Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Category Archives: Programs

Universally Designed is now Systems of Support

Just a quick update regarding our blog if you are a subscriber… For years this blog has been referred to as Universally Designed.  Its purpose has always been to provide tips and tricks related to Assistive/Instructional Technology and Behavior.   The blog was part of our website, where we shared handouts and other materials used in keynotes, conference workshops, and webinars.  We have now decided to merge the two and call the blog Systems of Support.  This will allow us to continue to provide relevant information dedicated to helping educators succeed in the classroom while keeping all content in one location.

If you are a subscriber you will continue to receive weekly updates when new posts are made.  We know we’ve been a little behind lately on our postings, but the idea is that this transition will help us to once again make the blog a priority and deliver content you expect.

You will notice that the handouts and downloads on the resources page is now password protected. As always, that content is free so no worries about that! If you are already subscribed to our blog, then you will receive an email in the coming days with the password for the resources page. If you are new to the site, subscribe to our blog and once you confirm, you will automatically receive the password get access.

-The Jasons

Organizing Bookmarks and other Resources

If you are anything like me you will consume more information in a week that you will remember for the entire year. Email is a good example of this. Every couple of weeks I clean out my inbox and delete the newsletters or blog posts that I said I was going to take a closer look at. Unfortunately a week later those emails are replaced with new ones without me ever having a chance to read more into the ones I previously saved.

Welcome to the information age! In the past, information was hard to come by. We went to libraries or paid to receive journals in order to stay up to date. Then came an abundance of information, much of which was marketing material that may or may not fit the definition of “good” information. Now there is no shortage of good information available and the question has become “how to deal with it” instead of “where to find it”.

Read more →

Task Management Applications

Over the past couple of months I have went from one extreme to another when it comes to providing assistive technology (AT) consultations.  By far the number one reason I am asked to provide AT consults is to assist in finding appropriate communication systems for students who are non-verbal.  However, recently I have been brought in to help with a number of students who suffer from ADHD or similar disorders.  These students may be performing well (many are straight A students), but struggle with time management, prioritizing, scheduling and other skills that are necessary for success.  Because of this I thought I would use today’s post as an opportunity to list a few task management apps that students who struggle in these areas may benefit from.  Since many of the students I work with have access to a smart phone or other mobile device such as an iPod, most of the listings below are found in App stores, but some have a web based or installable software version as well.


A quick disclaimer… These are just a few of the many options available at the time of this writing. These are not recommendations, just options.  As opposed to listing 10 apps that do the same thing, I tried breaking them into categories.  The one you or your student finds most beneficial will be dependent on individuals needs.


Basic Task Management Apps:

These apps are very basic.  Create a list (grocery list, class assignments, etc…), then add items to that list.  You can also add reminders in case you forget to check.


Reminders App for iPhone – Free: The reminders app comes with iOS 5 and is very basic, but user friendly.  Create lists, then add items to those lists.  Once an item is complete, simply check it off.  Complete items will be sent to a “Completed” list so that you can retrieve later if necessary.


Clear task management appClear – .99 cents at time of writing – Clear is another very basic app.  You can manage multiple lists and prioritize items on those lists unlike the Reminders app.  Somehow this app is just fun to use.  It has a very clever interface and is easy to manipulate.  The standard theme shows items at the top of the list with a red background (these are a higher priority) and gradually changes to a lighter color as you get further down the list.  To move an item, just hold down on the item and move it whichever direction you would like.


Apps better suited for projects:

The basic apps mentioned above are great for basic things.  For example, if there are 6 or 8 things I need to get done today I can list them all on one list, prioritize them in some cases, then check them off as they are completed.  However, many things require multiple steps or collaboration.  For those purposes, these apps can help:


wunderlist task management appWunderlist – Free – Although Wunderlist does’nt allow you to create sub-items it is not short on features.  Wunderslist is free and is available as an app, web based application or installable software on a mac or pc.  Once you setup an account your lists sync to the cloud and are available on any device you use.  In addition to the basics, you can also share lists with other users, which is great for group work.  You can also email items from Wunderlist, or send an email to Wunderlist with items to add.  You can add notes, change the look and much more.  


ToDo Task Management AppToDo by Appigo – $4.99 – ToDo – ToDo is a more robust task management app. In addition to the basics (adding items, reminders, prioritizing, etc…), ToDo allows you to add multiple reminder alerts, create sub-tasks for items, add notes to tasks complete with clickable phone numbers and links, advanced searching and much more.  



Producteev – Producteev is a web site that allows you to create, track and prioritize tasks.  You can add collaborators to your projects (one for free, then upgrade for a fee), which is a nice feature for teams or group work.  You can access producteev from the web, a mobile app for the iPhone or Adroid, or installable software for the mac and PC.


I really like the feature of sharing your to-do list with others that is available on second set of apps listed.   As mentioned, prioritizing is a skill many students have difficulty with.  Some students prioritize a 5 point assignment the same as a 100 point assignment.  The ability to share or collaborate on lists gives students the ability to have a mentor or parent assist them with prioritizing items on their list.


As mentioned, this is only a few of the many apps that are out there.  More comprehensive (and expensive) supports with companion apps such as MyLIfeOrganized and OmniFocus are also available for those needing additional tools and supports.  If anyone reading uses a task management app that they would recommend please add it to the comments section of this post.  

Highlight Supports

I had the opportunity to present a session on merging AT and Literacy supports at the ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference a couple weeks ago in Orlando.  The feedback was great so I thought it would be a good idea to share a piece of that session here.

The primary focus of the session was to help folks understand that technology alone (assistive or otherwise) rarely increases student achievement.  You must include strategies, or at a minimum explicit instruction on how to properly use the technology to see success.  One great example of this is the use of highlighting tools.

I separate highlighting tools into three categories (I actually do this with most supports): 1.) Low Tech, 2.) Web Based and 3.) Downloadable Software.  A discussion of each is below:

Low Tech
Low tech highlights are pretty simple to grasp… They are the common sharpie or other brand highlighters that you purchase at the office supply store.  I’ve seen these used in a variety of ways.  For example, guided notes are an evidence based practice that work with almost all grade levels and content areas.  They work great for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they ensure students have the important information.  It’s easy for many students to fill in the blanks on a guided notes handout.  However, some students with disabilities (physical or other) struggle with the act of filling in multiple blank spaces with written text.  In these scenarios I’ve seen teachers provide a version of the guided notes that are already completed, then have the students highlight words instead of write them.  I think this is great.  All students have the same handout regardless of ability, they just may access it differently.

Web Based
Web based highlighting tools are a newer feature that I use frequently.  Install an extension into your web browser (Diigo is a great one to use) and you instantly have access to highlighting tools that you can use on any website.  Once highlighted, those highlights will either stay, or be copied to your account so that you can review them later.  Many of these supports even create and save a citation, which makes creating a bibliography much more manageable.

Downloadable Software
In addition to the web-based tools, there are similar features beginning to show up in a variety of software products that may be installed on classroom computers.  For example, Read&Write Gold from Texthelp has a toolbar dedicated to what they call “study skills.”  This includes different color highlights that can be used with Word, Internet Explorer and more.  Once highlighted, there is an option to collect highlights so that they will be dumped into a separate file by color, date or whatever your preference may be.  There is also a bibliography tool built in to help cite your sources.

The Strategies
What we know is that use of a variety of strategies can improve student performance (Pressley, 2002).  Explicitly teaching students how to highlight and annotate text is a very good example of one of these strategies.  Literacy consultants around the globe will tell you that students need to be “engaged” in their text.  This is difficult to do by just listening to a story, or reading a chapter.  However, having students highlight sections they feel are important in one color and words or sentences they do not understand in another is a great way to get students thinking and engaging with their text.  This of course is just one of many ideas.  How you choose to have students use these supports may be different.

Ups and Downs of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

One of the most well known methods for working with students who are non-verbal is the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS.  According to the PECS website, “PECS was developed in 1985 as a unique augmentative/alternative communication intervention package for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and related developmental disabilities.”  As the name suggest, PECS begins by having students exchange pictures to request a desired item from a communication partner.

Recently a meta-analysis was conducted by Flippin, Reszka and Watson (see full citation below) to examine the effectiveness of PECS for students with autism spectrum disorders.  Overall they found that ” Results indicated that PECS is a promising but not yet established evidence-based intervention for facilitating communication in children with ASD ages 1–11 years.”  Specifically, here are a few things I took away from the article:

  • The publication mentions several reports that suggest that PECS has increased functional communication in students with ASD in a relatively short time period.  While this is good to note, the article makes the point that while positive, these reports lack evidence.
  • There are enough articles mentioned throughout the publication that will keep any researcher busy for some time, but the most common outcome from referenced studies was the success in increasing students’ ability to request items.  While this is far from what one would  consider to be proficient communication skills, it is never the less a positive result that data clearly indicates is capable with PECS.
  • Some studies referenced did demonstrate an increase in communication.  Some of these were said to have treatment fidelity (meaning that it was clearly demonstrated that PECS was implemented correctly) while others did not.
  • Data is limited for the maintenance phase (ability to continue effectively using PECS after training) and the generalization phase (using PECS effectively in other settings).

Anyone using PECS or working with students with ASD and communication delays should read this article.  It is titled “Effectiveness of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) on Communication and Speech for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-Analysis” by Flippin, Reszka and Watson in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, May 2010.

It is important that classroom teachers as well as AT specialists and other related service providers are familiar with what the research says.  While this article demonstrates the effectiveness of PECS for requesting items, it gives concern for having expectations past this, or for assuming that a student will maintain progress once training stops.

Evernote – Remember Everything

I ran across a cool litte application called Evernote that I wanted to share.  You can check it out at  According to the site:

Evernote allows you to easily capture information in any environment using whatever device or platform you find most convenient, and makes this information accessible and searchable at any time, from anywhere. Did we mention that it’s free?

I have an office computer, laptop and home computer in addition to an iPhone and access to the internet about everywhere I go.  Evernote gives me a system for collecting notes, to do lists, websites, photos and more in one place.  Say I’m at a store and need to snap a picture of a product to check out later.  No problem, I just take the pic with my phone and add it to evernote.  It will show up on my computers, phone and evernote website when I log in.  Same goes for contacts, notes from a lecture and more.

From an educational perspective, think of how useful this would for students who are in seven class periods a day and have computers and/or internet capable phones at home.  I can see this being a very useful resource for them as they collect information for a report, story or other project.  In addition, for students who have poor organizational skills, this could be an excellent support.  A screenshot of the desktop version for windows is below, but this application works on the internet, mac and iPhone as well.  Oh, and it’s FREE for the basic version that should handle most uses.  The premium version on runs $5/month.

Evernote Windows Screenshot

Cool Whiteboard Software

Just finished reading about how to integrate whiteboard lessons into online learning environments where the FREE software LectureScribe was mentioned.  LectureScribe is a software developed by Brian Dean, an assistant professor of computer science at Clemson University.

I viewed a demo of the software and found it very well put together.  Although it is recommended that you use a tablet PC or WACOM (input device you for computers that you can use a digitized pen with), you could always use a regular PC with a mouse (just know it may be a bit frustrating).

The software gives you multiple boards so that you don’t have to include your entire lecture on one board.  It also allows you to record audio.  When finished, it saves as a .swf or flash file, which is compatible with almost all web browsers.  From there, you can post it to your site, blog, eLearning course or whatever floats your boat. Currently the software is PC only.

Oh, and did I mention it’s FREE!  Check it out at

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 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.

Converting Videos to and iPod Format

Finding a solid free application to convert videos to an iPod format isn’t easy.  I’ve tried several out and have came to the conclusion that WinFF is about the best available at the time of this writing.
WinFF is about as simple to use as it can get.  Simply click “Add” (see screenshot below) to add the video you would like to convert, then choose what format you would like to convert it to.  The purpose of this post is to show a good converter for converting videos to an iPod format, but WinFF can convert to many other formats as well.

Download WinFF for free at

Removing Shortcut Arrows

OK, so this post doesn’t really have much to do with educational technology, but it solves an annoying problem.  In Vista, if you have a shortcut icon on your desktop there is a huge arrow that attaches itself to the icon to show that it is a shortcut to another location.  One way to fix this is to edit your registry, but that’s never really recommended unless you are an experienced user and aware of all the risks.  Instead, download the free Vista Shortcut Overlay Remover by FXVisor.  You can download it from or PC World.

After installing, simply open the program, choose no arrow and log off.  Once you log back on you’ll see that you no longer have a shortcut arrow on your icons.