29 January 2006


I often ask "in-service" teachers two questions about the keyboard we all seem to use... "Why are the keys arranged the way they are?" and "Which letters are not on the keyboard?"

Getting information into a recorded, reproducible form is important in education. And in the typical school classroom we spend a great deal of time working on a very limited, and perhaps very antiquated set of ways of doing this. We teach "writing" with pencils and pens, both "printing" and "cursive" ("handwriting"). We teach keyboarding on, yes, a key arrangement devised in the 1870s to make it easy to type the word "typewriter."

"...keyboards had settled on the so-called QWERTY system. Q, W, E, R, T, and Y - QWERTY - are still the first six letters on the top row of your keyboard. Stephen Jay Gould, reigning expert on Darwinian selection, asks how in the name of sense we let keyboards evolve that way.

By 1880 the QWERTY arrangement had been around for a decade. Most of the 5000 typewriters in use had that familiar keyboard, awkward as it is. But no matter! No one had learned to type yet.

There was no method. And when we all used hunt and peck, QWERTY had one advantage. Remember what happened when you hit two keys at once on an old manual typewriter? They tangled and jammed. You had to reach in and pull them apart. The QWERTY system reduced jams by slowing you down. It was harder to pile key strokes on top of each other.

But not even that was intentional. In 1867 a typewriter pioneer first set up the QWERTY arrangement so his salesman could peck out the word typewriter quickly and easily. The letters that spell typewriter all lie on the top row. Just think! That's the logic that shaped your computer keyboard.

After 1880 businesses saw how useful typewriters could be. Sales rose. Then a Cincinnati business-school teacher invented our eight-fingered method of typing. She hadn't yet thought of memorizing the keyboard. But a student of hers had. He entered a speed contest in 1888 and trounced a competing keyboard.

Never mind that eight-fingered touch-typing could be a lot faster with a better keyboard. QWERTY won in 1888, and we still use it. Never mind that the much-used letter A sits under your weakest finger. Never mind that the most-used letter E is off the home row. QWERTY survives because it won a contest a century ago."- Gould, S.J., The Panda's Thumb of Technology. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, Chapter 4.

Should we be doing better? Of course. There is nothing wrong with learning the arts of printing and writing, though, outside of schools and the rare book rooms of research libraries the handwritten note is primarily used for telephone messages, greeting cards, and grafitti in today's "western world." And there's surely nothing wrong with teaching efficient methods of getting information into a computer, but the key words should be "efficient" and "flexible."

How do we type? In many ways these days. We can dictate to our computers (ViaVoice, Dragon, even within WindowsXP). We type with traditional keyboards. We type with a stylus on our PDAs and PocketPCs. We type with one or two fingers on mini keyboards on our phones and Blackberry devices. We type with word prediction on our mobile phone keypads. There is no longer one method or system.

Instead of forcing the eight finger QWERTY "touch-typing" system, perhaps we should be seeking comfort. In today's operating systems switching keyboards is easy, and with USB connections it is also easy to have multiple keboards plugged into one computer. Many students with language issues do better with ABC Keyboards or the Dvorak arrangement (which can achieved through hardware or with a software switch and key labels). If there are physical limitations the one-handed Dvorak layouts often prove more effective, as do On-Screen keyboards, which can easily be run with a joystick or a switch. There are BigKeys keyboards for those with dexterity difficulties, and dozens of shapes and sizes.

Let your students try options. Getting information into recorded form might just get a great deal easier.

Oh, yeah. What letters are not on the keyboard? Lower Case Letters. This may sound like, "oh, duh," but many students with "dyslexia" have real problems connecting the upper and lower case letter forms. You can get "dual labeled" Key Labels to fix this. You can also use Click-N-Type's on-screen keyboard, which can be set to switch letterforms when the shift key is "pressed."

Anyway - Happy "Typing."

26 January 2006

Distributed Knowledge and SEN

"Every kid will choose to be good at something, you can help decide if that thing is a negative or a positive." I say that a lot. I really do think that it is true. If what I can "be good at" is being a jerk in class, than I'll be the biggest jerk possible, but if that's just one choice, if I can also be good at, say, playing the midfield in football or playing the trumpet or telling stories or - hey - maybe finding things on-line, and I can get some in-classroom validation for that, then maybe, just maybe, I'll pick one of those other things to work on.

Here's where distributed knowledge systems - wikis, mash-ups, community blogs, and others, can really change life for LD and EBD students.

I think teachers - and certainly administrators - often panic at the thought of letting "troubled" youngsters and adolescents have access to these kinds of technologies, and, yes, I'm certain problems will occur, but I think the advantages far outweigh the issues, and as in everything else in education, the right kind of supervision can work wonders (like one teacher who recently told me that her emotionally troubled students were not welcome in the school's computer lab because they'd tie the cords around each others' throats - I was about to suggest wireless technology but then decided to simply say, "you know, you can throw books too.")

Using these technologies in combination with "built-in" assistive tech systems (such as Firefox/FoxyVoice) means that students who struggle in both "learning areas" and with "attention issues" and with controlling their own behaviors in uncomfortable environments, can perform real research, do real school-work, and prove their knowledge skills to their peers, in an open and comfortable setting.

Recently I started a "wayfaring map" and watched the activities that have gone into building it with others. There are history lessons, and web use lessons, geography lessons, even language lessons - we didn't even touch on the math possibilities yet. Really, really fascinating...

24 January 2006

Reading Evaluation with Reader

In the search for methods of evaluating whether digital text reading is likely to be the right match for a student, I have started to use the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reading samples on both paper and in Microsoft Reader to see the intial impact of the dual-input effect.

I have fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade reading tests on both paper and converted into e-book format, and ask students to work through one set of reading/questions on paper and another using Reader (including typing the answers into Reader's "text note" function).

The results show me a couple of things. First, it's an evaluation of reading against a real standard. Second, the difference between performance on comprehension issues between "ink and paper" reading and digital reading truly illuminates the issues of decoding, because the student is, in both cases working completely on their own.

Though poor readers will probably not have the comprehension skills (honed by practice) to do "much better than expected" when using the digital reader, improvement in the scores does indicate that they are likely to be able to take advantage of what digital reading offers.

The NAEP tests are available here. Microsoft Reader is free but you need to download three parts: The Reader software itself, the Text-to-Speech engine, and the "RMR" Word Conversion tool.

And here's the University of Virginia's e-book library.

17 January 2006

The Next Computers

If text-to-speech and voice-to-text and all sorts of other things computers can do for people with disabilities are to really become easy, computers need to become tough, cheap, and light - and probably small. New systems like current Pocket PCs running new Windows Mobile have a lot of potential, but they remain fairly expensive and somewhat limited. (Voice Command has arrived though) But new things are arriving.

Of course there is MIT's $100 laptop project, heading into production later this year. I've tried to contact their development team about accessibility systems on these computers but, they're "MIT" ya' know, and can't be bothered answering emails from other researchers, so I don't even know if they've considered these questions. But for all those stuck thinking LeapPad is important because it's cheap, or still sweating AlphaSmarts, well, this may change everything.

The other solution is just going "very small." Here's a Sony laptop really only sold in Japan. Less than two pounds, smaller than the Lord of the Rings DVD Boxed Set, and a full-featured portable computer that could easily run WYNN and ViaVoice for example. Typical of Sony, this is heavily overpriced, but someone will copy it soon enough.

The idea is to conquer the barriers. I already send plenty of students out with "cheap" laptop computers (rebuilt used ones) linked to Canon's LiDE USB-powered scanners (which I call "backpackable" and require no A/C power) so they can digitize their own text and have WYNN read it to them, but these new systems start to solve many issues for both school and workplaces.

16 January 2006

Universal Design Tool: Google Maps/Google Earth

A seven-year-old wants to "dig a hole to China." Show her exactly where she'd come out: (if this link doesn't give you the map, paste the address into your browser window) http://grad.icmc.usp.br/~cipriani/bighole.php . Watch rapid transit lines run and figure out the schedules (and maybe even things like average speed): http://www.mackers.com/projects/dartmaps/ . Teach urban navigation: http://nycsubway.eyebeamresearch.org/?DIM=400. Have students write stories that take place in distant cities using maps and satellite images. And do it all in a fascinating, attention-holding, accessible environment that's free once you have a broadband connection.

Google Maps (on-line for US, UK/IE, China, Canada, Japan, etc) and Google Earth (a free download) offer you all sorts of ways to involve students in personalizable education. (And imagine what these could be like on an interactive white board...) And the new "mash-up" craze of building Google Map overlays (like those above) gives you pre-created access to all kinds of expanded ideas. See http://googlemapsmania.blogspot.com/ for a blog devoted to this.

Oh, and tired of thinking about education? Find the nearest pub via http://beermapping.com/us-brewery-map/

Post any links in your comments, let's expand this as a resource...

12 January 2006


Still not using FoxyVoice with students who have print literacy problems? What's the problem?

FoxyVoice is free and incredibly simple. Highlight any text in the Firefox browser, click on a smiley face in the lower right hand corner of the window, and the text is read aloud. So, it can read your email, your websites, the newspapers on-line, everything that's accessible internet text.

To use FoxyVoice you need the Firefox version 1.0.7 browser (the new version 1.5 is not yet compatible). Once Firefox is installed and open, go to FoxyVoice and click on "Install Now." Once the install is completed, you'll need to shut down Firefox and restart it, then FoxyVoice will be working.

and just for fun you might want to add in gtranslate for Firefox as well, it provides "right click" language translation for highlighted text for English to German / German to English, English to Spanish / Spanish to English, English to French / French to English, English to Italian / Italian to English, English to Portuguese / Portuguese to English, English to Japanese / Japanese to English, English to Korean / Korean to English, English to Chinese (Simplified) / Chinese (Simplified) to English, German to French / French to German

(both PC-Only)

10 January 2006

How to tell the stories....

I've often thought that I needed people going into the field of Special Education to read Peter Hoeg's Borderliners first, because despite all the studies or textbooks you might read, perhaps you first need to hear about this part of human experience from the inside. Other bits of literature I find really important include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Tim Burton's film Edward Scissorhands, and, on a slightly more academic note, Learning Disabilities and Life Stories by Rodis, Garrod, and Boscardin.

Why is storytelling essential? At the risk of offending, I've always thought that those in Special Education, teachers, administrators, and academics, are much better at sympathy than empathy, and that training empathy is something extremely difficult.

Any thoughts? Any other recommendations?