Coombs is full of optimism
Big Brother, meet Little Brother
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
"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
"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
"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
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