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

24 March 2006

CSUN 2006/Eye Gaze

A new system called "ERICA" may have finally broken through many of the barriers that interfered with adoption and successful use of "eye-gaze" "eye-tracking" as computer control. I literally spent less than 30-seconds prepping the system before I could start to type successfully, and it only took that long because I'm not good at keeping my head still (eye-gaze and ADHD may never go together).

All you do to set this up is to aim the firewire camera, and look at five spots on the screen. One for focus, then four corners (much like touching the four points on an Interactive White Board). And then you're off and running.

The system is built on a tablet PC, so full touch-screen capabilities are built in, making it perfect for ALS, for other degenerative issues, or simply because "you might have good or bad days."

This level of technology was way over $20,000 (US) just a few years ago. Now it's about $7,000 (US) complete.

from Los Angeles - Ira Socol

CSUN 2006/Illinois and Web Accessibility

As a Michigan State guy maybe I shouldn't be promoting Big Ten rival University of Illinois, but these folks are working on important inventions in improving web accessibility.

This is a huge issue. Despite all the laws, most U.S. educational web sites (educational web sites!) remain really difficult for disabled students (and parents) to use.

I've done accessible web training, and it is difficult and time consuming, and faces unfortunate resistance from self-taught web designers, but UIUC has worked on some solutions.

First, an Accessible Web Publishing Wizard for Microsoft Office (not free, but very cheap) that automates accessible document conversion. There is also the Web Accessibility Visualizer which gives you "see it now" feedback on accessibility errors in html instead of just the line-by-line code of more familiar tools like "Bobby." Finally their Accessibility Extension for Mozilla/Firefox offers wonderful capabilities for web developers interested in reaching everyone, without disability discrimination.

from Los Angeles - Ira Socol

23 March 2006

CSUN 2006/Speech Recognition

I'm a big fan, and long time user of Speech Recognition - Voice-to-Text technology. I've never liked Dragon much, generally finding it hard to train, unforgiving of vocal variation, clunky in interface, and too expensive - but all that said, I know that there are huge fans out there. I do use ViaVoice very successfully, and have used it with second-graders, tbi clients, people struggling with ms, and many, many other difficult situations (I use the Pro-USB 10 version). I'v also had some luck with the speech recognition software included in Windows XP, though this hardly is the solution for everyone.

Wednesday at CSUN I saw two new exciting options. One, SpeakQ, from Quillsoft, which makes the word prediction software WordQ looks like something you need in your "toolbox." It is not just simple, the youngest child could master it, but it is the first of these software packages to allow a non-reader or very weak reader to train themselves - without a whispering helper or a tape recorder. The software simply says, "say this," and the user repeats the phrase. Brilliant! SpeakQ is an add-on to WordQ, and costs more than ViaVoice (though still half what Dragon costs) when purchased together, but it's a lot of tool for $350. (US)

I also saw a preview of the accessibility features in the new Microsoft Vista operating system. This needs to become the standard for schools and governments - many which still use the Windows 2000 system, a very poor choice for those with access issues. In Vista, the magnifier is a little better, the on-screen keyboard the same, but it is much easier to get to the Access Control Panel (which is now a part of set up), and which even contains a series of questions that will lead users to the best choices in accessibility solutions. The Narrator (screen reader) will now allow any SAPI-compatible voice to be attached, so text-to-speech output quality will be improved.

The biggest change is in the Speech Recognition/Voice Command program that is built in. This has been improved dramatically, and now features a brilliantly simple interface: "There are two major types of commands you can use with Speech Recognition: ‘Say what you see,’ and ‘Click what you see’. In addition, for times these commands might not work, like if you don’t know the name of a certain toolbar button, you can say ‘Show numbers.’ Numbers will then appear over everything on the screen and you can say those numbers to click the object under them." Look at this report, download the pre-release user guide here. Look at the speech commands here.

And one last solution... A company called Talk Technologies is selling "Voice Sylencer," a microphone that will allow voice-to-text users to operate their systems in noisy, and non-private environments. It is "soundproof" microphone you can speak into in office cubicles, in classrooms, perhaps on trains and planes, and may solve the "you can't take notes with this" issue in voice-to-text. It also has great possibilities for "echoing captioners" working in classrooms and meetings (more on that technology soon). (less than $200 US for the USB mic system).

from sunny Los Angeles... Ira Socol

07 March 2006

ICT and Primary Literacy

I recently presented on Primary Literacy and ICT at the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demonstrating assistive technology systems and discussing how technology can impact literacy throughout the school experience. Here's an excerpt. - Ira Socol

How can technology help?

With simple personal computer based solutions teachers can use technology to increase "read-to" time, allow students to work with sophisticated stories that might hold their interest, engage them more actively in the world of books, and improve student access to informational text and thus content learning. Technology can also provide skill-building support for phonological awareness, word shape recognition, and the understanding of how sounds in English translate into English spelling.

The classroom computer, properly equipped can "multiply" the teacher, by providing "non-staffed" support in these situations.

What types of technology will help?

Technology can dramatically increase "read-to" time: WYNN, TextHelp Read and Write Gold, Microsoft Reader, Kurzweil 3000, all allow a book to be read to students. The student sees and hears the specific word as it is read (the word is highlighted, in WYNN and Kurzweil the sentence can also be "sub-highlighted"). This reinforces reading skills just like "mom" sitting with the child and reading to them. Any book can be scanned in to WYNN or Kurzweil (complete with illustrations), any Word document can be converted into Microsoft Reader – a more limited, but wonderfully effective and completely free software package.

Technology can enhance the connection between word shape and word sound: WYNN, TextHelp Read and Write Gold, Microsoft Reader, Kurzweil 3000, by linking the word's shape-image to its sound builds this essential reading skill and allows dramatic improvements in new vocabulary acquisition. WYNN, and to a slightly lesser extent Kurzweil, also add in dictionaries, thesauruses, and other grammatical tools.

Technology can offer direct confirmation of the connection between sounds and spelling in English: ViaVoice, an IBM voice-to-text solution, allows a student with low phonological skills to dictate to the computer and watch the words appear. Thus, saying a word will reveal its spelling. The software does require unique voice training for every student, but may offer the possibility of dramatically improving language understanding.

Technology can offer content, information-reading, access to non-readers, pre-readers, and weak readers: WYNN, TextHelp Read and Write Gold, Microsoft Reader, Kurzweil 3000, all provide students with book reading possibilities that might otherwise be out-of-reach. This can allow students to not just keep up with content-area learning, but to investigate informational texts that match up with the student's unique interests.

Technology can offer sophisticated story access to non-readers, pre-readers, and weak readers: WYNN, TextHelp Read and Write Gold, Microsoft Reader, Kurzweil 3000, allow student reading groupings based in affinity instead of specific reading capabilities. This also allows students to work on comprehension issues as they work on decoding issues.

Technology can offer full web access to non-readers, pre-readers, and weak readers: WYNN, FoxyVoice (in the Firefox browser), and other tools allow students to engage in web research and web-based communication at levels equal to their classmates with stronger reading skills.

Technology can provide testing accommodations: WYNN's Test Talker can read tests and record student answers. WYNN itself, through it's notetaking component can do the same. So can TextHelp Read and Write Gold. Even Microsoft Reader can, if tests are converted from Word, allow notes to be added, thus providing testing possibilities (though Reader cannot accept spoken answers the way WYNN and Test Talker can).