The third in a series of articles written for ESCalate giving practical advice on how to improve aspects of your practice to benefit all learners
There are a wealth of freely available technologies to support learners, some of which are cut-down versions of paid-for technologies, others have similar functionality to technologies which can be purchased. Some of these technologies may be viewed as ‘assistive’ in the sense that their primary intended function is to provide a specific solution to issues related to a particular impairment. However, many of these tools can be appropriated by a very wide audience and can be a quick way of introducing variety into teaching and learning. It is important to note that some of these tools can be used to create audio or visual rich content and as such the specific needs of learner groups should be considered to ensure that solving one set of barriers does not create another. The creation of interactive and informative content can significantly increase learner engagement and retention. These tools could equally be used by learners themselves to create content in a non-traditional manner. Further information on the technologies described (including animations of their application) is available from TechDis at www.techdis.ac.uk/getfreesoftware
Reading assistance software
Read assist software comes in a variety of guises but what they share is a means of making text content more accessible. Some technologies help users with poor reading skills while others aid those with poor vision, although many learners find benefits when using these technologies. Some examples of freely available reading assistance software are:
Reading text aloud·
.– sits as a toolbar in Microsoft® Word. It speaks the text of the document aloud, highlighting the text of the document as it goes along.·
. – will read aloud text in a variety of packages e.g. Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, Adobe PDF and emails.
Reading text aloud with MP3 conversion·
– has similar functionality to that described above, but has the added function of being able to convert selected text into either MP3 or wav format. With the MP3 conversion, an audio file of a document can be created and made available with ease.·
. – converts text to speech using a notepad style document. SayPad has the added functionality of in-built MP3 conversion. SayPad can now convert Text to Audio, even a whole book in one run, splitting off chapters into separate, named Audio files you can burn onto a CD.
Screen capture software·
– is screen capture software which will record (in AV format) any activity that is occurring on a computer screen. Camstudio also synchronises the audio (either via a microphone or directly from the computer). This software can enable resources to be produced very quickly and easily without expensive software. Camstudio can also be used by learners to create interactive learning resources themselves. It can output as avi or swf format.
Sound recording and manipulation software·
– is a free audio editor and recorder. Audacity can record live audio (either through human voice or audio direct from a computer), and edit saved audio (including cutting, copying, adapting pitch, volume etc). Audacity can save any imported audio as an MP3 file, which is an excellent tool for producing audio files of resources and materials. Audacity can also be downloaded as a portable application which can be loaded on to a USB memory stick, thus removing the need for the software to be downloaded onto a computer – ideal if staff or students do not have administration rights to their computers.
– is a tool for creating interactive learning resources. Wink enables users to capture screenshots, add explanation boxes, buttons, audio content and titles. These screenshots can then be joined together to produce a ‘movie’. Each screen can have a number of text and audio descriptions added to the image, creating a multilayered learning object.
Screen adaptation software·
Screen Tinter LITE www.thomson-software-solutions.com/html/screen_tinter.html
– is a download which enables a quick and easy way of changing the background colour and text colour within any Microsoft® window. This can be achieved within the advanced menu options of the operating system but this software makes the adaptation very simple.
• FreeMind http://freemind.sourceforge.net
– is downloadable mind mapping software which enables a user to plan and organize their material, producing a document which can be exported to HTML. Mind mapping can be a powerful tool in enabling information to be noted without the constraints of a linear design.
Alternative interface tools
A screen reader is a form of technology which is employed by users who are unable to access the visual content displayed on the screen. A screen reader not only reads the text on the screen but enables the user to navigate the computer.·
Thunder Screen Reader www.screenreader.net
– is a freely downloadable screen reader for personal use (small charge for licensing for institutions) enabling the screen reading and navigation required for a blind or severely visually impaired user.
Screen magnification software
• iZoomScreenMagnifier www.issist.com
– can magnify from 1.5 to 16 times. A range of colour contrasts are available including black and white and reverse contrast. iZoom is also available as a portable application, meaning it will run from the memory stick alone – no installation rights on the PC are required.
Online discussion tools·
– is an instant messaging application that can be used in conjunction with any website. For example when entering the URL www.gabbly.com/www.techdis.ac.uk
a chat pane will automatically appear over the TechDis homepage, whilst still enabling navigation through the site. All users who enter will be added to the same chat pane. You can involve learners in evaluating a specific website or section as everyone can add comments without having to use a proprietary system, such as MSN Messenger, which you would require administration rights to download.
These are just a few of the many freely available tools and technologies which could be used to support innovative and exciting content creation, planning, discussion and collaboration.