‘All Aboard’ Inclusive Technologies for Reading

Picture of a road map entitled a change of place imparts new vigor to the mind

A change of place imparts new vigor to the mind – photo by katerha on Flickr

Pre planning

I have to say I didn’t start the journey on the Inclusive Technologies for Reading course with any particular thoughts or expectations. I just noticed that it was to do with IT (tick for area of interest), supporting those with print disabilities (tick for an area in which I wanted to learn more), and that as a pilot course it was free (another tick in these times of limited funding for course participation…).

So when I say the course has surpassed my expectations it certainly has – but it would also have genuinely done so if my expectations were set high to begin with.

Starting point

I was aware that with developments in assistive technology, there was massive potential for improvement in access to the curriculum for pupils with a visual impairment. The pupils with whom I worked I already used various technology eg; VI specific software; certain shortcut keys for use with Word and the general Windows environment; laptops to produce their work; DAISY audio books on a DAISY player etc. However, I was conscious that this was now really the tip of the iceberg. I knew it was important to learn more, but was unsure what direction to take and how to structure the path of any learning.

The road map

The course has moved through a comprehensive itinerary of PLN building, Structured Documents, Text to Speech, Productivity, Ebooks, Print Disability Theory and Practice, and  concludes with two additional destinations: for me, Tactile/Simplified Images and DAISY synchronised text and audio, from a choice of a further six options*. These core components (accessed through the innovative mediums of learning stations, videos, quizzes, webinars, twitter socials, google docs and hangouts) provided the framework and direction of the forward travel, with encouragement and support also provided within each unit, for individualised excursions to areas relevant to particular learning interests.

The latter generated a really useful ‘trip advisor’ function, as new discoveries and recommendations from other course members were posted on, through the course shared links, participants blogs and twitter #itr12.

Feedback on posted work from other course participants was also really appreciated, keeping any leanings towards getting off at the ‘Easier Life Stop’ at bay.

Photo diary

Snapshot of the wider impact so far (clicking on the pic opens it in larger form)

mind map snapshot of learning and wider effects: work with VI pupils, new ideas; technical confidence; staff training

The place I am now

Trying to encapsulate what I’ve learnt feels similar to answering that question ‘how long is a piece of string?’. I just know that on reaching the end of the course: how I feel I can now support the VI pupils and staff with whom I work; how I think about organising that support; and how confident I am to do so, has changed exponentially.

Postcard from (near) the end

In my first blog post, I wrote that I hoped to be able to say a ‘wish you were here’ at the end of the course, and having nearly arrived, (rather disheveled and definitely bleary eyed), I can say that undoubtedly reflects my sentiments.

So thanks Dominic and Justine (and to the other course participants)– I hope the course funding is renewed and other educators gain the same experience, for as I am already seeing in practice: for pupils with print disabilities, the subsequent improvements in their access to the variety of assistive technologies, has a real potential to significantly improve both their learning experience and their independence.

*(Optional Units: Software for VI students; Tactile/Simplified Images; Software and hardware for supporting active reading; Speech Recognition; DAISY synchronised text and audio; Assistive technologies for people with physical disabilities).

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Learning Through Audio (a cautionary tale)

No problem. Simple. Sure to be my favourite study unit of the ITR12 course I thought, when considering the set text to speech targets and activities. After all I love listening. I use audio books all the time. Can’t get enough of them infact. Could listen to them all day without getting tired – and the radio – and my recently discovered favourite podcasts.

Let me just say famous last words…..

The audio tick sheet

Text to speech, such as the above (and below), is very much to my liking, consisting as it does of content in which I’m interested, often spoken by professional narrators, using human voices with all their cadence, depth and variety of intonation and tone, and delivered in a way that gives clear meaning to the subject matter.

(Picture:Nicholas Jones/whale05 Flickr. Audio: Narrator -David Horovitch, Alice -Jo Wyatt)

However even when presented with all these elements, I find I still have more boxes that need ticking to move the audio experience to the Goldilocks zone, where it’s ‘just right’.

With audio books I prefer to listen to American narrators, followed by Scottish, then English. And with both the latter I have a definite leaning towards male rather than female voices. Infact, once or twice, I’ve even been unable to get on with a human reader’s voice and have had to abandon listening to a chosen book.

I also prefer to be physically active/occupied when listening eg. driving a car, decorating etc. Just sitting and listening without any other stimulation usually means I’m either lulled into a cozy state where I fall asleep, or I get fidgety. Neither being conducive to prolonged or engaged listening.

Additionally, I have the advantage of being positively inclined to audio as a learning style, whereas for some people, even given their optimum text to speech conditions, listening is still difficult.

Ripping up the tick sheet

man with hands over his ears standing next to audio speakers

Photo by austin tx on Flickr

So what happened when none of the above criteria were ticked? When I had to listen to text by which I was not particularly engaged, read by a synthetic voice (even a preferred one), with it’s more monotone delivery and pitch. When the interpretation of the content was dictated by whether the original author had correctly placed their punctuation, leading to very real ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ or ‘eats shoots and leaves’ situations, and where I was expected to remain seated and maintain classroom appropriate listening behaviours.

To my shock, I found it extremely difficult to listen.

I fidgeted, twitched, and squirmed. I wanted to leave my chair to relieve my restlessness. I became annoyed that the voices were delivering the information at too slow a pace, mispronouncing words and diluting the meaning. I lost attention. I found it difficult to absorb and retain information. I found it difficult to re-locate information. I developed a headache.

Certain things helped somewhat with the attention issue, such as being able to integrate access to both audio and the text: a luxury that may not be open to a visually impaired person. Using voices that I preferred, such as Welsh English Geraint from Ivona for non-fiction, which, for me, offered a less monotonous listening experience, incorporating as it does the rhythm, stress and intonation of the Welsh language pattern (and may have been more comfortable for me as I’m Welsh).

Narration by Ivona Geraint 

Additionally, being prepared to use a robotic sounding voice (such as that used by the JAWs screenreader), which more easily allows for the voice to be accelerated to read the content at speed.

 

Even then, if tested on what I’d been able to study and remember from longer extracts of  material in audio form, I often would have been the deserved recipient of the dunce’s cap.

So what have I learnt?

A lot. The most important of which for me, is that I no longer regard access to audio as the straightforward and simple solution I once thought it. I’ve realised there are potential barriers to overcome and it’s made me rethink how to effectively support visually impaired pupils, so they develop the skills and ability to make the most of audio in all its forms.

So, I’ll now think to offer dual access to text and audio, and to allow for personal choice of a voice reader, and my customary listening skills programme is about to expand. I’m now planning on starting it earlier and continuing it longer; to incorporate the use of synthesised voices to deliver various listening activities; to more consistently target and develop pro-active, listening comprehension strategies and also to work on maximising aural memory skills. (I may even be more understanding of the fidget….)

For whilst audio may not be perfect, it’s remains one of the more important, and sometimes the primary strategy, for alternative access to the curriculum, and if supported properly, has the obvious potential to offer many advantages for learning.

So what’s so good about a PLN?

My Symbaloo PLN webmix

Who would have thought you’d be able to learn anything from a message of 140 characters including spaces and sometimes an address. Certainly not me. So finding that joining Twitter has proved useful, has been a lovely surprise.

Just yesterday I did I search for a hashtag stream related to a hearing impairment and discovered information about new experimental software that has the potential to boost the output of a hearing aid. I’ve passed that onto my mum so that she can ask her audiologist about it, and also updated the Hearing Impaired Team with the news.

A few days ago I followed a Tweet link to the RNIB site and came upon a blog from a teenager with a visual impairment. I’ve recommended that link to a VI student and his family so that they can read about the positive experiences the blog writer had on a residential Action for the Blind adventure holiday. Hopefully it will encourage him to have the confidence to try the same. At the very least he’s thinking about responding to the blog writer – and who knows – maybe a new friendship will be formed.

Being able to create a list of Twitter users who are tweeting about issues to do with visual impairment (RE Vision) means I can now easily and instantly tap into current news and views about this issue.

Then there’s the discovery of the vast range of powerful online tools that are available. Because of this, I’ve been able to create a Symbaloo visual bookmarking webmix filled with 50 sites to investigate.  It was only a few weeks ago, that I was aware of and just using 5 of the sites. Now I find I know of another 45 more and have already used 11 of these.

It’s also been integral to supporting my enthusiasm for the Load2Learn course – to have your learning horizons extended through the links to information and personal work tweeted by other course members (recent eg. Jane’s Talking Tins recommendation), to be able ask for advice and to receive positive feedback in real time – it’s really motivating.

And these are just a few of the myriad of examples I’ve found helpful, and which have become available to me seemingly overnight.

Not that Twitter is the only social media format you can choose to use to shape and broaden your Personal Learning Network (PLN). There’s Facebook, Ning and LinkedIn to name a few, and who couldn’t be but intrigued by the opportunities to mooc; drive; hangout; link; flip, bookmark, podcast. screencast, video, blog or be delicious.

It’s been fascinating how easily and quickly you can leapfrog the stepping-stones from one person, or thought, or idea, or recommendation to another and end up somewhere new, unexpected and often illuminating. And it’s especially powerful, because with this form of learning you can direct where you want to go, and for me (and I think for most people), that’s where and when you learn best – where your interest lies.

I enjoyed Michael Fawcetts clip below, who talks about how he developed his PLN and encourages others (in his own inimitable style) to follow suit.