Saturday, 14 March 2015

A Tech Tool for School: VoiceNote II

    Recently, out on a #tiefit walk with a non #tiegrad friend, I was introduced to a new speech to text tool that I hadn't heard of. It's called Voice Note II, available through Google Chrome.  While our friendship's grounding is found in our youth and runs 30+ years strong, both of us happen to be special education teachers and we often share resources and discuss tools and apps that might help some of our students. My friend is using this particular speech to text recognition tool to help a student who is struggling with written output. I was very excited to hear that there was something that was effective and easy to use, as well as being free.  

       In the past, I have tried speech to text tools with my students such as Dragon Naturally Speaking ($$), its app counterpart, Dragon Dictation (free), WordQ+SpeakQ ($$), and Talk Typer (free), among others, with hit and miss results.  Generally, I find that these speech to text tools are okay, but there always seems to be an obstacle--if it's not the price, it's a glitch of one kind or another relating to challenges with accuracy, punctuation, editing, background noise, verbal pauses or idiosyncrasies in speech.  I 'm actually writing this blog post using Voice Note II and so far I have to say I'm extremely excited. It's surprisingly accurate even with  the background noise that exists in my busy household. And it's free. 
Image Attribution: e-magic (Eric) on Flickr

       Finding a good speech to text tool is like finding a pot of gold for the special education teacher.  Concerns around written output for students is an area that seems to be consistently growing.  My own son, now 21 years old, has a written output deficit that nearly made school impossible and this was further compromised by other learning challenges, including a processing speed that lived in his boots.  Through high school we had to try to line up teachers that would (pro)actively support a flexible approach to learning and output so that my son's level of understanding (typically strong) and depth of knowledge (frequently deep) could be accurately communicated.  That may sound like a manageable task, but let me tell you it was far more challenging than you would ever imagine.  My son also struggles to speak fluently so many of the speech to text tools that we tried did not work for him and this became a source of frustration for him.  He had to rely on someone to scribe (and often there was no one  available) and opportunities to show what he knew through oral interviews, sound clips and other alternate means.  Long story short, my son did graduate from high school, albeit late, and is now working in a field that requires minimal written output. He has expressed interest in pursuing a university degree and has passion for things like history, fiction, earth science, and the outdoors, but the thought of all the writing that would be part and parcel of most university degrees has been off-putting for him.  However,  my introduction to Voice Note II has me excited to share with him what this tool can do and encourage him to play with it.  Technology is evolving at an unfathomable rate and this tool is a great example of the progress that is being made; I can see that a post secondary education might now be within my son's grasp. 
       Professionally I have worked in special education for eight years and actively supported hundreds of students during this time.  I would guesstimate that approximately  half of these students could have benefited from a speech to text tool.  However, the number of students I have supported who experienced success using a speech to text tool (success=using it regularly to complete written assignments both at school and at home) has numbered less than 10.  In my experience, many learners with written output challenges rely on a scribe or, eventually, their own keyboarding skills (if they are able to achieve proficiency), or more commonly, try to manage with minimal, if any, support for writing. The obstacles to increasing written output often extend beyond the difficulties with or limited access to tech tools and may include things such as a learner's own desire to appear like everyone else, a lack of teacher or EA support, lack of support at home, and for some students other learning challenges which may impede the development of the skills needed to achieve success with the assistive technology that supports written output. Like my son, many of these students are extremely bright, with psych ed reports that point to perceptual reasoning skills and/or verbal skills at the 95th%ile + and/or an IQ or General Ability Index (GAI) score of 120-140. I liken the lack of an assistive technology tool to support written output to the unavailability of  a mobility tool (wheelchair, walking cane, leg brace) for the person who struggles to walk or corrective lenses for the person who is visually impaired.
Image Attribution: Sean MacEntee on Flickr

       Even with access to an effective speech to text tool, many students with written output challenges will need extra time beyond what is typical for proficient writers, especially at the start. Today, being my first time using Voice Note II, I can see that it's not necessarily a faster way for me to write this blog post. I've struggled this semester with an  overuse injury to the muscles in my left forearm that has resulted from too much time spent on my laptop (along with, admittedly, poor laptop posture).  The strain has been quite unbearable  and these last few weeks I've had a hard time producing any written work at all,  so you can imagine my joy at finding something that will not only benefit my students, but also benefit me.  I can confirm that, thus far, the pace of output for this blog post using VoiceNote II has been relatively slow, but as a tool for someone who struggles with any written output this tool will translate to success.  I assume that, with practice, I will only get faster and more efficient with VoiceNote II and the same will hold true for students.  
       While I would consider the support that a scribe provides as invaluable as an adaptation for students who struggle with written output, the reality is that the people who typically provide this service in schools (Learning Support Teacher, Classroom Teacher, Educational Assistant) are spread thin. And, quite honestly, knowing my own son's limitations in the context of adult life, a scribe is not a practical solution or one that leads to independence, which should really be our goal. In fact, the BC Ministry of Education document, "Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers" (Sept, 2011), states that an "element of student dependency" may exist through the introduction of some adaptations, noting scribes as an example, and recommends that these adaptations "should be temporary, until the student learns to access...scribes using technology." (p 32) Effectively supporting learners to see them move successfully from a place of non-writing to scribe supported writing to independent tech-assisted writing, requires skilled bodies (teachers, EA, admin, volunteers) to act as a bridge and time; I want struggling writers to see how incredible their wonderful words and ideas can be when they are turned into a body of text, but it isn't a quick fix. We can't just give students a quick introduction to the technology and leave them to it. There is also the question of when; at what point do we say, "We need to do this differently", and actively shift away from pencil paper activities for these kids? 
       It's important to remember that adaptations should be available to all students and a learning disability designation is not a prerequisite for accessing adaptations. At a time when the queue seems to be ever-growing for district based Psychology services, it is appropriate to consult your Learning Support Teacher and use your discretion as a classroom teacher to implement, request or arrange for adaptations as you see fit. However, not all students will meet criteria for access to these same adaptations for provincial exams and other formal testing situations later on, so it's important to keep this in mind when supporting students to access adaptations and/or use assistive technology such as Voice Note II. Be clear in documenting how your students learn best and what adaptations or tools help them to yield the greatest success.   
       As a special education teacher, I am constantly trying to figure out how I can help to level the playing field for the many students I work with, with such diverse strengths and needs, and varied interests and abilities. I want to see all learners access what they need to expand their minds, build their skills and share their knowledge and understanding in a meaningful way. VoiceNote II may not be the answer for removing obstacles to writing for everyone, but it's the tool for me today and may be the best one for many others, including my son, until something better comes along.  
       I'm glad to have a friend, who loves to walk and talk, and who is such an amazing resource, so willing to share what she learns in life and in education. 
My bestie & me

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