Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Category Archives: Assistive Tech

Learning Styles

Are you a visual learner?  If not, maybe you are more auditory or kinesthetic?  If you are not sure, don’t worry because there is no shortage of websites or preference assessments you can purchase that will help you determine what type of learner you are.

I bring this up because learning style preference assessments are nothing new.  I remember when I first started in the field of Universal Design for Learning these were common amenities used to help determine the best way to present information to your students.  I recently just deleted a post on this blog from a couple years ago that listed free preference assessments you could find online.

Here’s the problem… According to a recent literature review published  in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general education practice.”

This will come as a shocker to many of you.  It did for me.  But this is a great example of what happens in classrooms everyday.  We continue to do things others have done because we assume it works or because it is what we did when we were in school.  You will probably want to take the time to read through this article yourself.  It is simply titled “Learning Styles, Concepts and Evidence” by Pashler, et. al.  A couple of the main takeaways for me include:

  • There are tons of studies that reference learning styles, however, “very few have included methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles.”  So even it you read something discussing how important learning styles are, it wasn’t likely from a strongly run study.
  • They are quick to mention the difference between preference and disability.  Most learning styles assessments involve preferences, where students say they prefer one method over the other.  This is different than using visual or auditory supports with students because of a disability.

I hope you give the article a read.  Whether you agree with it or not, it has been a great discussion point at sessions I present because it forces folks to really think about why they are doing what they are doing in schools and classrooms.

AT vs IT (Instructional Technology)

Definitions are funny things sometimes. For example, if there is a student with a disability in my classroom and she receives an iPod Touch to help with basic study and time management skills, she has assistive technology. However, if everyone in the class has an iPod Touch it is instructional technology. That just seems odd…

I work quite a bit in co-taught classrooms that have a mixture of students with and without disabilities.  What’s interesting is that if I can introduce a new technology to these students, such as iPods or a Smartboard, all kids benefit. A student with a disability may use it to increase communication while a student on the advanced placement track may use it to move onto more advanced content.

Having said this, it is important to realize that just because you put technology in a classroom that achievement doesn’t automatically increase. I’ve yet to find a device that makes a person smarter, but I’ve found plenty that makes instruction more efficient and engaging. For real change to occur, in addition to the technology, you need a teacher with an open mind that is willing to experiment and that will take the time to learn what works and what doesn’t.

The importance of collecting data for AAC users

I’m really in to data based decision making.  I know this term gets thrown around quite a bit, but I think it’s importance is often overlooked, especially when we get into the AAC field.  Let me start with an example that involves communication, just the wrong kind.

A colleague of mine is a behavior consultant.  He gets called in on some cases you wouldn’t believe.  One interesting case he shared with me concerned a young student who spell curses.  Without getting into the details of how this all got started, I want to focus on what happened after my colleague visited the classroom.  Keep in mind that this student was probably spell cursing over 50 times a day.  My colleague observed the classroom and made a few recommendations and followed up a few weeks later.

Now, here’s where the data collection piece comes in.  If you are being cursed at (spelling or otherwise) 50 times a day every day and the student reduces their cursing to 40 times a day you are not going to notice the difference.  However, if this occurs after implementing a new strategy for a few days, this is actually huge difference!  Basically, in less than a week’s time, you were able to reduce the negative behavior by 20%.  Just think of what could happen over a few weeks of implementing this and other strategies.  Unfortunately, if you are like most of us, you would not have collected data on every curse word thrown at you every day, so you would not have noticed the 20% reduction, therefore causing you to believe the strategy was worthless and abandoning it.

Let’s carry this example back to the world of AAC.  Many times I see an AAC device purchased or borrowed and simply sat in front of student waiting for it to magically increase communication for the student.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way.  Strategies must be used with the student using the device just like reading strategies are used with students learning to read.  So how do we know if the device is going to work?  You guessed it… with data!

If you thought the example above was tough to collect data on, imagine collecting data on a student who has over 300 opportunities to respond in any given day.  I’m not saying it is easy, but we have to figure out a way to collect data to determine if a device is increasing the student’s ability to independently respond when an opportunity arises.  One easy way to start this process is with rubber bands.  Put a bunch around your wrist and before introducing a new strategy or device, throw one of the bands in a jar every time the student independently responds.  Do this for a week, then repeat after a device and/or strategy is introduced.  If the jar started after the AAC was introduced has more bands, improvement has been made.  Train all of those working with the student to collect data as well so you have a more accurate picture of how the device or strategy is working throughout the day.

In addition to tracking the number of independent vs. prompt dependent communication attempts, you may also consider tracking the amount of time it takes a student to respond after a prompt is given.  In this case, the shorter the time the better.

As the title suggests, this short post is on the importance of collecting data.  There is much more to successful AAC implementation than just collecting data however.  I’ll throw out some ideas on how to make the process easier soon.

Comparing Newer AAC Devices

I’ve been saying for sometime now that the iPad and iPod Touch may fix many of the problems with Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device abandonment we see so much in schools.  I mean let’s be honest, even though some devices cost upwards of $5,000, kids do not want to carry these dedicated communication devices everywhere they go.  Sure they can be used for other things like turning a TV or the lights on, but they just don’t have the “cool” factor that some of the Apple devices have.  With an iPad or iPod Touch, not only can students access communication applications, but they can also access games, the internet and thousands of apps that could be useful.  And at a fraction of the cost ($499 for an iPad, $199 for an iPod Touch, plus under $200 for a pretty good communication app).

There are differences among devices however, and I really liked this post on the ATMac blog discussing some information provided by RJ Cooper.  In the end, I think that if a student has the physical and cognitive ability to use a high tech dynamic display device that systems similar to the iPad are the future.  Don’t get me wrong, we still have a ways to go with helping educators be able to integrate these devices in all settings, but that’s always going to be an issue.  There’s also the issue of these devices currently being designed for business users instead of emerging student communicators.  Because of this, don’t expect an iPad to work for every student who needs a high tech communication device.  But do expect similar devices that function better for students with fine motor and other disabilities to be coming soon.

And last but not least, keep in mind that you will probably need to find a way to attach speakers if you plan to use an iPad or iPod touch in situations with background noise.  I know iMango sells some for the iPod Touch that I like, and RJ Cooper has rigged something up for the iPad, but I have yet to find a good case that includes speakers for the iPad.  Please pass along a link if you know where one can be found.

Helpful iPad Post

Ran across this post on an AT blog from the Virginia Department of Education about iPad orientation locking.  iPads are becoming more and more popular in the classroom setting.  However, I see some students struggle when it comes to holding them.  If tilted just a little too much in one direction or the other, the orientation changes (this is super frustrating if you have ever tried using one while laying down).   To change this setting, simply flip the screen orientation lock switch on the side of the device by the volume button see image below (from

ipad orientation lock

MindMeister – Another Brainstorming Tool

I just came across a site called MindMeister, which is a web based mind mapping/brainstorming software. It is similar to (which is currently in beta and free, but will likely be available as a paid subscription only soon) and is free for up to three boards, or if you are in education you can get the Premium edition for only $18/year. My initial thoughts on this site are very positive. The free version allows for the basics (create a board, sharing, printing, exporting to a pdf, etc…), but for $18 a year there are some additional very cool features. There is really too much for me to mention in a blog post, so check it out for yourself at Another big plus for me is the ability to work in offline mode if you are traveling and do not have access to email and the mobile app.

A Low Cost AAC Alternative – Proloquo2Go

If you haven’t already heard, there is an App in the apple application store for iPhone and iPod Touches that can turn your iPod into an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device.  If you’re not familiar with AAC devices, they help people who are unable to speak communicate with others… they give you a voice.  The app is called Proloquo2Go and is priced at $199, but can currently be purchased for $149.  This may sound expensive for an application, but considering the alternative is a $1,200 – $8,000 device, I consider the price very reasonable.


In addition to the low price, there are a few other things I like:

  • Unlike some software, it comes with some standard vocabulary that makes it usable as soon as it is downloaded.
  • You can add new messages at any time.  This includes symbols, or just snap a picture with your iPhone or iPod touch and make a custom button
  • You can type a message at any time and have it read aloud
  • There is a button that allows you to re-read something you said 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, or longer ago instead of having to re-type the message.
  • You can put beginner to advanced vocabulary sets and change the size of the symbols (which of course will cause less symbols to be displayed on the screen).

The only thing I am not to excited about is the volume.  This has nothing to do with the software itself, but if you are in a crowded area there’s not much of a chance that your communication partner will hear you (you could always show them what you are saying I suppose).  I know there are external speakers you can buy for the iPhone, but not sure if there are any that are portable enough to stay connected to the iPhone with a power source for long period of time.  If they do not exist yet, I imagine someone will be coming out with them soon.

A final thing I would like to note is that this could be the tool to end much of the abandonment of AAC devices we see all to often.  There aren’t too many non-verbal students that get excited about carrying around an AAC device everywhere they go.  Even if it is a smaller device, it is still different.  This changes everything however.  I can pick up an iPod touch for under $200 on ebay ($229 new for the 8GB version from Apple) and be using the same device to communicate that others are using for a variety of purposes.

Digital Text Resources

Finding sites with digital text (mostly free) is a job in itself.  However, this is one of the most important things overlooked when schools decide to purchase text to speech software.  I remember doing a 2 or 3 hour training on how to use such software, then asking participants where they were going to get their digital text to use with the software.  You would have thought I had asked how to solve a complicated mathematical equation.  Needless to say, I start my trainings off with this question now.  If participants leave thinking that they are going to have to scan in text books from beginning to end, I can pretty much guarantee you the use of the software will be around the same level as it was before you bought it.

I’ve included in this post a few places to check out.  The best thing to do is just CLICK HERE to download the Word document.  I can’t take credit for developing it, but it’s been past around so many times I cannot credit the original author.  I did however remove several out of date links and check the others to ensure accuracy.  This of course doesn’t include every resource out there, so if you can think of something else I encourage you to post it as a comment on this blog post.

Here are a few of the included resources along with descriptions (usually from the site itself).  Note that this is for free/non-copyright text.  Therefore they will not include links to textbooks or other copyrighted literature.  Those types of texts will many times need to be purchased separately or only used with students with specific disabilities.


Bookshare offers more than 42,000 digital books, textbooks, teacher-recommended reading, periodicals and assistive technology tools. It is free for all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities.

Project Gutenberg

There are over 27,000 free books in the Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalog


Free Online Literature with more than 2000 Classic Texts


AcademicInfo is an online education resource center with extensive subject guides and distance learning information. Our mission is to provide free, independent and accurate information and resources for prospective and current students (and other researchers).


Offers thousands of free books for students, teachers, and the classic enthusiast

Kids Corner

Contains a collection of Beatrix Potter’s books with text available in English, German, Japanese, and French.


The Intersect

A Library of “Supported Text” books incorporating resources and study strategies that help students learn more from what they read.


Alex catalogue of electronic text

The Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts is a collection of about 14,000 “classic” public domain documents from American and English literature as well as Western philosophy.

Page by Page Books

Offers hundreds of free classic books with frequent additions to the collection


Offers public access to over 27,000 books and materials (choose public access from menu at top of page to access). Paying a nominal membership fee of $8.95 per year allows access to over 100,000 additional books and materials. Reading lists prepared by the University of Hawaii sort books by grade level.


Provides free books and other materials covering a wide array of areas. Topics include history, garden, children’s books, how-to books, home repair and decoration and fashion.

Classic Reader

Offers a large collection of free classic books by authors such as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and many others. You can read, search and even add your own annotations to any of the classic books. A selection of author biographies and portraits are also available.

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.

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.