Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Category Archives: Assistive Tech

Read&Write GOLD Version 9 Mobile Released

Read&Write GOLD version 9 was released a few weeks ago.  I’ll do a post soon with my review of the product.  What I want to do in this post is tell about their mobile product.

If you are familiar with Texthelp (makers of Read&Write GOLD), you probably know that you can get their software on a mobile drive.  This is beneficial to many schools for several reasons, including:

  • The ability for students to take the drive anywhere they go.  This may be school, home or anywhere in between.  Administrative privileges aren’t necessary to use the drive, so any computer with a usb port will work.
  • I know this may come as a shocker to many of you, but special education classrooms and the technology department don’t always see eye to eye on things.  Sometimes it can take weeks to get assistive technology installed.  Having a usb product allows you to have the benefit of the program without any installation.

Of course there are negatives as well.  No one wants to keep up with 1000 drives and students have been known to loose things, but a mobile is still a nice option to have.

What I like most about the Read&Write GOLD mobile is the drive Texthelp chose to put it on.  It’s a Kingston DataTraveler® HyperX®, which let’s just say is FAST.  You can find more information on it here if you’re interested.  This is probably the most important part of the mobile, because loading such large program takes time and we don’t want students to spend 3 minutes in front of the computer just waiting for the software to load up.

I personally have one of these drives and now use it for all of my trainings, but I do want to mention a couple of odd things in case you are the one who receives the drive…

First, this may be a vista issue, but when I received the drive I couldn’t just plug it in and use it.  Texthelp requires that you enter your serial number and agree to a few things before you use it for the first time.  What’s weird is that after this I kept getting an error about needing to unplug any other drives before it could finish.  I didn’t have any other drives plugged in however.

So what I ended up doing was just using an XP laptop and the process went much smoother.  If you are using a Vista desktop, I recommend unplugging all other external usb drives before you start, do not use a usb hub (plug directly into your computer), and run the program as an administrator the first time.  This requires you to be an administrator of course.  If you have admin privileges, simply right click on the .exe file and choose Run as Administrator.

Hope this helps.  Overall I think the mobile is a great product and great idea.  Just keep the above information in mind before you start using it.

Text to Speech just got easier

Most of us are probably familiar with products that turn digital text into speech.  Programs like Read&Write Gold and Kurzweil are feature packed applications that will not only read almost any digital text to you, but also provide numerous other supports such as advanced spell check, word prediction and more.  Other programs, like ReadPlease are basic (but free) and allow you to copy and paste any text in and have it read out loud.

The only major downfall to these programs is that a student must be sitting in front of a computer to use them.  Having one computer with text to speech capabilities doesn’t do you much good when 15 kids need it at the same time.

To help remedy this, there are several products out there that allow you to turn text into an audio file (typically an mp3 or wav file).  Once created, students can listen to it on their portable mp3 player, cd player, or even their computer at home.  Granted, this isn’t always as effective as being able to see the text as it’s being read out loud, but it does work for many students.  Surely you’ve seen all of the earbuds hanging out of kids’ ears haven’t you?

Before I list some options, I should mention one concern I consistently get is that not all students have the mp3 players.  This is true, but according to a recent report specializing in tracking the use of digital music and digital music players, over 70% of respondents ages 12-17 already have some type of portable music player.  This is up from 54% last year.  What’s more is that not all portable media players are as expensive as iPods.  A recent search on WalMart.com showed a 2GB video and audio portable media player for under $30!

Now that that’s out of the way, how do we turn text into audio files?  Well, there are really 2 ways: a software application (or one feature of a software application) and a web site.  Let’s look at each…

On the Web:  These websites allow you to paste digital text in and they will automatically create the audio file for you.

Software Applications:

If you know of any additional programs, especially free programs, be sure to post in the comments section or send me an email.

Video Self Modeling Part 2 – The techy stuff – Updated June 2008

This post is part 2 to my introduction to video self modeling (VSM). Part 1 is only a few paragraphs long so I recommend you read it first to gain a better understanding of what video self modeling is. You can access the post BY CLICKING HERE.

So now the fun part… What do you need in order to successfully use video self modeling? Well, first you will need a video camera. This is typically the most expensive part of the process. Go into any electronics store and you will likely find several different models of video cameras all saying they are the best. First, know that the price doesn’t always equal the best. It all depends on what you are wanting to use the camera for. For example, a popular video camera might allow you to burn your footage directly onto a DVD. This allows you to immediately take the DVD out of the camera, pop it in your DVD player and watch it. Sounds great right? Maybe, but probably not if you are wanting to use the camera for video self modeling because you need to be able to edit the video before you burn it on a DVD. Most other video cameras will work fine for VSM, but you need to be cautious and make sure it will work with whatever editing software you choose to use. I take the easy route and use a FLIP Video Camera that runs about $100. See it at http://www.theflip.com/. You can get a 30 minute or 60 minute camera that runs off AA batteries and plugs directly into your computer via usb just like a flash drive. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Now that you have your camera you are ready to start recording. I’m not a professional video person by any means so I only have a couple of pointers on this part. First, remember that you can get creative with your video when you get to the editing process. Many times I see a person go in and follow a student around for two days trying to catch them doing something for the tape. Instead, maybe you can piece a few things together later that gives the appearance of the student performing the behavior you are looking for. Second, don’t worry about getting the perfect shot. Some people try and shoot the whole thing over because they got someone or something in the video for a few seconds. You can just edit those kind of things out. Also remember that these videos do not need to be high quality. You are not making a major motion picture here, just a self modeling clip.

Once you have your video, it’s time to get to work on editing. This part is going to require you to do a little self learning, but I can give you information on the basic software you may want to look into using. If you are a PC user, Microsoft Movie Maker is free and comes installed on your computer by default. Just got to Start – All Programs – Accessories – and choose Windows Movie Maker. It will take you through the process of capturing and editing your video.  I use QuickTime Pro ($29.99) for most situations. It allows me to make quick edits and save them in different formats including an ipod format. QuickTime Pro will also work with a MAC, but MACs usually come with iMovie, which is also an excellent choice. Finally, I should mention that if you use an older video camera that takes VCR tapes, you can create most of your video editing either on the fly while you are filming (by rewinding and recording over bad parts) or by using two VCRs (one to play the original and the other to record only the parts you want to keep).

Once you have your video filmed and edited you will want to put it in whatever format you need for final viewing. This really just depends on how you plan on viewing it. If you have a DVD player, you will need to use your video editing software to put it in a DVD format (you will also need a DVD burner on your computer). If you’re editing software doesn’t allow for this, you may find that whatever software came on your computer for burning DVDs will convert to the proper format for you. If you are going to watch it on a computer you can put it in a .avi or a .mov (QuickTime) format. I occasionally like to use a .wmv or .avi format and imbed the video segments into a PowerPoint. Then I can set it up to where students click on a picture and the video will automatically start playing.

Hopefully this will give you enough information to get started with Video Self Modeling. I’ll try to put some specific tutorials up in the future on how to use some of the editing software.

The Writer Fusion Released

Occasionally I like to highlight new devices that I believe could make an impact on many of our students. I recently had the opportunity to acquire the new Writer Fusion and am very impressed with what I’ve seen. Let me explain…

Many times I am asked to come in and evaluate a student for assistive technology. More times than I can count on both hands, parents or staff members believed the best solution for the student was to have his or her own laptop. Don’t get me wrong, computers a great and laptops are sometimes even better because of their portability, but they are not always the best answer.

When you really start looking at what the student needs, many times a simple portable word processor will do the job. You’ve seen them before… Neo (Alphasmarts), Dana or Dana Wireless, Writer, etc.. They offer many of the advantages of laptops without the disadvantages. For example, many of the students I met who were being considered for a laptop simply had writing issues that caused them to fall behind when the assignment required taking notes, journal writing, story writing, etc… Portable word processors offer many of the supports writers need without the extra (and expensive) stuff they can do without. Not to mention their battery life is much better!

Having said the above, my personal favorite portable word processor is the new Fusion from Advanced Keyboard Technologies. Not only does it offer your typical word processing supports, but it also includes word prediction and text-to-speech. Features that are not always available in similar devices. In addition, you can purchase a memory card for the Fusion that will allow you to transfer text to and from the device. This is great when teachers want to type up tests or reading assignments ahead of time and transfer them to the device where the student can have them read out loud using a headset. In the limited number of times I’ve used this with students, all enjoyed the device and I’ve yet to run into any trouble with it. Although I’m not sure if available yet, I just saw the newest version, which includes a speaker so a headset isn’t required, at a state conference last month.

Feel free to make a comment and let me know your experience with the Fusion or similar device.

Intro to Video Self Modeling – Part 1

The idea of using images or videos of appropriate behavior in hopes of getting individuals to replicate that behavior is a rather common strategy used today. We see it anywhere from exercise tapes to instructional videos. An adaptation of this strategy that you may not see as often is known as video self modeling (VSM), which involves individuals viewing themselves perform a behavior. This behavior may be something the individual already knows how to do or a completely new skill set that he or she needs to learn.

According to Dowrick (Hitchcock, Dowrick & Prater, 2003) Video self modeling was first seen back in the 1970s when Creer and Miklich used it to help a boy improve his social skills. The idea was that role-playing would increase the boy’s social skills, so the researchers video taped their progress. To their surprise the role-playing had little effect, but when the boy viewed the video of himself attempting role-playing he started having success.

Much has been done with VSM since that point, but the outcomes continue to show the same promising results. VSM has been used successfully to help selectively mute students carry on conversations, autistic students break out of patterns, individuals and students transition into new settings and much more.

Basically there are two types of video self modeling: Positive Self Review and Feedforward. The difference between the two is that positive self review is used to review a positive behavior that the student already knows how to do.  Examples of this may include following directions, getting to class on time orsitting down quietly. These are behaviors that a student has probably already performed several times before, just not repeatedly. By using positive self review, the teacher can “catch” the student performing the behavior correctly on video, then show the student the video of him or her performing the behavior.

Feedforward VSM is a bit different in that it is used to show a video of a student performing a behavior they currently have not done before. Sound difficult? It can be, but doesn’t have to. All it requires is a little creativity. Let me give you an example. A friend of mine who works with VSM quite often went to assist with an autistic student who was bothered by several things. For example, if he were to hear a student screaming it would set him off. My friend, along with the student’s teachers, talked the student into sitting quietly and doing some work while the video camera was rolling. After catching a couple of minutes worth of footage, my friend was later able to capture audio of his daughter screaming (for the purpose of creating an audio file) and insert it into the video. After editing out any non-positive behavior, the autistic student was able to watch himself sit quietly and do his work even when loud screaming was occurring. Data was collected and the negative behavior was immediately reduced after the student watched the video.

Lucky for us, VSM has now become much more affordable and easy to create than ever before. There is no longer a need for thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Many times the result you are looking for is only a video camera and some free software away. To learn how to get started look for the Part 2 of this Video Self Modeling post.

Free Screen Magnifier

I just came across a free screen magnifier called iZoom for PC’s that looks like a great option for students with visual impairments and those of us over 40 who keep sliding back from the computer screen to read e-mail!

I used it for about an hour and it has a lot of the same features found in the expensive magnifier we typical buy for students. It is easy to control with hot key commands and also has a screen reader. The reader part is limited but I have not fully explored that option. You can download the free version 1.1 from Issist a company based in Ontario Canada.
They also have version 1.2 which has enhanced performance and cost $79. Another cool thing they have which seems to be the up and coming technology allowing people to have mobile USB access on a flash drive anywhere they go is called Zoom2Go, it cost $249.

I will be interested to see if anyone else has been using this magnifier and how it is working out, post a comment to this site or e-mail me at gerald.abner@jessamine.k12.ky.us

– Gerald Abner, AT Specialist, Jessamine County Schools

Assistive Technology vs. UDL

I’ve asked students in a class I’m teaching to identify what they think the difference between Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning is. After a bit of research they all seem to be right on track, but I notice quite often while in the field that not everyone understands this difference and I believe it is important that all educators take the time to learn it.

So, let’s start with a definition of Assisitive Technology from the Tech Act of 1998. It reads that AT refers to any “product, device, or equipment, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to maintain, increase, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” It has recently been updated to say that it does not include surgically implanted devices (read: cochlear implants).

Basically this means that any item can be considered AT if it helps increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. An important part of that definition includes the words “individuals with disabilities.” AT must be considered for all children with an IEP. This is the job of the IEP team. This doesn’t mean that AT isn’t useful for students who do not have a disability, but it does mean that it doesn’t have to be considered or allowed for students without an IEP. An example is a text reader. If a student needs a text reader to access the curriculum, it should be noted on his or her IEP in the appropriate place and be made available at all times (including testing). Other students who do not have an IEP may prefer having text read to them as opposed to reading it themselves, but teachers are not required to allow this and many state assessments will not permit it either.

This is a good time to make the leap to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is all about creating a flexible curriculum that provides access for all students. I once heard it put that AT removes barriers for individual students and UDL prevents barriers from being there in the first place. I like this definition. UDL is more of a concept or teaching practice. It’s similar to differentiated instruction and is not something you can touch like AT. UDL has three basic principals:

  1. Multiple Means of Representation – represent information to students in a variety of ways
  2. Multiple Means of Expression – let students express themselves (demonstrate their knowledge) in a variety of ways
  3. Multiple Means of Engagement – choose activities and provide content in a way that engages students in different ways.

I also call UDL good teaching. UDL recognizes that there is no such thing as a “regular” education student and that all of us learn in different ways. So if I am an audible learner, let me listen to the text if that helps (this doesn’t mean forgo teaching reading skills, it is just a way to provide equal access for your students and help engage them). When teaching a lesson, use lecture, video, small group and individual discussion, blogs and interactive websites, etc… When it comes time for your students to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, give them ownership. Let them choose from a variety of options or create their own as long as it demonstrates that they’ve mastered the content.

I could go on about this stuff forever, but for now just know that UDL and AT is not an either/or situation. UDL will help many of your diverse learners gain better access to the curriculum. This may include having what we traditional call assistive technology readily available for any student to use. Other students will still need specific assistive technology, like communication devices, wheelchairs, etc… to help access the curriculum and daily functions. By using UDL and AT together, all students will not only have better access to the curriculum, but will also find learning an engaging process that they will never forget.

I know UDL is a tough concept for some. Knowing the basic principles are one thing, but putting them into practice is another. Therefore I will try and post more UDL strategies and ideas in the future.

Another Free Graphical Organizer

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of open source software. Not only is it typically cheaper (usually free), but many times I find it to be less buggy and provide greater support when needed through forums and discussion boards.

For the reasons mentioned above, I recommend for everyone to give FreeMind a try. This graphical organizer program will compete with the best of them, but I must warn that there is a learning curve. After you play with it a bit, check out it’s help section, which gives all sorts of information related to what you can do with it.

Free Virtual Magnifying Glass

I’m all about free software, so when a friend showed me the virtual magnifying glass 3.3 and told me it was free, I knew I would have to hurry and post it for everyone to see. I’ve posted a screen shot from the website below. As you can see it’s just like having a magnifying glass to hold over your computer. I prefer it over the built in magnifier that Windows provides. I should note that this is only for Windows (98-XP) and Linux. Sorry Mac users. Download your copy at by Clicking Here.

Screenshot

Free Graphical Organizer

Graphical Organizers are great tools for students who require additional supports with written expression, comprehension, and many other areas across the curriculum.

When thinking of graphical organizer software, the first item that comes to mind is Inspiration or Kidspiration (www.inspiration.com). Other similar software includes Spark-Space and the new fact mapper that is a component of Read and Write Gold version 8.0 and above. All of these programs are great, but purchasing a site license for Read and Write Gold or paying $60-$70 a copy for an Inspiration or Kidspiration can add up quickly. That is why I wanted to devote this post to tell everyone about a free alternative to pricey graphical organizer programs.

Cmap Tools from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (http://cmap.ihmc.us/) allows users the benefits of graphical organizer software without the price tag. Granted, the program isn’t as user friendly as some of its competitors and may not sport as many pictures, but overall the software performs the majority of tasks as other programs and then some. For example, Cmap Tools not only allows you to create your own concept maps, but also allows you to look at thousands of other users who chose to share their concept maps through the program.

Take a look at it and see what you think. It may take some getting used to, but I think it will pay off in the end.