10 July 2012

The Freedom Stick - be ready for Universal Design next academic year

Special thanks to the Special Education Advisor web site (a fantastic resource) where this post originally appeared, and where you can download the newest version of the MITS Freedom Stick - the freely available, go anywhere, use anywhere Universal Design software suite.

It is time for Universal Design for Learning to be put in the hands of every student. It is time for every student to be given the opportunity to discover and experiment with a range of tools which can support their own individual differing communication needs – not just in school, but throughout their lives. 

Schools, traditionally, have provided students one way to do things. If the class was supposed to read something, everyone had the same technology – paper with alphabetical symbols printed on it which students needed to “decode.” If the class was supposed to write, everyone had the same technology – usually a pencil or a pen used to create alphabetical symbols on paper. If the class was supposed to get “organized,” everyone had the same technology – an “assignment book” or perhaps the infamous “middle school planner.” 

If students could not function well with that “one way” they either failed, or were diagnosed as being “disabled” and were prescribed a different “one way” to work – a way which would set them apart from their peers forever.

Though in schools around the world we still see this pattern, it is now deep into the second decade of the 21st Century and the technologies and realities of the world have changed. All around the planet people carry with them – often in their pockets – highly individualizable devices which can support all the different ways humans learn and communicate. And it is time for schools to catch up with this reality. 

The new and improved “Freedom Stick” (v.2.3.2) offers students and schools the ability to arrive at this ‘technological present’ at essentially zero cost. 

One free downloadable package of software allows students the ability to make almost any computer a fully accessible device. Students can convert text to audio, get their ideas down by speaking, They can draw, manipulate photography, create visual or audio-visual presentations, calculate mathematics a variety of ways, organize themselves, try a different keyboard, support their spelling and writing… and most importantly, learn the power of “Toolbelt Theory- the power of learning to choose and use tools well. 

The Freedom Stick is a system, it can be downloaded and installed on a 4gb Flash Drive and carried everywhere by the student, plugged into and used on school computers or public library computers, or even employer computers – anywhere any version of Microsoft Windows is installed (including on Apple Macintosh computers which can have Windows installed as a second operating system). Or it can be installed directly onto your own computer. It is safe in all computing environments, tested globally since development began in Scotland with EduApps. This version was developed with US Department of Education and Michigan Department of Education grants through Michigan’s Integrated Technology Supports (MITS) in order to bring Universal Design Technology to American schools. The Freedom Stick is a collection of free, open-source programs which provide the widest range of supports for differing student needs. It is also a system supported by a range of learning tools – including a full set of “how to use” videos and presentations. It is easy to adapt to the students own needs, and it works with the supports included in Windows to create a true Universal Solution Set. 

The Freedom Stick contains:
  • A full version of Open Office (equivalent to Microsoft Office and all documents adapt to both software programs), including Writer (Word), Impress (PowerPoint), Calc (Excel), Base (Access), plus Scribus (similar to Microsoft Publisher).
  • The Sunbird Calendar and Thunderbird Email systems.
  • Fully accessible versions of the Firefox, Opera, and Chrome web browsers including Text-To-Speech options and translations. Firefox and Chrome both include pre-set bookmark folders, offering access to free Digital and Audio Texts, online calculators (including talking calculators), and a wide range of curriculum supports.
  • A full scientific graphing calculator, a digital periodic table with physics and chemistry calculators built in, Converber – a remarkable unit converter, and X-mind – similar to Inspiration.
  • Balabolka, one of the most sophisticated Text-To-Speech systems available which can convert whole digital books to audio files, read anything with word-by-word highlighting, and which allows students to write and hear their own reading read back to them.
  • PowerTalk Portable, which will read any PowerPoint presentation, if PowerPoint is installed on your computer.
  • Audacity, a digital recorder and player.
  • Software for drawing, painting, photo-editing/manipulation, and computer screen recording.
  • Kompozer for writing html code (for building websites) and Notepad++ for coding (and testing code) in almost any computer language.
  • Screen magnifiers.
  • 7-Zip for creating and unpacking Zip Files.
  • Simulation software including Robot Programming and Home Design.
  • Games including Chess and Sudoku.
  • Complete list in text format with links to software sites.
You can begin learning about the Freedom Stick, how to use it and individualize it, with these Presentations:
How to begin... the basics
40 minutes of me talking about reading and writing... My overview, and on Maths and Sciences
or with these videos which include step-by-step instructions for all the Freedom Stick software. It is important to watch the “Getting Started” video to understand how the Freedom Stick interacts with your computers.
We all know that students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities struggle in school and in life because of what I call “Transactional Disability,” a mismatch between the information and communication technologies in use and the technology needs of these students. 

The Freedom Stick begins to solve this by offering choices of how to interact with information and communication to any student. Students not only get access, they begin to learn how to make their world accessible, building skills which will carry them through their lifespan. As they learn to choose and adapt the software on the Freedom Stick they will discover how to evaluate and choose the tools they will use on computers and phones no matter how they, their needs, or the technologies, change in the future. 

- Ira Socol

To download the Freedom Stick software suite click here

  1. The USB Image Tool is an easily downloadable way to quickly duplicate Freedom Sticks on your home or work computer.
  2. For information about Education Scotland’s evaluation of these Portable Apps in schools, see the EduApps site or Education Scotland.
  3. The Freedom Stick is a project of Michigan’s Integrated Technology Supports. In Michigan pre-K-12 educators may order Freedom Sticks already formatted at a grant supported price.

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