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How Can Assistive Technologies Increase Learning?

Wayan Vota

Blind? Deaf? Impaired? Then in most of the developing world, this means you’re also dumb. You’re excluded from formal educational opportunities at an early age and possibly even shunned by your family and community. But this doesn’t have to be the fate of physically or mentally challenged children anywhere.

Assistive information and communication technologies can allow those with disabilities to learn and grow, indistinguishable from any other child. But we have to ask three questions about them in our context:

  1. Which assistive technologies are appropriate for the developing world?
  2. How might they be implemented in resource constrained environments?
  3. And what would their impact be on the children that use them?

Especially since you could even argue that educational systems are often impaired themselves – lacking budget, expertise, and will power to recognize that assistive technologies exist and should be employed for the betterment of all.

For February’s conversation, the Educational Technology Debate will explore low-cost assistive information and communication technologies, and how they might be utilized to increase the learning outcomes of children in the developing world.

We’ll dive into the issues and concerns with the help of several thought leaders on the subject; Cliff Schmidt, Fernando Botelho, Mike Dawson, and Paul Lamb. Your thoughts and opinions are always welcomed in the comments below. In addition, if you have deep knowledge on the subject, please email us a Guest Post of your thoughts.

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7 Responses to “How Can Assistive Technologies Increase Learning?”

  1. "Which assistive technologies are appropriate for the developing world?"
    This statement caught my attention, possibly because it seems quite a contentious statement. My instinctive response would be to say that the appropriateness of the assistive technology should be determined by the needs of the learner rather than his location in the world.
    Are we to say that a piece of assistive technology is not appropriate for a learner simply because that learner lives in, say, Africa rather than Europe or North America?
    Or perhaps we are saying that a piece of assistive technology is inappropriate because it cannot be used with the infrastructure or level of technology available in a particular area?
    Whichever, it certainly raises ethical issues regarding the use and issuing (or non issuing) of assistive technology

  2. @Deerwood, you raise a good point. I believe we should use whatever technology we can – that's appropriate to that learner and the environment they're in, regardless of physical location.

    For example, while there are many options to help the visually impaired read web pages, the best might be a screen reader as embedded software that speaks the contents in the learners language. But if we do not have the resources to supply that solution, and the learner cannot maintain it over time (these two requirements being equal in weight), we should not abandon the learner or burden them with incomplete solutions, but look to simpler solutions – like a magnifying glass for the learner or a sighted friend sitting next to them.

    Our morality should be rooted in the idea to make sure everyone has access to a solution that fits their problem and doesn't create more problems itself.

  3. This is a complex topic that requires a multi faceted approach. Legislation, affirmative action, and increased funding for Research, are some of the things that can be done. They are over 100 Open source projects, but much more can be done in this area. Legislation can also help by ensuring that disabled persons are not excluded from the information age. Affirmative action has been attempted but much more effort is required to produce substantial results. Parents of disabled children need to be trained and shown examples of people living with disabilities who have lived full enriching and successful lives. Finally more special needs trainers are needed to handle the unique needs of the children under their care

  4. Second Workshop on Technology and Disability in the Developing World- June 18th, 2010

    Following an extremely successful first workshop on Technology and Disability in the Developing World in October 2009, the University of Washington is pleased to announce the second workshop on Technology and Disability in the Developing World on Friday, June 18, 2010. Our first workshop brought together researchers and practitioners interested in technology and disability in the developing world to share knowledge and start building partnerships. The second workshop will focus on low-cost assistive technologies (AT) appropriate for developing country environments. Aspects to consider in addition to affordability when determining appropriateness of AT include safety, durability, utility, maintenance, infrastructure limitations (e.g. lack of electricity, lack of personnel trained in providing AT services), and socio-cultural relevance. Top papers will also be identified for inclusion a leading journal on technology and development.

    The workshop will be a multi-disciplinary gathering with practitioners, technologists, social scientists, and industry partners. We invite scholars (students and faculty) and practitioners from all disciplines to submit abstracts (1000 words max) addressing one or more of the following topic areas by March 10th, 2010. Selected presenters will be notified by April 10th.

    Second Workshop on Technology and Disability in the Developing World- June 18th, 2010

  5. Maria K. Gaebler

    I am new to this site. I would like to become a part of the mission to provide assistive technology to all children in the U.S. and across the world. I am a special education teacher who specializes in serving children with severe special needs. I have limited finantial resources but would like to be active in this mission.

  6. The ethical problem goes far beyond helping the disabled and impaired. Access to information and communications needs to be redefined as a fundamental human right, and fully funded.

    Some of this is already happening. Phone companies have discovered the village market, under the prodding of the Grameen Bank and Grameen Phone. China is building out its phone system as fast as it knows how. Africa has fiber optics going into every country in the next few years, and more undersea cables on the way.

    There are a billion or so children in the world. Giving each one a $200 educational netbook every four years would cost $50 billion annually, presumably decreasing with technology advances. Add in something for electricity and broadband infrastructure, and you can generate trillions of dollars of new economic activity within a generation. At that point, we can supply free text-to-speech software for the blind and visually impaired, one-hand keyboard layouts for the mutilated and otherwise physically impaired, and many other assistive technologies at no extra cost.


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