Friday, September 11, 2009

Assistive Technology Recommendations

This week my friend Barbara McLaughlin (@barbaram) asked me to comment on some of the best tools for Assistive Technology that I see and use when I'm out working with kids and I thought maybe that sounded like a blog posting!  Especially if I could get YOU to share your favourites in the comment please do...I'd love to learn about some more!

Here are the top ones that come to mind and not in any particular order.

1.  Voice recorders of any kind are a biggie for me.  Whether just using a computer voice file in window accessories, or something more elaborate (Audacity or GarageBand - by Apple) we need to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning orally instead of using the pencil or keyboard.  Their are many graphic organizers that can support this kind of retelling so that students aren't just talking 'off the cuff'.   It always stikes me as unusual that this kind of accommodation is frequently noted on IEP's but teachers often don't know how easy it is to create these files.

2.  Word Q - This software, developed at the Bloorview Kids Rehab Centre in Toronto is perhaps my favourite because very young students can begin using it really quickly and it's so versatile.  It's a text reader and a word prediction software that learns the writing pattern of the student and gets 'smarter' about predictions as time goes on.  Great for web reading and most kinds of word processing that students will do in school, and teachers can provide and customize lists of words to put into the predication word bank.  Another's available in French!

3.  Write Outloud and CoWriter:  These two kind of go together and are available from OSAPAC for Ontario students.  Write Outloud is the talking word processor, and CoWriter is the word prediction software, similar in quality to WordQ.  CoWriter can also be used with other word processors like Word Perfect and Word.  Teachers can use the database to keep track of their students and assignments if they wish. As with Word Q, teachers can provide and customize lists of words to put into the prediction word bank.  My only problem here is that they are not available in French which leaves out many of the students that might need it.  If anyone knows if it is available in English, please let me know!

4.   Kurzweil is the giant of assistive technology for literacy.  It is accurate, reliable, robust and therefore quite expensive, but if a student needs assistance it is well worth the money!
There are many features of Kurzweil to assist students who have learning needs:
  • scan texts into Kurzweil and have them read to the student
  • customized preferences for reading speed, pausing, voices, visual assistance (eg. highlighting words, sentences, paragraphs)
  • a writing tool with built-in word prediction that acts as a talking word processor as well
  • study skills help (dictionary, thesaurus, highlighting tools, annotations)
  • you can extract text easily to create audio files for ipods and mp3 players
  • graphic organizer and tables are built into the newest version for sorting information 
There is a bit of a learning curve with Kurzweil because it's so robust, but once student's get using it regularly it helps to provide access texts, a talking word processor to help with writing and lots of built -in study helps for research, writing and for use during assessments.

5.  A new little tool that I just found out about is Odiogo and it's very promising for students with learning disabilities or for younger students or ELL learners.   Here's what their website says,
Odiogo's media-shifting technology expands the reach of your content: It transforms news sites and blog posts into high fidelity, near human quality audio files ready to download and play anywhere, anytime, on any device. 
I recently installed an Odiogo button on my blog, and now readers of my blog can either listen right then and there (with a very good computer voice, as well!) or download the blog posts to listen to on a portable device or through itunes.   I wish I'd known about this when I first began blogging with Grade 2s as it really opens up access to blogs which are often a really text based experience.  Now that I know about it, I see more and more of them in the blogs I read.  Wouldn't it be great to see blog hosting services adopt this as mainstream...UDL at work! :)

6.  Dragon Naturally Speaking is a speech-to-text software that allows a student to speak into a headset and have their words converted to text within an application like a word processor, or using Dragon Pad, the built-in simple word processor.   This integrates really well with a lot of different software applications IF the student's voice can be trained (I've run into some problems with the voices of some students) and if an adult checks in regular to do the accuracy training to make sure that the student is being successful.  Without that accuracy piece, students can quickly become frustrated unnecessarily with Dragon Naturally Speaking.

7.  Inspiration and Smart Ideas are two examples of really good kinds of concept-mapping software, really a must for all learners not just those with special needs.  I have a preference for Inspiration in the area of AT because you can easily record your voice into any of the concept bubbles and attach a voice file.  It's also really easy to embed video, graphics, sound and weblinks which really hits more modalities for all kinds of students.

I'm sure there are more that I should be listing here, and I welcome your comments to add to our list here.  These are simply the ones that I'm most commonly using with the students in our schools, and the ones that our provided at our school Board.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Filming Fun

Kieran, my 17 year old, didn't get a steady job this summer, but instead worked part-time at odd jobs and as a character for children's birthday parties. I was kind of disappointed with this, as I'm seeing the dollar signs flash before my eyes in the wake of it being 'almost that time' to begin paying tuition for University. I'm really hoping that he knows that we are serious about him trying to help out with paying some of those bills!

The silver lining for me, however, was the chance to watch boys play. Yes, 17 and 18 year old boys, hanging out at our place for endless costume changes, script practices and filming dates over a period of about 3 weeks. Kieran is hoping to go into a film studies program next year and his most recent facination is with Tarantino films (the opening of a new one this summer added to the excitement). He wrote a script, storyboarded it and began directing his buddies in this x-rated venture. They would then come home and gather round the iMAC and edit, revise, decide to re-shoot and reschedule another gathering. I was reminded too, of Kent Manning's advice to be a little more leniant about the content when it comes to what boys like (apparently a profanity edited version of Kieran's film might be coming, but it couldn't be Tarantino-esque without a quite a bit)!

It struck me that boys (and girls) grow up pretty fast these days and that the 'play' time, be it lego or building or whatever, ends pretty abruptly for boys and becomes about playing video games or playing sports. The kind of play that I liked seeing again this summer was the construction of something unique, something brand new, something they built. My sons have never been much for robotics or logo, despite my attempts to interest them, but drama and film are things that they definitely love.

When alone one rainy day Kieran also did one just for himself and posted it to You Tube, watching a few comments with interest as they came in, and being amazed that people actually viewed his movie... okay...tweeting it out might have helped :)  I've included the short, (not restricted for language and violence) one here, and believe me I would have tidied up my closet if I'd known it was being filmed!

This playful creation using media really reaffirmed for me that we need to give kids the time and the choices to be creative in their own ways!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Talking Blogs Are Here

You'll probably notice a Listen Now button on my blog, and a widget in the sidebar that allows you to subscribe to my podcast.

I've been getting ready to present at the AT4ALL
in Milton next week and my presentation will be about literacy tools for the 21st century, thinking specifically of our students with special needs. If you are there, the session will hopefully go something like this:

This session shows parents and educators the new kinds of literacies with which our students need to develop fluency in order to develop 21st century skills. Web 2.0 tools like Google for Educators, blogs, wikis, rss, social networking, global projects, diigo and other online tools for literacy will enhance the education of our students with special needs, while allowing them to access collaborative tools that will be so important as they continue their education and move on to the workforce. This session will provide a practical look at some of the best ways teachers can motivate students and enhance their use of technology to improve their literacy.

I find this an important topic because while modalities available on the web are getting more and more diverse ensuring more and more access, it's still a pretty text-based place. If you can't read, it's difficult to navigate deeply and go beyond "surfing the surface" as my co-presenter Peter Skillen, would say.

This week, while I was checking out a really good article about where to start with using cell phones on a blog called The Innovative Educator I noticed the Listen Now button and soon found out that allows you to create text-to-speech podcasts from your RSS feed to ipod, iphone, and MP3 players as well as instantly reading your content on the blog in a really decent voice!

It's called 'talking your content'. Very sweet! Another way to open access to those who struggle with reading, or perhaps if you have a class blog with younger students who are non-readers this will be a help for you! It's working great so far, although it seems to take a few hours to upload the feature to new blog posts, so we'll see how it goes as I get using it. You can see how it works immediately if you click on my older postings for now.

I'm looking forward to learning about lots of new tools to enhance access for special needs students (and ALL students) at AT4ALL...hope you see you there!