Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

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

Blogs in Education

I’m writing this post for a couple of reasons… First, I believe that blogging is a great new way for educators to embrace a universally designed classroom. Secondly, after asking my class to create a post regarding blogging in education I feel obligated to at least make a short post myself.

So, why should classrooms embrace blogging? There are the obvious reasons, which include writing for a larger audience and engaging students. Then of course there are the not so obvious reasons for some that include making assignments more accessible for students with diverse needs and helping to create that universally designed classroom you will hear me mention so often.

Let me expand a little – first with the more obvious reasons. If a student is at the point to where she doesn’t care about school and is frustrated with assignments, I’m not sure that she is really interested in what the teacher thinks about her writing ability. But what if the rest of the class, or the rest of the world, may read her writings and heaven forbid – leave comments on what they think about it! That student may start to re-think what it is she is writing. No one wants his or her friends to think they aren’t smart.

The engagement piece is probably self explanatory as well. If you were a student would you rather sit quietly and write with a pencil and paper or use the internet and computer with all of its wonderful tools and resources? Yeah… me too.

Moving on to what some teachers may not realize, the accessibility features that can be used when blogging are incredible. Are your students more visually oriented than text oriented? No problem, add some pictures to support your ideas. Trouble writing due to fine motor or other disabilities? Again, no problem. Maybe your student would benefit from using one of the hundreds of specially designed keyboards that are available. If a regular keyboard isn’t available, how about using an on screen keyboard with switch access? Or maybe your students have spelling problems. Did you know that spell check is available in most web browsers now? If that doesn’t work, maybe word prediction with phonetic spelling features would do the trick. Hopefully you see where I’m heading with this. Not only is a digital medium more engaging, but it is much more flexible as well. Think about all of your struggling readers. How much help would a text reader be for them when reviewing their peers’ blog posts?

Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas. I would recommend starting your own blog just to see how simple it is. Go to www.blogger.com or one of the many other blog utilities out there and give it a try.

Markup your PDF Documents

Most of you probably know what Adobe PDF documents are. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, they’re those aggravating documents you receive from time to time that you can read, but cannot edit. They require you to have special software (Adobe Reader – free and standard on most PCs) to open them. The good thing about these documents are pretty much the same as the bad thing: you cannot edit them. Why is this good? Well, many people, including publishers use a PDF file so that end user (i.e. you) cannot modify the content. Businesses may also use them for policy and procedure manuals, forms, contracts and more. They also come in handy when you want to make sure your document looks the same to everyone. Have you ever opened up a word document that required you to edit parts of it just so you could make sense of it all? If the creator used a PDF document instead, no matter what setting the end user had, the document (including images) would look the same as when it was first created.

The bad part of not being able to edit is also quite obvious. What if there is a mis-spelled word or you don’t like the way something reads. Maybe you just want to bold or highlight certain portions for your records. These simple functions cannot usually be done.

Now however there is a free program that gives you the best of both worlds. PDF-Xchange viewer is just that. It allows you to add your own markup to any pdf document and save it. This includes adding highlights, circles, arrows or even sticky notes. And don’t forget, it’s FREE! There are premium versions that let you do more like create your own pdf documents, but the viewer will serve your basic markup needs. If you need to create a pdf document there are free alternatives to that as well, such as Cute PDF Writer or PDF Creator. These programs allow you to create a pdf document by choosing them as your printer.

Converting YouTube and other Video Files

One of the more common tech questions I’m asked when it comes to video is how to save YouTube videos onto your computer. There are several resources out there that allow you to do this including extensions for your internet browser, websites, and other applications, but one of my favorites that was recommended by a colleague (simply because it requires no installation and can be used with any computer with internet access) is the website Zamzar.com.

Not only will Zamzar allow you to save YouTube videos to your computer in various formats, but it will also allow you to covert other files like .doc and .pdf files. To use it, simply go to their website (www.zamar.com), upload a file, choose what you would like to convert it to, enter your email address and click convert. When finished you will be emailed a link that will allow you to download your file. If instead you want to save a YouTube video, simply go to www.zamzar.com/url and past the url of the video into the “Add url” box. Click Add url, choose what format you want to covert it to, enter your email address and again, you will be sent a link to download the video in its new format.

The shortcomings of this site is that conversion can take a few minutes and you have to enter your email address instead of being taken directly to the download. However, not having to install any software or have any tech skills whatsoever for it to work is a huge plus for many users.

Blackle.com – Saving energy one search at a time

Looking to save energy while you work? Blackle.com may do just that. It takes the worlds most popular search engine, Google, and gives it a black background that uses less energy to display than bright white or other color alternatives. The paragraph below is directly from their website:

“In January 2007 a blog post titled Black Google Would Save 750 Megawatt-hours a Year proposed the theory that a black version of the Google search engine would save a fair bit of energy due to the popularity of the search engine. Since then there has been skepticism about the significance of the energy savings that can be achieved and the cost in terms of readability of black web pages.

We believe that there is value in the concept because even if the energy savings are small, they all add up. Secondly we feel that seeing Blackle every time we load our web browser reminds us that we need to keep taking small steps to save energy.”

All Blackle asks is that you do your part in saving energy. They recommend you set your homepage to Blackle.com instead of Google (after all, your searches will still retrieve the same results) and add “Blackle.com – Saving energy one search at a time” to your email signature.

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

Did You Know Video

Okay, so anyone who thinks technology isn’t important in education should watch this video by Karl Fisch  and Scott McLeod (http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/). It’s a bit lengthy, so be sure you have a few minutes to watch.

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.