Incorporating blind, dyslexic, and learning-disabled students into mainstream classroom activities is getting easier, thanks to a new generation of affordable, high-tech tools that convert electronic text to audio. The software allows students to hear the contents of electronic documents spoken aloud instead of having to read them from a computer screen.

Screen-reading software is nothing new. Products such as Freedom Scientific’s JAWS and GW Micro’s Window-Eyes have been around for some time. The problem for educators has been that neither of these options was designed with the needs of studentsor the budgets of schoolsin mind.For instance, JAWS was designed predominantly for use in the professional workplace and, while effective, operates on a very high scale. Window-Eyes, too, is effective but not inexpensive. Annette Parslow, outreach vision consultant at the Utah Schools of the Deaf and the Blind and a teacher for 16 years, said that while the technology has continued to develop, many of its advancements have led to programs that are too complex and leave younger learners behind.

“Some of these products have too many bells and whistles,” she said.

Now, two companies in particularNextup.com and Premier Programming Solutions Inc.have introduced solutions they say favor simplicity and affordability over technical complexity and higher prices, making their products ideal for schools teaching younger students on tight budgets.

Nextup.com’s TextAloud product allows students to hear text spoken through a variety of voices by copying any amount of text from a document and pasting it into the open TextAloud program window. Students can hear eMail messages read to them, listen to eBooks, and even download audio files to portable MP3 players or burn files onto compact discs for use at home.

Premier Programming’s Text-to-Audio program is one in a suite of options it markets specifically for use in assistive learning. The company’s Accessibility Suite offers schools 10 different applications to aid in the teaching of blind and learning-disabled children and reportedly is used in more than 1,000 schools nationwide.

Rick Ellis, president and chief marketing officer of Nextup.com, said the company originally developed its software for the consumer market but received an instant response from educators interested in implementing TextAloud in the classroom.

“Our product is very well-suited for learning,” he said.

Gayle Underwood, assistive technology coordinator for the Allegan County Intermediate School District in Michigan, said her district has used the TextAloud product to great effect with blind and learning-challenged students.

Underwood said Allegan County is considering a teamwork system that would pair blind students with learning-disabled (LD) students and encourage them to use the software together, effectively teaching each other as they go.

“The LD child could click and drag the mouse for the blind child, and a blind child with good comprehension skills could then help the LD child with certain skills,” she said.

According to Parslow, who has yet to use the TextAloud or Text-to-Audio products, many of the screen reader programs she has encountered, while effective, have proven very difficult to learn.

“Teachers can’t believe how long certain things take to learn. You end up asking yourself: How do I find enough time in the day?” Parslow said.

In many cases, she has found it difficult even to make necessary changes in the pronunciations and pauses of words read aloud. If those changes are not made, she said, some sentences will run together, making the text confusing.

“You would have to be a rocket scientist to muddle through some of that stuff and find out how to fix it. You’re supposed to be able to take the plastic off … and know how it runs,” she said.

Conversely, Underwood said she has experienced little, if any, difficulty with learning or adjusting the TextAloud product.

“Students can highlight the text, hit a key, and it will read [the highlighted text] for them,” she said. “It’s very simple; anyone would be able to use it.”

According to Underwood, the program’s operational simplicity is part of what has made it so effective. TextAloud lets students keep the program window open while they switch back to their clipboard or browser programs and copy the text to be read. The software also allows for dialogue creation, so different voices can be used while students are listening to plays or performances.

Penny Reeder, editor of Braille Forum, said another key to a successful screen reader is that it must be able to use the most realistic voices possible.

Parslow agreed: “The kids want a better quality of speech.”

Nextup.com’s TextAloud and Premier’s Text-to-Audio are both available with AT&T Natural Voices. The lifelike voices are able to change tone and accent words to a better extent than preinstalled computer voices, but typically cost more and are not required with either product.

Premier’s Text-to-Audio product offers functionality similar to TextAloud but is even more flexible, according to the company.

Steve Timmer, Premier’s president and founder, said his company’s product is more versatile than others because it can read files in several types of file formats, unlike TextAloud which is limited only to reading text documents.

Premier’s product also has the ability to compress an hour’s worth of text in four minutes, saving time on downloading. This ability is most pronounced when functioning with Natural Voices, he said, because they are slower to download and take up more space than standard ones.

According to Timmer, Text-to-Audio is the most advanced assistive reading tool the company offers. Younger learners normally start by using other products in the Accessibility Suite, such as Scan and Read, before moving on to the more advanced programming.

Parslow said this type of gradual progression is something often lost on companies, as they are concerned more with advancement of technology than comprehension or learning.

“We need to be able to teach these skills as a sequence from basic to advanced,” she said.

Timmer said Premier develops all of its programs and tools with similar functions, so students using one product in the suite can move on to another easily.

“Our products are designed with kids’ principles in mindkeep it simple,” he said.

The company offers its product in light and pro versions, so customers can choose the more advanced technology only if they need it.

Educators looking to purchase Nextup.com’s TextAloud for their schools can do so by contacting the company directly. The product is offered at $24.95 for standard voices and $51.90 for the AT&T Natural Voices. Educational discounts on site licenses also are available.

Timmer said almost all of Premier’s products are under $200. The company currently offers a grant program for schools, valued at $1 million. The program gives schools free use of all 10 products in Premier’s Accessibility Suite in hopes that children will use them freely at school and purchase them later for use in the home. The grant deadline is June 30.

“If it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible,” said Timmer.

Makers of more expensive solutions contend that important functions are lost with solutions that operate solely as screen readers.

Kurzweil Educational Solutions’ Kurzweil 3000, which can be purchased for $379 or $539 per seat depending on whether a school chooses color or back-and-white, is one product that offers screen reading and several other features in a single program, including an audio spell check, scanning capabilities with automatic format correction, and note-taking or highlighting options for reference.

Kurzweil also offers the product with a floating license, so a set number of users can operate the software from anywhere within the school.

“It offers the kinds of tools that are helping students to learn, as opposed to those that you just read with,” said Cindy Johnson, vice president of marketing at Kurzweil. “We’re looking at a start-to-finish solution.”

Johnson said the Kurzweil product could help a student write a book report or complete a research project, as opposed to just allowing them to read and transport text.

“There’s a value and purpose for the cheaper models, if reading is all you want them for,” said Ken Elkind, product manager for the Kurzweil 3000. “It’s a different product for different folks. We have integrated all kinds of tools into our product, whereas some of the cheaper models have only solved one problem.”

Links:

School Technology Buyer’s Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide

  • Company Search on “Kurzweil,” “AT&T,” “Freedom Scientific,”
  • Allegan County Intermediate School District
    http://www.alleganisd.org

    Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind
    http://www.usdb.k12.ut.us/home/home.html

    AT&T Labs Natural Voices
    http://www.naturalvoices.att.com/

    Freedom Scientific
    http://www.freedomscientific.com/

    GW Micro
    http://www.gwmicro.com/

    Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc.
    http://www.kurzweiledu.com/index.html

    Nextup.com
    http://www.nextup.com

    Premier Programming Inc.
    http://www.premier-programming.com