Category Archives: New technologies

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Award winning software from Sonocent proves to be a great conference tool

Naace is the association for everyone who cares about ICT, whether they are teachers, researchers or technology companies so it was entirely appropriate to see Sonocent Audio Notetaker being used in the audience.

merlin's notes with ano2

I sat next to journalist Merlin John whose site is essential reading for anyone with a passion for technology and how it is used in our schools and colleges.  He was taking notes on a talk called ‘You have Mobile Devices- Now What?’- given by Darryl LaGace, Executive Vice President of Global Business Development at Lightspeed Systems and as I glanced across I couldn’t help noticing that Merlin was using Audio Notetaker.

merlin‘The microphone on my laptop is good enough to pick up the sound in a conference setting like this,’ said Merlin. ‘I like to make rough notes and then get the exact quote from Audio Notetaker. It is so easy to home in and find the part you want.’

Merlin recently published my article about Audio Notetaker’s success at the BETT awards and their tie-in with Dragon Naturally Speaking. It is so nice to know that he is now using it as a tool to help him in his daily work. He commented on Twitter: ‘AudioNotetaker use it a lot. My favourite for transcription’.

Neither mad nor bad, just dyslexic

IMG_0656.1This time of year when Christmas cards come though the letter box seems to me to be the one occasion when handwriting matters. While e-cards are in vogue and a great money saver, there is something special about digging out the best pen, or even a half decent biro, and doing Real Writing.

According to an article in the Guardian,  research  commissioned by online stationer Docmail earlier this year revealed that the average time since an adult last scribbled was 41 days. But it also found that one in three of us has not had cause to write anything “properly” for more than six months.

Many claims are made for the power of handwriting on our psyche and development. Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva who said: ‘Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’ He believes it helps with reading and learning the alphabet.

Now I have spent a lot of my working life with people with dyslexia who often have dreadful handwriting which they struggle to read and have seen the way that touch typing can transform composition and spelling as people move from thinking in terms of individual letter shapes to writing whole words so I am not excited by such assertions and I do not accept that handwriting helps develop muscle memory whereas computer don’t.

I am also quite shocked by notion put forward in the article  by historian Philippe Artières that doctors and detectives in the late 19th and early 20th century found signs of deviance among lunatics and delinquents, simply by examining the way they formed their letters.  Quite possibly these people were neither mad, nor bad but simply dyslexic.

However, I will admit that handwriting is very individual and personal compared to word processing. I am amazed how many people’s handwriting I can still recgnise at a glance after a gap of many years. I am also saddened when I open a card from an old friend and see how their handwriting has started to break down with age .

Handwriting is our personal mark, it reveals something of our identity and as such is very powerful. We need to be careful how we use it.

Tablets transform lives for deaf people

Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research at the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS), showed me some of the advances in technology for deaf people when I was writing my article for Access magazine.  See the full article here ian noon

iPads and similar tablet technology has revolutionised life for deaf people and let them use services in a less ‘special’ way.

Ian uses an app to call a taxi, and now uses Twitter to receive live updates on train services and send queries to his local operator in the event of a delay;. He uses it on a plane to watch films with subtitles instead of just getting half the story.

Many films are available with subtitles, but cinemas are, however, still commercial businesses that want to keep regular audiences on side. They tend not to schedule subtitled screenings at weekends or on ‘Orange Wednesdays’, which is when Ian’s hearing friends usually want to go. He can therefore see some of the latest films at a nearby cinema, but only if he is content to go on a Monday or other less busy time, and then probably on his own.

He is hoping the Google Glass headset will make a difference to his life. Their ‘subtitling specs’ should soon be available. Wearing them he will be able to see subtitles which are invisible to others.

The Ed Show Cometh

The Education Show is coming very shortly (20-22 March) and I have to say it has improved immeasurably over the years. Although it is on my doorstep at the NEC in Birmingham it used to be my least favourite show.  I felt it was very unfocused offering everything form sink plugs to robust crayons to school visits and the latest high tehc offerings from computer manufacturers. It is now a lot more fun.

Things I have loved in recent years have included seeing the tallest man in the world folding himself up to get in a lift, seeing Peter André lecturing a group of head teachers about why ‘Education is Very Important’ and seeing a man demonstrating the delights of wok cookery. What with the flashing chopper, hissing oil and sizzle of vegetables it must have given school bursars and staff health and safety reps much to think about.

darawebThis year the Ed Show has gone all cerebral on us. Not the Fonz or a footballer but instead Professor Brian Cox on Thursday. Presumably he will be talking about Life the Universe and Everything and How Things Can Only Get Better. And indeed they will. Because on Friday we have the lovely Dara Ó Briain discussing the importance of Maths & Science.

I have lined up nine seminars I want to cover including Dyscalculia Strategies and Solutions, Introducing Enterprise to Children through Play and Working with Children Who Have an Acquired Brain Injury.

I notice that this year there are 33 exhibitors for science but only 6 for food.  Sadly, the man with the wok has had his day.

All this and Jo Brand too

The BETT awards are almost upon us and I can nearly get into my posh frock to join the glitterati at a new venue, the Brewery at the Barbican. This year we are in for a real treat as the awards will be announced by Jo Brand. Even if your company doesn’t win, you are assured of a good night out.jo2I have been looking down the list of finalists seeing who I would like to see win in some of the key categories. This is a purely subjective approach. I am not going to support anything which deals with assessment in any form as I now believe that this is just another way to cosh teachers, parents and children into submission and give them an inferiority complex.

There are many shortlisted products that I know and love. I am running two sessions on Audio Notetaker for dyslexia learners on the Sonocent stand C470 on Thursday at 1.30 and Friday at 2pm and they are on the list for the ICT Tools for Learning and Teaching section. I am of course familiar with all the products in the special needs category and I am delighted to see other old friends such as 2Simple, Twig’s TigTag, TextHelp and the Yes Programme.

But there are many products which I am less familiar with. Here is my top ten to look out for:
1. For early years one good choice would be Rising Stars Switched on ICT, a step by step approach to get young children using ICT in meaningful ways. I like Rising Stars and have written about some of their other products especially their e books.
2. I like the look of TTS Group’s Mini Mobile Phones: ‘Children will delight in developing their language using this set of 6 realistic mobile phones. Colour co-ordinated buttons make for easy use.’ This will at least stop children using their parents’ boring old iPhones. They have also been shortlisted for:
3. The NEW Ultimate Timer, a rechargeable stopwatch with a simple to use, lapsed time function. Anything which saves looking for batteries will be welcome in the classroom.
4. For primary I am going to opt for 3P Learning Reading Eggs a library with over 1,500 eBooks, for specific year groups, as an intervention/catch up tool and to support EAL and SEN requirements
5. Another good choice is Espresso Education – Espresso Coding that teaches students to code and make their own apps to share with their friends and parents. This will help children develop skills for their future working life which so much of the National Curriculum singularly fails to do.
6. For secondary I am going for English and Media Centre’s Arctic Adventure which works on ipads and has authentic video material, images and blogs from the Catlin Arctic Survey.
7. For ICT Tools for Teaching and Learning I like the idea of IGGY ,an online educational and social network for gifted 13-18 year olds from across the world with content for maths, science, history, politics, creative writing and life skills, and a safe environment for students to exchange ideas, debate and learn.
8. It’s a pity FlashSticks won’t be at BETT because the product looks excellent. It combines low tech post-it notes, foreign language vocabulary and smartphones. The notes are colour coded to help with gender recall (blue notes for masculine words, pink notes for feminine words) and a Free App channel means users can wave their smartphone or tablet over any note to call up a quick pronunciation video.
9. Visual Education’s Wordwall lets teachers make easy learning activities for interactive whiteboards. Apparently you pick a template, type in your content and with a few clicks you’re done. Alternatively pinch some ideas from their online community.
10. Finally I am on the look out for good maths resources this year so I am hoping that Jumpido will do the trick. It is billed as: ‘an exciting series of educational games for primary school. It combines natural body exercises with engaging math problems to make learning a truly enjoyable experience.’

If your product is in the running for an award, good luck. If not, then just enjoy the entertainment. I am sure Jo Brand will be very good value.

Will cheap be cheerful for those who need communication aids?

The impact of iPads and Androids on the world of AAC was the big theme for the Communication Matters annual conference at the University of Leeds last week.

Communication aids which can play back pre-recorded speech or generate synthetic speech have revolutionised the lives of many of the 300,000 children and adults in the UK who will need Augmentative and Alternative Communication at some point in their lives.

ipad aacMany people who need AAC have severe and permanent physical disabilities from birth as a result of conditions such as cerebral palsy. Others have degenerative conditions which leave them unable to speak.

It is a disgrace that in a wealthy country such as Great Britain children and adults are being left without the power of speech simply to save money.

One solution is to find cheaper alternatives to the specialist aids. In recent times, companies have started to develop apps which will work with iPhones, iPads, Androids and other tablet devices.

Good news you might think.  The trouble is that the users need support, training for themselves and their carers, robust devices which will bounce off pavements and ongoing research and development to make the next generation of communication aids the best that they can be. Buying a tablet online and downloading an app does not even begin to address these problems.

Catherine Harris, Chair of Communication Matters, summed up the dilemma saying: “It is an exciting time for the sector. Developments in adapting technology have increased the range of options for people and the growth of access methods, such as eye gaze, provide people with alternative ways to use their equipment. However, these developments need underpinning by comprehensive assessment, funding of equipment and longer term support services if they are going to be really effective.’

Celebrated voice calls out for new legislation for disabled people

He has done stand up for Comic Relief, trekked across a desert in northern Kenya and is one of the best known voices on Radio 4. But Peter White MBE, Disability Affairs Correspondent for the BBC, was not an early adopter of technology.

Peter White speaking at BATA AGM in London
Peter White MBE, Disability Affairs Correspondent BBC

‘I am not a computer expert and not an especially good problem solver,’ he told a packed audience at the annual general meeting of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) in London. Like many others he was slow to embrace technology which he attributed to an understandable and all too common ‘fear of the new’.

However as a blind Braille user he was also exceptionally adept with old technology. Despite the cumbersome nature of the Perkins Brailler, he succeeded in the competitive world of media. producing and reading his own scripts. ‘I was a fast Braille reader and won awards,’ he said. ‘In fact, I was praised by TS Eliot and patted on the head by the Queen Mother.’

What converted him to computers was the increasing realisation that he was not a ‘good colleague.’ He could not collaborate with sighted people at the BBC because they could not read Braille and he could not see print. They needed to find a format which would work for both blind and sighted writers. Fortunately a technology enthusiast took him in hand and pointed out that he was missing out on a lot of good books if he just relied on Braille.

Early attempts to use the technology were not always plain sailing, Fifteen minutes before going on air for his In Touch programme, the Braille Embosser linked to a printer ate his script and he had to improvise. On another occasion his script was printed out in Grade 1 Braille. ‘It is very difficult to adapt if you have if not read it for 30 years,’ he recalled, ‘so I used a mixture of reading and desperate ad libbing: not an ideal combination if you are trying to explain the complexities of the benefit system.’

Despite being a convert to technology, Peter is concerned that new developments leave disabled people behind. Access to the digital world is as important as the right to text books or to equipment. The Equalities Act and Disability Discrimination Act have given disabled people physical access to buildings but he is calling for legislation to compel manufacturers to provide equal access to their products and services.

BATA supports this stance. With members drawn from charities, commercial organisations and specialist schools, BATA  provides expert and informed opinion and  impartial advice to government departments and agencies. They are calling on government to improve the availability of communications aids and assistive technology in schools.

‘As I get older I get more enthusiastic about the potential of technology.’ said Peter. ‘Speed of development must not leave blind people behind. New vistas have opened. It is crucial these opportunities are not snatched way.’

‘Technology, Special Needs and Disability ‘- Peter White MBE ,Disability Correspondent, BBC was sponsored by BATA member Noel Duffy from Dolphin Computer Access

Shout Out for Voices

I have always loathed the voices on speech synthesis. I know disabled kids who think it is a laugh to sound like a Dalek but I think it’s sad and particularly depressing for adults who might have all their materials for a degree course read out in a robotic voice. But voices are getting better and I have two good news stories

First JISC TechDis commissioned CereProc to create Jack and Jess, two new high-quality voices that can be used with text-to-speech tools. The big story is TechDis has managed to obtain a wonderful licensing agreement so that all staff and learners in publicly funded post-16 education in England should be eligible to download the voices free of charge.

That means that if you are studying in Adult & Community Learning; Further Education; Higher Education; Offender Learning; Sixth Form Colleges; Specialist Colleges; UK Online Centres; Voluntary Sector; and Work-based Learning you won’t pay a penny. Ask at your education centre or college now.

Alistair McNaught, Senior Adviser at JISC TechDis is excited about the prospect of real voices for the estimated 4.5 learners out there who could benefit. ‘Now hundreds of thousands of print impaired learners have a decent voice to listen to while they are studying and won’t be embarrassed if they want to access talking materials while they are out walking or doing household chores. The stigma about using such software tools vanishes. This will have a massive impact on their productivity and confidence.’
Click here for more information

Voices for children
It’s not just adult voices which are improving. Rosie and Harry were shortlisted for the BETT ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions 2013. 74,000 children and teens in England cannot speak for themselves and need a voice for their assistive technology. Rosie and Harry are the first English voices for children. Acapela Group and AssistiveWare best known for former BETT winner Proloquo2Go have pioneered the development of these voices which in time will become available in other products too.

Harry sounds pretty normal but Rosie is definitely Home Counties which means girls will sound more like Hermione from Harry Potter than Lisa Simpson. More news here.

Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England
Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England

Anna Reeves, National AAC Coordinator for England said, ‘These new voices will further transform the lives of children who cannot speak and the lives of those around them. It may be the very first time that families hear their own children speak with a child’s voice – you can’t put a price on that.’

Caroline Wright, BESA and the House of Lords

Caroline Wright of BESA
Caroline Wright of BESA

Tonight I am meeting Caroline Wright face to face. I interviewed her for Merlin John Online 
We have emailed and talked on the phone so much that I feel as if I know her quite well but in fact we met just once – very briefly – at the farewell do for Ray Barker.

Caroline is not the new Ray. Nor is she a replacement. One thing I have learnt is that as the new director at BESA Caroline will put her own stamp on the organisation. She has a formidable pedigree with extensive overseas experience which will be of great benefit to the UK software community but she also has great charm

Most importantly she has a very clear set of values: ‘Education matters and is always likely to be featured in the first few pages of a newspaper because it is relevant to most of the population. We have all had an education and we nearly all know someone who is having one now. The role as a director at BESA ticks every box for me. I love education and this job lets me be part of a team and puts me back at the heart of strategy and delivery.’

Tonught I shall enjoy being BESA’s guest at their annual House of Lords reception.

Banning calculators is not the answer!

Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss has announced that calculators will be banned in maths tests for 11-year-olds from 2014. She claims that children are over-reliant on calculators and miss the rigorous grounding in mental and written arithmetic, “By banning calculators in the maths test, we will reduce the dependency on them in the classroom for the most basic sums.”

There are so many reasons why children should be allowed to use calculators. They let pupils explore data, spot patterns and number crunch fast and accurately. They help pupils develop a sense of what is a plausible answer. If left to their own devices, many children, especially those with dyscalculia, will struggle to do 3 or 4 questions. With a calculator they can do a whole page and start to build a feeling for what is a sensible answer. Calculators can be used to check answers too so pupils who have done a calculation in their head or on paper can try a bit of self-checking and become more independent learners.

Pupils need to learn estimating skills and a problem solving approach. These are the foundation of mathematical thinking whereas the four rules are numeracy. Interestingly, Ms Truss talks about ‘sums’ which immediately shows her ignorance. Sum only covers addition and I doubt that children are just adding up day after day.

Years ago I was asked to run a class on using calculators in an FE college because children were leaving school without this skill and employers, especially in the building trade, needed young people who were confident users of this very basic piece of technology. Similarly there have been a number of Trade Union courses on using a calculator to work out percentage increases, members’ pensions and other benefits. I wonder if the government does all its calculations on paper? Maybe this is why so many of their statistics are so suspect.

Financial expert Martin Lewis, creator of MoneySavingExpert.com  has said, ‘We’re a financially illiterate nation with a massive personal debt problem, about to treble student loans.’

So when we are faced with large scale poverty and unprecedented levels of debt, the government suggests we should stop young people being ‘over-reliant on calculators.’  They have to be joking!