Normal?

ducks

Normal is hard to define, and silly to aspire to.  As my sister-in-law puts it “normal is a setting on the dishwasher”.

Let me take you back to last year.  I met with one of our blind students ….and together we did-battle-with-Blackboard.  Armed with JAWS our goal was to work out some strategies to enable Sue (not her real name) to easily access the course content. Those of you who are AT savvy will know that this will have involved setting some placemarkers, and remembering  a load of tab sequences. It was complicated, but we got there, not helped by the fact that the graphical icons indicating whether something was Panopto or Powerpoint were completely silent.  Relieved that we had won, Sue apologised about the need to rush off: pulled out an iPhone, instructed Siri to ring a local taxi company and then, without fuss,  arranged a cab for outside the university library.    “Normal” here involved using voice recognition to drive a mobile, listen to text to speech to validate that the instruction was heard, and then initiate the call.

Now, wind back to 1991, voice recognition is so rubbish that it was only a GOOD-THING if you needed another way of typing at 10 words a minute.  Aka, you had to be disabled or a complete technophile to be bothered using it. Yet, here we are today commanding our phones and cars to do things without a second thought.

What’s normal has changed, what would have been considered “assistive technology” is just a different way of doing things. Maybe it’s because you’re up to your elbows in flour (maybe too much Great British Bakeoff), or because you need to be eyes free as you drive up the M6 and want to address your phone or satnav (“situationally disabled”).  Similarly, the on-screen keyboard on your smartphone used to be an amazing concept for those who couldn’t handle the joys of a 102 key QWERTY.   All things mobile have forced us to redefine what are normal input/output devices.

Now for a little leap.  Lets have a chuckle about the phrase “computer mediated communications” prevalent in the academic literature around the embryonic practices of online learning.  CMC has morphed, changed, evolved – we now have the ability to connect using so many channels (I am perhaps a little poverty stricken in that I only do Facebook, email/Lync, Skype, Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and the odd bit of WordPress/Feedly.)  If “conversation” is a key component of learning in the modern age then by definition technology enabled conversation has to be key in distance learning where we don’t have the luxury of those easy face to face conversations, nuanced by gestures, pauses and shrugs.

Just as AT (Assistive Technology) has become “normal”; it is my belief that some of the triple toe loops and double Salcho approaches currently being refined in distance learning and the MOOC-osphere will inevitably find their way into blended contexts. Workable approaches forged in these challenging contexts will find their way into the everyday, and in doing so, change our perceptions of normal. The online crucible is complementary.

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