Assistive Technologies: Why pay?

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In this online public lecture, Professor Ian Smythe talks about technologies available for free to support learners with dyslexia.

In this webinar, Professor Ian Smythe will present a number of free resources that can be used to assist learners with dyslexia to access materials on and through their computer.

In a social model of dyslexia support, appropriate assistive technology would be supplied free to everybody, irrespective of the extent of their disabilities and the paperwork to support it. However, current policies provide money to the lucky few with little analysis of impact, productivity and value for money. Professor Ian Smythe shows that there is plenty of free software available, and often it is as good as the commercial versions. A dedicated web page with resources will be available after the talk.

This webinar is aimed at teachers, school administrators, parents and learners themselves.


Game changing technology for those with disabilities

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A recent article in the New York Times describes how a severely physically disabled boy reads a book for the first time independently with an iPad.

Owen Cain depends on a respirator and struggles to make even the slightest movements — he has had a debilitating motor-neuron disease since infancy.

Owen, 7, does not have the strength to manoeuvre a computer mouse.

He aimed his left pointer finger at an icon on the screen, touched it — just barely — and opened the application Gravitarium, which plays music as users create landscapes of stars on the screen. Over the years, Owen’s parents had tried several computerized communications contraptions to give him an escape from his disability, but the iPad was the first that worked on the first try.

with the tiniest of movements, and thanks to the sensitivity of the iPad’s touch screen, Owen began to turn the pages of the book. He’s a normal child trapped in a not normal body,” said his father, Hamilton Cain, 45, a book editor.

Since he received the iPad, Owen has been trying to read books, and playing around with apps like Air Guitar. And, one day, he typed out on the keypad, “I want to be Han Solo for Hallowe’en”.  


Thanks to Shirley Lawson for the link on the Support for All blog.

Dyslexia Awareness Week: notes from a conference

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Dyslexia Scotland has links to presentations from their September conference which are well worth examining. They range from the local to the international stage.

Local approaches:

Jennifer Drysdale – a friend and former colleague – discusses her Workshop for Literacy: a Contextual Approach for successful learning which deploys early identification of core skills development and contextual assessment to enable young learners to read. She uses contexts created around ‘real‘books to create successful learning experiences.

Pam Macdonald talks about a Paired Reading and Phonics programme whose aims are to give basic literacy skills so pupils can become independent in classes; to involve pupils in their own learning and encourage them to be active, analytical learners and to actively involve parents and guardians.

Shirley Illman describes a transition to High School programme.

A presentation from the CALL Centre gives advice on making text accessible. An accessible resource is defined as one that can be used effectively and with ease by a wide range of pupils. The resource can be adapted with the minimum of work for pupils who have a range of additional support needs. Accessible resources could refer to almost anything used in class or at home to support learning.

National approaches:

Dr Laura-Anne Currie links Education for Learners with Dyslexia to How Good is our School and Curriculum for Excellence.

Dr Margaret Crombie talks about the wonderful Assessing Dyslexia resource : ‘Assessment is integral to learning, teaching and the curriculum’. She makes strong links with the HMIE document and CfE too.

International perspective:

Dr Gavin Reid’s presentation focuses on ‘The Decade Ahead; Recent reports and current research’.  He starts with Scotland, and then discusses approaches in the U.S.A., Ireland, England and Wales, New Zealand, Canada and the Czech Republic. All of this is embedded in current theory.

The keynote speaker, Rob Long, talks about behavioural issues connected to learning difficulties.

A very useful set of presentations.

‘The Learning Village’: Education with iPods in Haiti


How Can Technology Change A Nation?

Here is a report about a project  called “The Learning Village” in Haiti that aims to educate children using iPods:

In this idea, kids and adults living in Haiti can actually learn using little more than iPods and solar chargers. A few of the key strengths of the idea include:

  1. By using audio & video, we can teach people that cannot read.
  2. The process is user controlled (students can learn at their own pace).
  3. The process is repeatable (students can watch videos as many time as they’d like)
  4. The entire family can learn with one iPod (making it very affordable).
  5. Education can move into areas where schools are unavailable or struggling.
  6. Teachers can learn to be better teachers right where they serve.
  7. Where schools are available, iPods are easily integrated into classrooms

First they created 5 videos covering information ranging from shapes and colors, to numbers, characters from the alphabet, found objects, and more. They loaded these videos onto 6 iPods. and identified 20 children in a remote community to learn with the iPods. They measured exactly what the children knew about the information in the videos and then introduced the iPods. The children were shown  how to operate them, and money was left  for the local pastor to charge them using his generator.

One month later we returned to administer the same test again. We shall refer to this as the “post-test” since it was administered to close the experiment.

The results were STAGGERING. There was an average increase in score of 44%! That is without any formal teacher present! In addition to the notable increase in scores, students turned in more than 140 sheets of practice papers (which we did not give them supplies for nor ask them to produce). While chatting with them, several explained that they had even taken it upon themselves to form their own informal discussion groups as they sat around their yards discussing the things they were learning on the iPods. Incredible!

Here is a typical result:

FROM HERE: While we are thrilled with these initial findings, we know that we need to repeat these experiments to see if different communities will deliver similar results.

We’re calling it “20 iPods in 20 days” and are officially announcing it right here, right now! Please consider helping us with this project. This next experiment will test five communities simultaneously, using 20 iPods which we do not presently have. In addition to the actual iPods we need to raise funds to pay for things like fuel, personnel, protective cases, charging cables, and so forth. This 1-month-long, 5 community, 20 iPod, follow up experiment will cost $5,000.

Follow the link if you need more information or to donate to this worthwhile project.

Some of my best friends …


On a forum mainly accessed by parents of learners with specific difficulties, a debate about laptops in schools is raging. My contribution (which engendered some abuse about my ignorance, laziness and lack of understanding about recent developments in digital technologies) was that laptops are not necessarily the panacea for all ills. I wrote:

The ownership of a laptop does not guarantee effective learning!

Many children with difficulties undoubtedly find digital technologies extremely useful but they are not a panacea for all ills. Some kids just don’t like using laptops, if it makes them feel different, or because motor skills are not developed sufficiently to use unadapted keyboards.

As in everything else, children need motivation, training and practice before becoming competent. There are many shortcuts, many wonderful resources available to enable youngsters to access the curriculum without the barrier of print, many tools that allow them to demonstrate knowledge and understanding without having to read and write. And many schools actively encourage learners with difficulties to use the technologies. But parents cannot expect teachers to be completely knowledgeable about all new technologies instantly, and cannot expect that their children will suddenly cease to have learning difficulties just because they own some new kit.

One decision we teachers have to make is how to deploy the limited time we have to the best advantage of the child. If I choose to teach a child how to use a spell checker efficiently, how to access text to speech software and audio books, how to touch type, how to make a video or use a digital voice recorder, how to mind map ideas or make notes using text-speak, then the time for other activities (such as, for example, phonics) is diminished.

At what point do I cease to teach him or her to read, write and spell, or at least change the emphasis?

It is likely that those same parents who complain so vociferously about teachers’ ignorance of digital technologies would take up the cudgels if they felt their children were not receiving targeted support in acquiring literacy. We just can’t win! (I’m so glad the proposed ‘Free Schools’ policy does not extend to Scotland).

My simple point was that a laptop is a tool, just as pencil and paper are. Technology is incredibly powerful when used effectively, when youngsters are empowered to use it. But they need time to learn how to use it: the fact of having one will not, by itself, assist or enable learning.

A most interesting blog post delineating 50 Educational Apps for the iPod Touch alerted me to the wide ranging applications for some mobile devices and made me realise that in many ways, a mobile phone is more useful than a laptop:

  • you can photograph the homework that’s written on the board;
  • use texting and the calendar to support organisational difficulties;
  • translate French without having to trawl through the dictionary;
  • navigate around the school as well as access Google Earth;
  • play hangman and develop spelling; calculate maths problems;
  • create an electronic story book by writing text, and either drawing on the screen or using your own photos; record sound effects too.

There are apps for

reading e-books, including over 50,000 free titles and a basic ruler in inches or centimetres. One excellent little app quickly shows you any unit (area, temperature, length and weight, to name a few) in most other units, e.g. for Length it shows you Miles, Nautical Miles, Yard, Foot, Inch, Kilometre & Metre. This is the perfect app to illustrate why we should think about whether we need to spend time teaching our kids this stuff when it does it for us so quickly…

On the same site as the Forum is a discussion of the use of mobile phones for dyslexic learners.

Schools are not perfect, teachers don’t know every solution to a learning challenge. But most of us do try!


Looking forward to a good read

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E-books have enormous potential to extend access and now a report shows publishers how to maximise access to e-books.  Providing tools to enable readers to control magnification, colour change, keyboard access and text to speech can give genuine independence to people with reading disabilities

‘Print disabled’ users can for example benefit from a statement by the publisher setting out the accessibility options available to them, from how to magnify the screen to fully personalising the e-book.

The project, funded by JISC TechDis, JISC Collections and the Publishers Licensing Society investigated how to help people navigate e-book resources. Working with a group of international publishers, the project used the test results to make good practice recommendations for the publishing industry.

Key messages from the research
  • The experience of the ‘keyboard-only’ user can be significantly improved through a feature known as ‘skip links’
  • Buttons or unique ‘link text’ descriptions, which allow a user with little or no sight to be able to use the menus, can easily enhance accessibility
  • It is important to maintain a consistent layout between the main page and sub pages. This is also a feature that is welcomed by people with low literacy levels or those who don’t have English as their first language
  • A practical guide “Towards accessible e-book platforms” which highlights recommendations in the report was launched at the Publisher Lookup Awards at the London Book Fair, Earls Court on 21 April 2010.

Podcasts for Study at Lochaber High School

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It is often the case that schools in rural areas lead the way in terms of using digital technologies to enhance learning and teaching. I was fortunate enough to visit several schools in the Highlands and in Shetland when I worked in the education department of the Scottish Executive (as was) with the task of celebrating innovative uses of ICT to share across the country. Nice work if you can get it!

I may be making this up but my memory is that at one time Papa Stour Primary School had the highest internet use per pupil in Europe. The 2 pupils on this remote island were highly motivated to connect with others around the world. Anderson High School, also in Shetland, has a proud record of creating and participating in international communities both remotely and through extensive travel. The art and music departments of Gairloch High School did amazing collaborative work in the far off days before Curriculum for Excellence. Ardnamurchan High School, with less than 200 pupils, was paving the way with its beautiful new build that incorporated new technologies way before any schools that I had worked in. And this was several years ago now when Glow was little more than a twinkle in the Minister’s eye.

And this great tradition continues. I am indebted to Jim Henderson for pointing out (through Twitter – I’m getting the point of it) this report from last October, about an innovative study aid system created at Lochaber High School which received very favourable comments from Dyslexia Scotland about a venture blending the latest technologies with traditional methods, ‘effectively delivering revision opportunities across the curriculum’. The idea originated from a working group set up to identify the technologies that actively support children with specific learning difficulties that led to an idea to create audio revision material which pupils access to support their exam revision.

From the original concept of recording revision materials straight to CD for issue to pupils on request, the plan evolved into a comprehensive facility available to all pupils.

From the school’s curriculum network, pupils have the option of listening to the audio revision files during study time, downloading to their USB pens, mp3 players or burning to CDs for listening while on the move. External access is through the new site which makes use of technologies such as RSS feeds and podcast subscriptions, with traditional streaming or downloading of audio files, offering pupils the freedom to choose their preferred method on demand.

Lochaber High head teacher Jim Sutherland said: “The site is aimed at pupils who have dyslexia to ease their burden at exam time when too much text-based learning can be a struggle. We are delighted that in developing the project we now have a fresh approach to providing learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom, for the whole school community.”

This is a terrific example of differentiating resources that benefit a considerably broader cohort of learners than originally intended: inclusion in action.

As someone struggling to learn Spanish I find podcasts invaluable to reinforce what happens in the formal classroom setting. I do get funny looks as I chatter away, apparently to myself, as I drive around but it sure helps embed the language. I use the wonderful (Scottish) site, Coffee Break Spanish on the RadioLingua Network. It’s fantastic – and all eighty 15 minute lessons are free to download!

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