Tuesday, 30 September 2008

30. Netbooks Asus and related laptops

Netbook is just another name for the new range of low cost computers that have appeared on the market in recent months. Although the name is said to be because these laptops are optimised for the web, in truth they are no different from any other laptop, except in cost and size. Early versions had limited storage. But less than a year on this is no longer an issue.

But most people see them as a simple little "extra". But mixing with other technology these netbooks can be the centre of your computing world. For example, the picture above shows my Linux Asus eeePC connect to a 20 inch (50cm) screen, and the resolution change to that of a good laptop. Add a separate keyboard (keys are a bit small for my hands) and mouse and you have yourself a cheap and portable system. I used it to create this blog entry.

The one drawback with these machines is the battery life which can be as low as 90 minutes. But if you know that at the beginning, you can always carry a spare.

It is also ideal for pupils looking for a replacement for something like an Alphasmart. Those have good battery life, but their cost effectiveness is gone. For those worried about all those games and viruses that could appear on the machine, try the Netbooks that use a Linux system instead of Windows. It is cheaper, less games and far fewer viruses.


Monday, 29 September 2008

29. Teaching underlying skills - Edysgate

Given that testing finds out the underlying causes of the literacy problems, why not try to address those underlying difficulties before you try to improve literacy? That way you would have a more receptive brain to teach. Otherwise you are in danger of perpetuating failure, or at least not optimising learning. This project set about identifying seven key areas to improve, and then make a series of activities aimed at working with those areas. There is no claim that they will make a huge difference given the small number of activities (only 135 games), but at the very least they will highlight what could be done, and the areas that are important. It is hoped that future research will demonstrate what works in this area, and how to make it more effective.

This project recently won a major award in Austria for its innovative approach to learning.


Sunday, 28 September 2008

28. Whose work is it?

I have been reviewing a number of online tools that allow collaborative work which no doubt would be a boon to many learners (and workers) since it would allow remote support. Instead of the teacher/tutor/support worker/colleague needing to sit alongside, they can review and support the work at a distance.

But then I was reminded of a university based dyslexia support tutor who I saw "helping" a history student make a concept map. Unfortunately rather than help their thinking process to identify the structure and content themselves, they told the student exactly what to write. That is, the concept map was a reflection of the knowledge of the tutor rather than that of the student. Consequently they would need the tutor again the next time they had to construct a concept map. The dyslexic student had not been empowered.

These new online collaborative tools offer opportunities, but also have the potential to disempower, as in the example above.

The question is not about cheating, but being fair and empowering. We need to be vigilant to ensure we give (and receive) support that allows the acknowledged "author" to be proud of their own work.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

27. Easy reading descriptions - Wikipedia Simple English

Have you ever wanted to look up something on the web but the results were too complex? Did you know that Wikipedia has a "Simple English" version? It is very similar in principle (though with only 37,000 articles as opposed to 2.5 million on the main site), using simpler English in the explanations.

Wikipedia - Simple English

Friday, 26 September 2008

26. Visual browsing - Viewzi

Viewzi is a visual web browser that would suit anybody who prefers to access information in pictures. This may be for the original search, or if they want to return to a website and cannot remember the name from a list but would recognise it if they saw it.

Technically it appears to fall between a browser and a web service, since you sign up to it, and results appear in your normal browser.

This beta version looks to be any interesting development, with a number of "developers" providing alternative methods of display. Types of display include Celebrity Photo View (above), News, Screenshot, Albums, Basic Photo and a number of others.


Thursday, 25 September 2008

25. Plastic books - The flexible friend?

The link to this video gives us a hint of what is to come, namely the flexible computer. In this case it is a flexible e-book, but given what can be done with it, one can imagine the full computer is not so far away. The book uses e-ink, which currently restricts it to black and white. But it is lightweight, and only one third the thickness of the Apple Air computer.

Interestingly, it is not so far from the Negroponte vision for the next stage of his one-laptop-per-child. He is already talking about touch screens and virtual keyboards. Clearly that overlaps with this concept.

Just image, no more computers broken for being dropped, thrown or stamped on! The link is a good demonstration of how versatile this new product will be.

Plastic e-book

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

24. New Google phones - Android

Yesterday the new Android powered phone were unveiled, to a fairly small fanfare. The problem is that they are competing again other touch screen phones, such as the i-Phone and various HTC phones to name a few. So all that is left is the fact that it has free operating system. It may drive down the price, but will it help the dyslexic individual?

The answer is probably not, but we shall see. By having an open sources platform it may allow quicker development of tools, and therefore wider use among the techies. However, the fact that the development is lead by Google means that it should at least integrate with Google Docs and make online management of documents easier. This means you wont have to worry about leaving documents at home. It also means that people can share more easily.

As to the touchscreen, people are divided on its usefulness. If the individual is also dyspraxic, then maybe they will have problems, but maybe less than on, say, a blackberry keyboard. Interestingly there are other interesting developments that may have an impact, such as Swype, which allows you to type using an onscreen keyboard, where you do not have to lift your finger off the keypad.

BBC Google report

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

23. Wind up mobile charger

We become very reliant on our mobile phones, and if the power fails, we can loose (temporarily) phone numbers, appointments, calendars, and the ability to call somebody to tell them the phone has died and can they provide vital information. There are many simple solutions: carry a spare battery (and remember to keep it charged) always keep an extra charger at work/school/college, carry a charger with you, carry a second phone etc.

However, there is another option, which is the wind-up charger. Three minutes of winding apparently will give eight minutes of talk time (or access to those vital numbers). I admit this is more a novelty present for most people, since why carry this instead of a spare battery or charger and knock on somebody's door. Or ask somebody to borrow their phone. But as somebody who travels a lot, I know that there are many occasions when it would be good to have this option.

Click for a link to one of many such devices and suppliers.

Monday, 22 September 2008

22. Text to speech - Adobe Acrobat Read Out Loud

It is not widely known that Adobe Acrobat has a built in text-to-speech reader called Read Out Loud. That means that you can ask the program to read any PDF to you without needing to install separate software. It uses the voices built into your computer and although the voices are not as good as the commercial text-to-speech engines, it is a very useful tool if you have no alternative installed. It is accessible in Acrobat through View > Read Out Loud.

About Read Out Loud

Sunday, 21 September 2008

21. Reflections on fonts

This blog is intended to dyslexia friendly, which includes being brief. But occasionally something needs a longer explanation. For that reason, a more extended version of today's blog will be found on the site mentioned at the bottom.

Every dyslexic is different, and the typeface of preference is very personal. There are many factors that can influence it, but research suggests that most prefer what they are used to. That is, if you grew up reading Times, then that may be your preference, at least on paper. However, Times breaks up on the computer screen, so you may need to change to Arial. This in turn will affect what you prefer on paper. Thus your preferences will change.

If one had to suggest to a commercial organisation what typeface to use that would assist the highest number of people, the answer would be that Arial or similar should be the first choice. But it would be even better if an electronic version was made available for people to adjust to their own preferences.

Fuller explanation

Saturday, 20 September 2008

20. Capturing screen data - MW Snap

There may be many reasons why you may want to do a screen capture. This is a small program that allows you to capture the exact area you want. This means you can save everything on the screen, from a tiny area to the full screen. And its free. It is also available in Brazilian Portuguese, Catalan (Valencian), Chinese, Czech, Deutsche, Dutch, English, French, Galego, Hungarian (Magyar), Italian, Macedonian, Polski (Polish), Portuguese (Portugal), Russian, Sloveski, Spanish and Swedish.

Of course you could also use Print Screen, built into Windows. However, this is more sophisticated with diverse options.

MW Snap

Friday, 19 September 2008

19. Free recording software - Audacity

This is a completely free recording program that is (almost) as good as some of the more professional versions. It allows most of the functions from recording, editing, boosting poor quality, removing hiss etc. (But a poor recording can only ever be made into an improved poor recording. It is better to seek to maximise the quality in the first place.) Another benefit is that you can convert wav files into mp3, with the aid of an additional download. This is useful for those text-to-speech programs that only produce wav files.


Thursday, 18 September 2008

18. Did you know - Maltron Keyboards

The Maltron Keyboard

The layout of the modern keyboard was designed to minimise the number of keys that clashed in the mechanical version. It is not the most efficient layout, but with so many keyboards of a fixed design, it is difficult to envisage any other layout becoming commonplace. The one layout that does provide considerable theoretical promise is the Maltron keyboard.

In the 1970s Lilian Malt re-examined the strain issues around keyboard use, and in collaboration with Stephen Hobday developed the Maltron keyboard. (www.maltron.com). Their analysis of the logic behind the keyboard makes for very interesting reading. For example the keyboard rest keys (i.e. those keys where the fingers naturally rest) on the QWERTY – ASDF : HJKL - allow just 27 words to be typed. However, the Maltron layout rest keys - ANISF : DTHOR – over 7500 words can be typed. For the 20 most common words (the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I) which account for 25-30% of all words used, only “a” can be typed with the rest keys using a QWERTY layout, while all but four (you, was, with, they) can be typed using rest keys with the Maltron layout. As well as improved key placement, the Maltron keyboard is also said to be a better ergonomically as it matches the natural position of the hand.

However, if the next generation of keyboards is built into the screen, we have the option to change the keyboard layout at any time. This means, at least in theory, that future generations could train to type far more efficiently.


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

17. Text-to-speech on a dongle - ClaroRead SE

It is good to have text-to-speech on your computer. But what happen when you move from machine to machine? The answer is to have the software on a dongle. One such solution is ClaroRead SE (cut down but still high quality voices), shown here. And at less than £70 (€100) is a good solution. Available from the British Dyslexia Association web shop.

ClaroRead SE at the BDA Shop

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

16. Convenient USB memory

Just about everybody I know carries a USB memory stick around. But where they keep them is anybody's guess. Usually it's a case of "It's in one of these pockets somewhere", "At the bottom of the handbag, I think", or "On the table at home." For some time, I have been looking for a decent memory that is somehow easy to keep nearby. My current choice is the Flexi Integral (2Gb). It is small enough to attach to the key ring (see above), folds away, and is rubberised. Cost is around £12 (€16).

Possible source of this USB: Pixmania.com

Monday, 15 September 2008

15. Store, Sync and Share files - with Dropbox

The beta version of Dropbox has was launched last Thursday, and offers a new way to save and share files. Basically, you install a piece of software onto your computer, and you are able to share files on the web and with other computers. You can put up to 2Gb onto the web for free, making it a useful backup service. It really cannot be much simpler than that. Installation was easy and stress free. There are versions for Windows, Mac and Linux, meaning you can share any time with anybody. So if you are online, why not just email? Firstly, there are file size limitations, and secondly this is also backup storage. Hopefully it will minimise those lost and forgotten files.


Sunday, 14 September 2008

14. Make your own font - Fontstruct

It is an urban myth that there are fonts that suit all dyslexics. Everybody is different. However there are some features that make it easier for the dyslexic reader. In brief, I suggest the use of Arial rather than Times. But if everybody does have their own preference, then why not design the typeface that suits you. Then you could change any electronic document to your own preference. Here is a font design tool, which even allows you to share it, all for free.


Saturday, 13 September 2008

13. 24 hour battery life!

Having talked recently about battery life, I was intrigued to see reports on the BBC website (click to see original report) about one of the latest HP laptops (HP EliteBook 6930p) that offers 24 hours of battery life. According to rivals Dell, this is not quite true as they used an old system to measure it. Using the new system, the battery life is less than 22 hours. That beats my less than three hours! Apparently the increased battery life comes from using the new LED screens and solid state hard drives, as well as their special long life battery (to be purchased separately). And apparently they may have dimmed the screen. But I could live with that for a battery life of more than 20 hours. A couple of other friendly features - apparently it meets military standards for dropping from 30 inches (not quite the same as drop-proof, but better than fragile), as well as having a spill resistant keyboard. But the it is the long life battery that I find most impressive.

See also Battery life - but not as we know it

Friday, 12 September 2008

12. Onscreen Stickies / Post Its / Desktop notes

There are many different free "Stickies" (Post Its) programs, which are simple little notes that sit on the Desktop as a form of short term visual reminder. (They also have alarms, you can change colours, fonts etc.) I have chosen this one as it has the option to download the menus in different languages, including Brazilian, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish.

Zhorn Software Stickies

Thursday, 11 September 2008

11. Shared whiteboard - Scriblink

Sometime you see something that you know will be useful, but you are not sure what to use it for. This is one of those tools. Imagine giving two kids a piece of blank paper but not telling them how to use it. That is what we have here, but the two people can be in different countries! How else do you describe this kind of whiteboard? This is a tool that can be used for any shared experience, from planning, freehand concept mapping, language learning or just having fun.

Results are shared by asking the program for the web page where it can be seen. All you need to do is hit that button, and you can send the URL to a friend by email, Skype or any other means. You can also print, save and send the pictures.


Wednesday, 10 September 2008

10. Plagiarism (avoided)

UPDATE: (28 September 2008) This software worked when I reviewed it, but now I cannot get it to function. I am awaiting a reply from the developers. I shall remove this comment when I know it works again.

There are two types of plagiarism: purposeful and accidental. Purposeful plagiarism is when you claim something was your work when you knew it was not. Accidental plagiarism is when, for example, you are on the internet and rather than loose the text, you copy and paste it into your notes document. Then when you are rewriting it, you forget which is yours and which is not. Suddenly somebody else’s text appears in a document without a clear indication that it is not yours.

Before wide access to electronic information, this was not a major issue because a) people were not able to cut and paste, and b) there was no easy way to check is something was original. However, universities now have access to software that check for plagiarism. This is because too many people try to cheat. And as far as I am concerned, if they purposely attempted to deceive others, then they should be punished appropriately. But what of those who genuinely do it accidentally? Fortunately there is some help before you have to hand it in.

It is called Viper, and can be downloaded from www.scanmyessay.com. In principle you upload your document to the software that sits on your computer, and then you click on Server and Web Search and it checks the internet for any document similar to yours by taking lots of short phrases and comparing it to what is already on the web.


Tuesday, 9 September 2008

09. Saving battery life - six good tips

Having talked yesterday about having a second battery, there are of course a number of ways to increase amount of power you can get from a single battery charge.

1. Dim your screen
This is an obvious way to say power, since the backlight used to light the screen accounts for 2-3 watts of power.

2. Avoid multitasking
Minimise the number of programs running at the same time, including those running in the background. You can see how busy your CPU is by going to the Task Manager. Decrease the activity will increase the battery life.

3. Minimise the number of “devices” operating
USB devices such as the mouse can be a power drain. Switching off WiFi saves another 3 watts. Run from the hard drive, not from the CD/DVD drive.

4. Adjust the power settings
Use the one that maximised battery life. This will decrease performance slightly, but not enough to show with standard programmes such as word processing.

5. Lower screen resolution
This option decreases the call on the graphics computing. Although generally not recommended since the low resolution may be uncomfortable and counter productive, it is none-the-less an option.

6. Use “Hibernate” instead of “Standby”
Hibernate save far more power than going into Standby mode. Although placing a laptop in standby mode saves some power and you can instantly resume where you left off, it doesn’t save anywhere as much power as the hibernate function does.

Monday, 8 September 2008

08. Spare batteries

It is surprising how few people purchase a second battery for their laptop computer. The difference can be considerable. They are not cheap, and you will have to carry around an extra half kilo. But the bonus is that you will survive twice a long without connection to the power supply. It allows for better planning, and it means you can probably survive a whole morning or afternoon without concern. This is particularly important if you are stuck in a room (such as a lecture theatre) where there are very few power sockets. However, the important thing to remember is to recharge the second battery when discharged.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

07. Google Chrome update

In the spirit of constant review, the blog from the 2nd September 2008 highlighted the release of the new Google Chrome web browsers. Now, after a few days, there has been the opportunity to reflect and review comments on the web. The consensus appears to be along the lines of "Nice browser, but not ready yet."

But, as the illustration shows, there is one good new feature that I like, which is that you can have a visual front page of Bookmarks when you open a new tab (Ctrl T). Of course I would like it differently organised, but it is a start.

On background colours, I have yet to find the control panel.

On increasing text size, it performs well using Ctrl + +. Where both Firefox and Explorer increase the whole page size, Chrome only changes text size. This is better in most cases.

It seems they have some way to go before they have compatibility with all the screen readers.

For a list of the shortcuts mentioned below, see their Keyboard Shortcuts guide.

Jonas Kline (Software Engineer - Accessibility for Google), released the following statement about accessibility on 4th September:

"Google Chrome, our new Open Source browser released on Tuesday, strives to innovate and drive development on the web. This certainly extends to all of our users, and the issue of accessibility is no different.

In the spirit of releasing early and iterating, this version of Chrome has focused on basic support for keyboard navigation and shortcuts, as well as a clean user interface that is simple for all users to navigate. At the same time, we have laid the foundations in place for exposing the appropriate information through the Windows Accessibility APIs (used by screen readers, etc.), as well as support for WAI-ARIA. Users can expect rapid improvements in both of these areas in releases to come.

Accessibility is important to us, and we have for some time worked on its implementation. We look forward to releasing this, and making further improvements for our users."

Source: http://groups.google.com/group/accessible/browse_thread/thread/631477cc1bc3c77d

Saturday, 6 September 2008

06. Sharing concept maps - Bubbl.us

Here is another online concept mapping tool that is free and allows sharing and editing of the content online.


And there is also an online YouTube introductory guide.

Friday, 5 September 2008

05. Finding concept mapping videos

Concept maps can be very useful tools. But it is difficult to get started if there is nobody there to show you. However, help is at hand, since you are not the only one with this problem. One suggestions (and there are many more sources) is to visit www.youtube.com and type in "concept map" or "mind map". You will then find a useful collection of video. (Note that none are highlighted as more could be added on a daily basis.)


Thursday, 4 September 2008

04. Recovery of deleted files - Undelete Plus

Have you ever hit the delete button, only to realise later that you did not mean to do that? There are many software programs on the internet that can recover files for free. Here are a couple which can recover files from your hard drive. These are highlighted because they can be put onto that USB stick and carried around with you. (Not sure if the program can recover from a USB stick, but in theory it should!) You may want to read the comments that do with them before you go ahead, though they can be a little technical. Basically, do not expect miracles, but they may help depending on what exactly happened.

Undelete Plus

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

03. ICED - In Case of Emergency (Dyslexia)

The In Case of Emergency (ICE) system was invented by ambulance workers in Essex (UK) and was proposed so that everybody would put their emergency contact person details in their mobile phone so that if they were involved in an accident, the emergency services knew who to telephone. The extension of that is to have one person or place where, for example, passwords are stored. So, for example, you could give a list of your password to a friend or relative in a sealed envelop. But the danger is you may forget who you gave it to. By having a standard place that everybody uses, you will remember where the password are stored. This could also apply to security codes for software or any other emergency detail. And of course if you use KeyPass (see earlier blog entry) or similar, you can reduce the number of items you need to store.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

02. New Google Browser - Google Chrome

The launch today of the new Google browser created a flurry of activity in technology blogs but does it represent a breakthrough or just another option? Inital reaction seems to be muted, seen as an expected development rather than what we have all been waiting for. The question for TDB (TechnoDys Blog) is what will be the implications for dyslexic users?

Of course the first reaction is that one needs to learn yet another new system. But fortunately the new browser follows the principles of clarity and therefore it should be intuitive.

Key areas for consideration include ease of changing background colours and font sizes, and the ability to integrate text-to-speech software. The other aspect will be the ability to return to ones favourite sites, through history and bookmarks.

Clearly this development is about making a browser for the services that are up-and-coming, including better handling of online services such as Google Docs, Google Earth, Videos etc and the yet to be conceptualised ideas for "Web 2" and "Web 3" (whatever those terms may mean!).

Google Chrome

Monday, 1 September 2008

01. BATS – Basic Assistive Technology Suite

To help the dyslexic individual, Ibis Creative Consultants has created BATS – Basic Assistive Technology Suite. This is a selection of freely available software that dyslexics can use. Furthermore, much of the software is available in different languages.

Freeware is used here to suggest all the software that can be used without paying anybody. This excludes Shareware, where you are supposed to send money after a given amount of time.

Does this mean you do not need to buy any software? Commercial software exists because is has advantages. But if you waiting for funding (or will never get it!) you can still explore the following software. Note that the list includes online and offline versions.

The Suite includes the following:
Basic Office software (offline)
Open Office www.openoffice.com

Basic Office Software (online)
Google Docs http://docs.google.com
Zoho www.zoho.com
Thinkfree www.thinkfree.com
Buzzword www.acrobat.com

Text-to-speech (offline)
Readplease www.readplease.com
YeoSoft www.text-mp3.com
Natural Reader www.naturalreaders.com
SayzMe www.datafurnace.net.au/sayzme
Readpal www.readpal.com/one/screenreader.htm

Text-to-speech (online)
TTST http://text-to-speech-translator.paralink.com/

Concept mapping (offline)
Freemind http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
Compendium http://www.compendiuminstitute.org/

Concept mapping (online)
Mindomo www.mindomo.com
Ekpenso www.ekpenso.com
Mindmeister www.mindmeister.com (Collaborative)

Sound recording
Audacity www.audacity2008.com

Typing tutor (offline)
TypeFaster Typing Tutor www.typingsoft.com/all_typing_tutors.htm
Klavaro Touch Typing Tutor www.typingsoft.com/all_typing_tutors.htm

Typing tutor (online)
Online Keybr www.keybr.com
Digicurso www.digicurso.com

Magnifiers www.magnifiers.org

Organisers (online)
Don’t forget the milk www.rememberthemilk.com

BATS – Basic Assistive Technology Suite – is available to the Ibis website: