Memory Almost Full: Digital artifacts in a culture of impermanence

Digital collage (c) Sharon Brogan

Most of what I have created over the last 25 years is on magnetic media, or in the form of digital computer files. While working as a graphic designer in the early 1990s, I kept a meticulous archive of all of my designs on 3.5” floppy diskettes. I haven’t owned a computer with a floppy drive in years, and the software I used to create most the designs was discontinued almost a decade ago. I enthusiastically embraced the advent of digital photography years ago and swapped film rolls for memory cards. I have thousands of digital photos on multiple media, but few actual prints. I wonder whether those photographs will exist ten or twenty years from now. Will my kids and grandkids keep treasured photos from my time in a shoebox on a USB key?

Since I began working with computers on a daily basis over two decades ago, I’ve contemplated the lack of permanence of all things digital, and the potential consequences. The issue of digital permanence is an important one that we often overlook, so I hope to provoke some discussion here. It could have an enormous impact on how our children and we acquire and retain knowledge.

The ephemeral nature of the digital world is often lost on people. Books, photographic prints and works of art can last for centuries in proper conditions. By contrast, floppy disks and magnetic tape have a maximum lifespan of 10-20 years. Laser discs (CDs, DVDs) were touted as a more permanent replacement for tapes and diskettes lasting up to 50 years. In practice they have proven fragile and can also deteriorate in a few short years. Even if some media do last longer, we still need the ability to read the files contained on those media in order to see, read or experience the content. Software formats are in flux, and the tech industry has difficulty agreeing on common standards, preferring to lock in customers with proprietary formats. As a result, the ability to retain information is sometimes subject to the fortunes of the companies that created the formats.

Before Gutenberg came up with the printing press, most of the world relied on an oral tradition to pass on knowledge and memory. It’s true that for a thousand years before that, people also wrote on clay tablets, papyrus or anything else they could get their hands on, but it was a select few who could actually read. There were monks who created illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, but they mostly kept those manuscripts to themselves.

For most, it was the oral tales that were passed along from generation to generation that provided civilizations with their memory, or permanence. With the arrival of the printed page, human beings consigned much of their cultural memory to the printed page. The age of widespread literacy began, and for many cultures, the era of oral tradition had passed. Fortunately, many stories were adapted to print, and we still have them today. The book became the common format. You do not need a manual or a special device to read a book (though a Norwegian comedy show had fun with the idea).

The printed page is rapidly being displaced by digital texts. People take more pictures than they ever have since the invention of photography, but only a tiny fraction of them ever get printed. MP3 files are replacing compact discs and LPs, and downloadable MPEGs are supplanting film and video.

When technology fails us, or when we are cut off from the Internet, how will we access knowledge?

In this digital age, memory has lost its cachet. When we need to recall something, whether it is a random fact, a phone number, or a picture, we have the ability to look it up in seconds. In this context, what is the value of memory? Without the oral tradition to pass knowledge from generation to generation, or the physical artifact of the printed page or work of art to refer to, what will happen to our cultural memory?

What is the impact on learning? In our society, since the oral tradition effectively died a long time ago, the reflex to commit knowledge to memory and share stories from generation to generation is no longer there. During the print era, we still had to commit knowledge to memory, because books are not always at our fingertips. As we gradually shift away from printed text (hard copies), it seems to me that knowledge becomes more abstract. We do not need to retain as much. Instead of knowing things, we “Google,” or look them up. The knowledge, like the data, is ephemeral. We do not need to retain as much knowledge, because it is possible for us to look it up again later if needed.

I avoid making a qualitative judgment here. Learning might not be suffering as a result of the digitization of knowledge, but there is no doubt that it will cause us to learn differently.


Benefit over Buying-spree: Making Decisions about Assistive Technology

Students with special needs benefit greatly from assistive technologies that help make their learning – and their lives – easier. With the new rules from the MELS with regard to use of assistive technology there is a renewed interest in “what to get”. It is extremely important to not forget the main purpose here, which is to aid the student and help make their life as “normal” as possible. Too often the focus is on the technology, or the software, or app, and not on the needs of the student who will be using it.
High contrast font and display
The documents from the MELS are very clear.

They define assistive technologies as:

Assistive technology refers to assistance by means of technology that allows the student to perform a task that he or she could otherwise not perform (or could perform only with difficulty); this technology must prove essential to the student.
MELS (2011)  Considerations When Determining Adaptations for Evaluation Activities, p.6

In sum, they emphasize that, whatever the adaptation :

  1. It must be an adaptation and not a modification
  2. It must be noted in the students IEP, and
  3. It must be used by the student on a regular basis throughout the year, not just at evaluation time.


Here are some things to keep in mind when making selections for your school or classroom:

1. Simple is better

In most cases the main piece of technology will be some kind of computer.  Again, here the discussion should be around what the student needs, not on brand names.  The ergonomics of the keyboard, trackpad or mouse and screen and how these function in relation to the work the student will be doing need to be considered.


2. Free can be just as good

Before looking for “special” software, what already comes with the computer and what useful tools are available for free if possible (Open Source or Freeware) should be explored.  What are the main things that a student would be using the technology for?  In most cases the primary use of the computer would be as a writing tool.

To help plan and organize ideas for texts, visual mind mapping tools are very useful.  There are a few fancy commercial ones that do a nice job, but again before spending money it would be good to try out how this works for the student.  Cmap Tools was developed by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and is available for free to education.   It allows the students to put ideas onto the screen as key words, move them around, make connections and links, etc.  These concept maps can be saved in a variety of formats.  The most interesting is as an outline .txt file.  This can be brought into the word processor, becoming a basic outline for a writing piece (no retyping).

There are many word processors out there the most common being Microsoft Word (part of the Microsoft Office suite).  If your school board has a purchasing plan for this software at a good rate then this will work fine (MAC or PC).  However here is the first place where costs can be reduced.  LibreOffice is an Open Source package, is fully compatible with MS Office that can be downloaded from the Internet for free. Work created in this program can be saved in MS format and it is capable of opening MS documents.


3. Harness the power of  basic features

Teaching the student how to control and use the different writing tools available in a word processor will be important.  For example, one of the features that can be very distracting when drafting a text where the purpose is to get your ideas down on the paper, is the spelling and grammar squiggles.  These can be turned off.   However, when it is time to check the spelling and grammar of a text these tools can be accessed and present the student with suggested possible alternatives to the text in question, not just pointing out that, “this may be wrong”, with a coloured line.

Text to speech can be very powerful in providing the student with oral feedback about their written text.  Listening to what they have written and asking, “Does this make sense?,   Does this say what I want to say?”  can help them learn to self monitor their writing.

Text to speech can also be used to have the computer “read” downloaded text that may otherwise be too difficult for the student to decode.  The text can be broken down into manageable chunks by selecting a bit at a time to listen to.  A separate word processing page can be open to make notes as you go.

The MAC comes with Voiceover technology and can be customized to the student’s needs.  On the PC side there is NaturalReader. The free download version provides a good starting point.  Both allow you to highlight a piece of text and then with a keystroke the computer will read the text  (earbuds or headphones are useful here).  The reading rate can be adjusted to the needs of the student.  A variety of voices can be selected.

The capacity to use the computer as a recording device can also be very powerful for students who have great difficulty with listening and making notes at the same time.  Audacity is an OpenSource program (PC/Mac) that allows easy recording and editing of sound files.  In cases where the effort of decoding blocks the student from understanding what they are reading, recording the text and then listening to it can make a difference. The recorded files can be put onto MP3 players.


4. Support users and teachers alike

In addition to supporting students in their use of assistive technologies, it will be important to support the teachers of the students who use these tools. They will need to know how the student is expected to use them (I.E.P.) and how this will be of benefit to the student’s learning.  To be effective and to also meet the requirements of the MELS, adaptations need to be used regularly by the student.  They are deemed essential to the students continued academic success.


When making any technology purchasing decision, the focus should always be on: “What are the students needs and what will benefit them most?”. This does not change when making decisions on behalf of students with special needs. Hopefully, rather than merely asking, “what do we get for the student?”  We can change that to,  “what adaptations does the student need in order to succeed?”  This will lead us to consider which tools will then facilitate these adaptations, allowing us to make more informed choices. Students of all stripes cannot help but benefit from this.

Basic help documents for adapting WORD, Cmap Basics, Text to Speech (OS X) and Text to Speech (WIndows) as well as Voiceover info for OS X and iPad are available on our LEARN website.




Making meaning, making media

photo by Jon Ragnarsson

Schools and many homes today are equipped with at the very least some rudimentary form of media-making device. My own two-year old loves grabbing the iPad and going for the camera icon, clumsily taking pictures of her thumb, her lap and sometimes Lucy the Cat. And although she hates having the lens turned on her, she loves watching the result, with her favourite clips and photos the ones where she is frantically trying to wrest the tablet from my hands. These she will watch or browse through over and over again, relishing each squeal of anger and looking to me with delight. There is little doubt that my daughter is growing up in a world where the meaning we make is multi-modal (I don’t want to use the word multimedia, with its associations of presentations and complicated playback hardware). Where we respond to a video in a social media space with a photograph or a song that sparks comments, weaving a tapestry of meaning from the various modes.

Children make meaning because it is what we do as humans. Give us a stick and we’ll look for a surface to mark. We have a desire to tell stories and have stories told to us. In schools, the intertwined acts of reading and writing are a matter of course for all of us educators. We know the intricate dance of meaning hidden in the mechanics of learning to decipher words and sentences and shaping one’s own letters in turn. Not only is literacy, the ability to both read and write, a cornerstone of our education system, but we have spent decades perfecting how and when we introduce young learners to various aspects of reading and writing. Although we value reading and writing somewhat above other means of communicating, this does not mean that we should be avoiding teaching students how to ‘read’ complex media texts or how to craft intricate messages of their own.

In the past, educators who introduced media into their classrooms often focused on media critique. They went looking for biases, hidden meanings and subliminal messages, no doubt as a reaction to insidious advertising and news media techniques. While there is no harm to this approach, it is certainly a single-faceted view of media education, as though teaching someone only how to read, and not how to write. For is it not the very act of writing that brings to light a lot of what we read? The creating of characters, the choosing of words to convey emotion or lack thereof, the structuring and pacing of sentences…are these not the acts that allow us to fully appreciate what we read? It is the same with media: the act of making media, of crafting a message from beginning to end, inevitably results in some new awareness, some new understanding of how media messages impact us.

Deciding on the best effect for their purpose

Making media is about making meaning through images, characters, sound, words and motion. Like with reading and writing, there are discrete and often quite mechanical skills to be taught: as we learn how to grip a pencil, we also learn how to hold a camera and press the shutter. As we begin expressing our ideas in sentences, so too can we be taught to express our ideas in a series of shots or movements across the screen. As we play with sentence length and the legato or staccato of certain words, so too can we learn when to effectively deploy a slow pan or zoom in. And as we become inspired by what we read and want to try some of the writing devices for ourselves, we can also find inspiration in the media messages that move us.

The issue, often, is that making media is time consuming. But this is only part of the truth. When children begin writing at first, we do not expect them to come up with pages filled with writing on their own. They illustrate key words, they invent spelling, they tell their story aloud. These approaches are also effectively used for making media. Students can take photographs of events going on in the classroom, such as a sprouting bean or a special visitor.  They can also record oral reactions to what they watch or read. They can create animations that play with colours and shapes. Just as we do not expect them to write an essay in Cycle 1, so too should we cut them some slack when it comes to media production. Cut them some slack, yes, but provide them with daily opportunities to hone the craft of making media. So when they do take a photograph or record their voice or make an animation, we can take a look at form along with content. Is the photograph in focus? Is the framing good? Is it a tight enough/wide enough shot that you can see what is most important? Is the recording clear? Are there any distracting background noises? Is the animation too fast? Little by little, over time, students learn the craft of making media by taking small regular steps. Like the layers of literacy that begin with the first board books and lullabies and continue into the school years, the skills involved in ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ media texts need to be honed over time.

And you, how are you using media with your students? How are you working with teachers to make media with students?

Here are some highlights from the Quebec scene:

Tuned into Culture (Culture à l’écoute)

Animation on the LEARN website

Free Animation Software Giveaway – until January 31, 2012



How are you Reading?

Photo by goXunuReviews, under a CC license

I bought an iPad in May and it has definitely changed my reading habits. While I am an avid reader and my house is filled with books, I have started to read books on my mobile device. Why am I switching?

I’ll be moving this year and am looking at the many books on my shelves. They take up an enormous amount of space. While I love to see them and remember the hours of pleasure they afforded me, I also think about how they will fit as I downsize. The books I buy now don’t need to fit on shelves, just on virtual shelves.

I like the pluses of electronic books. I can easily highlight sections, add notes and bookmark parts I want to go back to. I recently read Lorna Crozier’s biography, “Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir” and reveled in her poetic language. I highlighted favourite passages and can easily go back to them. (I read this one with the Kobo app).

I love to read in bed and my partner loves to sleep! Now I don’t have to switch on a light to indulge in my simple pleasure. My current read is “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, which has been revealing as well as a trip down memory lane as I bought my first computer in 1983 and have owned Apple products ever since. I am using the iBooks app that comes with the iPad to read this one.

I can adjust the font and font size to the way I feel most comfortable reading. This is great for students too.

Travelling becomes lighter as both the books I take to read while on holiday and the travel books themselves are all on the one device.

If you have students who struggle with reading, the iPad can read the text to them. They don’t have to be held back by their difficulty deciphering the words. And for those who read, but still need some words defined, holding down on the word opens a dialogue box. One of the choices is define and the word’s definition is readily available.

The biggest bonus comes when reading books that were written for mobile devices. They can be embedded with links, videos, animations. Then reading takes on new dimensions. I have been reading “Playing with Media: simple ideas for powerful sharing” by Wesley Fryer. It is a great way to learn about digital text, audio and video editing and where to post it. As I read, I can watch the videos which provide step-by-step instructions. This book is a great place to start if you are just getting into using digital media with your students as well as for the more tech savvy of you who want to broaden your knowledge.

Many libraries are now loaning ebooks. You can download the book and it disappears from your device after the loan period.

In a future post, I will share a bit about how your students can become creators of ebooks. Consuming and creation are two sides of the ebook revolution.

What are the downsides? I can’t pass my books on to my 93 year-old cousin who is still an avid reader. I am not patronizing our few local independent book stores as I buy the books online. With my choice of an iPad vs one of the less expensive ebook readers, I won’t be taking it to a beach to read.

Do I read everything on a mobile device? No – I still buy books which I want to share. I have a collection of children’s books and love to sit with a child to share the text and illustrations. Though, recently I came across an amazing children’s book that was created for the iPad, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I still buy professional books. I like to take them to workshops and pass them around to inspire others – hard to do with a digital device.

How are you reading? I’d love to hear about how you feel about the switch to digital books. What device are you using? Would you recommend it to others and why or why not. Are you using eReaders with your students?

And, of course, share your favourite titles.

Susan van Gelder