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!

Accessibility Checker for Word Tutorial

The Accessibility Checker feature has been part of Microsoft Office for the last few iterations of the software package. It provides a fast and easy way to check whether the content you are producing is accessible to users of assistive technology. By making accessibility accessible Microsoft have left no room for excuses like “I didn’t know how…” or “I didn’t have time..”. You wouldn’t send a document to all your colleagues full of misspellings because you were in a hurry would you? The one criticism that could have been leveled at Microsoft was perhaps they didn’t provide enough support to new users of the tool. As I said above it’s easy to use but sometimes users need a little extra support, especially when you are introducing them to something that may be perceived as additional work. Thankfully Microsoft have filled that gap with a 6 part tutorial video which clearly explains why and how to get started using Accessibility Checker. Part 1 is a short introduction (embedded below) followed by a video on each important accessibility practice; Alternative Text, Heading Styles, Hyperlinks, File naming and Tables. Each video is accompanied by a short exercise to allow you put your new skill into practice immediately. The whole tutorial can be completed in under 20 minutes. This tutorial should be a requirement for anybody producing documents for circulation to the public. Have a look at the introduction video below.

Create inclusive content with Office Mix and Sway

Here in Enable Ireland AT service we have been investigating using the Office Mix plugin for PowerPoint to create more engaging and accessible eLearning content. While we are still at the early stages and haven’t done any thorough user testing yet, so far it shows some real promise.

From the end user perspective it offers a number of advantages over the standard YouTube style hosted video. Each slide is marked out allowing the user to easily skip forward or back to different sections. So you can skip forward if you are comfortable with a particular area of the presentation or more importantly revisit parts that may have not been clear. The table of contents button makes this even easier by expanding thumbnail views of all the slides which directly link to the relevant sections of the video. There is also the ability to speed up or slow down the narration. Apart from the obvious comic value of this it is actually a very useful accessibility feature for people who may be looking at a presentation made in a language not native to them or by someone with a strong regional accent. On the flip side it’s also a good way to save time, the equivalent of speed reading.

From the content creator’s perspective it is extremely user friendly. Most of us are already familiar with PowerPoint, these additional tools sit comfortably within that application. You can easily record your microphone or camera and add to a presentation you may have already created. Another feature is “Inking”, the ability to write on slides and highlight areas with different colour inks. You can also add live web pages, YouTube videos (although this feature did not work in my test), questions and polls. Finally the analytics will give you a very good insight as to what areas of your presentation might need more clarification as you can see if some chooses to look at a slide a number or times. You can also see if slides were skipped or questions answered incorrectly.

Below is a nice post outlining some ways to create inclusive content using Office Mix and Sway, Microsoft’s other new(ish) web based presentation platform. Below that is a much more detailed introduction to Office Mix using… yes you guessed it Office Mix.

How Office Mix and Sway can help with student inclusion – Gerald Haigh

New Learning Tools from Microsoft

Microsoft announced earlier this week that they are building on the success of their much acclaimed literacy support suite for OneNote “Learning Tools” by making some of the features available within other products. First though, if you haven’t come across Learning Tools for OneNote take a look at the video below for an outline of what it offers. Take it away Jeff..

As you can see from the video, offering Text To Speech (TTS) with highlighting, easy to read fonts on distraction free, high visibility backgrounds as well as the comprehension supports, Learning Tools could be very useful to those who need a little assistance with text based content. Learning Tools was originally only available for the version of OneNote which comes bundled with Office 2013 and 2016. However earlier this week Microsoft announced that they are bringing some features to other apps, the most interesting and potentially useful of these would be Office Lens and Word. Office Lens is already a very useful multi-platform app with powerful optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities which allow you photograph a document and have it converted to editable text. Now with the addition of the Immersive Reader functionality of Learning Tools you can photograph a document, export it to immersive reader and immediately use the tools mentioned above to support your understanding of the text. For the moment this feature is only available on Office Lens for iOS but my understanding is it’s their intention to gradually roll it out to other platforms.

Within Word even more functionality is offered through the new editor feature. These include dictionary supports such as synonyms of suggested corrections for misspelled words that can be read aloud with TTS and additional support for commonly confused words. I’ll leave it to Jeff again for a full review of the new features (video below).

Assistive Technology (AT) in the era of the Digital Schoolbag

child using tablet computer to study biology- zooming in on screen on mid section of human skeleton

Increasingly schools are opting for what is sometimes termed a digital schoolbag. This involves the purchase of an electronic device, usually an iPad with a package of digital textbooks pre-installed. Digital textbooks are undoubtedly a step in the right direction in terms of accessibility and are indeed essential for many students with disabilities. There are students however who may need to use a different platform (hardware and/or operating system – OS) because of compatibility issues with their Assistive Technology. Currently the most popular platform being adopted by schools is Apple iOS with parents being directed to purchase an iPad from a contracted supplier. Many readers of this article will be well aware of all the great inbuilt accessibility features within iOS however if you are a user of Eye Gaze or Speech Recognition (for access) it does not currently support your chosen AT.

It is understandable why from a school’s perspective having all students using identical standardised devices would be preferable and there are plenty of reasons why Apple iOS would be the obvious choice. There is a concern however that the small minority who may need to use other platforms because of access difficulties could be put at a disadvantage or perhaps not be able to participate fully in all activities. One of the leading school suppliers have assured us that the textbooks can be accessed on Windows, iOS and Android and as these textbooks are sourced from the same few publishers one can assume this applies for all suppliers. It is therefore up to the schools to ensure all lessons utilizing technology are identical whenever possible; equivalent when not, regardless of the device/platform you are using. Parents, particularly those whose children use Assistive Technology should not feel pressured by schools to purchase technology that isn’t the optimum for their child’s needs. If a therapist or AT specialist has recommended a particular solution that differs from what is being suggested by the school, the priority should obviously be the students’ needs. When it comes to AT it is the school’s responsibility to accommodate the different needs of its student, just as it was before the digital schoolbag. The use of technology within our schools is to be embraced but it is important that schools ensure that the curriculum is open and in no part dependent on one particular platform or device. That would just see us swapping one form of inequality for another and that’s not progress.

If anyone would like advice on what technologies are available to support access, literacy and productivity on any platform they should feel free to contact us here in the National Assistive Technology Service in Sandymount, Dublin.

ORACLE AND EDF OFFER A SCHOLARSHIP TO A STUDENT WITH DISABILITY

computer user siting on letter e

APPLY BY 15/09/2016
EDF and the company Oracle are pleased to announce a scholarship of 8.000 EUR to a student with disability of a high education programme studying in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the academic year of 2016-2017. It will be awarded based on a project or thesis that will be conducted during the academic year. The project or thesis should take into account the needs of persons with disabilities in terms of accessibility to ICT, and/or an innovative solution to enhance their access. How can you apply? Find more information on EDF’s website.

Applications to be sent by 15 September 2016.
If you have any questions, please write an email to: eaccessibility.scholarship@edf-feph.org.
DFI is a member of the European Disability Forum. The European Disability Forum (EDF), is the umbrella organisation representing 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe.
EDF have partnered with Oracle and have announced an e-Accessibility scholarship