Recently at the CSUN Conference in Los Angeles I ran into one of my favorite people from the assistive technology industry, Tim Connell of Quantum Technologies in Australia. We started chatting about how the iPad, iPhone and iPod are impacting our industry and he asked if I’d read his paper that he’d presented at the Inclusive Technologies & Learning Disability in Education & Employment Conference. I admitted that I had not. Here it is, with his permission. It raises some great points about the headlong charge to adopt iDevices in education. Plus, I really just like stirring up trouble.
Steve Barclay – Aroga
Presentation Title: Apps & iPads: Does One Size Fit All?
Presenter: Tim Connell
Quantum: Reading, Learning, Vision
I want to start today by talking about one of the greatest innovators of the digital age. This person was able to take a range of technologies that had been around for quite a few years and combine them into products that were small, beautiful to look at and hold, and highly innovative. These products really changed the way we interact with, use, store and retrieve information.
He did this by listening to what people really wanted and in doing so grew his company into one of the largest and most successful companies of all time.
There would be few people on the planet who are not aware of the products he developed or who haven’t personally owned or used at least one of them.
Who am I talking about?
Steve Jobs regarded this person as one of his heroes and mentors. I am talking about Akio Morita, one of the two founders of Sony and the person credited with the innovative flair that has been the hallmark of Sony since then.
In the late 1970’s Morita took the work on magnetic tapes that Phillips, 3M and many other corporations had been working on and realised that what people needed were small portable devices people could carry around with them. In creating the portable cassette player and then the Walkman he revolutionised the music and recording industries. Being of a certain age I can clearly remember the thrill of seeing a car with a built in cassette player for the first time. It is almost impossible for young people today to understand just how big a leap this was.
The cassette player captured the world’s attention and led to Sony quickly becoming the biggest technology company on the planet. They became ubiquitous devices and soon had lots of competitors and the race began that has culminated with IPods, MP3 players and the huge array of hand held devices we now enjoy.
In the early 1980’s cassettes started to enter the world of special education. They were seen by many as the dawn of a new era for people who were blind. Compared to Braille and large print, cassettes had so many advantages; they took up a fraction of the space, could be produced at a fraction of the cost, could be carried from class to class, and could be used to record on as well as listen to. There are many blind adults now who went through university armed with little more than a cassette player.
It was really hard to argue any other position than the cassette being a truly magnificent new development for blind people.
Within special education there were many people who identified themselves as progressives, and were happy to champion this new technology. They said that there was no longer a need for Braille. Those that resisted were viewed as old fashioned and traditionalists and we’d all be better off when they retired. How could you not see that cassettes were better and the fact that they were so much cheaper meant so many more people could get to use them?
Anyone that has studied the history of assistive technology will know that for a while cassettes did dominate, and when talking computers also came along it really looked like Braille was on the way out and that new technology was the way of the future. They will also know that from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s there was a generation of blind children who missed out on Braille and left school being functionally illiterate. Talking technology was wonderful for people who were already literate but back then we didn’t have the strategies, tools and resources in place to use speech only as the foundation for literacy. It was our infatuation with the technology of the time that was directly responsible for a failure to meet the needs of students and provide them with the educational foundations that had been promised them. It wasn’t the fault of the technology; the technology was excellent, it was a lack of critical analysis and an abandonment of longstanding traditions of assessment and evaluation that were the problem.
Luckily, since that time Braille has made a resounding comeback and we now make much more detailed assessments of the learning media that is appropriate for each child.
So, all of this is a very long winded way of introducing the concept that there are dangers in regarding one product or type of technology a “one-size-fits-all”. The parallels between the advent of talking technologies in the early 1980’s and the advent of Apps and iPads now are extremely close. The technologies in themselves are wonderful; what we need to be careful of is how we use them.
There is a saying that the music is not in the piano and, in the same way, the learning is not in the device. The piano doesn’t create music and the educational tool doesn’t lead to learning – its how we use them that’s important.
So I am here today to offer a counterpoint to the near hysteria that Apps and iPads are creating in special education, as evidenced by over 20 other sessions at this conference that have the words Apps or iPads in their titles. Who would be mad enough to stand up against that tide?
Well that would be me, and it helps that my twentysomething children tell me that I am a Grumpy Old Man. Any one who has seen the Grumpy series of TV shows from the BBC will know that the Grumpy Old People that appear on the shows have one long list of complaints. Here are some of mine;
I can’t stand ‘Apple evangelists’. I grew up in an era when it was almost mandatory that you distrust large corporations. There are enough Microsoft haters to fill a reasonable sized nation yet Apple has been so clever at marketing they have just as many fanatical supporters who think Apple can do no wrong. As proof of the evangelical nature of this support a report by the BBC earlier this year found that on an MRI scan, an Apple devotee’s brain was stimulated by the word “Apple” in the same way that religious imagery does for the faithful. Yet those of us old enough to remember will know that Apple introduced the first accessible computer in the late 1980’s, the Macintosh, only to abandon accessibility when their business had a downturn and Steve Jobs left the company? They didn’t water down accessibility – they abandoned it completely. Their commitment to accessibility appeared to have been Steve Jobs vision and not the corporations and I can’t help but think there is a large question mark over it as a result. And as the second largest company in the world after Exxon, don’t they have a few corporate secrets (like sweat shops in Asia) that at least make you question their wholesomeness? In 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to Apple he closed the company’s philanthropic programs citing a lack of profitability. Last year Apple made $14 billion in profits however the programs have not been re-instated.
I really get annoyed by people telling me that this latest App, which is free or costs 99c is just the best thing ever and you really should use it or get all your students using it. Especially when you try it out yourself and properly evaluate it and find that it is pretty shallow and doesn’t do nearly as good a job as a commercial product. Or something goes wrong and there is no-one to call. Or another program stops talking after you install it. There now seems to be a small army of people that are making their living by telling you how cheap and easy all these Apps are and then selling you their consulting time to make it all work.
And I really don’t get the ‘Apple experience’. Call me old fashioned but when walking into a store I like to talk to a sales consultant face to face, not to a head focussed on their iPad as they do one finger typing and try to show me how cool and efficient they are. A pen and paper would be a whole lot quicker.
There is also the control that Apple exerts over the content you can access in your Apple experience. “Once you have bought your Apple product, in your Apple store, you have to go to the Apple App Store or Apple i ‘Tunes to make purchases that Apple has approved and from which they take a cut. People make a fuss about Rupert Murdoch owning too much media because of the control it gives him over content, however Apple’s control over content is already of a far far greater magnitude”.
Well I don’t know about you but I feel a whole lot better for venting! Now that I have got that off my chest I have a confession to make. I actually really do like Apple products. They are beautiful, they have excited enough people in education generally that suddenly the concept of having instructional technology in the classroom is being discussed and implemented, and they are genuinely opening up many exciting avenues in special education, especially in autism and augmented communication. So again, it’s not about the products; it’s how we use them.
One of the biggest problems in examining how we use Apps and iPads is perspective. Making generalised statements about whether they are good or bad is impossible because of the huge variety of needs and expectations that exist. How you view iPads will vary depending on whether your focus is on blindness and low vision, or autism, augmentative communication or any number of other conditions or situations.
The only generalised statement that I am comfortable in making is that “one size does not fit all”. What works for one individual does not necessarily work for another and that has been a tenet of the disability field as long as I have been in it.
However what happens when a new technology craze occurs (and we are witnessing this now) is that many students with differing needs get swept up into the same “catch-all” basket. Suddenly we move from a position of evaluating every student and assessing their individual needs, to one where we start with a product and look at ways we can bend it and mould it to fit the student.
When that technology craze also involves cost reductions for education systems they can quickly become embedded and other options start to disappear. Here is one example from a teacher in the US. “Sadly, the one size fits all mentality reached our state level. They have decided, in order to save money, that anytime we apply for a device for a student that is “handheld” all they will allow money for is an iTouch or iPad, even though that might not meet the need.” 
The lure of having a cheaper option can also lead education systems to look no further than what will get the student through school, rather than what is in the best long term interests of the student for further education and employment. It is a little sobering to look at the statistics on the main operating systems used around the world. The figures below show that Microsoft operating systems account for 90% of installed users world wide as at September 2011. (The figures in brackets are the percentages from September 2010)
Windows XP 40% (54%)
Windows 7 39% (21%)
Vista 11% (17%)
Mac 6.8% (5.9%)
Linux 0.8 % (0.8%)
For students who are going on to higher education and employment it is critical they come out of school with the skills and experiences they can use in the wider world. Are iPads and Apps going to be the tools that will make them successful? Will VoiceOver work with ERP systems, database applications, document management applications, and Excel or PowerPoint; the basic tools of corporate life? Whether we think Apple products are better or not is irrelevant when you consider what is needed to get a job.
Assess the students’ needs before thinking about what tools may be needed.
Apps and iPads should be considered as some of the tools available in the toolbox of devices that any student may need. They are great products but it is important that they are not the only options. Here are some recent examples that I have witnessed personally where the Apple craze has replaced proper and sober assessment of each individual’s needs.
Example 1. I was talking to a consultant from a leading blindness organisation who advised that he was about to do an assessment on an 8 year old boy who was legally blind, had some useful vision at larger magnifications and was going to be a Braille user. I offered to provide a few different options for him to trial with the student but his response was that no, he didn’t need anything as the iPad would do everything that was needed. The student received an iPad and a Focus refreshable Braille display about 3 months later. Now the iPad works well with a Braille display except if you are a Braille learner. There is a bug in the iPad software that you have to type Braille at a certain speed. If you are slow, like a beginner, it assumes you have finished typing after only 2 seconds and translates the output. Hence when the student writes “ABC” the classroom teachers sees “allbutcan”. Clearly there was no evidence based data to support the use of the iPad for an early Braille learner; instead it was the preference of the consultant to fit the student to the iPad.
Example 2. A 13 year old boy with significant learning difficulties was half way through year 7 and was not coping with reading. Where the average student was taking 5 minutes to read a page of print it was taking him 40 minutes. He had an above average IQ and could learn well by listening and explaining concepts verbally but also had trouble writing them down. I showed his teacher and parents WYNN as a possible solution for his needs. At just about every step of the demonstration the teacher suggested that there was an App that would do that particular function. The student received an iPad with a range of additional Apps that were intended to provide the same sort of functionality as WYNN or Read and Write Gold. Some problems arose; how to get class handouts into the iPad quickly, how to stop the iPad being used inappropriately (Games, Youtube, photo’s etc), how to get print-outs at the end of the class. The student also found it difficult jumping between a lot of different Apps that worked in different ways and ended up only using 2 of them. In the end the iPad was removed and the school has not considered other options “because we tried that route and it didn’t work”. The student remains without any assistive technology tools.
Example 3. A young vision impaired woman who had left university and was interested in becoming a journalist. She attended an Apple workshop at Vision Australia and learnt how accessible the Mac is straight out of the box and about all the marvellous things it can do. Thinking she would save a lot of money she went and purchased one. The very first article she opened to read was a document with a range of tables in it. She found that VoiceOver doesn’t work with tables and the article was meaningless. The single most important question; “what do you want to the technology to be able to do” clearly hadn’t been asked.
Here are some other questions that need to be asked when assessing what assistive technology tool best meets the students needs;
Is it the “best possible” solution or are we using it because it is the cheapest or most convenient (not having to write funding applications is a real convenience!). Once we move away from “best possible” we risk marginalising other options that may be better for the student and enable better outcomes. The special education profession is also devalued when ‘making do’ is accepted as the norm.
If you are looking at various Apps, does it matter that the mode of operation, command structures, styling, and feedback options may be inconsistent? How important is consistency and integrated functionality to a student with autism, dyslexia, or blindness? I will talk about this is more detail later.
What has been “invested” in the tool? Is there a commitment from the developer that the tool will evolve through operating system and platform changes? Will the software grow and evolve with better and more robust features over ensuing versions? Or has it been created by a university student who may move on to other challenges next year? Or by a university department that may not get the funding next year to continue to support it? Does the developer have direct personal experience of the disability? Is it important that the tool has been designed by a user of the tool i.e. a person with a disability?
Is there an “equivalence” factor that needs to be considered? If a free, unsupported App is used for an important educational goal, are all students using similar tools, or just students with disabilities? Does equality of education allow for two classes of students?
Who is going to support and train the student and the teacher? Success with any particular tool depends on a lot of things as Shelley Haven describes;
Assistive Technology is not just the hardware and software, but also the services necessary to make the tools effective. These AT services include:
- Assessment – matching tools to the student’s abilities, tasks, and learning environments
- Skills training — learning how to operate each tool’s features
- Application strategies – knowing how to apply those features to various tasks
- Evaluation – determining if the tools produce the desired results
- Technical support
When something is free or costs 99c who provides these other missing elements?
The fact that iPads and Apps are game-changers is not in dispute. Through great design and clever marketing they have made in-roads into homes, classrooms and our collective imaginations to a degree that we could not have imagined even 10 years ago. In terms of accessibility they have raised the bar and increased expectations about what can be achieved and this has been summarised beautifully in the following quote;
“It’s as if accessibility developed in a sparse, desert environment, where all you had to know was “eat the dates; watch out for the scorpions”, but now it is a jungle teeming with thousands of fruits, snakes, trees, and bugs that change every day. We need an evolving field guide to keep up.”
That field guide needs to be based on some basic principles such as the QIAT Assessment tools and ensuring that whatever we provide for critical learning activities it is backed by proper research and evaluation.
And what is the research telling us?
Educational research is notoriously slow yet there has been a wide variety of projects undertaken and underway. Outcomes range from the breathless prediction that iPads are the future of education to comments such as this one from Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education, Stanford University “There is little evidence that kids learn faster or better using these machines. iPads are marvellous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off, and you get back to the hard-core issues of teaching and learning”.
There is however a great deal of evidence that the consistency of how information is presented is important to many groups of students including those with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD and Asperger’s. When it comes to UI’s (user interfaces) we talk about this as “seamless operation” and “intuitive design”; and what we really mean is that the software uses very consistent commands to access the features of the software. This makes it easy to learn, easy to retain in memory and easy to operate.
Consistency leads to habituation and habituation assists automaticity in learning. Automaticity is the state of being able to complete tasks without conscious thought. Fluency is the result of automaticity; to be able to recognize and comprehend written words reflexively, without having to decode or pause to consider their definition. Automaticity is a well-researched topic important to learning.
However, research is also showing that this is not always happening with App’s. The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) is a Silicon Valley consulting and research firm, specializing in user experience and usability.
Their study of iPad App’s found that;
“users can’t transfer their skills from one app to the next. Each application has a completely different UI for similar features. In different apps, touching a picture could produce any of the following 5 results:
- Nothing happens
- Enlarging the picture
- Hyperlinking to a more detailed page about that item
- Flipping the image to reveal additional pictures in the same place (metaphorically, these new pictures are “on the back side” of the original picture)
- Popping up a set of navigation choices”
Similarly, to continue reading once you hit the bottom of the screen might require any of 3 different gestures:
- Scrolling down within a text field, while staying within the same page
- For this gesture to work, you have to touch within the text field. However, text fields aren’t demarcated on the screen, so you have to guess what text is scrollable.
- Swiping left (which can sometimes take you to the next article instead of showing more of the current article)
- This gesture doesn’t work, however, if you happen to swipe within an area covered by an advertisement for example in The New York Times app
- Swiping up
In a follow up study in 2011 the NNG found
Swipe ambiguity – when multiple items on the same screen could be swiped.
- Many apps squeezed information into too-small areas, making it harder to recognize and manipulate.
- Too much navigation. This design problem was so prevalent that it deserves its own acronym: TMN.
In their summary the researchers concluded “It’s the Wild West all over again in user interface design. We’re seeing the same thing we saw 17 years ago in Web design when anything a designer could draw could be a user interface whether it made sense or not. That’s happening with the iPad apps. Anything you can show and touch can be a user interface on this device. There are no standards or expectations, and users just don’t know what to do, or even what options exist.”
In Australia a similar 2010 study by Kelly and Schrape at the Centre for eLearning, Curtin University found;
“One problem noted by the team was the inconsistency of screen designs and gestures used to operate different App’s. Although some gestures like swiping left and right were common to most apps, other gestures such as zooming in/out or double tapping or selecting button on screen would result in different actions”
(for a fuller discussion on the importance of UI design visit http://www.ambysoft.com/essays/userInterfaceDesign.html)
Obviously there needs to be a lot more work undertaken, however, this one aspect of UI design highlights the need to make sure that standards of assessment and evaluation are met.
We are all delighted by something that is free or costs 99c and it is an experience that hasn’t occurred often in special education. So there is little wonder that iPads and Apps have made such an enormous impact. However there are some bigger issues at stake. Universal design offers great promise but are we ready to accept a future without specialist services like assistive technology companies? There are many that have already gone out of business and many more likely to in the next year or two. We are putting an awful lot at stake with the faith that Apple will continue to be as committed to accessibility in the future as they are now.
In closing, if I had to choose just one major negative impact of the iPad revolution it is an increasing readiness to accept low quality, poor outcome options as an alternative to fighting for the best possible solutions. iPads and Apps have offered program administrators an opportunity to save money and that has become the overriding concern – how much it costs rather than if it is the best option for that student. Budgets have always been dictators but it’s becoming increasingly common to accept that there will never be enough money so we can just stop fighting for it.
So, to answer my own question “Does One Size Fit All” – the answer is definitely no, it doesn’t. We are all unique and students with disabilities in particular need professionals that can guide them through this new world of opportunity, using the principles of best practice and choosing the size, and the product, that is just right for each person.
 Geoffrey A. Fowler, Wall Street Journal August 2011
 Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times September 2011
 Hugo Rifkind, The Times September 2011
 Cheryl Stewart M.Ed. CCC-SLPAT Specialist, Rockwall ISD, Rockwall Texas
 Shelley Haven, ATP, RET Assistive Technology Consultant.
 Jim, response to letter in Accessworld, October 2011
 Math That Moves: Schools Embrace the iPad. New York Times January 2011