I've finally met a deadline for this book I'm co-authoring, having gotten way behind in blogging in the process. So today, partly inspired by Susan Pinker's piece in this past weekend's New York Times on the problems of technology in classrooms, I'll share an excerpt of some stuff that I just finished writing:
Whether or not we’re looking at linguistic technologies in particular, or at accommodation strategies in general, it’s important to beware of the potential pitfalls of either over or under-accommodating. Ideally, we want tasks to fall within a child’s Zone of Proximal Development—the zone just between her current level of mastery and what she can do only with help from others. It’s hard to get this right; but crucial to try.
Under-accommodation may result from a faulty first step: a faulty assessment of task demands. Especially for children with autism, tasks may present subtle challenges that fly under the radar of neurotypical people, teachers included. Perhaps most commonly overlooked in language-based tasks (for example, reading assignments) are subtasks that require the socio-emotional inferences or use of general background knowledge that come naturally to non-autistic individuals. It’s important to remember that rating scales, including automatic rating scales like the Lexile Analyzer, do not take these challenges into account. A book that looks quite easy to others, and that rates low on the Lexile scale, may still be quite challenging to students with autism.
Then there’s the possibility of over-accommodating and not sufficiently challenging the child. Text completion software in particular raises this possibility, potentially putting words in the child’s mouth that she is capable formulating independently.
As far as text completion and other assistive communication technologies go, the inherent uncertainty on the part of outside observers about much students are doing on their own vs. how much the software is doing for them is yet another concern. To what extent are users intentionally communicating rather than simply selecting—perhaps somewhat arbitrarily--among suggested words or icons? Might we be overestimating their communicative skills? Might there be more to remediate than we realize?
And how does this affect everyone’s incentives—particularly the incentives of students and teachers? In general, the more efficacious the assistive technology appears to be, the more it potentially reduces the urgency of teaching and practicing the skills that are being assisted. Text-to-speech devices potentially reduce the incentive to teach decoding skills for reading; they may also reduce the incentive for students to work on their reading skills by actually reading. Speech-to-text devices, similarly, may reduce the incentive to teach and practice spelling skills; assistive communication devices and text completion software, the incentive to teach and practice independent communication skills. It is essential that assistive technology be treated only as such—namely, as assistive—and not as grounds for reducing remediative instruction and practice.
A final concern pertains to autistic children in particular: the extent to which technology takes these children, already diminished in their social interactions, away from the face-to-face exchanges on which they may be especially dependent for their social and socio-pragmatic development. Screens, as we’ve observed, are no substitute for the pragmatics of open-ended, real-world interactions. But too often, whether or not the students are autistic, one finds classrooms and other settings in which students are mostly looking at and interacting with screens rather than with one another.
Heightening these concerns are two things. One is the proliferation of technology in the classroom, with purchasing decisions made by individuals or committees who are often insufficiently informed about educational value and efficacy, especially where special needs students are concerned. The other is the unprecedented pressure that today’s schools and teachers are experiencing. In the U.S., most language-impaired students are included in regular classes with same-aged peers, and these classrooms are under increasing pressure to teach to the new Common Core State Standards and tests. In English and Language Arts, these standards set high expectations for reading and writing and take a one-size-fits all approach to students at a given, typically age-based, grade level. In light of this, fewer and fewer teachers, even special education teachers, feel that they have time to remediate basic skills—especially when the growing prevalence of assistive devices makes remediation seem ever less urgent. Indeed, some of assistive technology websites, e.g., Classroom Suite, explicitly mention the Common Core standards as motivating their use in the classroom.
In fact, remediation and accommodation should go hand in hand. The ultimate goal, after all, is to optimize the learning environment such that students reach their potential, and, ultimately, are liberated from assistive technology to the largest extent possible.