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!

Dawn of the Personal Digital Assistants

Speech Recognition has been around a long time by technology standards however up until about 2010 most of it was spent languishing in Gartner’s wonderfully named “Trough of Disillusionment”. This was partly because the technology hadn’t matured enough and people were frustrated and disappointed when it didn’t live up to expectations, a common phenomenon identified by the previously alluded to Hype Cycle. There are a couple of reasons why Speech Recognition took so long to mature. It’s a notoriously difficult technical feat that requires sophisticated AI and significant processing power to achieve consistently accurate results. The advances in processing power were easy enough to predict thanks to Moore’s Law. Progress in the area of AI was a different story entirely. Speech Recognition relies first on pattern recognition, but that only takes it so far. To improve the accuracy of speech recognition improvements in the broader area of natural language processing were needed. Thanks to the availability of massive amounts of data via the World Wide Web, much of it coming from services like YouTube we have seen significant advances in recent years. However there is also human aspect to the slow uptake of speech driven user interfaces, people just weren’t ready to talk to computers. 2016 is the year that started to change.

Siri (Apple) who was first on the scene and is now 5 years old and getting smarter all the time came to MacOS and AppleTV this year. Cortana (Microsoft) who started on Windows Phone, then to the desktop with Windows 10, made her way onto Xbox One, Android and iOS and is soon to be embodied in all manner of devices according to reports. Unlike Siri, Cortana is a much more sociable personal digital assistant, willing to work and play with anyone. By this I mean Microsoft have made it much easier for Cortana to interact with other apps and services and will be launching the Cortana Skills Kit early next year. As we’ve seen in the past it’s this kind of openness and interoperability that takes technologies in directions not envisaged and often leads to adaption and adoption as personal AT. If there was a personal digital assistant of the year award however, Amazon Echo and Alexa would get it for 2016. Like Microsoft, Amazon have made their Alexa service easy for developers to interact with and many manufacturers of Smart Home products have jumped at the opportunity. It is the glowing reviews from all quarters however that makes the Amazon Echo stand out (a self-proclaimed New Yorker Luddite to the geeks at CNET). Last but not least we have Google. What Google’s personal digital assistant lacks in personality (no name?) it makes up for with stunning natural language capabilities and an eerie knack of knowing what you want before you do. Called Google Now on smartphones (or just Google App? I’m confused!), similar functionality without some of the context relevance is available through Voice Search in Chrome. They also offer voice to text in Google Docs which this year has been much improved with the addition of a range of editing commands. There is also the new Voice Access feature for Android currently in beta testing but more on that later. In the hotly contested area of the Smart Home Google also have a direct competitor to Amazons Echo in their Google Home smart speaker. Google are a strong player in this area, my only difficulty (and it is an actual difficulty) is saying “ok Google”, rather than rolling off the tip of my tongue it kind of catches at the back requiring me to use muscles normally reserved for sucking polo mints. Even though more often than not I mangle this trigger phrase it always works and that’s impressive. So who is missing? There is one organisation conspicuous by their absence with the resources in terms of money, user data and technology who are already positioned in that “personal” space. Facebook would rival Google in the amount of data they have at their disposal from a decade of video, audio and text, the raw materials for natural language processing. If we add to this what Facebook knows about each of its users; what they like, their family, friends and relationships (all the things they like), calendar, history, interests… you get more than a Personal Digital Assistant, maybe Omnipersonal Digital Assistant would be more accurate. The video below which was only released today (21/12/16) is of course meant as a joke (there are any number of things I could add here but I’ll leave it to the Guardian). All things considered however it’s only a matter of time before we see something coming out of Facebook in this area and it will probably take things to the next level (just don’t expect it to be funny).

What does this all mean for AT? At the most basic level Speech Recognition provides an alternative to the keyboard/mouse/touchscreen method of accessing a computer or mobile device and the more robust and reliable it is the more efficiently it can be used. It is now a viable alternative and this will make a massive difference to the section of our community who have the ability to use the voice but perhaps for any number of reasons cannot use other access methods. Language translation can be accurately automated, even in real time like the translation feature Skype launched this year. At the very least this kind of technology could provide real-time subtitling but the potential is even greater. It’s not just voice access that is benefiting from these advances however, Personal Digital Assistants can be interacted with using text also. Speech Recognition is only a part of the broader area on Natural Language Processing. Advances in this area lead directly to fewer clicks and less menu navigation. Microsoft have used this to great effect in their new “Tell me what you want to do” feature in their Office range. Rather than looking through help files or searching through menus you just type what tool you are looking for, in your own words, and it serves it right up!

Natural Language Processing will also provide faster and more accurate results to web searches because there is a better understanding of actual content rather than a reliance on keywords. In a similar way we are seeing this technology working to provide increased literacy supports as the computer will be able to better understand what you mean from what you type. Large blocks of text can be summerised, alternative phrasing can be suggested to increase text clarity. Again the new Editor feature in Microsoft Word is made possible by this level of natural language understanding.

2016 – Technology Trends and Assistive Technology (AT) Highlights

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the year from an AT perspective. A lot happened in 2016, not all good. Socially, humanity seems to have regressed over the past year. Maybe this short term, inward looking protectionist sentiment has been brewing longer but 2016 brought the opportunity to express politically, you know the rest. While society steps and looks back technology continues to leap and bound forward and 2016 has seen massive progress in many areas but particularly areas associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes. This is the first in a series of posts examining some technology trends of 2016 and a look at how they affect the field of Assistive Technology. The links will become active as the posts are added. If I’m missing something please add it to the comments section.

Dawn of the Personal Digital Assistants

Game Accessibility

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology 

Software of the Year – The Grid 3

Open Source AT Hardware and Software

The Big Life Fix

So although 2016 is unlikely to be looked on kindly by future historians… you know why; it has been a great year for Assistive Technology, perhaps one of promise rather than realisation however. One major technology trend of 2016 missing from this series posts is Virtual (or Augmented) Reality. While VR was everywhere this year with products coming from Sony, Samsung, Oculus and Microsoft its usefulness beyond gaming is only beginning to be explored (particularly within Education).

So what are the goals for next year? Well harnessing some of these innovations in a way where they can be made accessible and usable by people with disabilities at an affordable price. If in 2017 we can start putting some of this tech into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from its use, then next year will be even better.

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).

Text production – Keeping focused and removing distractions

These days when it comes to writing a document most of us go straight to our computer. In the area of literacy support there are many advantages to using a computer for text production: spelling and grammar support, word prediction, speech recognition etc. However in this post I want to look at the disadvantage. Thanks to the web, the computer gives us access to limitless information resources while at the same time it is also the source of limitless distractions. Although this is a problem faced by everybody (or at least the weak willed among us) reducing the availability of distractions can be beneficial to some people with literacy difficulties who find text production more arduous. Below are a couple of products that attempt to offer the advantages of physical keyboard input, word processing and web connectivity without the potential for distraction that usually accompanies the latter. Both could be loosely called Smart Typewriters and also offer advantages over modern laptops or tablets in areas like battery life and durability. If buying an new device is not practical or perhaps a bit over the top, at the end of the post I’ll look at some browser plugins and apps that aim to achieve the same result without the need of abandoning you primary computing device.

alphasmart neo2 word processor. looks like a black keyboard with a small grey screen

The AlphaSmart Neo 2 (pictured above) is the most recent in a line of smart typewriters that were favoured both in classrooms and by professional writers and journalists for many years. It offers accessibility features like Sticky Keys and Slow Keys, Spellchecker, Typing Tutor and they claim it can sync with Google Docs (I wasn’t aware of this until now and can’t confirm it). This device was last updated in 2010 and discontinued by the manufacturer in 2013 yet I suggest it is far from obsolete. They are available on Ebay for about €25, even less if bought in bulk. It will last up to a year on 3 AA batteries and is tough enough to take quite a bit of punishment.

FreeWrite smart typewriter. White keyboard and e-ink screen at the top displaying some text

It was coming across this new product, the FreeWrite that actually got me thinking about the AlphaSmart Neo above. FreeWrite (pictured above) is a similar product except offering a (much) better keyboard, better screen and more current online syncing capabilities (Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox currently). Details are a little sketchy on whether the FreeWrite offers keyboard accessibility features like Sticky Keys or Slow Keys or even word processing capabilities like a Spellchecker or thesaurus. However one advantage concerning accessibility it has over the AlphaSmart is that it does offer the ability to adjust the font size and a larger screen to accommodate this. The FreeWrite isn’t cheap (available for pre-order at over €550) but it looks like a quality product (the Cherry mechanical keyboard would be a joy to use and the e-ink screen will offer your eyes a much needed break from the glaring display as well as being usable in direct sunlight). I’ll update this when (or if) they come back to me about the accessibility features, without which I fear this product will remain an object of desire for hipsters and professional writers and of no practical use to many of us.

Update: FreeWrite got back to me with the following reply.

“there are no plans for a spellchecker or other accessibility features but that doesn’t mean they won’t be added by us or someone else in the future. The Freewrite is a platform that we are opening up to developers so we expect that it will be extended and modified. We’d love to support you and the needs of a lot more people!”.

I find this both disappointing and exciting at the same time. It’s a completely understandable approach for a new company launching a niche product. Do you put  resources into implementing accessibility features? or do you put them into creating the best platform possible and leave it open for other developers to adapt and build functionality. It’s like iOS v Android. Keep an eye on FreeWrite.

If leaving the computer isn’t an option or your preference, techniques like time-boxing (Pomodoro) can help you to keep focused. As can removing visual distractions, creating consistent background noise or if all else fails removing temptation by actually blocking sites. Below are some apps and plugins that might be useful in this area.

  • FocusWriter – simple, distraction-free writing environment with additional tools like timers, daily goals and sound effects
  • StayFocused – increases productivity by limiting time that spent on time-wasting websites
  • Strict Workflow – 25min/5min workflow (Pomodoro): 25 minutes of distraction-free work, 5 minutes of break.
  • Background sounds and white noise – does what it says..

Google Chrome’s online voice recognition

 

Person speaking

Voice recognition can be an incredibly useful tool.  It is now built into desktop operating systems and tablet devices.   It can alleviate handwriting difficulties, such as slow handwriting speed and illegibility, and it can also help people with dyslexia who may know exactly what they want to say, but putting it down on paper can be a real barrier.

This is worth having a look.  Dictation is a free online speech recognition software powered by Google Chrome. You can use Dictation to write emails and documents in the browser.  The recognition accuracy is very good and there is no training involved.

You don’t have to speak in English as Chrome’s engine can recognize quite a few languages.  Dictation will automatically determine your browser’s default language and uses it for subsequent transcriptions.

Dictation – Online Speech Recognition https://dictation.io/

Eduapps

My Study Bar tool

Eduapps have been out for quite a while now.  It’s still a very useful set of resources which are available to freely download.  It consists of eight software collections.  One of the popular ones is MyStudyBar, which consists of a suite of apps to support literacy.  It’s easy to install and use.

For example MyStudyBar has 6 sections; each has a drop down menu offering over 15 apps to choose from.  Examples include: Xmind for planning and organization; T-Bar for customising font and colour backgrounds; Lingoes for when you need a talking dictionary; LetMeType for help with text input, and Balabolka for converting text to audio etc.

What is also useful is that you can use MyStudyBar straight from a USB stick (if, for example, you are using a machine that is not your own).

Website http://eduapps.org/

Assistive Technology Webinars

 

webinar graphic

Are you looking for free expert training and advice is assistive technology?

Then consider signing up for a webinar.  There are lots of webinars available within various areas of assistive technology.  Some have a charge, but there are many freely available for anyone to take part in.

A webinar is a live meeting that takes place over the web.  The meeting can be a presentation, discussion, demonstration, or an instructional session.  Participants can view documents and applications via their computers, while join in the discussion by audio or via a live Q&A text area.

Many assistive technology suppliers and organisations are using webinars as a way to share information.  Below are a list of a few online webinars that you can register on or listen to archived sessions.

Inclusive technology

http://www.inclusive.co.uk/events/webinars

The Great Lakes ADA Center’s

http://www.ada-audio.org/Webinar/AccessibleTechnology/Schedule/#fy2015Session6

ATIA Online Professional Development

http://www.atia.org/i4a/member_directory/feResultsListing.cfm?directory_id=8&viewAll=1

Don Johnston Incorporated

http://donjohnston.com/webinars/#.VecAe_lViko

AbleNet University Live Webinars

https://www.ablenetinc.com/resources/live_webinars/

Iowa Assistive Technology Professional Development Network

https://www.education.uiowa.edu/centers/icater/webinars

Comparison of two SmartPens

Smartpens look and feel like standard pens.  The difference is that they can capture the handwriting or brush strokes of the user. Handwriting created using “pen and paper” can be converted into digital data, enabling it to be used in various applications. It can be displayed on the computer monitor or on a tablet screen as well as have it interpreted by handwriting software (OCR).
Two Smartpens which I have recently looked at are the Equill SmartPen and the LiveScribe Echo Smart Pen

Some of the main comparisons I have found between the two pens are summarised below

LiveScribe Smart Pen

  • Designed to record everything you write, hear or say. You can replay any part of a meeting or lecture by tapping on your note at that particular time.
  • There are 3 versions of this pen: Livescribe™ 3 smartpen, Sky wifi smartpen, and Echo™ smartpen.  see comparison chart
  • The Echo and the Sky wifi smartpen appears to be the most useful version for audio linked to handwriting
  • Requires special notepaper
  • It is possible to store, organize, replay and share notes via Echo Desktop. Its supports the Mac OS X and Windows.

Equill Smart Pen

  • Designed to record everything you write and sketch onto a tablet.
    Works with any paper of even directly as a stylus on a tablet screen.
  • Works with iOS, Android and Windows
  • Works well with Evernote to organise notes.
  • Notes can be written offline or they can appear live on the tablet screen.
  • Good handwriting recognition.
  • Audio cannot be linked to handwriting

To learn more about their features see the videos below 

LiveScribe Smart Pen

 

Equill Smart Pen

 

Highlights from BETT

The BETT show

Bett (the British Educational Training and Technology show) was held over 4 days last week in London. This is one of the world leading exhibition in relation to technology for primary through to third level education.
A good amount of stands were focused on IT support for schools, cloud storage, and the IT curriculum for schools, and there were also a number of talks and presentations taking place, but due to time constraints, I was unable to make any of those.

Below are some of the highlights that I can across during the day:
Literacy –

  • Clicker have just brought out SuperKeys as an iPad onscreen keyboard. This is a two hit keyboard with word prediction and looks really nice. More info here.
  • Claro now have a PDF annotator app with text to speech. Also Claro MagX – an app for magnification and zooming.
  • IntoWords – text to speech and word prediction for android, iOS, Chrome and Mac.
  • Engaging Eyes – Not eyegaze, but works on improving visual tracking for those experiencing difficulty with reading.
  • Text Reader – a reading pen that can capture 80 letters per second to read back. Can add headphones.
  • iOS keyboards from Assistiveware – Keedogo and Keedogo plus are high viz onscreen keyboards, with word prediction in the plus version. Keeble has customisable keyboards, that can be switch accessible, but it’s the first one (that I’ve seen) that allows for select on release or select on time out, so handy for those individuals who use the touchscreen to stabilise their fingers.

AAC

  • Clicker Com, an AAC app, is due out shortly (March?). Many have used Clicker as an AAC system in the past to good effect, so having a dedicated app is a plus.
  • SymbolKommunikation – scheduling apps that can be modified remotely.
  • Widgit now have an app for iPad – can be used as a voice output device, or to create symbol based documents includes all the Widgit symbols, plus ability to add your own. £54stg.
  • Proloquo4text – from Assistive Ware – similar to Predictable, a text based iOS app. Has Quick talk, saved phrases, and the ability to auto detect language changes.
  • Widgit are bringing out a language comprehension screening tool later this year for ages 2-5 yrs.

Voice Recognition

  • Dragon now doing a school site licence for £900. – unlimited profiles

Mindmapping

  • Matchware – MindView 6 will be fully compatible with Dragon 13 voice commands. Due out in March, but they are going to forward me a trial.
  • EssayWriter – for Mac and Windows – gives a split screen so that the mindmap and document are visible at the same time. 30 day trial at www.fasteressays.com

Coding

  • Smart Robot Coding School from SK Telecom – Albert, a smart little robot will work from commands you give him. Can be used to practice coding, numeracy skills, play games etc.
  • Wishtrac – provides a vast amount of PC peripherals, but has a really good computing curriculum and kits (now required in UK, but could be useful to summer camps here). Based on the Raspberry PI

Music

  • Magix – provides a simplified movie editing, web design and graphic editor. Also has a music maker, that appears to work by dragging and dropping samples, but you can also add your own, free 30 day trial – education.magix.com

Maths

  • Daydreameducation.co.uk – educational posters and some maths drill apps

Vision

  • Kurtweil have a nice iOS app for those with visual difficulties/dyslexia – KNFB reader.