Sunday, March 28, 2010

Story Bird: The Art of Online Book-Making

Storybird.com lets you create simple picture books online using its bank of professional-looking illustrations and user-friendly interface. No cheap, cheesy clip art here; these pictures are as beautiful as any you'll find in children's books anywhere. Besides being motivating for reluctant writers who may appreciate good art, they also spark the imagination for kids who think they're not creative, like that classic Chris Van Allsburg gem, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick does.

A Message From Blio, But Still No Revised Release Date

[Note: updated information can be found here.] This weekend, people who signed up for updates about Blio got the following e-mail. It doesn't say when it's actually going to be released (after missing its initial February 2010 launch date), only that they are "putting finishing touches" on the product and will notify subscribers to updates when the software is available for download.
----------Quote------------
Blio. Turn the Page.
Thank you for your interest in Blio.
We sincerely appreciate your desire to begin using what many have said will be the breakthrough eBook platform on the market. We can assure you that you will be among the first to enjoy its rich user experience, and that time is fast approaching. As soon as Blio is finalized for free download we will notify you by email.
We are currently working with our many partners to put the finishing touches on this revolutionary software and a library of more than one million novels, biographies, cookbooks, travel guides, how-to books, textbooks, art books, children’s stories, and magazines.
As you know, Blio will be the first eReader to preserve the image-rich format of books and magazines, including their layout, typesetting, images, color and graphics, while also supporting full media functionality, including video, graphics, and web links.
With our cutting-edge, 3D book technology and the vast collection of online books that we have jointly collected from the world’s leading publishers, we believe we have the key to transform the book industry. And we’re excited that you will soon be part of that transformation.
Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience.
You are receiving this email because you signed up for Blio updates.
For more information, please visit www.blioreader.com
---------End Quote-------------
Well,  we shall stay tuned indeed. Meanwhile, the competition isn't going to sit still. Microsoft Reader has many similarities with Blio, including that it's free. I still have a hunch Blio is going to be better than MS Reader, but you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Monday, March 22, 2010

SMART Notebook Math Tools

If you've ever used a SMARTBoard interactive whiteboard, you know that SMART Notebook is an excellent piece of software for teaching in the 21st Century. Recently, SMARTtech came out with the Math Tools plug-in for their Notebook software. Out of the box, Notebook itself is already a fantastic tool for teaching math, especially if you've upgraded to version 10.6. Besides the standard geometric shapes in the toolbar, it's got dozens of math-related clip art images and interactive Flash files. You could easily cover all the strands of elementary math, and there was plenty of ways to use Notebook in secondary math (or any subject, actually) as well. So when I heard that SMARTtech was going to start charging extra for a Math plug-in, I didn't really think it would be worth buying the cow when you could get the milk for free. (A site licence of SMART Notebook is free if your institution owns a SMARTBoard.) However, when a representative from SMARTtech came to demo the Math Tools for me and my colleagues, I was sold. It's powerful software that's elegantly simple to use. It's got a unique feature set that any math teacher (possibly even university-level) would love to have. It's literally a math teacher's dream come true because it was designed based on a wish list from math teacher SMARTBoard users. In my current role, I don't really get to teach math any more; when I saw the demo of Math Tools, I yearned for the day that I can return to teaching math, hopefully with my own SMARTBoard and Math Tools. Rather than tell you about the features, which should really be seen to be appreciated, here's a link to a demo video from SMART's website.


As great as this software is for general education, this blog does tend to focus on Special Ed. So, how can SMART Notebook Math Tools be used for special ed students? First off, it's an engaging way to teach math. We all know that engagement with the curriculum increases a student's chances of success. Second, it's highly visual and tactile for kids who learn better that way. Third, it makes it easy for the student to review the lesson (or part of it) if needed. Fourth, a student can use the software on a PC or laptop for the virtual manipulatives. Students who can't properly hold a compass, for example, can use the virtual one. Fifth, students who have fine motor issues can show their work in math neatly using the equation editor, gallery images, and drawing tools.

These are my impressions after viewing the demonstration. As you can tell, I was impressed. However, I did not get a chance to try the software out myself in-depth. If this review sounds a little unbalanced, I just want you to know I'm not getting anything from SMARTtech. I might be a little biased because it's a Canadian company, but I don't think that would affect my opinion too much. What I'm trying to say is that this is not an advertorial or blogvertisement. SMART software has a pretty good reputation for being solid and easy to use. I think it's pretty safe to say that this piece of software is unlikely to disappoint. If you've tried it, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. Feel free to post your opinions, positive and negative.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dragon vs. SpeakQ part 2

This is a repeat of what I posted on the AT in Education group on Diigo.com.
Karen Vitek had asked if Dragon was still the gold standard in Voice Recognition and whether it was appropriate for younger students.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking is absolutely the most accurate and most powerful voice recognition software on the market. It can be effective with younger students, especially if you definition of younger is ages 11-14.

There is another program to consider, called SpeakQ. It is actually a plug-in for WordQ word prediction software (www.wordq.com). Since it uses the Microsoft voice recognition engine, its accuracy varies from individual to individual, so be sure to use the 30-day trial before you buy. The beauty of SpeakQ is its simplicity.

Dragon was designed for and is marketed to the business person, the medical professional, and the legal professional; it assumes a high degree of literacy skill in the user. SpeakQ, on the other hand, was designed with special needs students in mind.

There are two main differences between the user experience of DNS versus SpeakQ:

(1) The voice training process in SpeakQ uses a speech synthesizer to prompt the user, who listens to and repeats the training text a few words at a time. This is useful when the user has reading difficulties. Dragon does not do this.

(2) SpeakQ offers instant voice feedback of its recognition, so for the user with reading difficulties, it's clear whether or not the software recognized the voice accurately. It lists the different possibilities of what it "thinks" was said and the user can hear the different choices before selecting. For example if I say, "Ice cream," there might be a list with "Ice cream", "I scream" and "I screamed", and I can hover the mouse over those 3 choices to hear them before I click and select the one I actually said.

SpeakQ does not work for commanding your computer the way Dragon does. With Dragon you can open other programs, click menu items, etc., with your voice.

I recommend SpeakQ (if it works OK with the individual's voice) for students with weaker reading skills, weaker computer skills, or students who are cognitively not ready for the complexities of using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I recommend DNS for students who can handle the reading and the complexity, students with speech impediments, foreign accents, or physical impairments that require them to have voice control over the Windows environment. 



EDIT:
I have to mention that my experience with SpeakQ is based on using it under Windows XP. Since the voice recognition engine is Microsoft's own, the version of Windows makes a big difference. I've been told that running SpeakQ under Windows 7 greatly improves the recognition abilities, so if you've got Windows 7, the playing field between Dragon and SpeakQ is a little more level. Ultimately, I suggest the 30-day trial version of SpeakQ, because you will know for sure how well the software is going to work with your voice.

Atomic Learning AT Webinar Archive

Last Fall I posted about the then-upcoming Assistive Technology webinar series from Atomic Learning. (That post has now been deleted to make room for this one.) I wanted to post a link to the archived webinars for anyone who's interested but missed some or all of the series
 http://atomiclearning.ning.com/page/webinar-archive
Registration is free, but you should be aware that Atomic Learning is a business, and offering these webinars is a way for them to connect with potential new clients for their technology how-to services. I've received 2 phone calls and 2 or 3 e-mails over the past few months as a result of signing up for the webinars. (Atomic Learning's how-to resources for Assistive Technology are quite extensive, and are certainly worth considering if you need that type of thing and your jurisdiction can afford them.) The webinars themselves aren't bad, but aren't great. I'd recommend them if you're new to AT and you have a bit of time to spare.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Dragon vs. The Q: The Battle for Voice-to-Text Supremacy

I was working with a girl yesterday whose speech was affected by early hearing impairment. My job was to find a voice-to-text solution to help her spell and write better. Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 9, which was ordered for her a few years ago, was not successful. SpeakQ was not successful. I had my doubts that anything would work for her because her speech was not very clear and she always spoke quietly and got many of the words wrong during voice training. Then we decided to try Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 10, which I recently got on my computer. We chose the "special" training option, where we don't get feedback during the training process; she would just read a passage for 10 minutes, mistakes, mumbles and all. I was not optimistic.

After voice training, Dragon spent SEVERAL minutes processing her voice sample. (I had to send her back to class because it seemed like it was going to take forever.) But after it was done, we tested it, and we were AMAZED! Very high accuracy, despite all the factors working against us.

I guess I should have had more faith. I use DNS v. 10 without a headset; that's right, I just use my laptop's built-in microphone (and I don't even know where on the laptop it's located). Granted, I myself have pretty clear speech, if I do say so myself, but still, using a built-in microphone for something that usually requires not just any headset, but a high-quality headset? That's impressive. Oh, did I mention, I did ZERO voice training for DNS 10? So, out of the box, using my built-in microphone, I can get an accuracy percentage in the high 90s.

So did the mighty Dragon smoke SpeakQ in my books since version 10 came out? Not exactly. There are still times when SpeakQ is better. The user experience with SpeakQ is so much simpler, making it my first choice for most elementary students and for secondary students with more pronounced reading difficulties. DNS, is, after all marketed towards adults, while SpeakQ was made specifically for special-needs students.

For a more detailed comparison between Dragon and SpeakQ, see my recent post at the following Diigo group: AT in SPED (EDIT: I'm not sure my post is accessible, so I've posted the contents in this blog at http://cybersert.blogspot.com/2010/03/dragon-vs-speakq-part-2.html)

If the makers of SpeakQ and/or Dragon happen to be reading this post, may I make a humble request? Please get together. Please combine the best of each product to make a DNS-powered SpeakQ or a simplified DNS! Our kids deserve it!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Blio Misses February Launch

Ray Kurzweil's latest venture, the Blio Reader, missed its announced February launch date without any explanation on its website. I'd signed up for Blio updates via e-mail but have yet to hear any news from them. In fact, it's been pretty quiet since the Consumer Electronics Show in January, when the February launch was repeatedly promised by Dr. Kurzweil himself. What happened between then and now? Well, there was the launch of the much anticipated Apple iPad, and since Blio was supposed to be available for the iPhone, it could be that its developers are tweaking the iPhone version to be compatible with its larger cousin. In any case, I'll keep waiting for news from Blio and keep you posted.

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