Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Using Cell Phone Technology to Support Students Who Struggle with Writing

Guest post  by Jacob Gunicki

For a long time software companies have offered a number of applications that allegedly support student-writing skills. These offerings include Inspiration, Don Johnston Software, Clicker, Write on Line, Dragon Software, as well as some web based options. Unfortunately, these applications have had limited success with helping students who struggle with writing. This has happened for several reasons, which are as follows;
  • The interface for specialized software often has a clunky non-user friendly look. Subsequently, teachers servicing high need students are reluctant to learn how to use this software. Additionally, the targeted students find the interface non-appealing and are less likely to want to use this software.
  • Specialized software is often expensive. This limits the ability for cash strapped schools to invest their limited funds in the software applications noted above.
  • Specialized software only targets the needs of a narrow audience. This makes the software impractical unless your needs happen to fit the expressed purpose of the software developer.

Fortunately, the way we use software has dramatically changed in the past 7 years thanks to the use of smart phone devices and the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.  In the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 it discusses in great detail the importance of incorporating the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) standards in our daily lessons. Universal Design for Learning offers students the opportunity to respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills with greater ease and also places a special importance on engaging students through multiple means of representation.  More significantly, UDL demands that hardware and software vendors integrate adaptive and assistive technologies into everyday applications.

For example, users who struggled with writing (10 years ago) would need to purchase specialized programs such as Co-Writer or Write on Line. Both of these software programs offered word prediction services in which the user would begin to type their ideas and a contextual menu would appear offering a choice of words to select from as you type. Unfortunately, these software offerings were often expensive and not user friendly. Additionally, software titles such as Co-Writer could not be used with everyday applications such as Microsoft Word, which in turn limited its functionality.

However, thanks to UDL and advances in technology, word prediction software is now embedded into our chat and e-mail software embedded on smart phone devices.  Subsequently, whether one uses an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or Windows phone word prediction tools are available to streamline your writing tasks with everyday applications.

This has tremendous implications as this approach to software both helps users on the go trying to save time and students with disabilities who struggle with writing. At the same time software aligned to UDL standards saves money for everyday consumers and avoids placing a stigma on a person with disability as their specialized needs can now be met with an over the counter phone. Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that the quality of embedded word prediction software varies from vendor to vendor. For example, RIM offers very limited support in the area of word prediction, where as iOS offers some support in the area. However, Windows phones excel at offering word prediction services as it utilizes a larger vocabulary and automatically adds new words the user types two or more times.

UDL has also encouraged other innovations in how we support special needs users with technological devices. For example, prior to UDL touch screen technology was not a mainstream technology. Subsequently users unable to use the conventional keyboard and mouse would have to purchase specialized screens to enable their devices to support touch screen technology. Specialized software was also needed to use touch screen technology. Touch screen technologies were expensive, unintuitive, and did not offer full functionality with many software programs.

The iPhone radically changed how we used touch screen technology. The touch screen became the device and the operating system assured that all running applications could take full advantage of touch screen technology. This enabled users with touch screen needs to purchase a mainstream device at a low cost. This innovation encouraged other companies to develop low cost touch screen tablets and touch screen phones, which in turn has expanded the range of options all users can enjoy. The increased use of smart phones also encouraged further innovation in which software developers developed low or no cost software that support note-taking skills through audio memos and voice dictation software. This in turn has helped students type their work through their voice and conduct Internet searches in this fashion without the need of specialized software programs.

Needless to say, there our countless applications that are not discussed in this post which can be used both on smart phones and traditional computers that support students who struggle with writing. However, in the end it seems that writing tools that are embedded in  everyday applications will continue to prove more effective with helping students as  these UDL enhancements are making everyday applications more accessible to a larger audience and benefiting all computer and mobile users. 

Jacob Gutnicki has worked in the field of Instructional Technology for the past 13 years and in the field of education for the past 20 years. During this time he was recognized in the 2008 National Profile Report as an effective practice in Instructional Technology, has authored 158 award winning grants. He developed the Laptop Institute and specialized Technology Workshop Series, coordinated District Wide contests, (i.e. MST Fair, Web Quest, and Technology Festival), developed Instructional Manuals that integrate technology into the curriculum, and received the Chancellor's Excellence in Leadership Award.

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