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Mark Harniss: Employing Technology to Enhance Learning

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Mark Harniss grew up in Logan, Utah, a little mountain town in the northeast corner of a state known mostly for winter sports and Cache Valley cheese. He was the middle child of three boys, and his family spent a lot of time skiing. But it’s the summers he remembers most, when his dad, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, took the family with him while he was investigating the effect of cattle grazing on federal range land or looking at how quickly vegetation recovered after a wildfire. “We would help him collect samples for his research. We would stay in little forest service cabins or a camper,” Harniss remembers. “Those were good summers.”

During his school years Harniss was a good student, but when he came up against algebra in high school he really struggled. Staying after school for tutoring by his math teacher didn’t help, and he even repeated the class. “I had a well-intentioned teacher but she didn’t know how else to teach it,” he remembers. “It was the first time for me when trying harder wasn’t enough.” Thinking he was just bad at math and due to his love of reading, Harniss majored in English literature at Utah State University. After he graduated and was thinking about his employability, Harniss became intrigued by a master’s program at his university that focused on how to improve teaching with technology. He remembered his struggles with math. “It was part of my motivation. I started thinking, ‘There have to be better strategies.’”

Soon, Harniss found himself developing instructional programs on laser discs the size of Vinyl Albums, or Long Playing Albums. The programs had cutting-edge animations and were nonlinear, which allowed students to take quizzes to test their proficiency. If they did well, the students could skip ahead in the program. If they failed, they could back up for additional instruction. The programs were intended for general academic use, but also had a special education focus. Through his work, Harniss met faculty members who had dual positions in the special education and technology departments.

It was part of my motivation. I started thinking, ‘There have to be better strategies.’

Mark Harniss, PhD

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Harniss decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis on instructional design at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s. There he designed an eighth-grade history curriculum for use in “mainstreamed” classrooms that would include students with disabilities. After getting his degree in 1996, Harniss went to work at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, where he specialized in preparation of special education teachers. Two years later, he moved to the University of Washington in Tacoma to teach both special and general education students, mostly in the fast-evolving field of education technology and in math. “It was one of my interests to teach math better,” Harniss says. “My experience in math was that there was an assumption that some kids would get it and some wouldn’t, but the teacher would move on anyway. I wanted to help teachers learn instructional strategies that would result in better outcomes for more students.” 

In the early 2000s, Harniss wanted to move away from teacher prep, so he accepted a position as director of evaluation at the Center on Human Development and Disability (CHDD) on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. CHDD is an interdisciplinary center with faculty who conduct research across a wide range of issues related to technology and disability. Over time, Harniss moved into a faculty position with the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine where he now directs the Center for Technology and Disability Studies. Harniss’ own research included a Google-funded study of an app that helps people in southern Africa locate assistive technology in 20 countries. More recently, he has been working on knowledge translation projects, including one addressing incarcerated individuals with traumatic brain injury. “We’re working with the Washington State Department of Corrections to understand how traumatic brain injury affects people who are incarcerated, how to screen for it, and what kind of supports could help people be more successful while they’re incarcerated and after they’re released,” he says. Harniss also is working on a project for the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research that will develop decision-making tools for people with disabilities about when and how to ask for workplace accommodations. 

“A lot of what I do comes back to understanding people have different strengths and they need support in different areas,” Harniss says. “All of my education work is based on the belief that everybody can learn, and with adequate support, most people can learn most things.”

All of my education work is based on the belief that everybody can learn, and with adequate support, most people can learn most things.

Mark Harniss, PhD

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