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.