BLOG POST: Reflections on Assistive Technology from the Dyslexia and Technology in Education conference: Part 1 – Lorna McKnight
Last weekend was the British Dyslexia Association’s first conference on Dyslexia and Technology in Education, with invited speakers, workshops, and demos of assistive technologies. As a newcomer to the field, this really helped me get a better picture of current practice, and what some of the big issues are. Over this week I’ll be posting some of my reflections on common themes and points of interest that particularly struck me while I was there.
First, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a constant worry about costs, and a need to look for affordable solutions. The phrase “in these difficult times” seems to get used a lot: the recession is hitting schools hard, and it is even harder for independent learners who aren’t at school or university, and so don’t have access to the Disabled Students’ Allowance. In fact, recession or not, it’s hard to imagine a time when people wouldn’t want to pay less for software if they could! And yet, the surprising fact is, there are a huge amount of free solutions available which seem remarkably overlooked. One of the speakers, Craig Mill, introduced MyStudyBar, a free toolbar containing a range of free, open source applications. These include mind mapping software (compare to Inspiration at £70.80 or MindGenius at £68.40 for a single educational license), voice recognition software (compare to Dragon Dictate at £122.55, or Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional at £356.42), and text-to-speech (compare to ClaroRead at £154.80 or Read&Write at £168.00). Other similar options were also presented, such as the ATbar for web browsers, or the FX Toolbar for Word. That’s not to say that some of the paid-for solutions aren’t perhaps worth the money, if you have money to spend — they may be more stable, have more features, integrate better with other software, and are likely to have better documentation and support available. But if you buy all of them together, that’s a lot of money to spend, and the simple fact is that not everyone can afford it. Another speaker, Maggie Wagstaff, talked of the tendency in education to ‘start at the top end’, and buy the most advanced, specialist software available, such as Dragon, when actually a better solution would be to start from the bottom, using free solutions even such as Sound Recorder (comes as standard on all Windows PCs), to get users used to speaking their ideas, build confidence in hearing their own voice, and see how they get on. They may then move to the voice recognition tools that now come free with Windows or MacOS. The advanced software should only be needed for advanced users! Also, even if a school or university is willing and able to buy these expensive solutions, the learners may not be able to afford these solutions at home, or after school, and the speaker also pointed out that using software that is also available at home can help maintain engagement between home and school, so more thought needs to be given to affordable solutions, particularly for early learners.
This is linked to a general question that’s been on my mind, about why people don’t use more free software. My gut feeling is that the big software companies simply have better marketing, and if you’re new to the area, are under a lot of time pressure, find it hard to do the research (perhaps through the sort of reading difficulties you are trying to solve) or are not particularly tech-savvy, it would be very easy to believe what the salesmen tell you. There was, for example, a demonstrator at the conference showing a portable reader that takes a photo of a page of text, and then reads it aloud to you, with about 90% accuracy (which actually is just low enough to be a bit annoying). This cost around £700. Alternatively, after a little googling, I’ve found mobile apps that claim to do the same thing for free or at least under £10 (provided you already have a smartphone). I think another reason is that people are stuck in the mindset that ‘all good things cost money’. When one of the speakers showed a picture of a child’s hands being covered by a screen to obscure the keyboard when learning to touchtype, there was an immediate question from the audience of “where can you buy that?” The screen in question was a piece of cardboard — other audience members suggested a tea-towel instead. But I’m sure if you sold a black plastic sheet with branding on it for £14.99 people would buy it. (I think the other sad reason for people to get put off free software is that the wonderfully clever programmers who are happy to spend all their free time writing code just for the fun of it seem to have much less interest in writing the ‘boring bits’, like the manual!) Yet I think that the tides are turning; through mobile app stores users are becoming more exposed to free and cheap software, and many of these address specific needs (see the BDA Technology website). Another speaker, EA Draffan, introduced the EmpTech database, which allows a user to search through an extensive collection of reviews and information about assistive technologies by features that are most relevant to them, which includes searching only for freeware solutions. There is a wealth of great software out there, and as people become more skilled at information searching they may find that the solutions have been out there all along.