Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why a Ph.D Program

I wish I could educate far more teachers on developmental disorders and brain injuries so we don't keep pushing away some of our most gifted students. Autism spectrum disorders, frontal lobe traumas, and other conditions can cause an individual to struggle with a great many social situations, while also apparently contributing to "savant-like" gifts in other areas.

The problem is pedagogical, but educators have adopted strategies for more than 30 years that encourage groups, collaboration, role playing, and other valid techniques that isolate and even alienate those with ASDs, lobe injuries, etc. In the past, we dismissed these students as "super geeks" — and like me, many were placed on "independent study" projects because teachers ran out of options.

We really need to find ways to use technology to get past the social barriers, which I compare to being a non-native speaker of English. Probably a bad comparison, but I often feel I do not speak the same language as others.

In Minnesota, we have one of the three highest rates of autism spectrum disorders. Many of these students will be entering the universities in the next decade, thanks to mandated individualized education programs. Without the IEP approach, some future greats would never be "discovered" and much would be lost. But, I still think we need more mainstreaming and less isolation of these students.

That's really why I am here -- to work on this range of disabilities and discover better ways to educate this group, which is now as large as one percent of all students in a few school districts. In a 10,000-student district, we might have 100 students classified as ASD/brain trauma. Right now, educating those students is extremely expensive (up to $30,000/year each), which I think has to change and can change with the help of technologies.

Because I do not experience the same emotional range as others or know how to answer the question "How are you?" I end up being outside a group fairly quickly. I know facts, figures, and how my mind perceives things. I also know my perceptions are seldom the same as others' — few people experience real pain from certain colors or synesthesia at times.

Technology could, if we develop a better approach, bridge gaps for people. Right now, technology is merely serving to implement the same practices we use in traditional classrooms, but with cool new buzzwords.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Online Confusion

I recently left two "Yahoo Groups" for autistic individuals and their families.

Now, before you dismiss this as being hypersensitive in general, understand that I still read posting on several political, philosophical, and academic forums. These forums deal with controversial issues with some regularity. The difference seems to be that the autism forums were not able to moderate differences and find common ground. Instead, a passionate debate about religion (of all things) derailed one group for two weeks.

If I were the moderator of a mailing list and forum dedicated to issues of autism, I would have put a quick stop to any discussion of religion with a "It's good if your church helps you, but let's refrain from discussions about faith." Instead, the agnostics, atheists, and believers kept insulting each other. Useless waste of time, if you ask me. Instead, we should be asking what services that were complete non-religious were offered and how they were helpful. If it was merely faith and comfort, then we could have moved on to another topic

But, no, this debate had all the passion of a mercury / genetic debate in the autism world. It was a pointless debate, helping no one, and only fueling anger.

Any notion that autistic individuals are more logical and scientifically-minded than others is sheer nonsense. As I have witnessed more than once online, the beliefs of autistic individuals are as absurd as those of other humans. If anything, the high-functioning and Asperger's Syndrome members of online communities are more likely to end up arguing stridently and debating points so minor as to be meaningless in most face-to-face discussions.

Debates online are naturally a problem, anyway. There are plenty of studies suggesting e-mail and chat lead to more conflicts than interpersonal meetings, primarily because most people rely heavily on unspoken cues to synchronize exchanges. I encourage people to read the literature on this problem — which is likely to get worse, not better, over time. Now, consider the fact autism already hinders normal communication patterns and put this group online... and wait for the explosions.

I think we need to help autistic individuals learn how to "read" online chats, just as we might offer this same course to everyone in the business world. E-mail and online forums are different. You need to be very, very careful not to argue about people, but to instead focus on ideas and concepts.

Oh, well. I'll head off to the more restrained realm of political debate.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mapping and Me

For a graduate course in curriculum, we have been asked to experiment with "mind mapping" software.

As my previous post reflects, I've never been comfortable with such maps personally, though I realize many people find the exercises useful. I'm clearly in a minority. It is important that teachers understand any potential tool, whether or not they are comfortable, because students are not homogeneous in learning style. I love outlining... most people do not. I also like flowcharts, graphs, and charts. Order, lots of order, works to my advantage, even when my artistic output isn't "organized" in familiar ways.


As an example of how to integrate new technologies for composition across the curriculum, I am proposing a series of units relating to radio. As radio has shifted to the Internet and podcasting, radio theatre has remained a part of the tradition, from rebroadcasts of classic "Old Time Radio" programs to original plays.


I thought a good start for appreciating how "mapping" might apply was to study an example template in Inspiration 8. The template is meant to help students compose a biography of Marconi, inventor of the terrestrial AM radio.

Notice that the yellow, green, and peach colored boxes are aligned. Then notice the blue and periwinkle boxes. I can't get past the misaligned boxes. I can only imagine my elementary and junior high teachers watching me spend an entire class period trying to get a balanced design. I also want to know what some of the icons mean — they don't seem to relate to the topics. I had to think about the "brick wall" idiom, which initially escaped me. Being baffled by the map would only delay my work on the actual project: the biography.

I also decided to view an Inspiration map on radio waves:

At the gut-level, my reaction is "Eeek!" The mix of icons, colors, and the overall "busyness" of the two templates makes me cringe. I was tempted to spend hours "fixing" the colors and images to make them more pleasing to me. It isn't worth writing a list of complaints; the template would merely serve as a contrast to any I would personally design.

Would I Ever Map?

I'm trying to determine where my own graphical methods might approach the more "unstructured" nature of the maps I have seen. As I have written, I like flowcharts. I am also a fan of graphical entity relationship diagrams and database modeling to remind people how data tables are relational. Family tree diagrams are an example of relationships, as are taxonomic charts. Dichotomous relationships are an important tool in parsing, organizing, classifying, et cetera.

If any diagram can be considered a "map" then I map with some regularity. The Apple programming tools use a graphical data designer for CoreData, for example. Microsoft Access, most SQL tools, and serious programming tools are visually based today. Why? Because it is much easier to design interfaces when you are manipulating exactly what software users will see.

But, I never use graphical charting tools to create stories. Character sketches are done using tables, so I do not forget to think about a particular trait. I use tables to check plot structures, as well. Tables and timelines — linear tools — help me, even when a story might not be told in a linear manner.

An Uninspired Inspiration

A May 2006 review of Inspiration 8 appeared in MacWorld. I have to say that they were a lot kinder than I would be regarding the user interface:

Interface oddities
Although Inspiration 8’s interface is as straightforward as ever, it still suffers from a number of annoyances. For example, Inspiration’s Main and Formatting toolbars are fixed rather than floating, and the Formatting toolbar is relegated to the bottom of the window.

The application’s menus aren’t as logical as they could be, either. You import graphics using the Edit menu, yet you import videos and sounds using the Tools menu. Plus, some of the commands aren’t logically placed. For instance, all of the commands under the Utility menu would fit better elsewhere, while Preferences appear both in Utilities and the application’s own menu.

This might be the "least Mac-like" application I have used on my Mac outside the Unix applications I run from time-to-time. I kept getting the sense I was running a Windows application via Parallels. Inspiration is not a "Cocoa" application: it is a Carbon application, meaning it is based on an older programming framework. The use of Carbon means Inspiration works on OS 8/9 and it probably makes it easier to share code between PC and Mac versions, but the interface is jarring in some ways. Things are where Windows users expect them, which is why Preferences is under Utilities.

Even on Windows, formatting tools in applications belong at the top of the screen or I should have the option of moving them! At least let me "float" the tools, which is possible with the library of symbols in Inspiration.

MacWorld gave Inspiration 4.5 "Mice" (stars) and an overall good review for its support of curriculum standards. In other words, Inspiration is pre-packaged with a lot of templates teachers can use with minimal extra effort. I think that's generally a good thing: technology should not slow down teachers who are busy enough without mastering new software. On the other hand, a more "Mac-like" interface would make it easier to learn the software.

Would I Use Inspiration?

Yes, and this is a very important point to make: I might have students who would benefit from mind maps and other graphical organizers. I should never assume that my mental process is the dominant learning style; I know it isn't. Learning how to use Inspiration should not be difficult, though I will probably continue to long for features that aren't actually needed to their market.

I expect students would adapt to Inspiration more quickly than I am. I could see combining some ideas from Inspiration with OmniGraffle, which also has a (poor) outlining mode. I definitely prefer Omni Group's tools, but Inspiration's inclusion of so many templates would save a lot of time and effort when planning potential course lessons.

There's no doubt I will learn and use Inspiration in order to be well-informed and current with educational technology. I hope that enables me to help students who would benefit from the use of Inspiration. I definitely know some students who would gain a lot if they had to organize their ideas before typing a single sentence.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Long Weekends

Some weekends are long, even when they technically aren't that bad. They just seem to pass slowly, while I get nothing accomplished.

I don't know why I am so exhausted by the weekends, but I am. It's like "playing normal" drains me so much that I need to decompress and can't. I have to be "normal" around so many people lately, and I'm doing it so poorly, that I'm frustrated and exhausted.

There are signs of the exhaustion physically, too. I notice that as I type this, it is in sharp focus if I concentrate and stare, but the moment I relax even the slightest bit, the text blurs into a meaningless pattern of grey stripes on an off-white background. The situation with my back and shoulders is similar. If I focus, I can straighten and work past the pain, but the moment I relax, I slouch and feel the sharp needles that have been there all along.

I should have worked on several school-related projects this weekend, but was too tired to think clearly. I have the following tasks staring down at me:

  • Updating a Web site on computer security
  • Developing a series of class units on "old time radio" programs
  • Completing a write-up of a survey I conducted this summer
  • Compiling a bibliography for a writing course
  • Memorizing terminology for a statistics course
  • Updating my Web sites on writing and philosophy
  • Finishing a draft of my autobiography
    and on and on the list goes...

Of course, those are only the school tasks. The house has much to be done, especially if I want to be more comfortable. I can't even do a partial list online without consuming several pages. I keep thinking of new things every time I look about the house.

It's fair to say that I feel overwhelmed lately. Physically, things hurt — a lot — and that is not helping my clarity at all.

Without my wife, I wouldn't have managed to get anything done this weekend, yet again. She's that person who helps too much at times, which makes me feel guilty, but it also reminds me that I can and should sit down and get my act together. Why I lack internal motivation has never been clear to me. There's very little I want, other than a place to sit and write and read non-fiction. I'm not driven enough, and I know it. But she is my drive. I'm writing this long, rambling post with the list of to-do items staring back at me on the screen. I know reminding myself to tick off items for her, for the person to whom I owe everything, will get me working again... past the pain, past the input overloads, past the self-doubts.

But I wish I didn't lose weekends to the exhaustion.