Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 3

December 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

In the final installment of my ramblings inspired by the BDA’s Technology in Education conference, another key topic that arose was the importance of audio. The use of text-to-speech software or speech-to-text software for dyslexic learners who have difficulty working with text is widely known. But one speaker, Maggie Wagstaff, raised what I think is a fascinating question — in schools, why is a piece of paper with writing on it more valued than a voice file? This got me thinking, why is all education so focused on reading and writing, rather than listening and speaking? This is not a new idea. In the old days of ancient Greece, we can imagine philosophers debating and discussing their ideas. At university, much information is transmitted through spoken lectures, and may be debated in seminars. A doctoral thesis may be defended through a ‘viva voce’, or spoken exam. And yet until postgraduate level, written exams remain the most common form of assessment. Why is this?

From talking to teachers, it’s clear that listening to an audio recording takes more of their time than reading a piece of written work, because a lot of teachers are good readers. But the value for the learner with writing difficulties is undeniable, and when given the ability to record their assignments verbally they may go from being able to produce a few scrawled bullet points in the time given, to being able to construct a cohesive argument, which is surely more valuable to their education.

This can be a big issue for HE students as well. When I was teaching in a university Computing department, a lot of students said they really struggled with exams. Not the stress, or the knowledge of the work, but that this was the only time in the whole year when they had to write with a pen!

Institutions may be moving slowly towards allowing typed work in exams, but producing an audio exam seems unheard of. The idea of a scribe or amanuensis in exams is not new, but may only be available to a few learners, and most likely only in exams rather than for all assignments, meaning it can be hard for teachers to keep track of a learner’s progress if they are unable to produce any work until the exam. If dictation is allowed in principle, why not cut out the middle man and just let the learners speak? And it’s not just students with dyslexia that might prefer to speak their answers rather than writing them — consider also the visually impaired, or anyone with an arm or hand injury. This is perhaps a slightly radical idea, and I’m not denying the value of the written word at all, but now that voice recording technology can be made so widely available, I think it would be wonderful to imagine a time when learners can access information and present their work through whatever media they are most comfortable with. In this way, we can move away from ‘special needs software for special needs people’, towards recognising people as individuals who all have their own preferred ways of working, and providing a wealth of different tools to make that equally possible for everybody.


Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 2

December 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Carrying on from my previous post, another common topic at the conference, and linked closely to the points I made before, was in making the best use of what’s already available. Young people need to be taught how to use computers more effectively, to gain all the benefit they can. Touch typing was strongly advocated by several of the speakers — Jackie Harber pointed out that it is of particular help to dyslexics, as looking at the keyboard wastes precious working memory on low-level tasks. Keyboard shortcuts were also strongly recommended, as they can speed up frequently used tasks (usability professionals may already know that providing shortcuts for frequent users is one of Ben Shneiderman’s Eight Golden Rules for interface design). This is particularly vital to dyslexic learners, for whom a lot of writing tasks will generally take longer, so any time-saving mechanisms will be helpful. Using keyboard shortcuts may also make the effects (e.g. increasing the font size) immediately obvious, without getting lost in menus and option screens. Knowing about the tools available in applications will also be helpful — for example the use of ctrl-f (‘find’) to search for text may aid learners who have difficulty in ‘skimming’ text by eye. But these are in fact all strategies that can benefit any computer-user, and arguably should be a key part of early school IT lessons — touch-typing is one of the most useful IT skills I have, and sadly that was self-taught.

This also links in nicely with a topical issue that’s close to my heart, which is the current drive to reform IT teaching in schools. Do children need to understand how a computer works, and how to write code in order to use one? Maybe not, but increased understanding of something surely just helps you use it better. I don’t need to fully understand how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car, but the more I understand about how the brakes and gears work the more efficiently I can drive it. Spending all a child’s time in IT lessons learning how to use Microsoft Office seems to me like spending driving lessons just learning about all the different colours you could paint your car.

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