Educators, researchers, and technology makers at the annual Technology Innovators’ Conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16 got a first look at some of the most revolutionary solutions currently under development for special-needs students.

Among the items causing the biggest stir was a free online tool teachers and other educators of special-needs students soon will use to help them find and compare appropriate reading software programs.

The first-of-its kind Reading Matrix is being developed by the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), a division of the American Institutes for Research. NCTI is funded by the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and is charged with advancing the development of new technologies for students with disabilities. The group announced the project at its annual Technology Innovators’ Conference.

The Reading Matrix will allow users to search for software according to six main purposes:

  • Building reading skills and comprehension;
  • Converting text to speech;
  • Providing text in alternative formats;
  • Providing electronic resources;
  • Organizing ideas; and
  • Integrating literacy supports in a single application.

When you choose one of these options, the matrix will display all relevant software titles in a grid that lets you quickly see which of the following features each program contains:

  • Highlighting (text, adjustable, masking);
  • Text-to-speech features (pronunciation, speech synthesis, natural speech, multiple voices);
  • Customizing features (font control, reading-rate control, desktop/view options);
  • Electronic resources (dictionary, thesaurus, synonym/antonym support, text notes, bookmarks);
  • Navigation features (search/find, jump to segment); and
  • Other features (voice input, multi-user profiles, animation, ability to read graphics, proprietary scanning).

A beta version of the matrix is available now for testing and feedback. The final version is set to launch Dec. 1 with at least 35 products, and more will be added on a continuous basis, said NCTI Director Tracy Gray.

“We realized there was no one place where educators or researchers could go to get information about the technologies currently available for teaching reading skills to students with disabilities,” Gray said in explaining the new tool.

The matrix is actually one of two new resources developed by NTCI that will launch Dec. 1. The other is a free Networking Service that aims to bring researchers and software developers together to foster the development of new products for special-needs students.

The Networking Service works “like an online dating service,” Gray said. Users create a profile that explains what they do, what their interests are, and the kinds of partnerships or resources they’re looking for. The service then generates a list of potential matches.

Collaboration is key

Arjan Khalsa, CEO and Founder of IntelliTools Inc. demonstrates the IntelliTools Classroom Suite at the 7th Annual Technology Innovators’ Conference in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Michael Smith-Welch)

The goal of NCTI’s new Networking Service mirrors the goal of the conference itself and NCTI in general, Gray said–to “bridge the divide that exists between special-needs researchers and technology developers.” To achieve this goal, the conference provided several opportunities for face-to-face meetings between members of these two communities, including a special networking lunch.

Collaboration is essential for helping students with disabilities attain success, said keynote speaker Tom Wlodkowski, director of accessibility for America Online Inc. (AOL). “The corporate and R&D worlds have a lot to learn from each other,” he told the 100-plus audience. “If we all work together, everybody wins.”

Wlodkowski also discussed AOL’s efforts to expand the accessibility of its products and services. The company’s latest such effort is its AIM Relay Service. Introduced in July, it allows users of AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) who are hearing-impaired to place telephone calls through IM. Telephone users also can place “calls” to hearing-impaired AIM users by dialing a special telephone number. More than 100,000 calls were placed through the service in its first month alone, Wlodkowski said.

Explaining the significance of the service, Wlodkowski noted that 59 percent of internet users in the United States use IM–and 29 percent reportedly send more instant messages than eMail. Of even more relevance for educators, an estimated 90 percent of internet users between the ages of 13 and 21 use IM, which is “revolutionizing communication for the deaf,” he said.

Following Wlodkowski’s address, a group of panelists underscored the need for special-needs researchers and developers to work together in a session titled “Collaborations: Nuts and Bolts for Success.”

“We don’t know how to pitch, and the vendors don’t know how to catch,” said Jeff Higginbotham, associate professor of communicative disorders and sciences for the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo.

Higginbotham has teamed up with Greg Lesher, director of research for DynaVox Systems of Pittsburgh, which makes keyboard-based communication devices and text-to-speech software for people with speech, learning, and physical disabilities.

He said the partnership gives him enhanced IT and engineering support for his research, as well as the emotional and financial satisfaction derived from seeing his ideas turned into products. For DynaVox, the benefits of the partnership include the credibility and access to additional grant funds that teaming up with a respected university provides, as well as new contacts and perspective on the industry.

Technology demonstrations

During the conference, NCTI hosted a special Demonstration Event at which more than two dozen technology vendors and researchers displayed their latest solutions for special-needs students. Here are some of the highlights:

” Utah State University’s WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) demonstrated the WAVE, a “web accessibility validation tool” that automatically checks any web site for how easily it can be read by persons with disabilities.

When you type a URL into this free, internet-based system (http://wave.webaim.org), the site you’re checking will appear in the browser window with red, yellow, or green icons next to all of its elements. Red icons mean the element in question is inaccessible or unreadable to certain users; yellow icons mean the element might present a problem for some users; and green icons mean the element is accessible to all users. Explanations for each of these icons also are available.

  • Viable Technologies demonstrated Viable Real-time Transcription (VRT), a remote, real-time transcription service for students with disabilities.
  • The speaker speaks normally into a lapel microphone or an extra-sensitive microphone installed in the classroom. The microphone is connected to a telephone line, which transmits the audio to Viable Technologies’ call center. A transcriber at the call center creates captions of what the speaker is saying, and using a notebook computer connected to the internet, the student can receive captions of the lecture in real time.

    While reading the transcription, the student can scroll back and forth to review important points. The student also can add notes for later review, and a text-to-speech application enables students with hearing loss who have difficulty speaking clearly to voice their comments and questions with ease. All the student has to do is raise his or her hand, type out what he or she wants to say, and press a button to voice the question.

  • Two companies were on hand to demonstrate eye-gaze solutions that allow students with severe physical disabilities to control a computer cursor with only the motion of their eyes.
  • Solutions for Humans displayed ERICA (Eye-Gaze Response Interface Computer Aid), a Windows-based system that includes a tablet PC propped up in a stand with an attached camera. The user sits motionless in front of the tablet and calibrates the system to recognize his or her eye movements by focusing on a series of dots that appear on the screen. Once calibrated, the system offers a keyboard interface on the screen that can be controlled through the user’s eye gaze. ERICA costs about $10,000 but requires a consistent head position, making it suitable only for users who are fully immobilized.

    A more expensive, but also more forgiving, system was on display from LC Technologies Inc. The company’s Eyegaze Communication System seemed easier to control during a demonstration but comes with a heftier price tag: around $15,000 for the full solution.

    Links:

    National Center for Technology Innovation
    http://nationaltechcenter.org

    Office of Special Education Programs
    http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/index.html?src=mr

    State University of New York at Buffalo
    http://www.buffalo.edu

    DynaVox Systems
    http://www.dynavoxsys.com

    WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind
    http://www.webaim.org

    Viable Technologies
    http://www.viabletechnologies.com

    Solutions for Humans
    http://www.sforh.com

    LC Technologies Inc.
    http://www.eyegaze.com