22 November 2006

Google's Literacy Portal

Google has pulled together a vast collection of literacy resources into an on-line Literacy Project that can help educators assemble books, information, videos, book groups, blogs, and much more.

Take a look around, you'll find fascinating things that may spark all sorts of classroom ideas. I was, for example, enthralled with the "shared reading writing" project videos from the Clifton Primary School in Hull...

Take a look at this series, and watch the student vocabularies and story sophistication develop as they move from reception through year six.

And see easy to follow directions for creating tech-enhanced on-line book groups, developing school-wide blogs, or for adding your own school literacy videos to this project.

- Ira Socol

26 October 2006

Web Access - the right way

Accessible web sites are all too rare, and ones that are truly easy to work are even rarer, so I want to celebrate the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester and their fabulous web site.

Every page on the RAC site is topped by an accessibility bar that allows every web visitor to choose between the graphical version, a plain-text version, or a version designed specifically for screen readers. There are also quick buttons to change the type size.

Compare this to the typical educational site (allow me to use my own Michigan State University as an example). MSU's site does contain an accessibility statement, but it is in the very last line of the page - a screen reader user would have to allow a default reading of the entire page in order to come to this item. RAC does it correctly, with the choice in the upper left-hand corner where even a fully blind-browser or screen reading system (such as JAWS) would find it instantly.

The automatic creation of accessibility choices - without any need for any training or discovery time - is what makes this a perfect solution. The first time that I saw it, after communicating with one of the professors there about accessibility issues, I realized "this should be the model."

The challenge is to look at your school or university's web site. How easy is it to get to the accessibility options? How easy is it to make the type bigger? Could you operate your site with a screen reader and the monitor turned off?

Remember. This isn't just about students - schools often say, "we don't have any blind students." But what about parents? guardians? relatives? prospective students? or even the citizens who fund your school or grant it tax-free status? Someone in your school community needs these accommodations. And if they need the accommodations, they need to be able to find those accommodations without first taking a course in navigating your website.

For web access advice and tutorials you may want to start at WebAim and WC3, the Web Accessibility Initiative. To test sites, use CynthiaSays... and open your digital doors to everyone.

- Ira Socol

23 October 2006

What's Free?

A conversation on the SpeEdChange list (see right column) asked about free solutions. So lets go public with this. This is important because schools often say that they do not use assistive technologies or universal design technologies because they "are so expensive." I often respond by saying that if the school/university has already installed all the software freely available, I will listen to their complaint, but if not, I assume other (less pleasant) motives.

So here are some free options to make ICT in your school more accessible...

Microsoft Reader (all free, a three-step install - Reader, the TTS engine, and the "Read in Microsoft Reader Add-in" which allows instant conversion from MS Word. http://www.microsoft.com/reader/downloads/pc.asp
for free books - http://etext.virginia.edu/ebooks/

Firefox/FireVox http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/ and http://www.firevox.clcworld.net/ or Firefox (1.0.7) with FoxyVoice http://www.filehippo.com/download_firefox/?390 (make sure tool preferences are set to NOT automatically update software) and the FoxyVoice Extension at: https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=269

Opera (with speech enabled) http://www.opera.com/

ReadPlease2003 http://www.readplease.com/english/downloads/

Dragnifier http://www.magnifiers.org/links/Download_Software/Screen_Magnifiers/Windows_Freeware_and_shareware/

GraphCalc - a marvelous free graphing calculator that allows easy intro of math notation into word via copy/paste (and may eliminate spending $100 a student on TI calculators)

Click-N-Type - perhaps the best, most flexible on-screen keyboard that talks to you as well in a ton of languages

Dasher - another "higher needs based" on-screen keyboard

Google Accessible Search (blind-low vision support)

SENSwitcher (early childhood, CI, etc)

Adobe Acrobat 7 (reads pdfs)

Another critical free resource is teaching students to use free on-line storage to back up their files. British Telecom (new), Google's G-mail and Yahoo Mail all come with 2 gigabytes or more of storage. The simplest way to use this is to attach files to message "drafts" and save them. This creates data storage that you can access from any computer (scan your passport, etc and upload it this way before you travel for one great potential problem solver).

And remember, Google now offers free calendars, word processing and spreadsheet software that not only is remotely stored but can be shared by workgroups, especially student workgroups.

- Ira Socol

27 September 2006

FireVox Improved

We all loved FoxyVoice. It was instantly installable, cute, and very, very easy to use by almost anyone. (What could be simpler than to just highlight text and click on the Yellow Smiley Face?) But no one ever updated FoxyVoice for use in the newest v.1.5.x Firefox Browsers, leaving the troubling choice of running outdated software for web access or not having the voicing options.

FireVox, the far more fully-featured, cross platform "replacement" was wildly complicated, and so difficult to install that most of us just did not.

But now there is some hope. I still want one of you computer geniuses out there (c'mon, you guys are all over the place) to update FoxyVoice because nothing was better for kids, but FireVox now has a simple install, and instructions are much better.

To get the fast install go to the related OATS page. (don't know OATS? you should) and click on the "first" download "Firefox Plug-In File" - this will download the install. Your computer may ask you "what program to use to open this file" in which case just pick Firefox. Then let the install run, close Firefox, re-open it, and you are in business.

At that point you will find "FireVox" options now listed under "Tools" and you may want to turn off things like "Speak Events" and "Echo Keys" (or not, depending on who the user is).

Now, the commands in FireVox are complicated, not at all the "click on the Smiley Face" but they do work and (within limits) you can customize them under the FireVox Options menu. The default commands are:

Basic Reading Commands

To have Fire Vox read through the entire page automatically, use Auto Read. The default is Ctrl + Shift + A.

To have manual control over Fire Vox and have it read forward by one web page element, use Read Forward. The default is Ctrl + Shift + F.

To have Fire Vox read the previous web page element, use Read Previous. The default is Ctrl + Shift + D.

To have Fire Vox repeat the current web page element, use Repeat. The default is Ctrl + Shift + E.

To have Fire Vox read the text that you have selected, use Say Selected Text. The default is Ctrl + Shift + O.

To have Fire Vox stop speaking, use Stop Speaking. The default is Ctrl + Shift + C. Note that this command will also stop the Auto Read if Fire Vox is auto reading a web page. When you begin reading again, Fire Vox will resume at the element after the last element it read as long as you have not moved the cursor.

Navigation Commands

To bring up a list of all the headings categorized by level, use List of Headings. The default is Ctrl + Shift + H.

To bring up a list of all the elements on a page categorized by element, use List of Elements. The default is Ctrl + Shift + L. The headings category here will include all the headings regardless of level. For the form elements, the default is to identify the type of element and its status. If you do not wish to have this extra information, you can turn it off by going into Fire Vox Options and unchecking "Verbose Form Elements List."

(a more complete tutorial is here)

FireVox is still too complicated for young children, or others with limited capabilities, but it now is truly workable for those with computer skills, and, of course, it adds the full-self-voicing browser option to Mac Firefox users.

- Ira Socol

21 September 2006

Bookmark that!

If digital text is important (see many things below) we have to make it easy to find. I always think that a few things should always be available in the Firefox Toolbar or in the Internet Explorer favorites of all your school's computers.

Obviously you want Google (and Google Scholar in secondary schools), Yahoo, Google Maps (and perhaps the map systems from a number of nations US, UK/Ireland, France, Germany, etc), your local public library, your nearest university libraries, probably NASA (or NASA Kids), and surely major newspapers, local plus certainly The New York Times and The Guardian.

But then you also want book sources, courseware sources, document sources. Here are a few:
Gutenberg.org (the central digital text library for English)
Gutenberg Australia (slightly different copyright attitudes)
The Literature Network (a great source for classic English lit)
University of Virginia's E-text Library (great books, in html format or preset for Microsoft Reader or Palm)
MIT's Open Courseware (why not the courseware of one of the world's great universities)
Connexions from Rice University
Digital History from the University of Houston
The Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie-Mellon University
The History Sourcebooks from Forham University (wow, every document! really!)
The Library of Congress (of course)
The New York Public Library (check out the digital library resources)

Yes, every school computer should have these bookmarks and/or favorites installed when the software is updated. we are always complaining that students don't find the right things online. That argument would hold a little more water if we tried to teach them about the best places to search, and make those spots just a touch more obvious...

- Ira Socol

15 September 2006

The Question of Literacy

The last post generated a lot of conversation, which is great. It raised a lot of questions. Also great. I think we need to keep the discussion going…

What does it mean to read? What does it mean to read a book?

In our "Western World" we believe – somewhat automatically – in a couple of things. We believe in what I have come to call "Individual Print Literacy," which is to say that we believe that typically the best way to get recorded information into your brain is to sit by yourself and look at ink that has been applied to paper. Our entire primary school system is based on this belief. Our entire higher education is based on this belief. In between (secondary) – possibly because of the intense difficulty we have trying to keep adolescents engaged – we bend just a little, allowing the occasional recording, audio or video, or letting students read digitally created versions of ink applied to paper.

We also believe in "Alphabetic Decoding." We have constructed a code system for our language that is dependent on random symbols to which some meaning has been applied. These meaning might be sounds if our language is phonetic – Spanish, Italian, Portugese, German, Czech, or they might be much less obvious than that if we're stuck with French, English, Irish, or Polish, but either way, we believe that "the best" way to get information is through code-breaking of this particular kind.

Not everyone on the planet, obviously, has made the same decisions. Many societies have adopted various kinds of "group literacy," where people read together. Consider, for example, the lack of books in Catholic worship (as opposed to Protestantism and Judaism). In Catholicism literacy has traditionally taken many forms that somewhat mirror those famous "seven intelligences." Worship (and thus teaching) involves hearing speech (stories are told), hearing music (rhythm, rhyme, etc), movement (re-positioning the body), visual arts (those windows, sculptures, etc), smell (incense), and on and on.

Or think about the way news is moved through traditional African villages, or in traditional Native American societies.

Other societies have structured writing in different ways as well. Hieroglyphics, pictograms, graphic novels, wall paintings, even those wordless Ikea instruction sheets have all decided to move recorded information in ways other than alphabetic decoding.

This has huge issues for education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows, essentially, zero progress over 35 years of reading assessment, with a stunningly low percentage of US students proving to be high-level readers. This time span covers the full-circle of traditional educational strategies. 6% of American 17-year-old read very well by this measure. Only 38% of those tested read at any level that could be called "proficient" – that is, the ability to read, understand, and assemble the ideas. And remember, at least 13% of US students drop out of high school and do not take this kind of test at all. If we assume that those dropping out might do worse on these tests than those in school, we probably have an American reading proficiency rate of between 30% and 33%.

The general response? Do the same thing we've been doing but do it more! Emphasize phonics, for example, which, of course, do not work in English (ok everyone, why is it that Come Home doesn't rhyme?). Make kids spend far more hours holding books that they cannot read in their hands. Deny those students every other educational opportunity (history, math, art, music) while waiting for them to magically start reading.

My suggestion is different. Re-define reading. Reading is, to me, getting information from a recorded source into your brain. Writing is getting information from your brain into a recorded form. The art of this, and where I think instructional time should best be expended, is on the comprehension and structure and concept assembly side of this. The code breaking will come if it will (I've met few people happy with the fact that they cannot read), but meanwhile students can advance in every other skill area, and guess what? They can stay interested in education.

Because listen, does the method of reading matter? As one commenter on the last post asked, "If I take a test on Moby Dick in my English class, and get an A, having listened to it instead of reading it, how can someone argue that I don't understand the story?" Or, as I always point out, does it make James Joyce any less my favorite author that I have not "read" (ink on paper) one of his books but listened to them all? Does it make my writing less interesting if you know that I dictated it using ViaVoice?

I just need to let people know that I am not against literacy or reading or books. I love these things. I love them so much that I want the possibility of this communication system opened up to everyone. I truly believe that if students are allowed to read by interest rather than codebreaking capability they will be more interested in reading, and might pursue it with more energy. I know (from my own research) that students who use computer literacy software (which highlights the words as they are read) show dramatic improvements in sight-word recognition skills and I am beginning to see some strong evidence that students who dictate to their computers (thus seeing correctly spelled words appear as they say them) show improvements in both sight-word recognition and spelling. If the codebreaking potential is there, these systems will help, and if they are not there – for whatever reason – than these alternative systems are a lifeline.

One very sincere commenter said, "Of *course* I want people to read how I do: by looking at the words, recognizing what they mean (or looking them up if one doesn't), and recognizing how the words fit together. You may as well be complaining that I want all people to breathe the way I breathe (i.e. with an intake of air into the respiratory system, where the oxygen is transferred to the blood stream via the alveoli, etc)." And yes, the world would be "easier," especially for teachers, if this were true. But not everyone can breathe in the same way. Some need machines. Some need specially cleaned air. Some need different oxygen mixes. Some even need tracheotomies. And not everyone will "intake information" the same way either. Our goal, as a society, is to turn the technology we have developed into powerful tools capable of helping all students learn, while we help them to learn the way they need to learn, and how to pick the tools that will help.

- Ira Socol

10 September 2006


They are way too expensive, and the available title is obviously geared to the "senior-citizen-fading-vision" crowd (not that there's anything wrong with that), but the idea proves that the age of Universal Design for "the medium formerly known as print" has arrived.

Playaway is a pre-loaded minimal iPod type thing that plays books, and is powered by a replaceable AA-battery. Right now there are only 121 titles, available on-line and from some Barnes&Noble, Borders, and OfficeMax stores and the cost starts at $35, but have no fear, this is technology that will catch on fast, and the prices are likely to fall to "Trade Paperback" levels ($14-$17 US) very soon.

Playaway allows you to set bookmarks, it allows you to control the speed, it can be plugged in to any external speaker unit (for example, your car stereo or home stereo) for family listening. It comes with earbuds but you can plug your favorite headset into it. They promise that the sound quality is "as good as any other audio book," which seems fine.

Every day we learn why we should stop beating up kids who struggle with reading - if it is not working for them, we should be teaching them how to access content in ways that do work. Playaway is one more example of why "print at all costs" school administrators are living in the last century, and need to start giving kids what they need for the future.

- Ira Socol

05 September 2006

What does Assistive Technology really mean?

What does "Assistive Technology" really mean?

"…any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities." This is the classic definition, used in the law, and constantly repeated, but hopefully for all students of whatever age we want to think of assistive technology in the broadest possible terms.

I prefer "Universal Design for Learning Technology" ["UDL Tech"], but that is a different concept for many of the same systems, indicating that technology choices, that is – tool choices, should be made available to all students without any diagnosis requirement.

The vital thing is to understand that "technology" is all around us, an inherent part of our culture and environment. Educators often act is if technology is somehow separate from culture, but that has never been true in human ex
istence since the first stone hammers were picked up from the ground in Africa. It is all "technology." A stairway at the entrance to your school is technology, as is a ramp. The lighting in the corridors and in your classroom is technology. The school's floor surface is technology, as are the classroom seating, the windows, and the sound absorbing materials in the classroom ceiling. Clothing is technology, so are books and papers, pens and pencils, chalk and whiteboards, videos and doorknobs. The PA system, clocks, and bells are technology. The school bus is technology, as is everything that we build and design for human use.

Assistive Technology means technology adapted or s
pecifically chosen to assist someone with a disability. Universal Design for Learning Technology means offering tech options that increase the functional abilities of all.

This matters for students who are "at risk" because, for whatever reasons, "standard practices" make life difficult for them, and thus they are more deeply impacted by every piece of technology, just as a short person is more impacted by high shelves than "an average height" person and a tall person is more impacted by car door height than
"an average height" person. Uncomfortable classroom furniture and classrooms with poor lighting and sound control tend to exacerbate the problems we associate with ADHD, EBD (EI), LD, and CI diagnoses. All students are impacted negatively by things like this but with each step that a child is away from the culturally-described "norm" the ability to compensate for these difficulties decreases.

It also matters because if we do not understand that "this is all technology" we will not be able to see that schools unfairly privilege certain techniques for no other reason than the fact that those methods are comfortable for those in power. Reading print on paper in a binding is, of course, just one technology for taking recorded information and giving it to an individual. Audiobooks are another technology for this. Computer reading is a third. Talking to the "recipient" is a fourth. Watching a video is a fifth. Is one technology superior for every student than any of the others? I have never seen one bit of research to indicat
e that.

Likewise, the school chair is one technology for classroom occupation. Standing is another. Sitting on the floor or on the windowsill are more. Can one of these technologies be declared "always superior" as a learning environment?

We can go on from there. Is it better for student "A" to move from classroom "One" to classroom "Three" through the school corridor or by running around the building to burn off excess energy? Is it better for student "B" to record her thoughts via dictation to a computer than to write them down with a pen? Should student "C" use a QWERTY keyboard, a Dvorak keyboard, and ABC keyboard, or should they use a microphone or perhaps type via their cell phone? Will student "D" absorb more sitting under fluorescent lights or in the light of the window?

As you move through every educational environment that you observe this school year, look around. See all the conscious and unconscious "technology" decisions that people in power have made that may make life more difficult for a wide range of students. Then consider what could be changed, and how that might help everyone.

- Ira Socol

The New York Times and The Guardian had wildly contrasting articles last week about students "who fear going to school," and they represent polar opposite attitudes regarding disability. The Times article, firmly grounded in the United States' "Medical Model" puts all the responsibility on the student, recommending psychotherapy and medication, along with moving the student out of the "standard" school. The Guardian article, following a more "Universal Design" theory, suggests re-training teachers and redesigning school buildings. The comparison makes both worth reading - if you cannot access one or the other email me and I will get a copy to you.

31 August 2006

Cheating or Education v Reality

"Some kids, they have camera phones, so they take pictures of the their tests, and then they send the pictures to their friends, so they can look at their phones and know the answers."

"Some students have broken into faculty gradebooks and changed their grades."

Really? Are all teachers and professors battling a world full of Ferris Buellers? This must be a crazy universe in which technology is very dangerous.

I was invited to be part of a radio discussion on high tech cheating two weeks ago - a delayed result of my highly controversial article (read the long argument that follows the piece online) on Inside Higher Ed about cheating and technology. Those two stories topped the hour of conversation on KUOW (Washington Public Radio). I was on the show with the director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University and the Vice-Provost for Student Relations at the University of Washington, both sincere academics deeply concerned about student and public honesty and with (as one said) keeping the playing field "level," that is, not letting "cheaters" tilt the grading curve.

My argument (you can listen here, but I am only on during the middle 20 minutes of the hour), was that they are fighting the wrong war. I didn't even waste time pointing out how crazy their fears are - quick everybody, take out your phone and take a picture of the paper in front of you, now send it to a friend, can they read it? - but talked instead about the need to change styles of teaching and assessment so that we are not asking students to cheat by requesting meaningless trivia. I also spoke about the need to bring technology fully into the classroom, to teach with it and about it - for the benefit of all students, but especially for the benefit of students who might have differing needs and/or strengths.

The guests agreed with all that, they even talked about how math educators at good schools had learned to stop teaching (and testing) formula memorization, but had moved onto more important things. I said "yes, at top schools they have done that, but at community colleges and high schools many teachers still ban calculators," and the students at those schools are, of course, the students most likely in need of good, advanced teaching.

Yes, I was told, changing educational practices filters down unevenly and it takes a long time. Then my time on the show was over, and they went back to their conversation - essentially, students need to change their behaviors right now.

In other words, bad teachers get plenty of time to change, students who "cheat" get no such patience.

- Ira Socol

For better teaching strategies, from
teachablemoment.org - take a look at Alan Shapiro's The Plagiarism Perplex and the same author's (and the best teacher I have ever known) Inquiry in an English Class.

31 May 2006

Leading Edge

The conversations about technology at Inside Higher Ed have made me think about a growing divide in education, between traditionalists and those who seek to use technology to break through many barriers - barriers of distance, of resources, of abilities, of capabilities. And maybe, you need real limitation experience to understand why this is so important. And this opens up the topic of the extreme need for people with a ride range of "disabilities" to be involved in teacher training institutions - including, perhaps, the need for this special form of Reverse Discrimination or Affirmative Action.

"When you think disability, think zeitgeist. I'm serious. We live at a time when the disabled are on the leading edge of a broader societal trend toward the use of assistive technology. With the advent of miniature wireless tech, electronic gadgets have stepped up their invasion of the body, and our concept of what it means and even looks like to be human is wide open to debate. Humanity's specs are back on the drawing board, thanks to some unlikely designers, and the disabled have a serious advantage in this conversation. They've been using technology in collaborative, intimate ways for years - to move, to communicate, to interact with the world." says John Hockenberry in The Next Brainiacs in Wired Magazine.

"When you think disability, free yourself from the sob-story crap, all the oversize shrieking about people praying for miracles and walking again, or triumphing against the odds. Instead, think puppets. At a basic level, physical disability is really just a form of puppetry. If you've ever marveled at how someone can bring a smudged sock puppet to life or talked back to Elmo and Grover, then intellectually you're nearly there. Puppetry is the original brain-machine interface. It entertains because it shows you how this interface can be ported to different platforms."

Hockenberry focuses on physical issues in this article but what he is saying impacts all who function in ways different from the "mainstream norm." He continues, "Williams says it's impossible to evaluate any technology on function alone. For instance, he says the value of his ability to communicate is directly related to his mobility. "Someone recently asked me, 'If you were given a choice of having a voice or a power wheelchair, which would you choose?' This is a no-brainer for me. I would choose the power wheelchair. What would I do with only a voice - sit at home and talk to the TV? Another thing I wouldn't give up is my computer. With a computer and a modem I can get my thoughts, such as they are, out to the world."

"Frank DeRuyter says designers need to think in the broadest possible terms when they approach human-interface technology. "We're just beginning to realize the importance of integrating movement technology with communications tech. We see that a GPS device can powerfully increase the functionality of a communications board. When people roll their wheelchairs into a grocery store, the GPS will automatically change the board's stored phrases and icons into ones relevant to shopping. Shifting context as you move - that's what the brain does. Now we can do it, too."

'"It's certainly true that the general population has glommed onto some principles of assistive tech. Just roll down the street and observe the folks with wires dangling from their ears."'

The problem is that they have attached themselves only to personally-used technology, the false belief in meritocracy seems to prevent them from offering assistance to others. People assume that those who fight through things are always superior to those who use aids, no matter the frustration, the limitations, or the final result. Of course they make those assumptions while speaking into their Bluetooth cell-phone headset and writing emails with spellcheck in place on their computers.

Because empathy is so hard, because personal relationships are so important, I do not think we can make the breakthrough we need to until there is a critical mass of "people with disabilities" – all issues included, in all those universities and agencies that help generate educational policy and train teachers.

When Dr. D. Kim Reid brought up Disability Affirmative Action at the Disability Studies in Education Conference this May, I wasn't sure what to think. But recent conversations had led me to believe that we absolutely need to do this.

- Ira Socol

25 May 2006

It is not "just a tool"

"Technology is neither dangerous nor irrelevant. It is merely a tool and like all tools has limitations." writes "Pat" in response to my article [Stop Chasing Cheaters] on Inside Higher Ed. But saying that "technology is merely a tool" is to discount the obvious. Every technological change alters how humans perceive the world, and how they function within it. Education must keep up with those changes.

The technology of information and communication obviously creates these changes - the introduction of cave painting, of writing, of books, of photography, of recorded sound, of motion pictures - all fundamentally changed the context for human learning. The first time American students watched film of the Spanish-American War or British students film of the Boer War, the way students learned and understood current events changed forever. The fact that we can actually listen to Theodore Roosevelt speak but not Abraham Lincoln creates dramatic differences in how we might understand these men's political appeal and abilities. The introduction of mailed correspondence, of the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, all altered human communication patterns in vital ways, and thus learning. Technology is not just a tool. Speaking with someone via telephone is different than writing a letter or sending a telegram. Fundamentally different, engaging different centers of the brain. Just as reading a book is different than listening to a troubadour. It is definitely not "all the same."

But all technology alters world views. Before boats humans looked at the sea in one way. In the age of clipper ships they saw it another way, in the age of steam still another. Now that our students know they can fly across it or sail beneath it, it has an entirely different conceptual quality. Trains altered our understanding of distance, cars changed our idea of time and possibility, flight our whole understanding of the world, space flight our understanding of the universe.

The thing that has changed least since the 1870s is the structure of our educational system. Nothing else - not our homes, our kitchens, our conveyances, or science, our businesses, our family life, our leisure time, looks remotely similar to that ancient time, but our classrooms remain the same - students lined up before a teacher - books, paper, and pencils. Could it be time to change?

- Ira Socol
The debate at Inside Higher Ed is wonderful, as are most of the interactive conversations on that site - follow along...

23 May 2006

Disability Studies Conference 2006

It was good to feel "at home" for a few days. It was good to sit in conversations with scholars and educators who understand that studies of educational policy that produce numerical averages of improved "results" on a measure or two do not tell us anything about what educational practices do for individual children. It was good to hear people who understand that the divide between "special education" and "regular education" is typically a false and destructive one. It was good to listen to leaders like Kim Reid and Susan Peters and Deb Gallagher (among many others) who have been fighting for all students to be treated fairly and decently for years.

I spent last weekend at the 2006 Disability Studies in Education Conference held, conveniently for me, at Michigan State University. Disability Studies is not what Americans call "Special Education," it is much more than that. Disability Studies looks in depth at the way "disability" is "constructed" and defined by society (no one really knew they were "reading disabled" until everyone was told they needed to learn to read), and the role education plays in the re-inforcement and amelioration of that.

So at the conference everything from Universal Design for Learning Technology (me, yes) to the role of humor, to classroom discourse, to international comparisons, to how teacher education programs might be altered, to "No Child Left Behind," to the need for post-graduate affirmative action for students with learning disabilities, was discussed. It was powerful stuff, unfortunately far out of the mainstream at too many colleges and schools of education, who continue to view "people with disabilities" as a medical problem that needs to be cured.

A few key links...
Disability Studies Quarterly
The Society for Disability Studies
Disability Studies for Teachers (Syracuse University)
The Center for Disability Studies (University of Leeds)
Review of Disability Studies (International)

There was one lowpoint though. After seeing a brilliant film on the brutality of George W. Bush's educational policies, No Child Left Behind, by young teacher and film-maker Lerone Wilson, I asked the assembled group: "If we all know that this law is terrible, that it starts from the absurd assumption that all children develop at the exact same rate and punishes those who fail to be perfectly "normal," what is the responsibility of colleges of education to stand up and fight? Don't we have to actively protect the children?"

No one said anything in response, except to say that "people are afraid" in this political climate.

But on the way out nine people came up to me, slapped me on the shoulder and said, "good question. Did you notice no one answered you?"

I had noticed.

-Ira Socol

28 April 2006

Teachers and Technology 2: The SEN Component

If teachers don't imbed the culture's technology into the classroom, and if schools continue to resist the world of technology that surrounds us (see Teachers and Technology below), they will not do much damage to rich kids, or to perfect students, or maybe even to that traditional "top third" of the classroom. After all, if you eliminate music and art from schools wealthy parents will simply pay for lessons, and we all know that a certain percentage of kids will "get themselves educated" no matter what we do. So if schools don't use computers aggressively, and handhelds aggressively, and teach the power of the cell phone, the children of privilege will still get all the exposures they need through their parents and a percentage of students will still figure it all out by themselves, but those not in either of those groups will slip further and further behind. "Tracking" at its most vicious.

Technology is a leveler. Not strong enough to lift that weight? Use a winch or a lever. Not fit enough to walk ten miles to work every day? Drive your car. Memory not good enough to remember all your phone numbers and computer passwords? Write them down. Not enough time in your day to sweep your home and beat your rugs? Use a vacuum cleaner.

When a school or a teacher denies technology to students, they are limiting success to the few, the gifted, and the entitled. Saying a student can't use a calculator, or can't use a screen reader, or can't use a Pocket PC, or can't text in their answers by cell phone, or can't separate themselves from the commotion of the classroom via CD-player or mp3 player, or can't feel secure in having a phone that can call home in their pocket, or can't use on-line research tools, is discrimatory. None of this is any different than me telling members of the U.S. Congress that they can't use elevators, or that they must walk to work, because I think they'd be healthier if they got more exercise. And none of it is any different than telling a child who cannot walk that they can't use a wheelchair, because, "that is not the way we get around in the real world."

But there is a huge additional cost. Students who are not taught technology use will do significantly worse once out of "school" - assuming they don't have families that will make up the difference. Not teaching a student to effectively use Google (and Google Maps and Google Scholar) today is the same as not teaching the student where the library was 20 years ago. Not teaching students how to access podcasts denies them a vital information tool they will probably need in college. Not teaching them to use handhelds hurts them in thousands of employment possibilities from Wal-Mart on up. Not teaching them cellphone use and cellphone ettiquette is the same as not teaching writing skills. If your school is not doing these things they are in the front lines of pushing inequality and the concept of a permanent underclass - they are denying an education to those who need it most.

- still angry after all these years, Ira Socol

18 April 2006

Teachers and Technology

What about technology do teachers need to know? For the past year I've been working in various ways on this question, and, well yes, I have long lists of answers. But those long lists are about competencies, and what matters more - at the start - are attitudes. Teachers need to accept both the technologies and the responsibilities that they, as educators, have to the future - and their students' needs. If this happens then they may seek out the tech knowledge they need, or, at least, be much more receptive to it.

So, after years of listening to educators speak about technology, here are my "attitude adjustments."

First, educators need to stop thinking that "technology" is something separate from society and separate from their lives. After all, do we not describe human societies by their technology? We are different from ancient Greeks not in moral world-view or variations of government or even literature, but in how technology alters our interactions with, and perceptions of, the universe. Our technology is our world. To deny that is to deprive students of a key component of their education, and a whole vital set of life skills.

Second, teachers need to stop mourning old technologies. I am sorry, but catching the duck, pulling the feather, and cutting a perfect quill, need not be an essential part of the writing curriculum anymore. Nor does how to carefully unroll a sheepskin scroll need to be in the reading curriculum unless you are preparing children for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. And, we could probably drop the lessons on how to look things up in a library card catalogue, in how to operate a slide rule, and how to use correction fluid properly when typing. Also, morse code no longer needs to be a graduation requirement. Notice that everything in this paragraph is "a technology." They were introduced into education at one point in time in response to changes in the world, and they have disappeared in response to other changes. The world works this way.

And to combine those ideas, they must realize that new ways to do things are not either "better" or "worse" - because that is a debate we could have for a millenium without resolution - but simply different, and the way things work now. Bemoan the destruction of the scribes' art at the hands of Gutenberg all you want, but that is not an educationally valid reason to refuse to let your students read printed books.

Third, educators must accept responsibility for changing knowledge. They are professionals, underpaid certainly, but professionals in perhaps the most important human occupation. Imagine your doctor saying, "I don't believe in MRIs or CT Scans, we'll open you up and look around." Or, "You may think there are different effects of medicines on different people, but I really haven't read those things." You would run out the door. But teachers and school administrators say the equivalent things all the time. Imagine the 1970 teacher saying, "I don't use pens in my classroom, they run out of ink sometimes and children lose them." Or, "I know there are other reading books but I've stuck to McGuffey's Readers, they have always worked for me." You expect your phone not to depend on vacuum tubes anymore, and you like your airliner to use radar and automated landing signals, and you don't go out in the morning expecting to crank-start your car. Should students expect anything less?

Fourth, teachers must accept human differences. I realize that this is difficult for either American Republicans or New Labour in the UK, but different students need different things, and the best way to let that happen in a classroom (absent individual tutors) is technology. We need to fully understand that there are all kinds of different but effective ways to get information in, and get information out - not just "the authors intent" or "the old way." After all, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed before rowdy audiences of standing people who were talking, yelling, singing, sometimes throwing things - yet - and this is true - I have seen teachers have students read his plays! And you know what? Some students (not many in my experience, but some) really like it.

Fifth, get over it. "I don't allow pencils in my classroom, one student stabbed another with one once, and others write bad notes with them." "I don't allow books in my classroom, I had a student throw one once and another child was hurt. And last week a boy brought a book to class with bad words in it." "I won't let them use paper for math, it interferes with them memorizing their arithmetic facts." "I can't allow children to wear shoes in class, some students have more expensive shoes than others, and then jealousy starts." "I will not let students see each other in my classroom, I realized that some students were signalling to their friends." I have heard every one of these excuses from educators explaining why they can't let students use computers, or pocket PCs, or cell phones, or the internet, or calculators. And all they are, are excuses for faculty not willing to learn how to teach to, and for, a world different from the one they were born into.

- Ira Socol

17 April 2006

CSUN 2006/People to Watch

The disability rights movement often says - "Nothing about us, without us." That's a powerful thought. So often Special Education/SEN departments, in primary, secondary, university levels, and surely in teacher-training and educational research institutions, are the exclusive province of people who have never struggled themselves with these issues. I'd never suggest that "you must be dyslexic to work with dyslexics" (or anything like that), but imagine - if you will- a U.S. university with an all-white faculty for its African-American Studies department, teaching all-white classes. Surely a critical perspective would be missing. Those of us who see the issues first hand do have some essential things to say, and perhaps we can also improve the conduit for two-way communication that - for the first time - starts to get the voices of the "different" students up into the realm of educational decision-making.

For my last "CSUN 2006" post (the blog will continue, of course) I just wanted you to meet two brilliant people I met in Los Angeles. The world would describe both as "disabled" - but the world really needs to listen to both these gentlemen...

When I first began listening to Izac Milstein Ross in his presentation on Universal Design at the CSUN Conference I let myself hear him the way, I think, others often hear me - that is, as angry and excited and passionate but perhaps too far from the "real world" that teachers and schools are forced to occupy. But, then I realized, Izac and I aren't wrong, Izac and I are impatient and angry, and that is the way we should be.

Izac is a teenager growing up in a dyslexic and attention-challenged buzz who is smart enough to know exactly what he and others like him need. More than that, he knows what needs to be done to get schools to work for both kids like him and kids in general, and he has done the hard work of developing a framework that would make education fully accessible. That's beyond impressive for a man still in high school (a life-point at which I was just frustrated and angry).

Izac's framework - The E.D.U.C.A.T.E. Model: Effective Delivery of Universal Curricula via A.T. for k-12 Education - is a powerful work that could move us forward in very important ways. And he is a powerful speaker, who can really communicate both the needs and the potential.

He's headed to university next year. Don't lose track of him.

Ben Foss is one of those superstars of life (lawyer, MBA, Stanford grad, highly successful) who hasn't forgotten just how hard it was and hasn't left others behind. Ben has created the Initiative for Learning Identities a not-really-text-based advocacy and support organization for those with learning differences. This group creates videos and other multi-media approaches to describing the issues and defining solutions. Ben himself is one of those people whose passions flow when the conversation starts - he's a gigantic voice for the future of education of all of us who "don't quite fit" the mold schools want to pour us into.

- Ira Socol

10 April 2006

Mapping, and Speaking, Diversity

It is hard to get people to really accept and respect human diversity, and that is a huge issue for those of us with, and/or who work with, students with differences. But the world is full of differences, and maybe if our schools were better about teaching the breadth of that diversity, acceptance and respect would come more naturally to the classroom.

One thing that has always bothered me is our willingness to call other people's nations and cities by names we choose, instead of the names they choose. There are no countries called "Germany," or "Spain," or "Hungary," or "Finland," or "China." No one travels to "Vienna," or "Rome," or "Munich." These are just English names, and teaching them to our children "in isolation" encourages a "one correct way" vision of the world, that not only interferes with heir future in the world but probably backfires badly on our students with differences and disabilities.

There are, thanks to technology, solutions for this. Here's a world name list, and most Wikipedia entries are great, often including sound clips. My little contribution is now available at Wayfaring

It is an attempt to give classroom teachers the ability to show students how the people of the world name themselves. The idea is to collect "native names" - offer pronunciation guides, and even link to "in language" radio stations. Click on a few waypoints to see. Send me information on a country if you'd like to help me add on, or if you want to correct or expand anything.
socolira "at" msu.edu

-Ira Socol

06 April 2006

CSUN 2006/More Keyboard Alternatives

We keep moving further and further away from the need, or even the desire, to waste any huge amount of a child's time teaching them touch-typing on a QWERTY keyboard. There are so many other options, and if we learn how to offer choices to students - from the cell-phone touchpad and on up - they just may find the solution most comfortable for themselves.

I keep coming across the "statistic" that only 25% to 30% of Americans are actually "touch-typists" and though I can't find where the figure comes from, since it pretty closely tracks the percentage of United States students who read proficiently or do math proficiently (from 30 years of NAEP scores), this seems like one more example of a situation where we might as well try something different because what we are doing could hardly be worse.

Whatever. There are literally thousands of possibilities, here are a few...

The FrogPad: FrogPad comes in both wired and Bluetooth forms - thus allowing text entry into virtually any electronic device. "The iFrog has 20 full-size keys in a space less than 4 x 6 inches. 15 keys are for entering letters, numbers, and symbols and the remaining five for shift and control functions. Alternate characters are entered by pressing the Space or Number key together with one of the 15 letter keys. The Number key by itself puts the iFrog into a numeric keypad mode while the Symbol key provides access to the two symbols on the right side of each letter key.

"According to FrogPad, the iFrog has been designed for fast data entry. The letter layout is based on the percent usage of each letter in the English language. Fifteen letters that are used 86 percent of the time by typists are placed in the most efficient locations on the keyboard. Overall layout uses the natural drumming motion of the hand to further optimize performance and enables international scalability for other languages.

"FrogPad claims that the iFrog's ergonomic design significantly shortens learning time compared with the traditional QWERTY layout. University studies indicate new users can reach 40 words per minute in 10 hours versus the 56 needed with QWERTY. Both right- and left-handed versions are available." FrogPad for the disabled. Frogpad for educators.

The Half-Keyboard: This can work for many different types of users, including those with limited or no use of one hand, or those who need to keep one hand consistently on a mouse or drawing tool. The system works via a simple "right-left reflection" method. If you use the left-handed version, the left hand keys are just as they are on a QWERTY keyboard, but if you hold the space bar down while typing a letter, it produces the equivalent letter from the right side of the keyboard (vise-versa with the right-hand model). It is very easy to learn. The manufacturer says, "Type while talking on the phone. Easier text editing – Scroll, select text, type corrections, or make deletions, without moving your hand back and forth between keyboard and mouse. Hold documents in one hand and type them in with the other hand. Users of Desktop Publishing, CAD, Photoshop and other graphics software can change tools and issue commands on the Half Keyboard, without taking their hand off the mouse or stylus. One hand incapacitated? Type with the other! A Half Keyboard is ideal for someone with a hand injury or disability." I have seen this layout work very well.

Programmable Solutions: Another choice is to start with a blank slate and set up the keys the way you want to. This allows the creation of all kinds of quick-keys to support those with disabilities. There are fully programmable keyboards and there are the "blank" X-Keys Desktops, available in 20 Key, 58 Key, 84 Key, 128 Key, and 16 Key (a long "stick") versions (20, 58, 16 key versions available from EnableMart). The X-Keys system can replace a regular keyboard or add to it, offering many dramatic fast-touch solutions to boost typing and other communication. It is an easy system to gety set, and to alter, and even comes with easy-to-use templates for creating the key labels.

Happy April Holidays to all, whether it is Easter, Passover, Buddha's Birthday, Mohammed's Birthday, Songkran, the Easter Rising 90th, or Dia de Liberdad - Ira Socol

04 April 2006

CSUN 2006/Live Captioning-Notetaking

How to keep track of what goes on in a class? Does taking notes help? Would a bi-sensory approach work best? How best to help hearing impaired students? or students for whom notetaking is difficult? or students for whom the physical act of writing - or even typing - is all-consuming ("if I concentrate on my writing I no longer hear the instructor well...")?

We could design individual solutions, from personal notetaking assistants to sign-language interpretors to attempts to simplify keyboards via quick-key-combinations or "chords," or, we can look for Universal Design solutions.

Three technologies offer great possibilities:
1. Live Captioning of the class for everyone via "echo-captioners."
2. The IBM Liberated Learning concept, using instructor voice training.
3. The classroom notetaker utilizing Microsoft's OneNote software.

You might want to start by looking at The Case for Real-Time Captioning in the Classroom by Carnegie-Mellon's Aaron Steinfield... "However, one finding from my first experiment (Steinfeld, 1998) provided clear reinforcement... A 9.8 percent increase in recall accuracy was seen from a traditional presentation (the speaker's face and voice only) to the RTC [Real Time Captioning] conditions for the hearing subjects. The decrease in perception difficulty was clearly beneficial to the students who were deaf, with a 149.6 percent accuracy increase from the traditional condition to the RTC conditions. The real world impact of these results is that providing captions will clearly help deaf students. Furthermore, captions will also assist their hearing classmates. This is especially true for rooms with poor acoustics where hearing students have perception difficulties similar to their deaf and hard-of-hearing counterparts due to the environment."

Liberated Learning is a brilliant idea with some key difficulties. The promise is all-time, automatic access to captioned course content via instructors who were wireless microphones feeding into a high-end version of ViaVoice that adds grammar content. The text is then fed to a projector which both puts the text up on a wall behind the lecturer and makes a digital transcript available to all students immediately after class. I have actually utilized wireless mics and ViaVoice Pro-USB 10 feeding directly to the laptop computers of hearing impaired students, but without the addition of grammar (periods, commas, etc) this is difficult and only appropriate for the most committed students. The system also fails in highly interactive classrooms where many voices are heard. There is also the issue of lecturer willingness to properly train their voice, which, lacking an overall institutional commitment, is "uneven." Still Liberated Learning is "the future," and those of us on "the technology" side need to keep pursuing this goal.

Echo Captioning is an easier to apply strategy. With this method a "voice captioner" sits in the classroom linked by a mask microphone to a Voice-to-Text equipped computer. The captioner repeats everything that is said, by both instructor and students, with appropriate grammatical marks. The resulting text can then be either directed to individual laptops, or can be projected as above, and again, made available as a digital transcript after class. Ultech displayed a simple, relatively inexpensive system for this at CSUN, called Caption Mic Classroom. Though the voice captioners need training and need to train the software, this system does away with the need for lecturer voice training and complex classroom mic set-ups.

OneNote Notetaking is another choice. I tend to call OneNote, Word Liberated, because like it is Microsoft Word freed from its origins in typewriting. OneNote has many advantages over both hand-written notes and notes typed into MS Word. It can provide accuracy not typical of handwriting, it can be re-arranged later, based on increased understandings, it can be combined with digital text and read back by text-to-speech software. It can also accept handwriting, sound clips, diagrams, etc. A classroom notetaker provided for hearing impaired, physically impaired, or learning difficulty students should not be quipped with antiquated technology like carbonless duplication paper or even asked to copy his or her notes. They should be equipped with OneNote on a tablet PC. And if the notes exist for any students, why shouldn't they be made available after class to all students? After all, are we teaching content or the art of notetaking?

Reinforcing lecture and discussion content is an essential part of education. Captioning, Class Notetaking, and transcript/notes availability can all be an effective part of this, and technology makes it all much easier.

Waiting for spring in North America's Midwest -Ira Socol

01 April 2006

CSUN 2006/SQR3 and Literacy Software

How do you use literacy software in the classroom? As I've said in previous posts I think this type of software can do some remarkable things, including increasing "read to time," allowing access to cognitively-appropriate information even when skills are low, and supporting sight word recognition (the important value of word-highlighting). But like everything else, the best uses come when the uses of these packages are tied to instructional methods.

This is especially important with older students. When I meet with students exiting secondary education I can always tell if they came to decoding "late." They can read, but they have no strategies for handling content. They are weak on understanding what sentences are, what paragraphs do, and have not developed real reading strategies. This is because these skills are usually taught in primary schools - secondary schools concentrate on more advanced skills. So when an older student begins to use literacy software as an accommodation, we need to help those students do all that eight-year-old to ten-year-old work on managing the information they get from texts.

SQR3 is one method of building comprehension skills. It is a method that audio books could simply never support, because it requires students to move back and forth through the text multiple times, and because it works best with extensive notetaking and highlighting. All of this is impossible with a book-on-tape (or CD), but easy with WYNN or Kurzweil 3000.

SQR3 - Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review works this way when combined with high-level scan-and-read software...

Survey the chapter. Check through it, looking at headings and paragraph topic sentences (here it really helps to use the secondary highlighting of the sentence being read, and the easy click and read interface). Read the introduction to the chapter. Skim questions, key words and summaries at the end of the chapter. All this helps to create a context for remembering information.

Create and answer questions. For each section in the chapter, ask these 4 basic questions: 1. What is the main point? 2. What evidence supports the main point? 3. What are the applications or examples? 4. How is this related to the rest of the chapter, the book, the world, to me? Here's
where the notetaking and highlighting features in this software work perfectly. You might even start by having students create notes with these questions at every paragraph if the subject seems particularly hard for the reader. And, of course, they can use spoken "Voice Notes" to do this, typing is not required.

Read the section
Read the section actively. Search for the answers to your questions. Answer the questions with a new set of notes, and perhaps, highlights in a different color.
Recite the main points
Verbalize the answers to your questions using Voice Notes. You may also have students verbally summarize paragraphs or sections. This builds memory. Have the students then play back their voice notes to hear themselves.

Go back re-listen to your notes, and anything that you've highlighted. With WYNN or Kurzweil a student can do this again and again.

Notice all the built in supports. Unlike audiobooks (or school property textbooks for that matter), the student can highlight and make notes "in the margins" to their hearts content, and can even get rid of extraneous notes easily if their understanding of the chapter changes.

And, in addition to being a primary reading tool, WYNN or Kurzweil becomes a long-term study tool, and it is a tool that the teacher can easily check the use of.

Thanks to Renee Clark of FreedomScientific, the company responsible for WYNN, who ran a CSUN Conference Session on this topic. -Ira Socol

28 March 2006

CSUN 2006/Cyrano

The Cyrano Communicator is one of the new AAC devices based in the Pocket PC. The Pocket PC (Microsoft Windows based PDAs) offers a dramatic change and upgrade for those dependent on assistive speech. They are no longer tied to large, limited function communication boards, nor are they tied to big, heavy laptop computers. The carry anywhere, highly powerful, wireless and bluetooth equipped Pocket PCs weigh just 6 ounces.

The Cyrano has some especially nice features. The built in camera allows you to easily build multi-level photo menus for speech, and for text input there are four options:
"Keyboard Input- This is a conventional keyboard displayed on the screen. The keys are small, and the method is slow, but it is easy to learn and very accurate.
Transcriber- The Transcriber is the most natural of the four input methods. Just write your words anywhere on the screen using any combination of cursive and block letters. The program translates your writing into letters in the text box. This method is fast and easy to use, but not very accurate. If your handwriting is neat, this may be a good option for you. The computer can learn your writing style after a while, so prediction becomes better with use.
Block Recognizer- Block Recognizer is similar to the interface used on Palm™ machines. Short keystrokes, called “graffiti” style of writing, produce letters."
... or you can connect a bluetooth keyboard. Giving you plenty of ways to get thoughts in, and thus out, and because of Cyrano Shorthand - a great little abbreviation utility, building complex messages out of three and four letter combinations is easy.

Cyrano comes with five voice personalities - 2 American men, and a British man, a British woman, and an American woman, and comes fully loaded with software for about $1200 (US). Options include SD Memory cards - available anywhere, the above-mentioned Bluetooth keyboard, and an incredible waterproof tough-case (built originally for surveyors) that's just a hundred bucks.

- Ira Socol

27 March 2006

CSUN 2006/Tango - New in AAC

My sister told me this story: Years ago, during a "new mother break" from teaching, she was working in a lawyer's office and received a phone call that began with a computer voice saying, "Please do not hang up - this is not a joke - I am communicating with a speech synthesizer..." Ah, yes, the absolute frustration of not being understood, not having your thoughts and emotions taken seriously, a disaster across the full range of cognitive capabilities...

This year the CSUN conference had many wonderful Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices, especially excellent Pocket PC-based systems that I will get to in a few days, but one device just stood out - especially for elementary/primary educators - the new Tango from Ablenet.

Tango is a beautifully designed device that even those with significant dexterity issues could easily carry with them everywhere. It has brought the simple connectivity of contemporary handhelds (auto-detecting switch ports, USB-ports, memory-card slots, built in camera) to this type of device. It has a wonderfully brilliant interface that allows users to get to the communications they need quickly and easily. And best of all, it features "voice-morphing," which, among many other capabilities, allows the user to speak in "their regular voice," or to whisper, shout, or even whine.

Yes, your ten-year-old can now complain, "I'm soooo bored," in the appropriate voice.

Tango appears to be truly liberating technology. The range of capabilities will really enhance the user's communication - and learning. The simplicity of how it works, how new content gets loaded, the ability to record, say, a female voice and morph it into a male one (or vise-versa, for appropriateness), the simplicity of taking pictures and installing them ("No, I want the Arsenal away shirt."), and the connectivity systems will make life much easier for educators.

Check this one out. They promise that starting sometime today, 27 March 2006, they will have a simulator up on their web site.

back in cold Michigan - Ira Socol

25 March 2006

CSUN 2006/Reading... Universal Access

There are so many really wonderful ways to provide literacy support to those with "print disabilities," and they each have a range of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to matching these software products up with specific students. But I'd class this group of solutions into two categories, first, those best used as universal design solutions, and second, those with the most powerful study skill and set-up options for students who need the highest levels of support.

That latter group includes Freedom Scientific's WYNN 4 and Kurzweil 3000, and those will be the topic of the next blog. This one is devoted to what I might call the "UDL class," although the first one here comes very, very close to crossing over between categories.

First though, I need to address a huge issue in this area of Assistive Technology. This is the negative impact of the "solutions" from Premier Assistive Technology. All through the conference I've heard complaints about how this is being "sold" (almost given away) to schools. How it simply doesn't work. How it both gives AT and digital literacy support a bad name while giving school administrators an excuse to not really make their schools accessible. Students report that it does not work. Teachers report incredible frustration. Trainers report that it is often hard to get teachers or students to try anything else after struggling with it. Steve Timmer, who founded Premier, is a nice guy, but he is doing some real damage to this field.

OK, enough of the negative. Here's the positive. Let's start with Text-Help's Read-and-Write-Gold v.8. This is an extraordinary literacy support suite that runs, primarily, as a tool-bar allowing you to read in other applications. Because of this, because it does not change "the look" of the computer screen, it seems easier to teach students to use. It is not quite as "robust" a literacy-in-education tool as WYNN and Kurzweil (a brilliant young man that met here, Izac Milstein Ross, notes that it lacks the true study supports of the others), but it might be the best UDL solution to ever appear. Not only does it work consistently and cleanly (great code writing), but imbedded with it are a "fact mapper" (like Inspiration), a great scientific calculator, voice-to-text capabilities, and much, much more. All in one package that costs less than either WYNN or Dragon alone (much less Kurzweil). There is also a test-maker for teachers and great pdf reading capabilities.

A really nice feature is the ability of the teacher to create "user groups" with specific features (supports) in use or not. There is also - as in WYNN and Kurzweil - the ability to convert the text directly into mp3 files (or other audio formats) and transfer this directly to CD or iPod. And there's a unique thesaurus structure called Word Finder. I could really see this applied to every computer in a school, and open to every student - without diagnosis. It is a set of solutions that perhaps 70% - 80% of students would find useful at one point or another. Read-and-Write Gold is a UK invention (from near Belfast), and has achieved a great deal of acceptance in Europe, from primary through university. In the U.S., Kentucky has chosen it as their primary state literacy support and testing solution.

Another low training solution is Plustek Book Reader. Plustek isn't a "total" solution - it has none of the "bells and whistles" of WYNN, Kurzweil, or Read-and-Write, and won't help you with math or science type books, but it is an inexpensive text-to-speech reader that comes with a great, fast scanner that doesn't make you "press-down" to get properly scanned text. "SEE (Shadow Elimination Element) Technology, for any book can be placed completely flat against the scanning glass and will result in a perfect scan with no book spine shadow or distorted lines of text." - This really is a "throw the book in" and start reading option, that has excellent low-vision applications and that could help in literacy.

Then there is ClaroRead. ClaroRead, ClaroConcepts, and WordRead are all elegant text-to-speech solutions, but they lack the kind of word and sentence highlighting that helps students learn. But they are inexpensive and stunningly easy to use. If price is your only consideration, and your staff won't convert documents into the free Microsoft Reader, then this would surely beat anything from Premier.

None of this is to suggest that Microsoft Reader and Firefox FoxyVoice (or the more complex FireVox) should not also be on every computer in your school. They are 100% free, and not having them really means that your school isn't trying.

As promised, I'll look at WYNN and Kurzweil, and how they are being used in "best practices" as soon as I can.

from Los Angeles where the beach - at Manhattan Beach - was just lovely today... Ira Socol