Joy in Junk Mail

six black mail boxes on a wall

Lucas burst into my office and excitedly proclaimed “I read the junk mail! All of it!” Now you would think a 24-year-old young man would have better things to be excited about, but it was the first time he had ever done so.

When Lucas first started at St. Clair College, his Individual Education Plan (IEP) from highschool called for a reader and a scribe because of his learning disability. At the college level, we were striving for greater independence and had introduced him to speech-to-text and text-to-speech software. Text-to-speech software such as Kurzweil and Texthelp allow one to scan in printed material and the software will capture the text and read it out loud while highlighting the text on the original image. Textbooks can be converted to PDF files so that the student can see the page as it exists in the book and hear the text spoken in close to real life voices. For student with disabilities that interfere with reading skills, this makes text material more accessible and in a more timely fashion.

Listen to this post in a mp3 file produced with Text 2 Speech, a free online service that converts text using a basic quality computerized voice. This will give a flavour of what text sounds like for a student with disabilities although most commercial software has better voices.

While these tools have an impact on academics, it also has on impact on a student’s everyday life and provides opportunities for self advocacy and self actualization. For Lucas, it meant that for the first time, he was able to decide what was junk mail and not worth reading and what was of interest to him. Until the day he set up the scanner at home and was able to scan all the mail he received to read with Kurweil, he had relied on family members to sort through his mail and decide what was worth reading. Often, and understandably, the family members would read his mail and summarize what was in it because reading the whole document took a lot of time. All Lucas’ correspondence was filtered through what someone else determined as important. With Kurzweil, Lucas could decide for himself.

This filtering or bias happened for Lucas with a reader during tests as well. When Lucas would ask for a question to be read again (and again), there was a chance that the inflection, emphasis and body language of the reader would change and sometimes even show frustration, boredom or disbelief. Sometimes, Lucas got the impression that the reader though he was really stupid and would read the question slower and louder. With Kurzweil, Lucas could hear the question as many times as he chose and it would sound the same each time.

Kurzweil has other active learning tools that encourage students to use highlighters for important (to them) information, definitions, key terms and more. The software can extract the highlights to a separate document for study notes or to an mp3 portable audio document to listen to away from the computer. Here too, Lucas could listen to his text as often as he needed to without having to worry about someone becoming bored or frustrated and he could make decisions about which of the information presented was necessary for his study notes.

I have heard some faculty express frustration because testing centres at their institution require tests to be provided in advance, sometimes 48 hour before the test is to be written. Often, these tests need to be converted into a text-to-speech format and that does take staff time to prepare. It does mean that faculty have to prepare their tests in advance to meet those deadline but to me, use of text-to-speech software for students with disabilities who need it represents a better way of ensuring academic integrity where students can independently demonstrate their knowledge with no outside filters or bias.

Featured Image: Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

Blogging with speech-to-text software

person using a computer to play a game

Assistive technology is one way that students with disabilities can mitigate their challenges in an education system. Often what is used as assistive technology was not created specifically for students with disabilities. Speech-to-text technology was originally created as a productivity tool commonly used by executives, lawyers, doctors, etc. The most common commercial product is Dragon Naturally Speaking. Dragon can also be used by people who have low vision or who are blind.

As voice recognition software improves, new applications are released. I am using a free online application that uses Google voice recognition technology to write this blog post for the nine by nine by twenty-five challenge. You can try it out for yourself as long as you have a microphone. I would recommend using a headset with a microphone for better accuracy.

Having used Dragon Naturally Speaking for several years and completed various training sessions to help Dragon understand my speech I am surprised that no training was required with this software. So far, it has missed only one word and my only other complaint is the extra space before the period and the lack of capitals on the first word of sentences that I will need to fix. I am an excellent typist. I can type over 80 words per minute but with Dragon or other speech-to-text technology I can produce content as fast as I can speak, and I can speak very fast.

Some students with learning disabilities will use speech-to-text technology to produce all their written work including papers and assignments. Other students will have the speech-to-text software running in the background but will only use it for words that they can pronounce but not spell. When a student with a learning disability has difficulty with spelling they’re often not able to express their thoughts and ideas fully and will rely on simpler language that they are confident they can spell. With technology like speech-to-text. they can more fully demonstrate their knowledge and understanding using more complex language and sentence structure. From the point of view of learning outcomes, if the goal is to produce a well-written document, it should not matter to the professor if this was created by typing or using software.

There’s some other interesting ways you can use speech-to-text technology in terms of productivity. For example, I can record my voice on a tape recorder or using the computer to create an MP3 file and later run that file through Dragon to create the text. I have also used this technology after creating videos for online learning. I take the video, strip out just the audio, and run that through Dragon. It creates a text document that I can then use as a transcript and convert into closed captioning to make my video more accessible.

When using text-to-speech technology, you do have to learn some techniques order to control the formatting. And you do need to be able to speak your ideas in full thoughts and sentences which can be a little awkward at first. I take on the persona of a newscaster and try to articulate my words well so that the technology will be more accurate. I also find using this technology has helped me with removing some of the speech fillers that often come up when articulating ideas outload. Because the technology will attempt to add any Umms or Hmmms that I may have in my speech, using this technology has been a good way to remove those. I also find that rather than speaking one word at a time if I can use more natural phrases, the technology more accurate in its transcription.

Assistive technology is not something to be afraid of. It can be an awesome support for students with disabilities, professionals in the workplace, and even time limited professors and educators. as the technology continues to improve, I believe we will find it integrated into more software and more applications and that learning to use the software will be an advantage students in their education and later, in the workplace.

Featured photo:Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash

Taking on a new OntarioExtend Challenge

woman holding two gray handheld tools

9x9x25 Week Zero

Oh OntarioExtend, you keep coming up with new possibilities for growth and openness! The 9x9x25 Challenge is 9 posts in 9 weeks with at least 25 lines of musings about teaching and learning. I did like to center my post on the topic of Accessibility and Accommodations for students with disabilities.

There are a lot of options in this area. I can write about the Canadian Human Rights Code, the differences between academic accommodations between highschool and college, Assistive Technology, Learning Strategies, what we mean by mitigation, why we don’t modify outcomes in college, perceived privacy issues with audio taping lectures, why having a note taker has the risk of bias, and why you should hug your Student Services staff once in a while or at least share a coffee break with them.

I am excited to get started! About eleven years ago, I had the best job of my life. I was the Learning Strategist/Assistive Technologist for Thames Campus of St. Clair College. I loved that job. Working directly with students with disabilities, particularly with students with learning disabilities, was a privilege.

We have an education system that does not fit every student and students with the potential to learn should not be shut out because they don’t fit some weird definition of the average student. As much as we are working to change the education system, we still rely on teaching through lectures, textbooks and tests – and if you are good at those things, you will do well. But if there is something that stands in the way, you can be limited in what you can pursue and I think that is wrong.

Let’s take apprenticeships, just for a minute. You can be the greatest mechanic but if you have an Auditory Learning Disability and have difficulty with spelling and sounding out words you don’t immediately recognize, you may learn to cope by reading for meaning when you encounter one of these unknown words or if you could hear the word, you would know what it means. We require you to take and pass many multiple choice tests where the number of words is too low to really make use of reading for meaning and rarely can you get the accommodation of using a text to speech reader. Does that make sense? I am not going to ask you to complete a 20 multiple choice test before I let you fix my car! But the education system we have may block excellent mechanics from pursuing their dreams!

I have lots to say about Accessibility and Accommodations for students with disabilities. I hope you will come back over the nine weeks of the challenge and see what I come up with!

Featured image: Photo by Jia Ye on Unsplash