Learning Tools – Using technology to support learning and facilitate collaboration in education

Yesterday Microsoft Ireland hosted a half-day workshop for second level students using technology for additional support within education. This workshop came about thanks to Tara O’Shea, Community Affairs Manager at Microsoft and Stephen Howell, Academic Program Manager. Tara has been a huge supporter of Enable Ireland Assistive Technology Service over the last decade and been the driving force behind many of the successful projects we have collaborated on. Stephen would be a very familiar face to anyone involved in that space where technology and education meet, not just in Ireland but internationally.

The goal of the workshop was to introduce some of the collaboration tools available to students using Office365, additional supports available to students with maths or language difficulties and to provide alternative ways to produce and present content. Obviously as Microsoft was hosting there was an emphases on their tools nevertheless Stephen was quite open about how similar features are available on other platforms. We (Enable Ireland AT) pride ourselves on providing independent recommendations; the best solution for the user is the solution they use best. The practice of schools forcing students down any particular route: Microsoft, Google or Apple, is restrictive and cause difficulties if there are specific access or support needs. Microsoft and Google though offer more browser-based tools that mean users are free to use any device. I should also acknowledged that Microsoft have really upped their game in the areas of Education and Accessibility over the last few years.   

Collaboration

Fostering collaboration is a cornerstone of modern education and promotes a vital real world skill (teamwork) that will serve students throughout their lives. The screenshot below from Facebook (Stephanie McKellop) and illustrates a way that tools we may have considered more for remote collaboration, can be used within a classroom or lecture hall.

Facebook screenshot from user
Stephanie McKellop.
I learned today that a group of students used a Google doc to take lecture notes -- they all took notes simultaneously in a collective file.
They would mark places they were confused or couldn't follow the lecturer. other students would see and explain.
at the end of the semester they have a massive document of note, questions and explanations from peers

Although this example uses Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote could also be used in this way. In fact there would be a number of advantages to using OneNote such as the ability to incorporate Ink annotations and drawings, audio & video and adding whiteboard or print text using Office Lens.

When it comes to collaboration, Microsoft Teams is at the centre. Teams is a unified communications platform, basically it’s like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger but with tonnes of additional features. Through Teams you can not only instant message, video/audio call or share desktops but you can also work on shared documents, whiteboards or mind maps. There are also plugins for many third party apps and services, so if you are already collaboration app or service there is probably an integration available. Stephen demonstrated how a tool like Teams could be used in a classroom session by setting up a class team and getting everyone to work on a short Sway presentation (we mentioned Sway in a previous post a couple of years ago, don’t understand why everyone isn’t using it by now). Once everyone had completed their presentation they posted a link to the class message stream and Stephen showed it on the large screen. Okay, this exercise could have been done without Teams but using the service made it so much easier and more importantly everything was recorded for students to revisit in their own time.

Support

We have looked at Microsoft Learning Tools numerous times on this blog over the last few years (read this post is you want to know more about Learning Tools). Thankfully, since its introduction as a plugin for OneNote in 2016 it has gone from strength to strength. Features like Immersive Reader are now standalone apps and have also found their way into many other Office365 apps like Word and Outlook. Some other apps Stephen introduced are listed below with a brief description. They are all free so we encourage you to download and try them yourselves.

Microsoft Math: If you are familiar with the language-learning app Duolingo, this app takes a similar approach to teaching Mathematics. Short challenges with rewards and feedback. Gamifying Maths

Snip & Sketch: Lets you quickly and easily capture content from the web (pictures, text etc), draw and annotate it and share with other apps.

Microsoft WhiteBoard: Provides a blank canvas where you can collaborate with others and share with the class

Microsoft Translator: Useful for translations or transcriptions. Stephen also showed how it can be a great way to practice pronunciation when learning to speak a foreign language.    

Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level

This weeks post was contributed by Wyn McCormack, co-author of the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level . Wyn has been involved with the Dyslexia Association of Ireland for over 20 years and has designed and presented courses on dyslexia for parents, teachers and students.  She has written extensively on the topic including Lost for Words, a Practical Guide to Dyslexia at Second Level, (3rd Ed.  2006), and Dyslexia, An Irish Perspective (3nd Ed. 2011) as well as being the co-author of the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level in 2013 (updated 2014, 2015, 2016).  She has been a presenter for SESS, the Special Education Support Service.   She is a former Guidance Counsellor and Special Educational Needs teacher.  Her three sons have dyslexia.

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In 2014 the Dyslexia Association of Ireland asked myself and Mary Ball, an educational psychologist to write the Factsheets on Dyslexia at Second Level to celebrate their 40th anniversary.  The key objective of the Factsheets was to give teachers clear and concise information on dyslexia, how it affects students and how schools and teachers can help. With dyslexia affecting approximately one in ten people, there are many thousands of students with dyslexia in schools.

There are 18 Factsheets.  The majority were intended for teachers and schools and cover topics such as teaching literacy, numeracy, foreign languages, Maths and Assistive Technology.  Factsheet 16 is for parents on how they can help and Factsheet 17 is for students on study strategies.

I update the Factsheets annually in August and they are available for free download at www.dyslexiacourses.ie.  After putting the work into writing them, I really wanted to get them widely used.   In 2014 I had taken early retirement as a Guidance Counsellor and Special Education Teacher.  So I set up Dyslexia Courses Ireland to offer schools, parents and students courses on dyslexia friendly strategies and AT resources.  I was then joined by Deirdre McElroy, a school colleague who had worked as a NEPS educational psychologist.  The courses have been really well received.  Since 2014 we have had just under 3000 teachers, 540 parents and 480 students attend our courses.  We run courses at central venues for teachers and also give presentations to the teaching staff within schools.  At this stage we have been to schools in every county (outside of N. Ireland).  In 2018 in the last week of August which is the first week of the school year, we presented courses in 14 schools.

The course for students is a study skills workshop.  Students with dyslexia may experience difficulties with organisation, reading, memory and learning, note-taking, writing and spelling.  They may find it hard to show what they know in exams due to misreading questions and poorly structured answers.  The workshop covers strategies that help the student to achieve and which also target their specific difficulties.

A key element of the teacher courses is that while we share ideas with the teachers, we ask them to recommend websites, Apps, and strategies that they are using in the classroom.  As a result we have an extensive list of recommended websites.  The teachers generously have allowed us to share these.  We do this by twice a year sending out a newsletter to all schools as well as to those who attended our courses.   The recommendations have grown so much that while we did have one handout called Useful websites/APPS on Keynotes, subject specific resources, study skills, exam preparation, assistive technology and on-line tutorials, we have had to split it into one for teachers and one for students. Both are available under downloads on the website.

While my favourite websites vary over time, some really helpful ones are as follows;

  • alison.com for on-line tutorials in Project Maths at Junior and Leaving Cert.
  • sparknotes.com and, in particular, their short videos of Shakespearian plays and the No Fear guides where the Shakespearian words are on side of the page with a modern English translation on the other.
  • studystack.com with flashcards and games when key facts have to be learnt.

Just in the last month, I was told about www.canva.com and www.spark.adobe.com which allow infographics be created.

The reason I am so involved is that my three sons are dyslexic and I realised much more needed to be done at second level.  As I have travelled with them on their journey through education, I also realised there was a reason why I could never tell left from right and that I also shared some of dyslexic traits.  These experiences have helped me appreciate the difficulties which many students with dyslexia face in school.

I hope the factsheets contribute to greater awareness of dyslexia at second level and all the ways that teachers and schools can support the these students.

Wyn McCormack

Pen Reader for students with dyslexia

Pen Reader a tool designed with students with dyslexia in mindA few weeks ago, we attended a demonstration of the C-Pen Reader, a tool designed with students with dyslexia in mind. This device, with its pen shape and an OLED screen with text to speech output, assists those with literacy difficulties to read.

It is a simple to use device, whereby the reader runs the tip of the pen over the word or words that they wish to hear spoken aloud.  Using realistic speech synthesiser software, the student can hear the text read aloud by the inbuilt speaker or by using ear phones.

There is also the option, when a single word is scanned, to hear an Oxford English dictionary definition of the word, and to have the word magnified on screen, useful for those who may have visual impairments.

There is also the option to scan and save text to the internal storage in the pen and transfer to a PC or Mac computer for use later, a handy option for those who may not have access to a scanner.

While there is a separate version of the pen available, the ExamReader, with limited functionality (i.e. no internal storage or dictionary features) that will meet the criteria for State Exams, the standard pen can be turned into an ExamReader by choosing a locked mode.

The C-Pen also works in French and Spanish, while the ExamReader can read German and Italian in addition. There is also the ability to record voice notes on the C-Pen.

While there are many differing options, both hardware and app based, available for those with literacy difficulties or using English as a second language requiring text to speech functionality, the C-pen has its niche market in the education sector where the use of mobile phone apps or bulky hardware may make the use of text to speech difficult or impossible. The c-pen is a user-friendly option that is easily transportable and can be personalised.

More information can be found at www.readerpen.com, and schools and colleges can arrange for a free trial for their students. The  C-pen costs €225 ex VAT.

Sensory Pod – Thinking outside the box

It appeared in the Cosmo room as if out of nowhere. Looking like a section of the international space station (one of the newer parts), it immediately grabs the attention of anybody who enters the room. Enable Ireland Children’s Services have been trialling a Sensory Pod over the last few months and both staff and clients are enthusiastic about it. I had a quick chat with Robert Byrne, creator of the Sensory Pod, while he was making some minor modifications based on feedback from our therapists.

view of the sensory pod from the side. sliding door is open, blue LED details on the end

In a previous job Robert Byrne spent a lot of time visiting manufacturers in Asia, which is when he first came across the idea of a capsule hotel. Due to population density, space in some Asian cities is at a premium. A capsule hotel consists of rooms that are only the size of the bed they contain. You have enough head room to sit up in bed but not enough to stand. In this corner of the world with our open spaces and high ceilings the thoughts of a night in such accommodation might cause us to break into a claustrophobic sweat, Robert however only saw an opportunity. Through a family member, Robert had experience of Autism. A common symptom reported by people with this form of neurodiversity is oversensitivity to stimuli: light, noise, touch and smells. It is this aspect of Autism that can actually prevent some people from engaging in everyday activities such as work and education. Robert noticed how successful the capsule hotel room was at shielding its occupant from such outside stimuli and realised it could be a very cost effective way to provide a safe and comfortable space for schools and colleges.

He took the basic design of the capsule room and customised it to suit this new function. inside the sensory pod with green mood lighting. Control console and mirror at centre on frameAlong with his design team, he reinforced the plastic shell and mounted the pod in a steel frame, with an extra bed that can be pulled out alongside the Pod. This provides a comfortable area for a parent or caregiver to relax when the Pod is occupied. They added LED mood lighting, temperature control, audio and 22” learning screen. The design is modular, allowing customisation to best suit individual client’s needs, full details are on the Sensory Pod site.

It’s all very well having a good idea but it takes a particular type of person to be able to see it through to a marketable product. The Sensory Pod have built an extensive portfolio manufacturing and designing sleep systems and safe spaces for some of the Largest Corporate companies across Europe and further afield. They played a key role in Dublin City University’s successful Autism Friendly Campus initiative. Students can apply for a smart card and book a time slot. Using their card they can open the pod door and escape the hustle and bustle of campus life for an hour.

Distraction-free studying!

We all know what it’s like being in school when the sun is shining outside and all you can think about is being out there!  Or when you’re trying to get your homework done and all you can think about is who’s posting what on Snapchat or Instagram?  Or have you ever found yourself managing to get a study block done and then taking a well-deserved 5-minute break to take a peek at social media, only to emerge from your phone a half an hour later and way behind on your study schedule?  Well, the following free apps are for you! In fact, they’re for anyone who wants to use their time on their computer or smartphone more productively, whether you’re a student or not.

 

Stay Focused

Screenshot of Stay Focused web appStay Focused is a free google chrome extension that helps you to stay focused on your work by stopping you from looking at time-wasting websites (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter).  You set a certain amount of time in the day that you’re allowed to look at those distracting websites and then once your allotted time for the day has been used up, it blocks you out of them.  End of distractions!  You can also choose to have a complete block on the websites that are your major culprits for time-wasting.

 

Leech Block

Screenshot of Leech Block web app

This one works in a similar way to Stay Focused but it’s for the Mozilla Firefox browser instead of Chrome.  You can specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set (e.g. you could have Twitter blocked from 9am to 5pm and Facebook blocked for all but 10 minutes in every hour).

 

Strict Workflow

Screenshot of Strict Workflow web appThis is one of many apps that use the timing principle behind the Pomodoro Technique (i.e. you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, then after four of these sessions you can take a longer break of 15-30mins).  This Google Chrome extension helps you to concentrate on your work by blocking a list of websites for the amount of time you’ve set and once your working period is over, it’ll unblock those sites to give you a break from work before you hit those books again!

 

Offtime

Screenshot of Offtime phone app

Offtime is an app for iOS and Android smartphones that not only lets you block calls, texts and notifications when you’re trying to work, but it can also track your phone and app usage so you can identify what distracts you most.  You can set different profiles, like School, Family and Me Time and when you’re finished your work, it gives you an activity log with a list of everything that happened while you were working so you don’t have to worry about missing out on anything.

So, with these apps you’ll be able to maximise your study time and even better, you’ll be able to look at all your favourite websites and apps guilt-free on your breaks!

Study Time!

person studying with booksIt’s that time of year again for students – heading back into schools and colleges, or perhaps you are a mature student, thinking of dipping your toe back into education and gaining qualifications or pursuing interests. You may be considering starting your study regime early, rather than leaving everything to the last minute, in the days and weeks leading up to exams! In that case, we may have some ideas below for helping to create study materials and finding resources online to assist with your plans! All of the resources mentioned below are free, but may have paid components to unlock further features.

StudyNotes collaborative websiteFirst up is www.studynotes.ie . This is a collaborative website, aimed specifically at Junior and Leaving Certificate students. Revision notes can be downloaded on practically all subjects at both levels, and you can also share your own notes as well. The website includes the tools to create your own flashcards and quizzes, which you can also share. Blog posts and videos on relevant topics can also be viewed. In addition, there is a forum to post questions and reply to others seeking advice. Also included are a notebook section to compile your own notes and a study planner to help make the most of your time.

goconqr repository of resourceswww.goconqr.com is a similar website to the above, in that it is a repository of resources, and once you sign in and create a profile, will give content specific to the Irish curriculum. As well as notes, you can create, share or download mind maps, flowcharts and slides on specific topics. Self-correcting flashcards and quizzes can also be created. It allows you to connect with friends and groups, providing a network to support your learning.
Khan academy repositoryKhan academy, while not specifically aimed at Irish second or third level educational institutions, has a substantial repository on a range of topics. For example Maths, Arts and Humanities, Science and Engineering and Economics and Finance are covered. As you work your way through the content, progress is recoded and you can also take practice tests along the way to ensure your comprehension of materials.
Quizlet webpage resources
Quizlet.com gives you the ability to search for resources as well as create and share your own. Mainly based on a flashcard type of structure, you have the ability to test yourself or play games using your own materials.

Some other resources that might be of use include:
TEDTalks (TEd.com) are a very useful and entertaining way of gaining information on a wide range of topics.
Scoil.net contains resources specific to the second level curriculum, while Schooldays.ie has information about exams, tips and advice.
OReillymaths.ie has videos on maths, explaining concepts and working out solutions.
Focal.ie is useful in translating Irish, while An Gramadoir (https://borel.slu.edu/gramadoir/form.html) will check grammar.

Hopefully these resources will help get your academic year off to a good start and assist in achieving your best!.

Digital Textbooks – Better but still not good enough

It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter and there is a definite nip in the evening air. After two or three months of care free holidays, children and young adults, all over the country, are getting ready for another academic year. Although more years than I care to mention since my school days, I share the sense of foreboding felt by some of these young people during the close of summer. It’s not the approach of double maths on a Monday morning or a state exam on the horizon that I dread. As an AT Technician working in Enable Ireland, it is the inevitable queries from parents and therapists about digital textbooks that is the cause of my anxiety. Can we get textbooks in digital format? How? Will they be compatible with the technology being recommended? If they are workbooks, how will they fill in the answers? These are some of the very pertinent, and for the most part frustratingly unanswerable questions that come in at this time of year. In the remainder of this post I’ll try to clarify the current situation, just don’t expect all the answers… sorry.

Can you get textbooks in digital format?

In April 2016 the Irish Educational Publishers’ Association (IEPA), who represent 95% of Irish educational publishing houses, agreed on a centralised special needs policy relating to making texts available in digital format. This is progress, although limited as you will soon see. Their policy (which you can read here) falls short of committing to the supply a digital version of the textbook to those who need them. “The publisher will make every effort to accommodate the request but cannot guarantee the availability of a particular title, or a title in a specific format. The format of the title remains at the discretion of the publisher.” Reading into this a little I think it’s safe to assume that all the commonly used titles will be available but anything a bit out of the ordinary will not.

How do I get digital versions of school textbooks?

Up until last year this was a tough one. Each publisher had different requirements and there was little information publicly available. Thankfully the IEPA have made some efforts to standardise the process which is also outlined on the page linked above. “The request must be submitted by a parent, or teacher, of the named student, accompanied by acceptable proof of medical condition. Files, in pdf, text files or eBook access are then provided to the student in question.” Obviously it’s not ideal that “proof of medical condition” needs to be submitted, but it is perhaps understandable from the publishers’ perspective that there are some restrictions.

Will the digital textbooks be compatible with the technology being recommended?

This is the question that keeps me up at night (well this and the new season of Game of Thrones) because there are so many variables. We would need to know the format that the textbooks will be supplied in, and the IEPA are very non-committal in this regard. Statements like “Files, in pdf, text files or eBook..”, and “The format of the title remains at the discretion of the publisher”, make it quite clear that they refuse to be pinned down. This really needs to be looked at. It is not in the publishers’ interests to commit to a specific format. It is however in the students’ interests, particularly students with access or literacy difficulties that require the use Assistive Technology. This is something the Department of Education need to enforce, as is the case in other jurisdictions. The only advice I can give here is to contact the publishers and find out what format the textbooks will be supplied in, then contact us at Enable Ireland AT Service.

If they are workbooks how will they fill in the answers?

Depends on the format, see above (sorry).

If you are looking for more on this subject you can read last year’s rant on AT in the Era of the Digital Schoolbag here

Educational/therapeutic activities for your child

3 young children in front of laptop computer

Below are some websites and downloads that will work for a short time while in trial mode, that your child might like try to get back into school mode.

One website which might be useful to try out would be www.purplemash.com . You can get a free 30-day trial, and again if your child’s school is using this, you may be able to get a home login. In particular, on this website, I recommend activities such as 2publish, which would allow your child to write creating stories including audio, pictures, and videos. Using 2connect, a mind-mapping activity, they can plan and sequence before writing. Writing personal stories, ie. What I did last week, when I grow up, etc can be very motivating and help maintain attention. Writing about daily activities can be useful in helping establish sequences such as getting ready in the morning, how to make a sandwich etc. this could then be extended to recalling a movie plot for example or recreate a recently read book, paying attention to what happens first, then next and how it concludes.  In the 2publish plus, 2annimate and 2code activities, the child is guided to work on sequence movements of characters and items, which should assist with planning, and when editing, visual memory ie. What do you need to change to get X to turn left instead of right? You can use this to stop the animation and ask what happens next, again to work on visual memory, critical thinking, maintaining attention etc.  There are lots more activities that are worth exploring, mostly aimed at the primary school curriculum. As this is web based, it can be accessed from any device.

www.ixl.com/ie is one of the few websites that follow the Irish curriculum for both maths and English. While it is subscription based, it does allow for up to 10 problems /questions to be solved each day without paying, which is a nice short session, particularly for the summer months, when sitting at a computer may not be the most motivating! It should provide extra support for the maths and English activities your child is doing in school, giving them extra practice with gentle correcting from the website, so they can learn independently. Answers are usually in a multiple choice format, and it covers the curriculum from junior infants through to sixth year. Again, this is web based and can be accessed from PC, Mac, Apple, and Android devices.

The free 30-day trial version of Clicker 7 from Cricksoft.com is a great way to experience this literacy support software. It has lots of features for those with literacy difficulties, including word prediction, where the software helps writers by giving a list of words that can be read aloud by right clicking on them, before selecting with a left click. This software also has a mind-mapping tool, the ability to create books and other activities, but one of my favourite features is the text reader. This will read aloud content (either the whole page or just selected words) with highlighting, so that the text can be followed, which again helps with word recognition. Premade books and activities can be downloaded within the software, so that the child can experience vocabulary and work on comprehension on topics that interest them. As this is a downloadable software, it is not available on iPads or Android tablets.

www.starfall.com has some great activities for those who are starting out with literacy and numeracy skills. Easy to use activities that are self-correcting are appealing to young learners, with the option of buying a subscription to access more activities. Most of the activities are Flash based, so may not work on tablets.

Mathschimp.com is a repository of free maths games, suited to a primary and secondary level. Most take a fun element to drilling maths skills, and a mixture of formats are used, depending on the website linked, so most will work on any device. www.cookie.com focuses on maths and science for the lower end of primary school, with some interactive activities. Literacy based games and stories are also featured. www.coolmaths4kids.com also has some basic maths games that require quick thinking! These last two websites are mostly flashed based, so again may not work on tablets.

For any budding authors, www.storybird.com is a website that will provide a selection of art for use in your own literary creations, be it short stories, novels or poems.

These are just a small selection of games available free of charge online. Hopefully, your child will have fun exploring and playing!

Boardmaker Online now launched in Ireland

Tobii Dynavox have recently launched their new Boardmaker Online product in Ireland through SafeCare Technologies. It has all the functionalities of previous versions of Boardmaker, except now that it’s web-based you don’t need any disks and multiple users can access it from any PC.

Instructor showing students how to use Boardmaker Online

You can purchase a Personal, Professional or District account and the amount you pay depends on the type of account, the amount of “instructors” and how many years you want to sign up for. You can also get a discount for any old Boardmaker disks that you want to trade in.

You get all the symbols that have been available in past versions, as well as some new symbol sets and any new ones that are created in the future will also be given to you. Because it’s web-based, you have access to previously created activities via the online community and you can upload activities you create yourself to that community and share them with other people in your district or all over the world.

Because it’s no longer tied to one device, you can create activities on your PC and assign them to your “students” who can use them either in school and/or at home. You no longer need to have a user’s device in your possession to update their activities and they don’t need to have a period without their device while you do this.

You (and the other instructors in your district if you have a district licence) can also assign the same activity to many students and by having different accessibility options set up for different students, the activity is automatically accessible for their individual needs. For example, you could create an activity and assign it to a student who uses eye gaze and to a student who uses switches and that activity will show up on their device in the format that’s accessible for them.

Picture shows how instructors can assign Boardmaker Online activities to multiple students

The results of students’ work can be tracked against IEP or educational goals which then helps you decide what activities would be suitable to assign next. You can also track staff and student usage.

One limitation is that you can only create activities on a Windows PC or Mac. You can play activities on an iPad using the free app but not create them on it, and you can’t use Boardmaker Online to either create or play activities on an Android or Windows-based tablet.

The other point to mention is that because it’s a subscription-based product, the payment you have to make is recurring every year rather than being a one-off payment, which may not suit everyone.

However, with the new features it’s definitely worth getting the free 30-day trial and deciding for yourself if you’d like to trade in your old Boardmaker disks for the new online version!