March 5,1998

Norman Coombs is full of optimism

Big Brother, meet Little Brother

Sylvain Comeau

Technology has fulfilled many promises and allayed many fears about its misuse, according to Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Norman Coombs.
Coombs was the keynote speaker at the Network for the Evaluation of Education and Training Technologies (EvNet) annual conference, held from February 20 to 22 at Concordia this year.
"In George Orwell's 1984, a dystopian view of the future, the government holds total and centralized control of an entire society," he said. "There were cameras and eavesdropping equipment in every room, so that everything you did was watched, and all of the information was run through a giant mainframe computer. The slogan running through the book was Big Brother is Watching You."
Coombs conceded that sometimes Big Brother is watching „ he cited the example of the RCMP spying on some Canadians through credit card and other electronic transactions. But something else happened in 1948, when 1984 was written, which offered a more accurate and optimistic view of the future than Orwell's book.
"That year, three men connected with Bell Laboratories invented the transistor.
This invention would make many electronic things cheaper and smaller. Today, a notebook computer has more power and a thousand times more versatility than early computers, which filled a giant room with vacuum tubes."
Early fears that computers would lead to centralized government control were unfounded because of the computing power in private hands, Coombs said.
"Typically, modern computing is decentralizing rather than centralizing power. Big Brother has now met Little Brother, and the government is afraid that some teenage hacker will hack into its mainframes."
Technology has also been able to empower the disabled. Coombs, who is blind, uses computers equipped with voice synthesizers, which can "read" e-mail messages by converting the electronic information into a voice message. Coombs uses the technology to listen to and grade his students' work. Coombs understood the potential of this technology while conducting an e-mail correspondence with a deaf student. "After grading her exam, I wrote back to her, and she wrote back and asked a question, and I wrote back to her. At one point she wrote: "This is the first time in my life I have talked to a teacher without an interpreter." And what is more, I'm blind. So we had a double communication gap, and the computer just blew it away."
Coombs, who wrote much of the software he now uses, closed by urging the audience not to wait for professional designers to come up with tomorrowÍs adaptive technology.
"There are two good reasons to focus on accessibility. The first is that you would help a lot of people. The second reason is that we are the one minority group that youÍre free to join any day! Accidents happen; plus, we all live longer now. So design equipment for yourself, if not for me."
Coombs is an international speaker and author on the subject of the electronic delivery of distance education, particularly technology designed for the disabled. He is the chair of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) an organization affiliated with the American Association for Higher Education. His most recent book, Information Access and Adaptive Technologies, was published by Auric Press in 1997.
EvNet is a multi-university research project, led at Concordia by professors in the Education Department, that studies the role of computers in education and training.
As part of the conference, Education students organized a symposium on adaptive technologies. They demonstrated, among other innovations, a $20,000 laptop equipped with a braille keyboard, magnification software for people with low vision, a voice synthesizer that tells the user what is happening on screen, and a foot-operated mouse for people with limited use of their arms.
Copyright 1998 Thursday Reports
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