Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Monthly Archives: March 2009

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A communication device worth looking into

I had an opportunity to take a look at a new communication device at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference in January.  It is called the ProxTalker and is a bit different from other devices on the market.

Proxtalker communication deviceAs you can see, the ProxTalker’s design is one that fits in well with students who use systems such as PECS (picture exchange communication system).  Meaning that the pictures can actually be taken off the device and used as a low tech communication system, an exchange system or for an activity.  I think this is great because most students begin using symbols and symbol activities at an early age with programs like Boardmaker.   This system just provides students a gateway to move to a more advanced system without a major shift in ability.

The basics on how ProxTalker works is simple.  You just purchase the device and it comes with a hundred or so plastic “sound tags” that are used as the communication aides.  Here’s what the website has to say:

Each Sound Tag is encoded with a unique radio frequency identification code. When the Sound tag is place on the zone button and pressed, the ProxTalker detects the tag and then it speaks the word associated with the it. There are five word zone buttons so a complete sentence can be formed. Sound Tags are included with the device and are also available to add to a system. Specially designed binders and accessories are available for added convenience. Multiple real human voices and multiple languages are available. There is no programming involved.

I have been looking for a device that goes beyond the GoTalk and CheapTalk types of mid-tech devices, but are simpler than the dynamic display devices for some time.  In my short time experimenting with this device, it seems to fit the bill.

A UDL resource you will want to bookmark

Many of you may already be aware of the Free Tech Toolkit for UDL, but just in case you haven’t had a chance to visit it, you should do so now.  It’s actually a wiki and the address is http://udltechtoolkit.wikispaces.com/.  For some reason, during the time of this post, I was having trouble getting the homepage to load, but you still view the information by clicking on a category link on the left of the page.  Categories include free text to speech, graphical organizers, writing tools, research tools, reading tools, and much more.

The wiki is maintained by Karen Janowski, who also happens to have a cool blog I read on a normal basis at http://teachingeverystudent.blogspot.com/

Academic Earth makes going to college easy

I ran across one of the best sites I’ve seen recently after reading about it an article.  The site is called Academic Earth and this is how they describe themselves:

We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars.  Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment that in which that content is remarkably easy to use and in which user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

The colleges you can visit include the most pretigous in the United States.   Here’s a list:

  • Berkley
  • Yale
  • Harvard
  • MIT
  • Princeton
  • Stanford

The lectures are great and users can rate the lectures after watching.  I have never been one of the YouTube types that can sit around watching videos on the web all day, but I literally spent an hour (56 minutes to be exact) today listening to Paul Brown at Yale discuss Sigmund Freud.  I learned more in 56 minutes than I can remember from my entire college psych class and found the whole thing very enjoyable.

So in addition to giving you something useful to do during your free time, what else can Academic Earth be used for?  Just think of the opportunities this gives many of our students.  Not all of us are able to go to Yale or MIT, but viewing lectures from some of the worlds greatest professors gives us opportunities we may have never gotten otherwise.  This is just another example of how education is becoming more accessible.  You’ve probably heard of California’s Open Source Textbook Iniative or MIT’s Open Courseware project.  Academic Earth is another one of those great free resources to add to the list.

Kindle 2 Released

It’s official, the Kindle 2 has been released.  I must admit that after seeing the Kindle 2, I now think that I may have purchased my Kindle too early.  Although expensive ($359 at the time of this writing), it has updated many of the things that I find problematic with the 1st generation Kindle, including:

  • Battery life – The Kindle 2 is reported to have a 25% longer battery life
  • Delayed page turn – now turns 20% faster
  • More storage – Hold over 1500 books
  • Text to Speech – This is the number one thing I wanted in the first version of the Kindle but didn’t get.  Text to Speech is not only for those who have reading disabilities, but also for people wanting to listen to their book while driving down the road.  I prefer to read than listen, but after running a couple of red lights I’ve found that listening is the better option while on the road.  One worrisome factor here is Amazon’s decision to make it optional for text to speech to work with books after some heat from the Authors Guild.

The Kindle 2 has even fixed a few things that I thought were fine to begin with.  The device now uses a 3G wireless connection (where available), which should make the download process shorter.  I must admit that I never had trouble downloading so this isn’t a big deal to me.  There is also mention of more shades of gray being supported to make the text look clearer, but I never had an issue with this either.  I’ve used the device in low lighting and in the bright sun without an issue.

There are a couple of things that I would like to see added (these may be included, but I didn’t find any mention of them):

  • Some kind of back lighting option available in case I’m reading at night.
  • Page numbers at the bottom of the screen… the current system for numbering pages is confusing at best.  Surely (I know… you’re name’s not  Shirley) it wouldn’t be that complicated to put “page # of #” at the bottom of the screen so readers know where they are.
  • A better way to show lists and tables.  I’m not sure I know the solution here, but there have been a few occassions when it was very difficult to understand what the author was trying to say due to the way it was represented through the Kindle.

Overall, I really like the Kindle and will consider upgrading when I get a better idea of how many authors/publishers plan on allowing text to speech.  I think the implications for educators and students are tremendous… just think, an entire library on something smaller than a notebook.   If you’re an avid reader it doesn’t take long to make your money back when Kindle books are typcially $9.99 vs. the $20 plus for hard copy new releases.