Five Things

Erin Breedlove asked me if I’d respond to her post about Five Things All Professors Should Know with a post about the five things students with disabilities should know from the other side of the desk.


As a professor, I teach mostly online. I spent thirteen years working in the field of disability access as technologies director for the National Center of Severe and Sensory Disabilities. I’m probably not going to give you the typical prof response, so take this with a whole twenty-pound salt lick. I don’t work for the university at the moment, and my teaching is as adjunct faculty, so I have no problem letting you “see behind the curtain” and letting you know that guy back there is no more a wizard than you are.

1. Most professors haven’t a clue about how to deal with you.

Your presence in the class means that they need to deal with special cases and extra work. This is particularly true for students with sensory disabilities like visual impairment or deafness. The university is supposed to make sure they provide materials that are accessible, but the unfortunate truth is, they don’t deal with it in a systemic way, but continue to rely on the case-by-case situation. Sad, but better you know the truth going in.

2. Talk to the prof.

There isn’t a teacher in the world who doesn’t want to help his or her students but they can’t if they don’t know what you need. Unless you’re taking a course from a teacher who specializes in your particular condition, they may well not understand what it is – exactly – that you’re dealing with or how they can help you. Set up a time early in the semester. Do it the first week, or — even better — meet with them before the class starts. Talk with them. Get to know them. Help them know you as a person. The prof will need to see *you* and not just your disability and only you can do that.

3. Don’t be a jerk.

This goes for all students, not just students with disabilities. Too many young adults hit college with whole trees on their shoulders and an attitude of entitlement. Remember that the only thing your tuition entitles you to is to get a grade at the end of the semester. Everything else, you have to do on your own. A full time teacher probably has at least a hundred students to deal with and walking into his or her office with an attitude will get you remembered for all the wrong reasons.

4. Document everything.

Yes, you’re a student with a special need and we all want to help get that addressed as expeditiously as possible. There is no excuse for delay or dissembling. If you can’t hear the sound track on his carefully prepared video, he’s supposed to offer you (at a minimum) the transcript. If you can’t see the graphics on his wonderful powerpoint slides, he needs to supply you with a description of them. Ask for them if he doesn’t offer. If he doesn’t provide them, or brushes you off, document it and take it to the university. Let the university deal with it.

And document that.

Verbum sapientia satis.

5. Play nice with others.

This is sort of a corollary to number three, but relates more to your peer students. I’ve seen a lot of students — some with disabilities and more without — who don’t take that extra step to reach out to the person in the next seat. Learning is a social activity and the more you can be social, the more you can reach out to those around you, the more you’ll learn and the more fun you’ll have doing it. Students without disabilities are generally more clueless than faculty, but like anybody else, they’ll respond to honest communication. Reach out. You might be surprised who’ll reach back.

That’s it. I hope you find it helpful, and I can tell you, from my side of the desk, if all students paid a little more attention and took a little more responsibility for their own learning (not just the education that the university is trying to sell them) I think the world would be a lot better off.

Good luck in your studies and best wishes for your futures.

Obligatory disclaimer: These are my personal views and observations from years of dealing with higher education. I’m not speaking for anybody but myself.

Hello again, world!

The end of my job at the National Center on Severe and Sensory Disabilities means the end of an era for my server use. Accordingly I’ve taken the opportunity to start to merge some of my old, new, and future writings in the web space.

This Cognitive Dissonance blog grew out of my original but I never merged the files until now.

What will I write here going forward?

I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

What's Education?

Today I exchanged some tweets with David Peter (@dpeter) on the subject of education and learning. I think he may believe I’m a troll, but I’m serious about engaging this idea and I welcome others to chime in as well

He kicked off the exchange with this:

Thinking about some of the tweets of today, I wonder (rhetorically) If education is as easy as “talking” why are we having so many problems?

Our Replies:

nlowell: @dpeter Education is easy. Learning is hard. As long as those two aren’t related, changes in the first won’t effect the second.

dpeter: @nlowell I believe education and learning ARE related. And, change in either will produce change in the other.

nlowell: @dpeter only tangentially. what you learn fm education is a small subset of what you learn at the macro level.

nlowell: @dpeter is there middle ground? What relationship do you see?

dpeter: @nlowell If education is the product of learning, then there is a distinct relationship.

nlowell: @dpeter that’s a big if. Education is the business of selling credentials. The product of Learning is Life. Divergent Paradigms?

nlowell: @dpeter I agree w/your logic but the predicate seems flawed.

So far, he hasn’t responded but it’s entirely likely he’s gotten on with his day.

My concern is that this is more than 140 characters worth of discussion and I’d like to invite him to talk some more about this. My belief is that we’ve actually touched on one of the breakdowns – one of the points that keep blocking the kinds of progress in learning that education reformers would like to see.

An agreement as to the purpose of education is key. What is the product? What are we trying to do with education? On the surface we want to prepare people of all ages to participate in the world on their own terms and as successfully as possible. That’s sort of the ancient ideal of “to become educated.” Along the way, that ideal has been transformed into “having a credential.”

My position is that schools — as the production unit of Education — exist to sell credentials. Business is in collusion with Education by withholding economic opportunity from those who lack said credential, thereby creating a market for the product that schools create.

Note: I am not suggesting that this is in any higher sense “right” but the evidence is that this assessment is correct. Take any job that requires some level of skill or knowledge. You need to do one of two things to participate in that job. 1) Get the required credential or 2) Become you own employer and find people who will buy directly from you.

It doesn’t matter what you pick, the outcomes are predictable. Strictly speaking you don’t need to know anything, if you have the credentials, in order to get a job. You may have to demonstrate some knowledge — or at least the ability to acquire that knowledge — within some short period of time after getting the job, but without the credential, it does not matter how much you know, what experience you have, or anything else. You will not be allowed to participate because you lack the credential. In this market, knowledge — the erstwhile product of education — is worthless. Credential — the real product of education — is key.

This is new. It didn’t used to be that way. The classic ideal of getting an education meant actually learning something – studying widely, focusing on issues that were of import to the individual who wanted to participate in the society. Credentials were largely non-existent and where they did exist, they were not the be-all/end-all of participation.

In education circles, the classic view of education as higher goal is still in vogue. This dichotomy seems to me to be one of the stumbling blocks because it blinds education reformers to a reality. David Peter disagrees and I hope he’ll take the time to debate this with me here instead of in the 140 character confines of twitter.

Abject Learning: Waves

I may be crazy, but I’m not the only one …

Abject Learning: Waves
I don’t pretend to be a McLuhanesque visionary, I’m just one of millions of nodes bobbing out in the digital wonderland, riding waves of information, with socially filtered antennae-bots probing out in innumerable directions and sending back data that I have no expertise to analyse. Lately I’m receiving increasingly strong and troubling transmissions…

Brian doesn’t need *my* juice to add to his message, but damn this is one beautiful bit o’ bloggery.

Why most conferences suck – Scripting News

Dave Winer is right. Again. Still. Some more.

Why most conferences suck Scripting News
[I]f you want to have a truly useful conference that everyone gets something out of, structure it so that everyone has something to do at all times. Hopefully things that involve other people or the venue, if not, what’s the point of going somewhere to do this stuff?

We try to fill the time with sessions so people will have something to look at, but that’s not the same as having something to do.

Digital Ignorants

After the convention a couple weeks ago in Anaheim, I keep thinking about this issue of adoption. Having endured the presentation I’d nominate for “Most Annoying” on the subject of Digital Natives, I keep thinking it’s more about Digital Ignorants. The major point of the Native/Immigrant debate is that the Natives “learn differently” from the Immigrants but the assertion is based on — as nearly as I can tell — a foundation of behavioral clues and use of technological affordance.

Extending the argument, those who grew up with VCRs understand movies differently because their clocks don’t blink. While it may be true that those with the remote in their hands tend to stop, back, repeat, and slow mo more often than those without, I’d have to submit that the reason they do that is because (a) they can and (b) it occurs to them. Having a blinking clock is merely an artifact of prioritization. If it bothers you enough, you fix it. The underlying appreciation of the medium is based less on affordance than exposure to and knowledge of the vernacular.

The reality, of course, is probably more complex, but I would maintain that this notion is not that much different than looking at the difference between “pedagogy” and “andragogy.” I’ve long maintained that the distinction is arbitrary, artificial, and more an indictment of the shameful ways we treat kids in school than it is any kind of actual distinction in the way people learn. Compare the list of the characteristics of “adult learners” to what are alleged to be the characteristics of “digital natives” and the parallels become obvious.

The problem is, of course, that when we actually face the world of the Digital Ignorant — whatever age they are — we tend to see what we expect to see. The kid using the cell phone to text his gf with “<3 u - xx" isn't being any more technologically savvy than the study hall note passer of 40 years ago. He just has more tools at his disposal. The odds are good that he's still struggling with his history class and bored out of his skull learning English grammar. The adult that prints out email is, more often than not, translating to a "more convenient" (read: more familiar) medium. Is that really so different than having your inbox forwarding to your cell phone? What *is* different is that the rich stew of available resources is being used by kids to learn a whole lot of stuff that just appalls parents and sends paroxysms of dread thru entire school districts. It's as if the kids all have access to the "secret notebook" and they're using it to learn things that adults can't learn or don't know. This activity is -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- characterized by these cognitive and behavioural tags:

  1. Involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities
  3. Most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their personal life
  4. Problem-centered rather than content-oriented

Those who looked up the andragogy link above will recognize these characteristics of adult learners as provided by Knowles but have to admit that they bear a striking resembance to the characteristics attributed to Digital Natives. The only thing different is a statement of the kinds of technology that the Natives are using.

But this fails to address the issue of why the “kids” are using it and the “adults” aren’t. Well, perhaps that perception isn’t really very accurate either as evidenced by a recent Harris Poll that finds that 80% of adults are going online and many of them are using the same technology as the “Natives.”

Could the reality be nothing more complex than an application of classic adoption? The early adopters — in this case kids who have more time on their hands than adults and fewer options available for socialization — are using the tools and toys provided by their parents in ways that many find as offensive and dangerous as drinking cadged beers behind the 7-11 and smoking cigarettes behind the barn was a decade or three ago.

The next time you’re tempted to drop a tab of “Digital Native” or label yourself “Digital Immigrant” ask this question:

Do I eat microwave popcorn differently than my kids?

AECT Anaheim

Tuesday Morning:

I’ve been here since Sunday night. This week marks the end of the road with my involvement with the convention planning process.

Some frustrations:

  • We still have no way to contact the membership at large.
  • There’s a new website ( but it’s still pretty much closed to open communication
  • We have some addenda but I’m not sure what the process will be to get them out

On the subversive upside, Donal and I are organizing an Open Space Technology event to happen here even as the normal convention process is underway. We’re doing it by the seat of our pants and taking advantage of the fact that we have access to the full schedule that shows which rooms are empty because of cancellations and scheduling conflicts. If you’d like to participate in this effort, email me and we’ll get you connected to the rebel underground.

I've Been Tagged …

I’ve been tagged by Clif Mims to participate in the Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Me meme that’s been wending its way thru the blogosphere..


1. Post these rules before you give your facts.
2. List 8 random facts about yourself.
3. At the end of your post, choose/tag 8 people and list their names, linking to them.
4. Leave a comment on their blog, letting them know they’ve been tagged.


  1. I know how to mend net – and I use my feet.
  2. I used to spend my summers working in a factory – until I became old enough to get legal work
  3. I hate weeding — gardens, collections, file structures …
  4. I love reading books and spend most of my spare time with a paperback
  5. I don’t believe in protecting children at any cost. Prison is the ultimate protection and I don’t advocate locking up kids — or their minds. Ever
  6. I’m a coffee snob. I don’t like Starbucks coffee because they have only one roast — too dark — and their blends are pathetic. But I drink it anyway.
  7. I have too many blogs. Some don’t have my name on them. No, I won’t tell you what they are.
  8. I write science fiction novels and publish them as audiobooks at


These memes are sometimes interesting, often cute, but I don’t know 8 people who blog that Clif hasn’t tagged already.

Education Research

Recently, I’ve been struggling with the notion of education and research. What would an educational research lab LOOK like? What would it do? How would it be funded? I keep coming back to a CSI or NorBAC lab model. Yes, I know those are TV model labs, but still and all. What would it look like to have a lab that studied teaching and learning?

The problem seems to me that Education isn’t science.

Psychology, that’s a science. I’m ok with that. Microbiology, sure. No problem. Physiology, ok, sure.

But it seems to me that all our Educational “science” is lacking a bit on rigor. Yes, we have Bloom’s taxonomy, and Gagne’s nine steps, and there are theories and paradigms abounding, but is it science?

My problem is basically, the notion that science is predictive. I mean, that’s the whole point of science, isn’t it? To explain and predict? And if that’s the case then we seem to be a bit short in the Educaiton arena because the same “intervention” which works stunningly with one student completely misses the mark on another. Sure, I did something that looked like science in my dissertation research that looked at what factors contribute to how people perceive distance, but that’s hardly on the same level of rigor as … say … DNA sequencing.

Now before I get a lot of people hyperventilating, I’m not sure that not being a science isn’t a good thing. One of the difficulties is dealing with the definitions. Education is the business of providing instruction. We tend to confound the term Education with Teaching, and I’ve purposely used that fact in this post so far. What I really mean to say is “Teaching Isn’t Science.” Of course, Education isn’t science! It’s business.

So, with that cleared up, we’re still left with the question about the labs. What would the specialties be? What skills?

A statistician, certainly and for obvious reason.

An educational psychologist? I think so. Emphasis on assessment, probably.

How about a brain physiologist?

What about an instructional designer? I’m not sure on this one.

But that begs the question, doesn’t it? Not about the personnel, but should there even be a lab? Forensics labs investigate evidence from crime scenes. Bio-research labs examine a variety of established problems. Are there parallel “problems” in Teaching? Could we do basic research into the relationships between teaching and learning? And how do we get those findings into the schools?

I don’t know. I’m feeling very unsettled about this.

The Promise of a Quality Education

Statement by Secretary Spellings on the Center for Education Policy’s Report on Student Achievement Under No Child Left Behind

We know the law is working, so now is the time to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and continue the promise of a quality education for all of America’s children.

At what point do we stop the “promise” and start the delivery??

I’m just askin’ …