From the Desk of Jay Rainey – September 30, 2022

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported on the sharp rise of closed caption use that has transpired in recent years. Over a third of Americans aged 40 or older now use captions “most of the time” when viewing video content. The rate rises to 53% among Millennials (born 1981-1996) and 70% among Generation Z (born 1997-2012). Knowing that all current MICDS students belong either to Generation Z or its successor, Generation Alpha, I shared the Journal article with our faculty and asked them: “Are there related examples of assistive technologies whose use you are observing (or encouraging) in your work with students?” I received a range of thoughtful responses.

Susan Taylor-Alonso, our Middle School Learning Specialist, notes that “the use of audiobooks is more widespread than ever,” and her counterpart in the Upper School, Sam Cummins, agrees. “I have encouraged the use of audiobooks with students to aid in reading comprehension and fluency,” he explains. “Many students have gotten so used to this format that they speed up playback to one and a half to two times normal speed.” Upper School Spanish Teacher Kelly Weidenmiller relates that “in world language classes, we utilize subtitles in the target language to make video content more comprehensible.” Rather than increased playback speeds, she is more likely to observe or deploy decreased speeds “to make it easier to understand the audio, especially in the case of media such as podcasts where subtitles are unavailable.” Upper School Math Teacher Travis Menghini recalls occasions when, “instead of listening to the video,” his students elected to “read the captions or flat out read a video as text.” In his own work creating lesson plans, he has noted an increased reliance on optical character recognition (OCR) software “which allows me to copy and paste text from anything (images, videos, PDF files) without having to manually type it out.”

Upper School History Teacher Alexander Rolnick also remarks upon students’ growing appetite for audio-to-text technologies (“I now default to captions when they are available, even with the inevitable gibberish that YouTube’s software sometimes produces”), and he cites OneNote as another important assistive educational technology. “In the past, I had students build physical portfolios that included their notes, handouts, and summative assessments. Now, OneNote has replaced this physical modality, and I notice that some students are doing things like importing assessments with my typed feedback into OneNote to maintain their own portfolio of assessments.”

Allison Light, our Associate Director of Marketing, shares that, “while this isn’t directly related to students,” our Marketing and Communications Office will “often add ‘alt text’ to social media posts” so that “a person using screen reader software can hear a description of the image, which is also indexed by search engines.” (Allison confesses that she “can’t go without” closed captions herself when she and her family are watching their favorite television shows at home.)

Sometimes “assistive technologies” prove to be the very opposite. Upper School History Teacher Tanya Roth observes that online versions of textbooks used in the past have not generally correlated with effective reading or note-taking. “Students saw an online textbook as an assistive technology because it was one less thing to carry,” she recalls, “but they did not engage with it well. This is why we switched back to a physical textbook this year.” Still, in an effort to integrate physical and virtual media, Tanya has asked students, individually and in small groups, to take turns creating digital presentations that summarize textbook chapter sections. Some students have even used TikTok to remix and present textbook content. “It’s a work in progress,” she says.

The increasingly effortless translation and consequent fluidity of information across media forms and formats both broadens access to and, simultaneously, risks the loss of deep understanding. Socrates famously believed that the rising preference for written over oral communication in the Athens of his day—the bias toward a new technology over an old one—would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it,” predicting that “they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.” In a related spirit, Lower School Coordinator of Instructional Technology Greg Stevens recommends careful reflection. “Text-to-speech and speech-to-text are two powerful technologies that are useful to children,” he notes, “but we don’t have clear guidelines yet for how often or when to use them. Does listening to stories help young learners develop a love of books? Does it push them enough to decode words on their own? Some students use Google Voice Typing to convert their words to text. I use voice typing myself. Is this a powerful tool we all should embrace, or will its overuse lead to gaps in students’ education as writers?”

Upper School Fine & Performing Arts Teacher Patrick Huber is reflective as well. “In digital design programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator,” he says, “there are features called ‘constraints’ which predict element alignment and ‘snap’ to the appropriate length or angle. These have been present in some way ever since these programs were first written in the 1980s and ’90s, but they are becoming more sophisticated and, at times, more restrictive. The cost is sometimes similar to captioning. Reading the words an actor speaks strips away emphasis, rhythm, pitch, and inflection cues that add layers of meaning to a performance, just as the most expressive line is often not the perfectly straight line, since slight variations in alignment or distribution often give life and added hierarchical cues to a design.”

When does an assistive technology become not an aid but an impediment to learning and growth? Tools that translate languages, calculate equations, create art, and even write essays are becoming ever more ubiquitous and sophisticated. In some ways, they challenge not only what it means to be educated, but what it means to be human. The first principle of Cartesian philosophy, after all, is “Cogito, ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” When the computer does all of the thinking, then who am I?

Upper School History and Computer Science Teacher Cathy Leitch reminds us of the vulnerabilities implicit in our overdependence on technology. “Because of a growing concern about cyber attacks, especially an attack that could knock out the GPS system,” she observes by way of example, “the United States Naval Academy includes celestial navigation in its curriculum.” Socrates would surely approve. So too, I think, would Middle School Physical Education Teacher and Head Football Coach Fred Bouchard. “I have closed captions turned on because my 25-year-old son changed the settings when he visited,” he says, “and I can’t figure out how to turn it off now!” Maybe one of his Generation Z students can help him with that.

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. My best wishes to you and your families for a joyful weekend.

Jay Rainey
Head of School