. In The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Impact of the Internet on Higher Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 181-200.
Spender, D. (1995). Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. Toronto: Ontario: Garamond.
Tapscott, D. (1996). The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence. New York: McGraw Hill.
Thompson, M.M (1998). Distance learners in higher education. In Chère Campbell Gibson (Ed.) Distance Learners in Higher Education: Institutional Responses for Quality Outcomes. Madison, Wisconsin: Atwood, 9-24.
Twigg, C.A. (2001). Innovations in Online Learning: Moving Beyond No Significant Difference. New York: Center for Academic Transformation. http://www.center.rpi.edu/PewSym/Mono4.pdf
Wolfensberger, W. (1972). The Principle of Normalization in Human Services. Toronto, Ontario: National Institute on Mental Retardation.
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