Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kurzweil 12, Co:Writer 6, and Conceptua Math at Bridges to Learning Conference

I had a chance this past Friday to check out some new AT software I've been interested in: Kurzweil 3000 v. 12, Co:Writer v. 6, and Conceptua Math's free online fraction tools. The setting was the Bridges to Learning conference for educational technology. This was the Canadian unveiling of Kurzweil 12 (and only the 3rd showing worldwide). It was also the first showing Conceptua Math has given to a special-education audience.

Kurzweil 3000 v. 12
Cambium Learning Technologies is about a week or two from making version 12 demos available for download to the public, so this was an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the new software. Unfortunately, I had a workshop to run off to, so I didn't get to spend as long checking out the new K3000, and I didn't get a hands-on opportunity myself, but I did get to see some of its new features in action. Cambium's Director of Sales, David Bradburn, demonstrated Version 12's hyperlinking ability. You can create a hyperlink on a word in a text that can jump to any other part of the document (so if you have a text followed by comprehension questions, you can jump back and forth between them); or it can open either a web page or a file of any type to give additional information on a topic or direct the student to additional reading or tasks. I also saw the translate function in action: all you do is highlight a portion of text, click on the Translate button, choose the language and it will provide Google Translate's rendition of the text in the given language. It worked very smoothly and intuitively.
From my School Board's perspective, we were very interested in the Web licencing option. David Bradburn told us that Version 12 would allow a district to create a roster with every student's name, and students could download and install the software on as many computers as they want. They can activate the licence with their unique code, and the Board only pays for whatever maximum number of concurrent licences to be available. So if you have a population of 100,000 students and staff, but only expect a maximum of 2000 to be using Kurzweil at any given time, you only pay for 2000 licences. This will have tremendous potential for expanding the reach of this technology in our Board, as we currently purchase standalone licences for individual computers, and teachers currently have minimal access. Another web licence feature is that districts or schools can create centralized libraries of e-text for use by anyone on its roster. The web licence also has reporting tools for administrators that show usage histories and how many users were denied access in case licences run out due to a spike in usage. What's really cool, though, is that if teachers create documents with bubble note questions, it will track each user's answers for assessment and evaluation. [Update: I just found out that this will be an extra feature that will be free for the first year of the web licence but will require yearly subscription thereafter.]
Unfortunately, although new high-quality Spanish TTS voices will be included with Version 12, there are still no new English Voices. VW Kate and Paul were great when they first came out, but they're hardly state-of-the-art anymore. I'm also hoping that the next Kurzweil 3000 will be re-written from the ground-up to improve the user interface, which I think is far below standard for a modern Windows application. And when, O when, will they give us a Canadian dictionary?
A couple other notes about Version 12:

  • Version 12 will come on a single DVD-ROM. 
  • The French edition of K3000 will skip Version 11 and will go straight to Version 12.

(By the way, if you're using Kurzweil v. 11, a new update -- v. 11.05 -- is available. In Kurzweil, click Online, then select Updates...).

Co:Writer 6
This one I did get to test drive. Although there have been massive improvements made in Version 6, as a WordQ user, I have to tell you that I'm not ready to switch. First the good stuff: the user interface has been simplified. It can switch from one application to another much better, and if it doesn't happen to switch successfully, you can refresh the connection and it will work again. A very important new feature that was inexplicably missing in previous versions is the ability to select any portion of text and have the TTS read it back to you. What I like the most about the new version is that word lists can now be displayed alongside your writing (like Kurzweil 3000's floating word lists), so you can have a list of vocabulary words, linking words, or sentence starters visible to click on and use any time. They can be displayed in a word cloud format or a standard list. Check out Don Johnston Inc's YouTube channel for a demonstration and how-to videos.

Version 6 also is available in a Canadian edition, with Canadian spellings (are you getting that, Cambium?). Now the bad news: Co:Writer still gives the impression that it's not entirely comfortable running in Windows. It doesn't seem to run anywhere nearly as smoothly and seamlessly as competitor WordQ does. Although WordQ could certainly benefit from the floating topic lists (and the extensive number of topic lists) that Co:Writer has, overall WordQ just works better. You select a predicted word in WordQ, it appears instantly in your application. In Co:Writer, it appears to spell out the word one letter at a time in rapid succession. WordQ also provides example sentences to help distinguish between confusable words (e.g., here, hear, hare, hair, etc.). And the user interface in WordQ is second-to-none as far as elegant simplicity goes.

Conceptua Math
I'll probably go into more detail on this in a future post, but I just wanted to bring to your attention this free online fraction teaching tool from the former leaders of Intellitools. It works great with an interactive whiteboard (such as a SMARTboard), has accessibility features such as Text-to-Speech (which I think may be coming soon... as an online application, improvements are constantly being made) and Intellikeys compatibility. (It may also be switch-accessible, but don't quote me on that.) A premium version is coming soon, and at $2 per student per year, is fairly affordable by North American standards. Coming from the folks who brought us Intellitools, you can be sure that this software is high quality, research based, and created with Universal Design principles in mind.

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