Online Learning and Special Education

The COVID-19 pandemic created a challenge for teachers, parents, and students in special education. It came with all the issues that hit the broader education community, and additional concerns about how the students would handle learning under these new conditions. Students in special education classrooms usually need a structured, consistent schedule, and that was more difficult to maintain while working remotely.

Winn and Behizadeh emphasized a right to education, specifically literacy education, and it is naturally easy to worry about fulfilling those obligations for special education students when they suddenly found themselves in a completely different setting, with a strange new routine none of them were used to.

Open laptop that says online learning, Writing utensils, and a notebook sitting on a desk

By law, schools were still required to provide special education services during remote learning, which included various services in addition to general education curricula like reading and math. The problem is that accessing these services could be difficult. Parents were often at a loss as to what to do. This also came with them having to basically become teachers themselves and try different learning methods till they found something that worked for their child.

IEP assessments became an issue too. The school must evaluate every child’s IEP and determine whether education goals were being met and what needed to be rewritten in light of the student’s current needs. With remote learning however, correctly evaluating these things could prove difficult for special education teachers and the aides who are meant to help students navigate through their time at school.

It was a rough year for special education, but hopefully things will begin to look up from here on out. More schools in Ohio are back in person (whether part-time or full-time) which should mitigate the issues that arose around special education. Being back in a physical classroom can give students the structure and consistency they need to learn.

Wikipedia Changed Over Time and So Has Its Critics

Wikipedia, and concerns over its reliability and accuracy, have been discussed on this blog before. It was also a common mantra among my teachers in public school to warn about the dangers of Wikipedia, because, as they said, anyone can go on there and write anything they want. As my fellow blogger and Pfister showed, however, editing Wikipedia was a much more complicated process than was often claimed. Still, I was curious as to how the perception of Wikipedia has changed over time and the results were rather interesting.

Being an online encyclopedia that is constantly updated and not subject to a single person’s control puts Wikipedia in a unique situation regarding its critics, because Wikipedia has an entry about itself. And since many articles are written by those who have no financial stake in the reputation of the website, Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia page does not shy away from common criticisms that have emerged concerning the site over the years.

The usual suspects are there, such as claims of inaccuracy and unreliability, and how educators often ban it from being cited in student’s papers. Other criticisms are present as well, ones that are not heard as often, such as privacy issues surrounding private citizens that have their own articles. There is also the way Wikipedia allows graphic and explicit content on its pages that could easily be accessed by children. Some of these criticisms could apply to the internet as a whole, and Wikipedia, being one of the world’s most famous websites, is simply a more prominent target.

Google and Wikipedia logos in person's hands

It should be noted that, regardless of what educators and other intellectuals thought of Wikipedia in its early days, it was always popular with the average person. If it wasn’t then it would not have evoked the kind of reaction it did in schools, nor would the site have become as popular as it did. But opinions of Wikipedia among the media have changed since it first went online. It was better received in the 2010s, throwing off the appeal to tradition some of its critics often relied on.

What surprised me the most when reading about this was how Facebook, Google, and YouTube now link to Wikipedia to help people decipher truth from falsehood. While these sites’ opinions of Wikipedia are hardly the be-all-end-all—and some of the criticisms listed above might still be valid—it is ironic to see the site that was once denounced as unreliable now held up as a standard of credibility. Maybe new forms of writing simply take time to be accepted.

Writing as a System for Memory

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato warned against the dangers of writing. While many around him saw the system as an exciting method of spreading art and knowledge, Plato viewed things differently. His critique was that reading and writing will lead to less education in society, not more. This is due to the convenience writing creates, whereby you don’t have to memorize information. Instead you can keep it written down somewhere, outside your mind. Writing is a system “not for memory, but for reminder,” he said, offering only the semblance of wisdom.

Picture of Plato

Many rightfully dismiss Plato’s doomsday predictions. Contrary to what he expected, education has increased over time, and literacy has only ever helped, not hindered, that development. That’s not to say reading and writing are necessary for proper education, as Goody and Watt demonstrated by showing that oral cultures were just as intelligent as literate ones. Still, I don’t think anyone would say reading and writing have been categorically harmful. Many people’s education has benefited from books and other written methods of communication.

All that said, I think Plato’s main argument against writing—that it disincentivizes people to truly know and remember information—is an interesting one. It’s an empirical question, and looking at the data to see how well people in highly literature societies commit the things they read to memory should shed light on Plato’s claims. And it seems there is something to what he said. People don’t often remember very detailed information from what they read. Now in the Internet age, people rely even more on external methods to store information.

Puzzle in the shape of a brain

But this does not justify Plato’s ultimate dismissal of writing. Like all human actions, writing comes with tradeoffs. When you choose to do one thing, that necessarily means you willingly give up the time you could have spent on something else. This applies to writing, just on a much larger scale. When a society chooses to use writing as its primary method of education, it chooses to embrace both the positives and negatives associated with literacy, and forego the positives and negatives associated with oral societies. The problem Plato laid out then is much more complex than he seems to realize.

Picture of a brain with a USB cord extending from it

There are methods readers can use to better remember the material they read, such as writing down notes (which helps you remember the information in the process) and reflecting deeply on the material after reading. There’s also a possible rebuttal to Plato’s idea of the mind and what counts as knowledge from modern philosophy. The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT), famously argued by analytic philosopher David Chalmers, states that the human mind is not limited to the brain, but is also part of things external from a person, like a notebook or a computer. Thus, writing might have widened the human mind rather than diminished it. EMT is a highly debated concept, but is none-the-less a potentially interesting counter-point to Plato.

The Key to Writing

Though over 150 years old, the keyboard remains one of the most popular tools for communication and writing.

It began as a feature on typewriters but has since evolved to become part of desktop and laptop computers, cellphones, and digital tablets. The standard English keyboard layout is known as QWERTY and is named for the first six letters starting from the top left and going to the right.

The initial key placement made in 1873 had some minor differences compared to the keyboard we know today, such as the letter M being on the middle line of letters. While the arrangement might look random, they are actually spaced that way to prevent jamming.

Letters that frequently appear next to one another in words were placed farther apart on the layout. Before this, when the letters were arranged alphabetically, the typewriter’s type bars would stick together if quickly pressed one after another.

Despite this hardware glitch no longer being a problem on our modern devices, QWERTY has survived the test of time. It is so prevalent in the modern world that the average person will type on a keyboard for three hours a day or more. This might sound like a lot, but it is not so surprising when you think about how much time people write on social media and other forms of messaging. Many people now, especially since the pandemic, work online as well.

Thinking about the logistics of typing is interesting as well. The average person can type about 40 WPM (Words Per Minute). If they also spend about three hours of their day typing, that means they average around 7200 words a day! That is more than many authors write daily for their books. It is crazy to think about many words are produced each day, all thanks to the keyboard.