Several years ago I authored an article in the Monitor called AT in the hands of ESL teachers. It proposes that assistive software for learners with various disabilities become a learning aid for students who are learning English. Since more and more software is multilingual or cross-lingual, their application is not limited to English but can be an equally fantastic tool in the hands of teachers of other languages or teachers of other subjects as specialized software may also find its way into other classes.
I wanted to pique your interest in a few options that could turn out to be effective in any class. But before I dive into describing specific software a few words about what benefits this could bring to all learners.
Lars Tiedemann posted a video on his Facebook page. He explains how a person with severe mobility concerns made a good use of Chromevox, application that was primarily meant for people with visual impairments. It is an example of how different technologies can be integrated to serve a particular user. He found solutions that serve him best regardless of whether they were meant for this or that category of users. He composed his individual suite of tools.
Individualization, personalization or customization of the learning process have been widely described in professional literature. Practitioners know that these concepts can be as beneficial as they can be challenging. Students in classroom and in community will seek tools to function and interact in a more convenient way. Why not giving them a free hand in how they want to learn as long as they learn. Why not let them access information, interact with information and process information however they will. Because end of the day what matters is their performance and outcome.
So just like Mr. Tienemann students may also find their set of learning tools and gadgets (both electronic and traditional) that will facilitate their efforts. Assistive technology as a subset of information technology is designed to level up educational opportunities for learners with disabilities. Nowhere however can we find information that these so called assistive tools cannot be used by students with no disabilities. Investment in out-of-the box approach may prove to be an intelligent move. Assistive solutions, those that are not meant as ELL or any LL didactic tool could join a group of material known as authentic material. A brief explanation for people who are not teachers of a foreign or second language about what authentic material is. I am going to use a quote from a blog Authentic materials in the classroom: the advantages. In principle, „<<authentic materials>> are reading texts that were written by native speakers and published in contexts designed specifically for native-speaker consumption, with no thought given to non-native accessibility”.
We live in times when a bolder and more common introduction of what we still term as assistive technology into the mainstream use should be pushed. Used by a wider spectrum of people this technology could drop the attribute „assistive”. School-age people in particular often find assistive devices embarrassing and stigmatizing. Once it is just a learning tool for anyone, it will lose its negative connotation. A society at large will have another reason not to perceive people with disabilities as special (pejoratively special). In schools teachers will not need to worry that special accommodations favor selected students. And most of all people with disabilities may find a more common ground across the board expending their pool of friends.
Synthetic voices have become part of everyday life, e.g. GPS. We hear it cars, at railway stations, elevators. They are implemented in those situations not to assist selected people but to provide information to anyone. Because they are a natural component of common tools, it seems reasonable to have them included in the learning process in schools. One suggestion of top of my head would be to have learners simulate those situations. For example they could create a visual and auditory guide around their school. Or they could write short classroom reminders that will be announced by a tool with synthetic voice. You might ask, why not record them? I would respond – read the first sentence of this paragraph – synthetic voices are part of our reality and we are showing our learners how to make a good use of them. We are also informing them that it is for everyone rather than for a limited group of users.
Teachers of a second or foreign language could make a good use of voice recognition to help their learners practice pronunciation. Apart from paid and sophisticated software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking or ViaTalk teachers and learners have a choice of free options like Dictation in MacOS or Speech Recognition in Google Docs running in the Chrome browser. The clearer the pronunciation the better recognition. If a learner cannot pronounce a word clearly enough, the output will be poor.
Having slightly diverted off the main topic I’ll go back to software that although called special could well be more common (this time is a good thing) and benefit many more.
AAC software programs lend themselves to a variety of uses in the educational settings. For one since those are communication systems based on a language, they could be a great tool for learning languages. They can help students expand on their vocabulary, improve their spelling and create interactive stories. A cool example is Snap Scene where images are given text and audio labels. Learners study vocabulary in a visual context associated with newly introduced concepts.
Tobii Communicator 5 is a full-fledged communication software program within which teachers and students can create communication pagesets with selected vocabulary. Instead of having word lists, learners can practice new words engaged in a communication. The meaning can be learned by deriving it from a visual context formed by adjacent images. The above quoted Lars Tienemann proves also that a communication tool such as Tobii Communicator 5 can be also helpful in learning math.
And speaking of math. How many of you have heard of cubarithm? I hope I can assume that at least all teachers of the visually impaired have. If you do not know what they are, worry not. Here is an image. Still not helping? Ok. It is a grid with Braille cubes used to teach blind kids mathematical operations. Have you heard of software Cubarithm? Unlike its physical original, it does not require the knowledge of Braille at the same time being accessible and fun for sighted and blind learners. All kids get their math activities, they can correct each other’s work. It is particularly great for instructing learners on the traditional columnar layout.
OViiChat app is a real time communication tool for those with hearing loss. Wouldn’t other students want to chat with no need for internet? They could not only practice language skills but also exchange thoughts in situations when speaking out loud is not an option.
Kids love to move. Why don’t we let them move and learn or simply develop their cognitive functions. Neuroforma that was not even designed for education has a lot of potential in class or other instructional situations. Different levels of physical difficulty combined with different levels of cognitive difficulties make this proposition a superb tool for teachers having a mixed ability group. Oh wait, isn’t it 95% of groups?
These are nothing but a few examples proving how assistive solutions can become mainstreamed and vice versa. Universal approach to education deletes the distinction between abilities and disabilities. The attribute added to special devices and software is removed along with a sense of stigmatization. We are observing also another shift in the paradigm. Upon till recently it appeared that support flows in one direction, towards people with disabilities. Now what was designed for them has a potential to support those without disabilities. Technology again levels the playing fields, not just by giving access to those that may have various difficulties in using the so-called mainstream solutions but by allowing all parties involved to exchange favors and supports.
Assistive inspire the mainstream. May this pre-paralympic commercial by a Canadian organization be your food for thought.