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!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thoughts about NECC 09

I've just returned from my 4th NECC Conference held this year in Washington, DC and once again I've found it to be great professional learning, especially from the perspective of connecting and re-connecting with both people and ideas. The big focus for me was student learning and projects with constructivist technologies: students inquiring, collaborating, and creating with tech, rather than a focus on tech tools. I feel refreshed in my mission to make sure that teachers are transferring control of learning to the learner...regardless of whether they have one computer or 30 in the classroom!

Dropping in on the Constructivist Consortium event meant seeing Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez and the folks from LCSI which was a treat! LCSI has launched a new piece of software called Transform which I'm excited to be experimenting with in the next few months.

A new release from Fablevision is an amazing software called Animation-ish...and comes from the writer of the book Ish, Peter Reynolds! I'm going to order that software and give it a whirl this summer. The interface is playful, creative and downright gorgeous.

Watching @garystager do a fabulous job speaking his truth at the ISTE Panel Debate about Brick and Mortar Schools was inspiring! I enjoy Gary's honesty and his dedication to what is right for kids, even when it goes against the bureaucracy of school boards, curriculum and policy makers.

I love seeing the real deal of classroom teachers at work inspiring kids and it was great to see @mariak, @kathycassidy and @marragem sharing their primary classroom uses of technology. They've started a wiki if you are interesting in joining in the conversation about how technology benefits primary students:

Two of the best things that I did was to revisit sessions by Alan November and Jamie McKenzie. Both of these guys have influenced my work in educational technology and it's been several years since I've checked in to hear them; it was definitely worthwhile to see their newest presentations that re-affirm the kinds of deeper approaches I'm trying to promote among the teachers and students with whom I work back in Guelph.

This year it was wonderful to spend time with so many of the educators that I know already from Ontario and the US, with the added bonus of meeting a bunch of people from my twitter learning network f2f! I spent a fair bit of time learning from the ISTE folks who have many suggestions that will benefit the delegates at the ECOO conference here in Ontario next November! I can't wait to share those benefits with Ontario teachers!

Another real highlight was meeting up with the Great Lakes Constructivist Consortium, a group of teachers who believe in student centred, experiential, ecological and equitable learning environments! I will look forward to becoming involved and learning from this wonderful group of people.

A visit to the Canadian Embassy from MindShare Learning was something I never thought I'd be doing in Washington! :)

Washington was a really great city and I'll have to go back where there is time for more sightseeing. I was grateful to stumble upon a very nice place to eat, sit outside and chat for ages with friends in Georgetown...I miss it already! :)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tech Connect - Baby Steps

Teachers at UGDSB continue to surprise me with their interest in learning new things, despite the incredibly busy teaching schedules they have! I put a shout out to see if any teachers might like to gather together online from the comfort of their own internet connections and learn about using technology in the classroom, expecting about 5 responses. I've now sent out the schedule to 18 eager teachers...this should be awesome!

In planning this I'm no expert with Adobe Connect but I have attended a few meetings as a guest and have now run a few conference meetings for ECOO as a host, with the help of my friend Karen Beutler. I've used other communication tools like YacPak, skype, ichat, and Elluminate and I think I'm ready to branch out and try using this tool for learning with other teachers, so I'm jumping out of the nest; comfortable with giving this a try and learning along with them to get it going.

I've decided to make the first session a welcome one, with a chance for participants to play around with the interface. I'll have a few goodies to share in order to keep people interested and hopefully wanting to come back! I am imagining these sessions will become interactive webinars where we can share issues and teachers can request what they'd like to learn. I can easily give teachers the option of sharing things with the group as well, so this intrigues interactive might this tool be?

What is best practice with online PD and conferencing software like Adobe Connect?

So far, I've gathered the following ideas from my colleagues who've used this model, but please add comments if you can share some expertise!

1) If at all possible use two monitors, so that one monitor allows you to see what you are sharing, and the other lets you keep track of the back channel chat which is so important to learning this way.

2) Try to have an attendee who can troubleshoot as your technical person. Upgrade this person to another host presenter so that they can grant permissions if there are technical issues that your attendees are trying to sort out as the session continues.

3) Always begin with a slide that reviews the process of getting connected and checking your audio. With a huge number of people it's probably preferable that not all attendees us a microphone, but mostly use the chat. (I'd like to experiment with this)

So that's what I know so far! I love trying new things and usually start with a basic plan and adjust as I go, taking into account the needs of the group and their interests in learning.

Looking forward to any comments that might help!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grateful for Discourse, Desperate for Balance

I had a really nice first day of March break today caving with my kids. In the midst of an ever increasing network of people online, I'm in awe of the opportunities that I'm having to connect with other educators in my PLN and beyond, but I'm constantly challenged to keep the balance between what could become a 24/7 workday and my other priorities: family, learning, and a few interesting pursuits along the way to keep me sane. Conscious of how quickly the kids are growing, I know that the huge amount of time I spend online, largely in the evenings since I'm teaching all day, is coming at a cost.

However, I'm so in awe of the teachers I'm meeting up with online that are so caring about their profession and so passionate about learning! This week I found myself challenged by my friend Gary Stager to speak up on Twitter about my beliefs about students and learning, certainly something I'm not encouraged to do in my day-to-day. In fact, in public education we are so rarely asked to develop a personal philosophy of education that it dawned on me that this should be considered quite worrisome! Whole generations of teachers may spend a good chunk of their lifetime becoming 'expert' teachers (at least in terms of years served) and never think very deeply about what it is they are doing that could change the life of a child. This has not been my experience, as what appeals to me most about teaching is my own learning about learning...I'm thankful to have an online community in which to engage in such rich discourse and thankful that after 21 years, I'm still constantly challenged to become a better teacher; there is always more to learn!

Good examples of learning-centred approaches are all around us, and I'm so grateful to my colleagues for sharing their work. When Mike Anderson organized our Skills Canada event at UGDSB this week, I was so impressed with the collaborative, authentic challenges that were presented to the students to promote problem-solving. Lego Robotics, Toon Boom animations, Lego Mechanics, Video Production with Apple Canada, student created Health and Safety presentations, building wind turbines and designing and building replicas of houses were the focus of this event, with a focus on a constructive rather than instructive approach.

This week I've been checking out Ben Hazzard, who creates a collaborative space for teachers, Alec Couros, a prof from Regina that I've met on Twitter who was u-streaming a conference presentation from Calgary this week, and veteran teachers like Peter Skillen taking on new projects like Adobe Youth voices. Also, Nathan Toft and Jane Smith and their, Kent Manning sharing his love of digital storytelling and Doug Peterson's regular updates on his blog.

You see what I mean? What is a person to do? Not only do I feel a little guilty for being such a taker, and not contributing, but it's such a challenge just to keep up with all this good stuff and keep doing my thing for teachers and students in my school district.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Vote Peter Skillen for ISTE International Representative!

This is a shout out for Peter Skillen, who has won the nomination as one of two candidates for the ISTE International Representative on the ISTE Board.

You can follow this link to see Peter's profile under International Representatives.

Peter's teaching experience and support of technology for learning and constructivism would be a great addition to the ISTE Board of Directors. Check out his website Vote soon!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Twitter @bsherry

I've been giving Web 2.0 lots of thought this week as I become pretty much entrenched in the Twittersphere...and really liking it! I am absolutely amazed at the sharing that I see going on in twitter. It's pretty incredible to read postings from people I know and technology leaders I've been reading about for the past 5 or 6 years.

Creating groups around your career or interests is a wonderful thing. It makes you feel pretty good to be exchanging ideas with people who think like you and have the resources that you have...but I do wonder whose voice is not being heard here? What, if anything, is the danger in developing ideas among like-minded individuals? Is there really a variety of voices and objective participation in most online communities? Are we missing out on some important voices? You'd think that you'd find a diverse group in the Twittersphere, but is the clustering that happens likely to promote a range of opinion, or a similarity that could cloud our view of what other people experience?

Quite frankly, some teachers just don't have colleagues in their schools that are interested in collaboration around topics of interest in education. Or perhaps they are the only teacher in a particular subject area or with a certain kind of expertise in the school. Our choice used to be taking a course, which would give us a PLN we needed for a period of time. Now, I can take my professional interests online and look for like-minded educators to help me push forward in my learning, possibly in a much more sustaining way than a traditional course offering. This is why I got involved in blogging and wikis...I needed dialogue with teachers who were interested in new technologies and there weren't individuals at my school who were exploring these ideas. Online communities seemed to be a much more practical and vibrant classroom for me.

In December, David Warlick talked at RCAC about the danger of students without access; he says the real danger is not so much about access to computers anymore, but understanding the power of collaboration, or not. I'm coming to understand, through my own participation online, that these learning networks may meet more of the needs of our learners and teachers than traditional learning spaces (time, choice, just-in-time learning, co-learning), and that teachers really need to be understand the usefulness of these very real and purposeful virtual environments. Now, the challenge of being open to the use of these kinds of tools in our often locked-down school network environments!

I look forward to learning more from my Twitter friends about how these networks work and their experience as participants.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Expanding Our Sitting on the Edge

The edge of my ZPD that is...

I've just returned from a fabulous two days with Will Richardson in Toronto, at the Expanding Our Boundaries Conference. I was invited to be part of a tech team helping the 100 people or so with a hands-on BYOL event.

I LOVE watching people teach and learn. It's the exhilarating (and sometimes exhausting) part of my teaching journey...that I can be 20 years or so into it, and still be learning so much in order to hone my craft! Will did a great job of providing a lot of options to many different learners and the two days supported what I believe about the co-learning that can go on whenever experts and novices engage together in the learning process.

He had us all on the edge of our ZPD in one way or another:

-many folks were trying out Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis for the first time, and were led through step-by-step demo-style and with help as needed from the tech team
-a mix of expertise at tables allowed the novices to watch and use the expertise of those right beside them

-dialogue was encouraged in the form of collaboration at tables or in the online chat that went on throughout the day and was archived here
-many of the 'experts' in the room spent their time branching off on tangents and networking to push their learning

So for me, I spent my time engaged in the presentation while continually dropping out to help others and then jumping back in to catch up. I actually really loved that, as it was a good blend for me as a learner and I was definitely in "my element" as Sir Ken Robinson might say.
I'm sure that there was a lot that I missed, but now I've got that chat archive to go back to whenever I want and my new network of incredible people to support me when I need something....just in time learning, basically. Check out Kent Manning's experience where he so wonderfully captured the networking that went on over these 2 days! He mentions so many of the wonderful new people I've met and I really hope that my PLN continues to grow with these folks! Check us out on Commun-IT, I really look forward to the future of this network.

I had some "ah ha" moments too. The biggest for me was the idea of using my network more efficiently to drive my own learning. I have been aware and participating to varying degrees in online spaces (social networks, using rss, IM, skype, email, wikis, blogs) but when Will described this "vibrant learning space that cannot be matched in the physical classroom" and provided me with a couple of new tools to leverage and integrate those networks, the lightbulb went on. I didn't 'get' Twitter before I think I might have a new addiction...but what the heck!

So, I stayed up way too late last night, got my TweetDeck going, set up my igoogle page and moved my feeds from bloglines so they stream into my browser homepage along with some better connections to the things I'm working on (docs) and the people who help me learn (chat, email, social networks). I also cracked Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky which has been in my 'to read' pile for ages!

Other new stuff for me:
and who could forget:

So, I am trying to manage my own learning in this "world where content is not scarce", as Will mentioned this weekend, in order to help my students and my own children build their PLN in exciting f2f and online exciting challenge!

Aren't you glad we aren't alone in all this? I agree with Doug we need each other! :)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Expanding Our Boundaries: Teacher Networking

Hi Everyone,

I'm looking forward to learning a lot on the weekend and networking with teachers from around Ontario!

On Friday before lunch I thought I'd share two ways that I'm using wikis in my work with teachers at Upper Grand DSB. The first is and it's for Special Education teachers in our board to share ideas, tips, lessons and links about assistive technology. It's been a bit slow having members collaborate, but teachers are now using the site and sending me things to post, so I guess that's step one.

The other site is and it's a collaborative space for teachers who are participating in a job-embedded PD opportunity using the lesson study model. For most teachers this is their first crack at trying to use a wiki and we have different levels of collaboration going on, but we've had great feedback.

See you on Friday!

Found my ipod! :)

I had a few hectic days recently as I thought I had lost my itouch but with much relief discovered that I had left it behind at home for our weekend away skiing!
Thank goodness! (although I did manage to survive) :)

In general, I'm having trouble maintaining all my places on the web, as they just seem to continue to grow and the balance between work and life seems to be blending in together at a terrible rate!

So, abandoning my blog postings in draft form, I thought I'd jump back in and carry on with the abridged version of my meanderings and try to get back to blogging ...or get the url off my of the two shall win!

I think it's basically an audience issue for me with blogging...although I love to use blogs with my students as a way to bring an authentic audience to their writing, I am preferring to use wikis in the kind of work I'm doing lately with teachers. There is also the issue of the kind of blogs and wikis that our Board can host, which presently don't live up to the host services like Blogger, Blogmeister, Wikispaces or PBWiki, so I'm forced to go 'under the radar' a bit for the time being...if you know what I mean.

Hearing Sir Ken Robinson was such a highlight for me this fall at the CODE conference in Toronto, and the ECOO Conference was awesome as well! I've decided to Chair the conference for ECOO's 30th year in Nov. 09, so this is taking up a fair chunk of my time at the moment. I'm pretty excited about this chance to work with an awesome committee of great people to create something memorable and useful to teachers!

I'm looking forward to attending the ETFO/ECOO event with Will Richardson on the weekend