Sunday, 30 November 2008

30. Reflections on computing needs

With increasing amounts of software becoming online, the idea of ownership of software or services , or even where the boundaries of the computer are, is becoming more indistinct. While for many people this is not a problem, consider those who are funded for support, such as a centrally funded disabled student allowance, where traditionally funding has, in effect, been given to a single software and hardware provider to supply tangible goods.

If one was to scan through the entries in this blog, there may be many services that are useful, such as back-up and storage, online concept mapping (without adverts), and online text-to-speech (some of which are free, but experience showns that better ones will be part of a paid for service soon). Who then controls that funding? Will these individuals be allowed to make personal choices, or are they at the mercy of the "technology assessor" who may not necesserily know of everything that is suitable.

Traditionally there has been only a small number of products that appear regularly on a list of assistive technology. Probably more than 95% of all text-to-speech sales in the UK are covered by just six commercial software packages. It is probably the same with concept mapping. But who will say in future what should be accepted, and how does one control the budgets?

This is not to say that most existing system do not allow for such diversity. But there is another aspect to consider - when you buy software from the box, it is always yours. Rarely does it come as an annual licence arrangement. But what of the online software that is usually a monthly licence. Who will make sure the payment a) go through, and b) are stopped at the right time. If the funding ceases at the end of, say, a three year course, the individual will have to "buy again" all the software when they start work.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

29. Online text-to-speech - iSpeech

This blog has already reviewed a number of text-to-speech engines. Here is yet another one. The slight difference is that it can also take a document on your computer and send back a sound file for you to listen to later. Or you can listen to it live. To test the system, I registered (free and minimal), uploaded a 3200 word article and let it run its course. (I wanted to make sure what I wrote made sense!) The conversion was a little faster than it was being read. File size was around 30 meg, talking 30 minutes to be read. What impressed me most was the voice quality, with excellent intonation (though it did appear to pronounce "him" as "hime"!)

"Saving" methods were the option to download the mp3 file, to have a podcast, to have a link to a website, or to embed a Flash file into a web page. It also added the file to my own library.

Quoting the website "iSpeech can convert your favorite Websites, RSS, Blogs and Documents (Microsoft Office, Adobe PDF, Text, etc.) to speech with any PC or Mobile Device. Download your favorite blogs and news feeds as mp3 or podcast your favorite websites into your iPod." I am curious to see what I can do on a mobile phone.


Keywords: text-to-speech, online, ispeech

Friday, 28 November 2008

28. Saving from YouTube

This is a simple online program which allows you to capture videos from YouTube and save them to your computer in whatever format you required, including suitable for viewing on a mobile phones. So if you find a concept mapping video, you can now capture it to the hard drive and watch it at your leisure.

Convert My Tube

Thursday, 27 November 2008

27. Talking for free - Skype and Google Talk

Google Talk is the latest free service from Google, launched last week. (N.B. The business model says there will be a commercial version at some later date. I cannot see this to be a loss leader. But hopefully it will be free for personal use.)

The questions to ask are why should you use it, and does it rival Skype?

The mixed reviews mean that I mention it here, but I will not rush to download and try it. However, I will say that there are two important issues to consider: 1) ease of use, and 2) quality.

If you are very familiar with Skype, then it may be better to stick with what you know rather than try to master a new system. This is particularly so when a new system is being developed. There will be occasions when some functionality does not work. It may be better to wait for a friend to try it, and then ask them to instruct you how to use it.

There is also the question of quality. When I used to log in a year ago, Skype would tell me were six million users online. Now the number is normally over 12 million. I am not the only person to have noted the drop in quality, that is both sound quality and the frequency of loosing connection.

Thus Google may gain "customers" due to the apparent falling quality of Skype, rather simply because it is better.

As to why use Skype/Google Talk, it is more than just a cheap way to call friend. It can be a bridge between direct face-to-face contact, and the isolated feeling that the technology can produce. I find Skype a good way to provide "distance support" (as opposed to "distance learning"). That support can be about how to use the technology, or how to structure an essay. It can also become part of a remote tutoring system for individuals of all ages. Internet voice and video cannot rival somebody sitting beside you. But it can lessen the isolation.

Google Talk

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

26. Screen capture and drawing - Skitch

This is a great little screen capture device that is excellent for simple captures and annotations, which you can then send by email or put on a social network site or whatever you wish.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

25. Converting PDFs

This could not be simpler. You have a PDF document and you want to convert it to a Word document. Simply locate it on your computer, hit convert, and the job is done. Why would you want to do this? Sometimes you want to mark up a document with highlighers, or save it in another document. Unfortunately, if you look closely at a paragraph, it leaves a line break as that rather than treating it as simply running onto the next line. But it is free.

Convert PDF to Word

Monday, 24 November 2008

24. Language learning - in a minute

When I go on holiday, I do at least like to be able to say "Please", "Thank you" and a few other choice phrases, just to show that I am trying. Sadly my language learning capability is "limited". But I have come across this new website with the intriguing title of "One minute languages." So I shall listen, and see what I learn. The lessons are given in weekly downloadable podcasts.

The current choice of languages are Catalan, Danish, French, German, Irish, Japanese, Luxembourgish, Mandarin, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian and Russian. What a pity my next trip is to Italy!

These same people also have a new course for English language learners entitled Write Back Soon "which helps learners of English master one tricky aspect of the language: phrasal verbs." Sadly I think I missed the lesson when they explaned what "phrasal verbs" are. Fortunately Google came to my rescue, and according to the Phrasal Verb Dictionary "A phrasal verb is a verb plus a preposition or adverb which creates a meaning different from the original verb." For example "run + into" = "meet".

One Minute Languages

Phrasal Verb Dictionary

Sunday, 23 November 2008

23. Geeks, the web, and what happens next

Tim O'Reilly is a renown web commentator. He is the one who first coined the term "Web 2". I was recently pointed to a "review" of a talk by him about two weeks ago, which I thought was worth highlighting here, because:

a) It is a good use of concept maps
b) It is an interesting vision of how technology is used, what it can do and what it will do in future.
c) It talks about the "alpha geeks"- "These are the folks who manage to thrive and innovate despite us, rather than because of us."

It seemed so relevant to the world of dyslexia, the dyslexic learner and the creative dyslexic that is should not be missed. (Hint: Click on the concept map and a bigger version will appear.)

O'Reilly concept map

Saturday, 22 November 2008

22. Website design - Webs

A few years ago a young person (Barnaby) while still at school developed his own website where he told the world about his dyslexia. The website became widely known and is still online, though apparently no longer updated.

In those days, websites were not easy to put together. But life has moved on, with more sophisticated websites being achievable with less effort. But they are still great for building self-esteem and motivation. Here is a website development system that is free if you are happy to carry their adverts.

Barnaby's site

Keywords: website, content management

Friday, 21 November 2008

21. Text-to-Speech on a Nokia

It seems that Nokia are making a real commitment to text-to-speech on a mobile phone. Sadly I have been unable to test the software as it is not compatible with my Nokias.

Nokia Text-to-speech - UK

Nokia Text-to-speech - International

Thursday, 20 November 2008

20. 3D drawing with Google SketchUp

This week, Google launched the latest version of their 3D drawing packing that seems fun to work with. There is a free and a "professional" version. For those who like to work in 3-dimensions this is a great tool.

Check out the video on their website

Google SketchUp 7

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

19. Search the web by voice on your iPhone

Yesterday, Google launched a new application for the Phone. According to their website "The new Google Mobile App for iPhone makes it possible for you to do a Google web search using only your voice. Just hold the phone to your ear, wait for the beep, and say what you're looking for. That's it. Just talk."

Unfortunately, I feel it has been released only half finished since it does not appear to read back the results! But I admit that it is exciting progress.

Check out the web page to see a video on how it works.

Google voice search

Keywords: Voice, mobile search,Google

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

18. Dyslexia-friendly designing - Create with Context report

I recommend reading this (6 Meg) report for two reasons.

1. It gives some thought as to how real people use iPhones, and in doing that it makes one reflect how the dyslexic user may have difficulties with some application on the mobile phone (not to mention the dyspraxic user) .

2. The report is one of the most dyslexia-friendly reports I have seen for a long time. (N.B. I am not claiming to have check all accessibility issues. I refer to the visual presentation of information with little text.)
I believe that there is a lot to be learned from both the content and style of this report.

Dyslexia-friendly iPhone report from Create with Context

Monday, 17 November 2008

17. Sharing mobile entries using a data projector

I confess that in this case the link between the product and being dyslexia-friendly is not so clear. But I thought that this was a cool piece of kit that needed sharing. (Yes it really is hand size!) However, there will be occasions when it will be useful, since it does more than just connect to the laptop as a projector. It also connects to your iPhone (and presumably most other phones). So you can use it with others to look at your diary, share emails etc without having to be so close to the phone. And you could even project the web pages from the phone (or movies if you feel the need to relax).

At an intensity of just 12 lumens, I shall not rush out and buy one tomorrow. The claim of viewable as a 50 inch screen must be in extremely dark conditions. But is does show what is around the corner. Expect the projector to be built into your laptop soon.

RXS Pico Projector

Sunday, 16 November 2008

16. Storage and Access

Do you remember when all your "data" fitted on on floppy disc? But now, what is your average file size? My Word documents are usually still under 1 Meg. But the PowerPoints are more like 20 Meg. So the storage and transfer issues are very different. I still have a 64 Meg USB memory stick (RIP), which a few years ago would have been sufficient. But life has moved on. So too has the need to back up.

Five good reasons to have a second set of files off the main computer
a) The computer could be stolen
b) The computer may crash and become inaccessible for a few days
c) The hard drive may die for inexplicable (technical) reasons and become inaccessible forever.
d) The computer may suffer a sad end, such as fire, water, earthquake (or knocked off a desk) etc.
e) You go somewhere that does not have access to the computer.

When it comes to "back-ups" we need to ask why do we need them. We can classify them into two main types:
1) We know where the data is/was, but unexpectedly no longer have access to it (See scenarios a, b, c, and d.)
2) We go somewhere knowing we will not have access to the computer (See scenario e, which could be because we do not want to drag a computer around, such as on a trip abroad.)

We therefore need to consider the options for back-up storage. The principle are:
1) Store on a large hard drive (e.g. a 320 gig back-up drive.) BUT you have to remember the dangers of fire and theft. So store the back-up in an appropriate place.
2) Use a USB memory stick. Until recently these have not been an option for full backups. But my USB is 32 Gig, which offers reasonable backup (I do not have videos on my computer.) It stays with may keys and is unlikely to be lost at the same time as my computer.
3) Online storage. This is an increasily easy option, with different level available in terms of security, access, volume and manner to backing up. (I.e. you can ask it to back-up automatically for you. But you need online access to use.

Most importantly, you have to remember to back-up. I looked for some statistics to see how often people in general back-up. In a “straw polls” I found, “Once in a blue moon” was the most common (around 30%), alongside Never (also 30%). Only 10% did it daily (probably corporately).

When it comes to recommendations, it can never be too often. One example of a policy/guideline is from the University of Oxford. They carry out weekly system back-ups, and recommend students to back-up important work (e.g. theses) on a daily basis. Knowing two PhDs whose computers crashed one week before submission, I would agree!

Finally, I am grateful for the anonymous comment yesterday that suggested the following useful source of independent reviews of online back-up systems. I am sure I shall use it in the future.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

15. Online file storage - Mediafire

I had a simple problem - I needed to send a file to somebody, but the size was 20 meg. My email limit is 2 meg. So I looked around for a service that would give me what I want, and found Mediafire. They offered unlimited storage, no fees, no software to install. All in return for a few adverts on the screen. I uploaded my Powerpoint, and was immediately given a website address where others could download that file. Simple and easy to use. I can imagine this being useful for any student with large (media-rich) files they are sending to tutors or others.


Friday, 14 November 2008

14. Big ideas on mind mapping - and win a copy of iMind Map

Vic Gee runs a blog dedicated to mind mapping. He has just extended the deadline for his competition to 3rd December. All he is asking is for entrants to suggest how the practice of concept mapping can be spread more widely. To quote the website "This needs an idea that will motivate committed visual information mappers and at the same time can leverage the whole mind mapping community to get the word out, explain, demonstrate, tell stories, show all different styles of maps, all uses."

The winner will receive a copy of the Tony Buzan mind mapping software.

Check out the website for further details.

Mind Mapping Competition

Thursday, 13 November 2008

13. Concept mapping on an iPhone - Mindmaker

Why not do mind mapping on the move, using your iPhone? Above is shown one version - MindMaker. This little application is cut down version as you would expect given the iPhone memory. But there are alternatives, such as iBlueSky from Tenero.

However, it is early days, since it is not even clear what you can do with the map once you have created it. But watch this space.



Wednesday, 12 November 2008

12. Recording Skype with Pamela

Skype is a wonderful tool for communicating. But while you can record a lecture using a digital recorder, what about when you have, for example, key tutorial support using Skype? How can you record it so that you can later review what was said?

Pamela has the answer. Pamela offers a free service to record Skype conversations if the call is less than 15 minutes, with increasing (though reasonably prices) subscriptions for longer conversations.


Keywords: Pamela, Skype, recording

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

11. Resource website - Teachnology

This website is not really about learning using the technology, but is included as it is the technology that allows us to access this huge resource. They claim to have over 7000 free downloadable worksheets, which is impressive. If you were to type in "phonics" into their search engine, you will find over over 200 results,with around 50 free worksheets on the first page. But of course you must remember that worksheets are to test learning, and should not be used without the teaching. But they may provide a useful addition that will augment (and test) your teacher. The one word of warning is that sometimes the choice is so vast, it can be quicker to make your own.


Monday, 10 November 2008

10. Podcasting - in five easy steps

Podcasts are all the rage with tech-savvy individuals and teachers, but are not part of mainstream teaching. Why? Like most innovative teaching, it is because it is an activity that is looking for a reason to exist. However, in the world of dyslexia there are many creative ways this can be used. Put simply, if the dyslexic individual has access to some simple technology, and their atempts at writing are demonstrating their disability rather than their ability, why not encourage the use of using the technology for them to create podcasts as submissions for certain activities.

Of course there are those who will talk about the need to develop their weaknesses. But the skilled teacher know this. The method does not remove the need to teacher the wider skills. It simply offers an opportunity for the individual to show their skills, to recover some self-esteem, and maybe even become an expert who can teach others in a fun medium.

This video shows the five easy steps to get started. And if you are a teacher who is hesitating due to the "complexity" of the technology, you could just ask the kid to try it and tell you how the got on.

5 steps to podcasting

Sunday, 9 November 2008

9. Shared Experience - The TeacherTube Rap

The internet provides a perfect medium for sharing ideas and experience of both teaching and learning. Most people are very familiar with YouTube. But less well known is the teachers version - TeacherTube. Here you will find both teaching material and inspiration.

Then I thought that I would find an entry to highlight the potential. So I entering the word "phonics" in the Search. It found 25 entries, and this rap music version to teach what is meant by digraphs was an interesting way to teach using the new media.

Then I wondered what was the most viewed video on the site, and it turned out to be "Pay Attention", with over 770,000 hits. So I had a look, and I can recommend it, even though you are probably already inspired by the potential of technology since you are reading this blog.



Most Viewed Digraph Man

Saturday, 8 November 2008

8. A little (futuristic) history

7th November was the "official" anniversary day for the publication of Dr Pringle Morgan's original article on dyslexia ("A Case of Congenital Word Blindness") in the British Medical Journal in 1896. The 112th anniversary, to be precise. Today is the 100th entry in this blog. So I thought that it would be fitting to try to find some link between the two.

The obituary of Pringle Morgan (he died in 1934) notes his extensive work in the medical field, yet does not mention his contribution to dyslexia. So it makes me wonder what evidence of all this current dyslexia activity will exist in 112 years, and the impact of technology.

I believe the answer lies in the detail. Pringle Morgan was part of an ongoing awareness raising, which has continued up to this day (it is currently Dyslexia Awareness Week in Europe). I am sure that there will be no single person, event, or piece of technology that will make a significant contribution to helping dyslexic individuals. But each will have an impact upon an individual, and the cumulative effect will be noticed down the years.

Right now the technology is moving forward faster than the reflections on its impact. The ubiquitous nature of the hardware does not erode the advantage that the dyslexic had, but makes it more accessible to all dyslexics, irrespective of their degree of difficulty, the pugnacious nature of their parent, or their financial situation. The opportunity to explore ones potential through the widely available technology support lessens the divide between those with explicit (financial) support and those without.

However, to date the concentration has been on the assistive technology, the easy part of the "learning process" to develop. Now greater attention has to be paid on the targeted learning, to identify as early as possible the areas of difficulty, and to adapt teaching to the learning needs. Technology has the potential to do this. What is lacking is the knowledge of how to do it. (I am confident that the desire to do it exists.) We have some theoretical knowledge that suggests advanced programming using mathematical models (Bayesian, Hidden Markov Model, neural networks and similar) which have greatly advanced in recent years, may provide the answer. I even think I know how to do it (calling on people around the world). The problem is getting the funding to create something with a significant impact upon a wide audience.

When that does become available, the nature of a "Dyslexia Awareness Week" will become very different, since the technology will identify and support from the beginning, and the needs will be largely catered for. That is not to say there will no longer be a need for some labels and specialist support, but the nature of it will be very different. And in 112 years time? Only time will tell.

But a final thought: Have you ever noticed how in the science fiction films the consoles are all visual interfaces with no writing? Does that mean the champions of the Starfleet Academy (the Star Trek school) will be dyslexic individuals?

Obituary of Pringle Morgan

Friday, 7 November 2008

7. Comic strip - ToonDoo

If a picture paints 1000 words, then a three picture cartoon must be a 3000 word essay. This simple website helps create cartoons using drag and drop principles. Well worth exploring for those working with children who want to convey a story but without the necessity of writing those 3000 words. And as well as making cartoon strips, you can make books. Lots to explore.

Twenty years ago there were big debates about whether dyslexic children should be allowed to read comics. The consensus (which I did not agree with) was no, and that they should be encouraged to read "real books." My feeling was that the comic should be used to provide a motivation entrance into reading. I believe the thinking is now more open to explore the "non-traditional" paths to encourage any writing, and websites such as this can provide a useful diversion. The added bonus is that the kids can share their ideas with others, as well as use the library of drawings, which will cut down time spent on the drawing elements.

Note that some commentators have suggested that the unwary user could encounter inappropriate material on the site. But despite extensive searches, I have not found any. (Update from Meera at ToonDoo - There is a button top right for Safe Search.)


Thursday, 6 November 2008

6. The Ideal Computer

In an innovative approach, Asus (famous for the EEE PC netbooks) and Intel have set up a website asking people what they would like to see in a PC. An interesting thought for building the future, and while one can discuss dyslexia-friendly software, what adjustments would make a computer dyslexia-friendly? I have already seen comments about built-in pens and interactive screens, controlling music without opening the machine as well as waterproof and shockproof devices. The most innovative I saw was to use the keystroke itself to generate power.

Personally, I would like to see the build in webcam to be usable as a scanner for linking to OCR, plus faster start-ups comparable to Linux (can't the machine be intelligent, know from history what you are most likely to want first, and load that in preference to everything else?). Not to mention the built in ppt projector. And long life batteries. And better security. (I know that it is technically impossible to stop all viruses, but is it so difficult to hardwire a component that the viruses cannot fool which will detect when the machines was last uninfected, and restore to that? Or partition the system so that there are areas which can be infected [e.g. new programs] and factory configured zones that viruses cannot penetrate, including shipped software such as Office? I suspect that until software is rebuilt from scratch as the simple functional software we actually use, then there is little hope. Having said that, this may be one area that the online document people such as Google Docs could play a significant role, since if the document remains "within Google" how could it get infected?)

You may like to submit your ideas, particularly dyslexia-friendly ones, to the discussions at

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

5. Visual browser - Middlespot

It seems that visual browsers are coming thick and fast at the moment! Here is another one which displays in yet another format. It does allow you to drag and drop into a library area. It is interesting, but not sure it is better than any of the others.


Tuesday, 4 November 2008

4. Background colour - Acrobat Reader

We tend to think of PDFs being presented in a fixed format. But fortunately Adobe are well aware of accessibility issues. Not only do they provide a built in text-to-speech system but also they allow you to change background colours.

In order to change the background colour of a pdf in Acrobat Reader, go to Edit > Preferences > Accessibility, and check "Replace document colours". Click "Page Background" to change to your preferred colour.

Monday, 3 November 2008

3. Talking Calculators

I thought that I would talk about a piece of hardware today, so did my background research for Talking Calculators. However, I found that many of the links were dead, or products no longer available. And then I stumbles across this wonderful website - an online (free) talking calculator!

Online Talking Calculator

For those who may still look for a standalone hardware version, here are some promising links: (Shareware) (Selection)

Thanks to Steven Guerra for suggesting

Sunday, 2 November 2008

2. Cloud computing - Windows Azure

Microsoft’s Window Azure is the latest "cloud" system to announce itself to the world. Launched a couple of days ago, The Cloud is the new term (yet another new term) which refers to storage of information on the web as opposed to on our computers. Having rejected this concept years ago, it seems Microsoft are finally realising its importance and potential, especially in protecting existing products. They are hoping to rival the likes of Google Docs and Zoho, and thereby protect their established products. It remains to be seen as to which strategy they adopt, but hopefully they will build in offline working from the outset.

Implications for the dyslexic user? Only that it adds muscle to the online use of software, decreasing the potential to loose documents. But it will also allow Microsoft to redevelop applications which have got hugely cumbersome. Online usage required compact, fast programming. This Azure may help to improve all aspects.

Hopefully the use of assistive software like text-to-speech will not be affected, though I am still hoping Google will announce at some point they are going to give away text-to-speech to everybody free. Or maybe I have my head in the clouds.

For the technically minded, you can find out more at the following website:
Windows Azure

Saturday, 1 November 2008

1. October Summary

In less than a week this blog will record its 100th entry. Though I had little doubt that there would be enough to ensure a new entry every day, I was not sure what it would be, nor where it would come from. Like all bloggers I use a large number of sources of information, and sometime it is difficult to decide which entry to include, there are so many. So firstly, a big thanks to all those individuals, bloggers, commercial interests and others who provide inspiration to the entries. As a dyslexia-friendly website, I try to limit the number of words and so do not add to the burden by listing all the references.But if anybody wants to know the source of some particular information, I would be happy to share.

On the entries for this past month, this can be broken down into a number of categories, for which to me Entry of the Month was, the visual search engine (6). Full marks for this.

This month saw the launch of PATS, or the Portable Assistive Technology Software (26), with other examples of (offline) free software being image manipulation software (GIMP, 7), screen capture software (Camstudio, 13) and magnification (Zoom It, 8). This was discussed against a backdrop of financial uncertainty (5,12).

Online shared documentation started with Smartsheet online spreadsheet (3), and ended with sharing existing (offline) documents online (29). In between there was an online whiteboard (10), shared concept mapping (15) and a reminder system (20).

For text to speech (TTS) applications there was Blogbard – the text to speech for blogs (11), while IMTranslators provides TTS (16) in many languages, as well as a useful computerised translation service.

Firefox has a couple of entries, as the Beta launch (27), screen capture (4) and recovering passwords (28). Google had an entry through Advanced Search (17)

There were four commercial entries, with touch typing (9), a scanning translator (14), a fun speech-to-text controller, and speech-to-text software (23).

While I do not usually cover social networking, Webbr (21) seemed to be worth of a mention due to its visual nature. Another entry due to its visual nature was (25).

The Project of the Month was Calldysc (31), which was related to a discussion on “mobiles” (2).

Extras included mega-storage (30), touch screens (19), and a little fun (22)!

One that had to be updated was plagiarism, where a previous entry no longer functions. However, three good alternatives have been found (24).

Finally, just to warn people that in December I shall be asking for nominations for “The ten most significant items”, whatever that may mean.