Individualized learning happens mostly for special education students, as called for in their Individual Education Plans. But some leading schools are starting to put these forces together to create individual plans for each student.
When this happens, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) becomes important. This type of differentiated instruction allows students to learn in their preferred style, choosing from a variety of tools. Students can be visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, or combine all these methods in a mix that works for them.
A big part of UDL is text to speech. Again, this concept, having text-based materials read aloud for students, had been typically used for special education students who had trouble reading. But now, educators are finding that offering this service to all students is leading to more use than expected and higher comprehension rates.
At first blush, enabling UDL and individualized instruction in schools can seem like a free-for-all that demands a different learning plan for each child. But as you come to understand each of the changes mentioned in the first post of this series, you can see that moving to this type of program is a natural outgrowth of these advances.
The number of changes in the last several years have dwarfed that early progress. Apple unveiled its first iPad in April 2010, with the least expensive model costing $500. The next year Google introduced its first Chromebook, with the lowest model starting at $350 and the option of monthly payments for schools. Large one-to-one programs, such as Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to buy 650,000 iPads for students or Richland, South Carolina’s decision to outfit 19,000 students with Chromebooks, prove that one-to-one programs continue to grow.
On top of these changes, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) started to catch on in 2013, and more schools continue to encourage students to bring their own devices, allowing them to use their phones, tablets, and laptops while in class. For instance, consider Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools’ BYOD initiative. With 41,000 students, the district hosts 30,000 student-owned devices each day.
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Enhancing the Learning Experience: The Future of Education
Education is being reshaped for students and teachers alike through new, innovative teaching methods, advancements in technology, and programs designed to make that technology available to as many schools as possible.
In the last five years, education has been changing in so many ways so quickly that it can be difficult to tell what all this upheaval will lead to. But in a broad sense, it is not hard to see that all these changes are pointing in one direction: increasing educational opportunities for all students.
Much of this can be accomplished through individualized learning, where each student’s needs, learning style, and interests are combined to create a sort of personal curriculum. If this result seems far away, consider how the following trends are making this idea closer to reality everyday.
The biggest change has been the increasing power, portability, and lower price for computers. From smartphones to tablets to Chromebooks to notebooks, more computers are in more students’ hands than even before. Some schools are buying the machines while others are allowing students to bring in their own devices. Add to that the push to bring broadband into every school, via President Obama’s ConnectED proposal, and it’s obvious that each of the above devices will be constantly connected to the Internet.
On the curricula side, the Common Core State Standards are calling for deeper understanding of key concepts and pushing schools to make sure students can apply these concepts to real-life work. Accomplishing this ensures that each student is either college- or career-ready by the end of 12th grade.
Class styles are changing, too. Less frequently, teachers are giving whole-class instruction where they parcel out information to students. More classes are now online or blended, which is a mix of online and face-to-face. Classes are also being “flipped,” where teachers assign a video lecture for homework, and students use the class time to work collaboratively and apply the knowledge to various problems. Add in brain research that explains exactly how students learn and the data explosion that can tell teachers specifically which students understood her lesson before it’s over, and the trend is more obvious.
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Enhancing the Learning Experience: The Future of Education
Bringing the best and most useful experience to your web users is always something on the agenda. That often means to sit back and think of the profile of your users and how they interact with your content. We get asked the question regarding how text to speech can be tweaked to fit the needs of users who wish to listen to written content on websites.
Here are 4 simple tips that can help you customize how you want your web text content to be listened to by your users:
Tip #1: Have text read that is not displayed
To have text read that is actually not displayed on the page you can add a unique HTML comment like
<!-- INTRO_TEXT_1 -->
or an empty element with a unique class or id and send us the text that you would like to have read and we will make a special customization for you.
This can be useful if you want to have a special welcome message on the start page or if you want to give special information to the users using the audio version of your web content, like advertisement or sponsor messages. Check out how KidsHealth has used this to have an introductory message before all of their speech-enabled articles.
Tip #2: Ignore certain parts of a web page from being read
To ignore certain parts of a page you can use a special class that will skip the content that you don’t want to be read. When adding that class to a tag, the whole element will be ignored by ReadSpeaker.
This can come in handy if you want your users to focus orally only on certain parts of your web pages.
Tip #3: Switch voices and languages
With this add-on our web reading solution can automatically switch between two voices of different genders of the same language when reading a text.
This can for example be useful when a text contains quotes and you want to distinguish the quote from the rest of the text. Note that you can also switch between different languages if your web page contains content in different languages. Listen to how the Spanish Royal Family website switches from Spanish to English.
Tip #4: Add several listen buttons per page
Blogs are an ideal candidate for this type of implementation or when you have several blocks of content on a web page. This reinforces the mental link between the content and the action of listening to it. See how Spanish website FEAPS does it on their home page or the German site Landtag Niedersachsen.
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Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Speech-Enabling Websites
Guideline 3.1.5 of the WCAG standards refers to reading, and is explained as such: “When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available.” This guideline fits with the overall concept of providing users with alternative means for consuming content.
When text-based content requires reading skills above the predetermined “lower secondary education level,” another version of the same content should be available for users who cannot read at that level. For users who simply have not developed reading skills to the level necessary for understanding complex content, a text-based alternative version of the content using simpler, more easily understood language can suffice as a viable alternative. For many users, though, reading challenges are not accurately reflected by a simple measurement of reading level. These users are often more than capable of understanding the meaning of complex content, but struggle to read for a variety of reasons unrelated to education level. There are also users who are able to understand content that is read aloud to them, but are unable to read the same content due to a lack of basic literacy skills.
The most common reading-related accessibility challenges include learning disabilities, visual impairments, language learning, and illiteracy. For these users, a text-based alternative will not suffice, and audio technology becomes important. Text-to-speech technology allows content providers to offer an entirely text-free alternative to text-based content for users facing accessibility challenges. With a simple click of the mouse, these users can listen to text-based content aloud, avoiding the need to struggle through the difficult, or sometimes impossible, task of reading.
For content providers, the benefits are twofold. First, text to speech is a cost-effective, easy to use, highly functional way to meet one of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. In addition, speech-enabled content allows content providers to reach a new, large audience who would have been unreachable with purely text-based content. The benefits of text to speech reach beyond users with accessibility challenges, as well. Some users are perfectly capable of reading and understanding text-based content without difficulty, but simply don’t have the time to sit down and read. These users can use text to speech to listen to text content at their convenience while commuting, working out, or going any other place where they can bring a mobile device.
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Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Speech-Enabling Websites
Sabancı Vakfi (Sabancı Foundation) was established in 1974 as the philanthrophic arm of the Sabancı Holding Company. Since its establishment, the foundation has built 120 institutions in Turkey, including Sabancı University, and has provided more than 37,000 scholarships. The foundation promotes social inclusion, including equal access for women, youth, and those with disabilities. Sabancı Foundation chose to add ReadSpeaker’s Listen button in both Turkish and English to its newly redeveloped website. We spoke with İbrahim Can Sönmez, Sabanci Vakfi Information Technology Manager, about his experience with ReadSpeaker.
Why did you decide to speech-enable your website?
We wanted to improve the accessibility of our website. We also wanted to provide a better visiting experience for the visitors who suffer from dyslexia, visual impairment, etc.
Why did you choose ReadSpeaker?
As a result of our examination, we have explored that ReadSpeaker application obtained very successful results even in Turkish content. ReadSpeaker support team have always paid attention to all questions and problems that we have faced, and that interest further proved how accurate our choice was.
How much effort was involved to add ReadSpeaker to your website?
After we have received our account details, it only took 15 minutes to implement ReadSpeaker to our Turkish and English websites.
Would you recommend that other organizations add ReadSpeaker to their website?
I would recommend it to organizations who want to offer a new and different method for accessibility.
More than perhaps any other invention in human history, the Internet is a worldwide entity. This diverse user base is an important part of what makes the Internet so powerful, but it also presents unique challenges. People of all types access online content every day. All of these people have their preferred methods of consuming content, and many users also face accessibility challenges like learning disabilities, sensory impairments, second-language learning, illiteracy, and more. As a natural consequence of the web’s diverse user base, web accessibility standards have been developed. These standards apply to websites, apps, content creation tools, browsers, and nearly every other aspect of the web. The goal of accessibility standards is to ensure that users with accessibility challenges can access the same content as everyone else, and that all web users are able to access content in an effective, efficient manner. This post summarizes the main categories that content owners need to be aware of and understand to make web content more accessible.
First, the information and user interface of a website must be perceivable to all users. Not every user can see, hear, or read, so content and UI features need to be presented with alternative means for consumption. This includes adding text-based alternatives which accurately describe any non-text UI features or content. For users with visual impairments or reading challenges, these text-based alternatives can then be read aloud for example by text-to-speech software. Alternatives for video and audio content are also important, in order to accommodate users who cannot see or hear. These alternatives can include captions and transcripts for audio content, and audio-based descriptions for video content. Common-sense features also apply, such as making text size easily adjustable, using colors that contrast well, and allowing background audio to be adjusted, paused, or turned off.
Next, websites must have an operable user interface and navigation features. Since there are many web users who navigate using a keyboard instead of a mouse, websites, browsers, and content creation tools should all be accessible by keyboard. Navigation is also important, in that users should be able to move from page to page easily, and always have a clear idea of where they are and how to get where they want to go on a given website. This can be achieved by having clear pages titles, sensible, straightforward navigation features, clearly labeled links, and by ensuring that there is more than one way to access a given page. In addition, users should be given enough time to use content, without distracting audio, or unreasonable time limits when applicable. Content that may cause seizures should also be avoided.
The third key standard details the ways in which the user interface and information of a website need to be understandable. This includes making clear the primary language of a web page, and of any quoted content, while using clear, simple language and providing definitions for unusual words, phrases, or jargon. These steps give the user a better idea of what each page contains, and make it easier for technology like text-to-speech software to identify and read back information in an understandable manner.
Finally, web content must be robust. This means that a website should function well on any browser, and that it can be navigated and understood by diverse user groups. In addition, web pages and content should be designed in a way that is compatible with assistive technologies. Much of the direction given regarding the first three key concepts also relates directly to creating a robust website.
Technology such as text to speech helps students learn, but it’s important to note that it also helps educators teach. Education at any level is a career path that comes with ample rewards and challenges. Most people who choose to teach do so because they are passionate about the subject matter, and just as passionate about passing that information on to the next generation of students. With that passion comes a desire to reach every student, in every classroom, and impart in them the same passion for learning that the educator has for teaching. With the many advances in available technology and an improved understanding of how to educate many different student types, today’s educators are working from a better understanding than their predecessors.
It is also an unfortunate fact that not every classroom is starting from the same place, when it comes to the integration of technology. Cutting-edge technology is expensive, especially in public elementary and secondary schools, and tends to appear first in schools which are well-funded. As prices drop or grants become available, more schools are able to integrate new technology, but the process takes time. Fortunately some technological tools, like text to speech, are more affordable, the more so when they are delivered as a service, and can therefore reach more classrooms, more students, more quickly.
In many ways, modern educational philosophy and technology are all about creating a level playing field for all students. Funding disparities have been a reality for as long as organized education has existed, but they rarely stifle the ingenuity of educators. To the contrary, most educators are experts at getting the absolute most out of what they have to work with. This means that even incremental improvements in technology can have a major positive effect, when combined with the advancements in education theory that are available to any teacher who chooses to seek them.
Technology has made education global, accessible, and connected, to the benefit of all students, but it has also fundamentally changed how students learn. Differentiated instruction and the identification of learner types have allowed educators to better understand the ways in which students learn most effectively. In some ways, it’s a “chicken or egg” proposition, as learning styles have been influenced by technology, and technology has evolved to better suit diverse ways of learning. No matter which change spurred the other – and it’s probably a mix of both – the end result is that educators are now better equipped than ever before to reach the many types of learners found in today’s classrooms.
Text-to-speech technology is a prime example of this paradigm shift in action. Many students who are otherwise capable and eager to learn are simply stymied by reading. This can be due to learning disabilities, physical impairments, second-language challenges, or even a simple aversion to reading. In the past, these students had few viable alternatives to textbooks. Bright, curious students with reading challenges could either do their best to slog through the difficult task of reading, or risk being mislabeled and put into remedial classes well below their actual learning capabilities. Neither of these options was particularly fair to these students, and the result was many students “lost” to education due to frustration, boredom, or alienation. It’s not that educators didn’t want to help these students in the past, but instead that there simply wasn’t much help available.
Text to speech has leveled the playing field for these students, allowing them to consume the same information as their peers, in a way that suits their individual learning style and accommodates any challenges they may face. The result is an accessible classroom experience for all students. This is a simple, yet powerful, concept. Modern education is all about fitting the classroom experience to the many types of students in a given class, rather than conditioning the students to fit the previously conceived classroom experience. Increased accessibility has been great news for educators, as well. In the past, educators who would have loved nothing more than to help struggling students were faced with limited options, not limited desire. Now, technology like text to speech removes those limitations, and makes education more effective and enjoyable for all parties involved.
The power of text to speech goes beyond the ability to help students with reading challenges, too. Just as some students want to read but can’t, other students can read but don’t want to. These students may simply dislike the act of reading, or they may have difficulty comprehending or remembering written information, even if they are perfectly capable of understanding each individual word. In the past, these students would often be labeled as slackers, or learning disabled, when in reality they were just audible learner types all along. This is another area in which technology and philosophy have intersected. Educators are now better able to identify different learner types, and use technology like text to speech to make learning a desirable, exciting experience for audible learners.
Finally, there are the students who want to read and are fully capable of doing so, but simply don’t have the time to complete all of the necessary reading. It is here that text to speech connects back to many of the other technological advances listed above. With text-to-speech technology, busy students no longer have to make a choice between completing the necessary reading, and tending to other important non-school responsibilities. With text to speech, a document can be turned into an mp3 audio file, which can then be listened to on any number of mobile devices. Especially for adult learners in college, this allows the opportunity to listen to the assigned reading while doing household chores, working out, commuting, or any place else that is convenient. For many people, multitasking is a way of life, and text to speech fits seamlessly into that process.
If you look back at your own education history, there’s a good chance that, somewhere down the line, a piece of technology was introduced that you just had to see for yourself. Depending on when you were in school, this could have been something like a VCR, the first PC in class, or the first computer with an internet connection. Some of those technologies may seem quaint in retrospect, but at the time, especially in the eyes of students, they were quite impressive. Typically, there is a natural urge to try the new, shiny thing, followed by a period during which you learn about the actual, productive ways the new thing can be used for learning (and fun). Eventually, the new thing becomes a common, fully integrated part of education, and soon enough the next shiny thing will be introduced to great fanfare. This basic process doesn’t cover every student, or every technology, but it is a solid starting point in looking at how students react to technology.
Compared to the 1980s and 1990s, today’s technological advancements seem to be coming at a much faster rate. In addition, most students now first experience new technology outside of the classroom, which wasn’t always the case in the past. These factors combine to change student expectations regarding technology. Instead of new technology being novel and mysterious, it is now often understood and expected before it ever reaches classrooms. Increased expectations are a positive thing in many ways, as most students are ready to use new technology to its full potential soon after it hits the classroom. The other side of the coin is that increased expectations raise the stakes on integrating new technology as soon as possible, since technology has fundamentally changed how information is consumed. Is it any wonder that a generation of students who never knew a time without internet access would have difficulty learning from static textbooks?
A recent study sheds some light on the general reaction of college students to a specific technology, eTexts. This study took place in early 2012, and several prominent US universities took part, including Cornell, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Indiana. While this study focused specifically on eTextbooks, the results help shed some data-based light on how students view new technology in the classroom. The basic concept of the study was to compare student views of eTextbooks and traditional texts, in a number of categories.
While there was a natural learning curve, to be expected with any new technology, the results of the study indicate a number of advantages for eTextbooks. In fitting with the theme of this analysis, one of the major advantages students reported with eTexts was portability. Nearly four in five students reported that eTexts were more portable than traditional texts. These students also indicated that the ability to read eTexts on a number of devices was beneficial.
Another cited eText advantage was the ability to annotate, highlight, and make notes more easily with eTexts than traditional textbooks. Some students did report difficulty reading the eTexts on the screens of computers or mobile devices. This issue could be resolved, however, simply by speech-enabling these eTexts. That way, students would face no limit to consuming information in the way that works best for them.
A common, overarching theme also arose throughout the study. Whether students reported a preference for eTextbooks or traditional texts, all agreed that the level to which instructors took advantage of eText features correlated directly with the level of value students found in using eTexts. When instructors failed to embrace the technology, students often followed suit. On the other hand, when instructors utilized unique features, especially the ability to highlight specific, important areas of eTexts, students found the technology much more beneficial.
This observation is important to keep in mind when considering any type of new technology in the classroom. Technology is an excellent tool, but it is not a magic solution. For any new technology to truly benefit students, instructors need to use it effectively and integrate it in creative ways. This is not necessarily surprising, but it does highlight the fact that, no matter what type of new technology or teaching method is introduced in a classroom, quality instruction is still of vital importance. Indeed, advances in education are most successful when the student, the instructor, and the available technology all work in concert toward the same goal.
Accessibility is a welcome necessity in modern education, but there is also more to the story of how technology and education interact. For many contemporary educators, differentiated instruction has become the preferred way to teach a class. Differentiated instruction is a method of education in which the educator presents information differently to different students in the same classroom. Typically, this is done by placing students in smaller groups during class, based on learning styles, level of educational advancement, and other factors like learning disabilities or physical challenges. The educator then crafts group-specific lessons, reading assignments, projects, evaluation methods, and ways of presenting information that fit each group best. This allows students to enjoy the social experience of being in a large class with their peers, without the frustration or difficulty that often accompanies the “one lesson fits all” approach.
Technology, like differentiated instruction, offers major benefits to all students, not just students dealing with an educational challenge outside of their control. This is because people learn best in a wide variety of different ways. These different learning styles typically fall into one of three widely accepted categories – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learners are able to consume information best if it is presented in video or photographic form, and at times from reading. Auditory learners learn most successfully by hearing information, whether through a lecture, an audiobook, or online with text-to-speech technology. Kinesthetic learners are hands-on types, who are able to comprehend information best by doing actual physical activities. Technology offers benefits to each type of learner, and makes it easier than ever for educators to differentiate instruction in their classrooms. Differentiated instruction intersects closely with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which is a set of principles that provides an instructional framework for a flexible approach to individual learning needs.
In addition to multiple forms of media for the presentation of information, students now expect and crave interactivity in their learning experiences. It is only natural that, as students spend their off time consuming interactive information on tablets, e-readers, smartphones, and PCs, static textbooks are not enough to hold their attention. Interactive learning materials allow students to be actively engaged in their education, reinforcing information through audio, video, text, and even educational games, all on the same device.
The concepts behind learning styles and differentiated instruction also apply to technology itself. Even just 20 years ago, students learned mostly from textbooks, and e-readers, tablets, and dynamic, computer-powered blackboards were far-off dreams. Those students expected to learn from books because they didn’t know to expect anything else. Today’s generation of students, on the other hand, have grown up with those technologies acting as an integral part of their daily life. In some sense, then, “technological” could be a fourth learner type. To best reach every type of student, educators must use the technology through which students consume most of their information. Unlike the other learner types, the hypothetical “technological” category would apply to nearly every student.