Sunday, June 14, 2009

Instrument Evaluation: Want to Playaway?

Yes. Playaway is spelled correctly. I'm talking about a Playaway preloaded digital audio book player.
In total, over 6,500 titles are available on Playaway. The complete list of titles available to schools can be obtained by combining the Follett (the exclusive distributor of Findaway World's titles in the K-12 market), Recorded Books, and BBC America catalogs.

Playaway is the easiest way to listen to a book on the go. Simply plug in the earphones and enjoy. No Cassettes or CDs. No Downloads. Just Play.

Our school library just purchased a few of these devices, and the librarian asked me to demo one. I took it with me on a school trip and offered it to students during the ride. It got mixed reviews.

While most students were eager to listen to the device and sat quietly doing so, there was one student in particular that was frustrated by the fact that there was only one book to listen to from this one machine. In the world of iPods and mP3s, this student commented that he wanted more choices than just one book. He pushed the buttons a lot in order to figure out how they worked.

According to the Southern Scene company:

Each title is supplied in specially designed library packaging and includes:
  • The Playaway digital audiobook
  • Earbud' style earphones
  • User instructions
  • Two batteries (one inside the unit and one spare)
  • Lanyard


  • 10 volume levels
  • 3 voice speed levels: normal, fast and fastest
  • Bookmark your favourite sections
  • Skip forward and back chapters and bookmarks
  • Rewind, fast forward and pause
  • Remembers where you stopped
  • Can also be used with most headphones,
    speakers and car adapters
  • Time remaining and battery level on LCD screen
  • Full 12 months warranty
From my perspective, the Playaway is a great alternative to an expensive iPod or portable cd player, although it is still expensive at approximately $50. Despite the price, the Playaway is a assistive technology alternative for students that have difficulty decoding. The fact that the student can only listen to one book means that he or she has to focus, and will not be distracted by any other auditory book choices. However, the success of a book on tape always depends on the reader. A unique alternative to this product would be the ability to choose a different reader.

Based on my knowledge and experience with audio books, I like this unique alternative to books on cd which can get scratched or a expensive iPod that could easily get dropped and broken. Educators should consider the Playaway for students that benefit from books on cd or tape.

Instrument Evaluation: Google Docs

Google Docs is a free web-based word processor and spreadsheet, which allows you to share and collaborate online.

If you were to ask an intermediate student to set up a Google Doc without ever telling him or her what it was, I think they could easily set up their own account in less than 3 minutes if they had a computer/laptop with internet access. They might do a Google search for it and easily follow the steps to set up their own account. If you're a teacher, I hope you're brave enough to do the same.

As a fifth grade teacher, I've set up Google accounts for my class because to be honest, it makes working on writing assignments so easy. First of all, if students are familiar with Word, then they can easily navigate through a Google Doc. A Google Doc is unique though, because you can not only observe the students OS (over the shoulder), but you can be invited into a document and view student work on your own computer. You can even add your own comments in real time. What's even better, is the fact that students no longer need to save their work to a floppy disc or a flash drive. They have access to their work anywhere there is internet access.

Watch this video to learn more about how this works, but while you're watching do so from a teacher perspective. Pretend the main character in the presentation is a disorganized student and you'll understand the benefits of this tool immediately.

I've observed a number of students using this tool independently. I've also observed kids who have shared their documents with other students, teachers and parents. Doing this makes working collaboratively, collaborative. The interaction between the student and the Google Doc and the other participants is unique, but there are some basic skills an evaluator/teacher must look for when gathering data on the success of the student. For one, can they touch type? If so, do they have the stamina to type an essay? If they are working collaboratively, does the student have the ability to comprehend the text of their peer, parent or teacher?

When I've interviewed students that use Google Documents, they have said that they like the application. It is an ideal tool to use for collaborative projects. Teachers I've interviewed state that they like the fact that they can help to edit work when students are both in and out of the classroom. Parents like the fact that they can also be invited into documents with the student and his or her teacher. What a classroom community!

In all, this FREE application is an ideal tool for all students, but especially for students that can type but have difficulty keeping track of their work on a network server or flash drive. They can easily access their work online at a PC or wireless laptop. If they have access to these tools in school, they can use Google Docs to take notes during lessons, to write a paper, or to work on a collaborative document or presentation with peers. Teachers invited into the documents can then help to edit work and/or make suggestions for improvement.

One problem with this instrument is that you need internet access in order to login into the Google Docs application.

Based on my own knowledge and experience with Google Docs, I find the tool invaluable. I especially like this tool because it fosters independence in the classroom and out. A student using Google Docs that needs help from a teacher in the room, only needs to create a signal for assistance and a private conversation can occur online rather than creating a auditory ruckus for the rest of the students in the class. It brings no attention to the student in need. I think this application is ideal for students in the intermediate grades through high school, because it is a tool that is easy and flexible. This is an assistive technology application that can be collaborative and meaningful for students as well as non-intrusive.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Instrument Evaluation: Can I be Frank(lin) with you?

This is a Franklin Children's Talking Dictionary and Spell Corrector. If you've never seen or used one before, the Franklin Children's Talking Dictionary and Spell Corrector is an interactive dictionary that will:

Improve your child's reading and writing skills. It includes over 40,000 easy-to-understand definitions, automatic phonetic spell correction, an animated handwriting guide, a rhyme finder, five word-building games, and a vocabulary word list that can be created by the user.

To determine if this tool could be an appropriate assistive technology device for a student, you should consider the following:

The classroom is an ideal location to observe a student using this tool. It is a low tech device that could be easily integrated into the general education classroom during various subjects and groupings. With regard to evaluating the tool with a student, an observer may want to compare how long it takes the student look up definitions in the dictionary with how long it takes the student to use the Franklin Spell Checker.

While this tool could benefit students with learning disabilities as well as speech/language impairments, fine motor deficits could impede on the success of the student with this device since the keyboard is very tiny.

Since this device is portable and has headphone jacks for privacy, this device could be easily integrated into any learning environment. Students will need training on using the various functions found on the device through guided instruction and practice. This tool would be beneficial for a student that was not able to master the use of a cumbersome dictionary at the same pace as his/her peers. It achieves the same goal of defining words, but at a more productive speed.

This device is recommended for students from six to ten years old, however, older students may find this device appealing. The ten year olds that I work with often fight over who gets to use the spell checker since they find it a quick and easy resource to look up definitions and/or to practice their spelling skills. Another student used it primarily for cursive instruction with the animated handwriting guide.

As a teacher, I recognize the positive impact that vocabulary and spelling instruction have on learning. As a special education teacher, I understand how frustrating it is for a child that functions below grade to use a dictionary. I have found this assistive technology tool to be a nice alternative to the challenges involved with defining words the old fashioned way for students with high incidence disabilities.

Some additional benefits of this instrument include the personal spelling/vocabulary list that students can independently upload into the spell checker. These lists can be used with the five word building games on the machine and can be very motivating to students that learn through play. Another benefit is the homophone guide and rhyme finder.

At least one problem with the Franklin Children's Talking Dictionary and Spell Corrector is that despite it's general durability, the device does not withstand gravity well. Students need to be careful with this $49.95 tool in order for it to last, however, teachers can order carrying cases for it for $14.95.

If I had my way, I would recreate a more durable Franklin Children's Talking Dictionary and Spell Corrector. Other than that, I believe that a device like this has the potential to improve the learning of any student that uses it. For a student with reading deficits, this tool will speak words, define them, and spell them out in cursive all from the comfort of their own seat. If he/she has headphones, the student can independently, quickly and privately pursue their own learning without adult interference. Any device that increases opportunities for independent success like this should be considered when determining a student's assistive technology needs.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Get Your Game On!

Hello Son, how was your first day at school?
It was all right Mom, except for some woman called "Teacher" who kept spoiling all our fun!

After reading the chapter on 'Play' in Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, I'm reminded that play, joy and humor are important not only in our daily lives, but in school too.

Way back when in the 1930s at the Ford Motor Company "laughter was a disciplinary offense - and humming, whistling, and smiling were evidence of insubordination." This is not only true of school during those times, but this same philosophy is held true today in many classrooms. This makes me sad.

It makes me happy to play. Play, according to Pink is becoming an important part of work, business and personal well-being that manifests in three ways: games, humor and joyfulness.

So what games do you play? Did you know Albert Einstein said, "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." What games do you play with your students? I love this quote by Pat Kane, the author of The Play Ethic because it takes play to a whole new level. "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society - our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value."

I'm sure that you already know that games are being used to train soldiers, doctors and pilots. I'm sure you've also heard that data proves that these training tools can enhance skills and productivity. Why aren't more teachers gaming in the classroom? Most of our kids love games whether they're playing a hands-on game w/ manipulatives or a virtual game on line. Either way, they're still practicing and learning.

Kid's have fun when they're playing games, especially when they're social. Fabio Sala from the Harvard Business Review states that "More than four decades of study by various researchers, confirms some common-sense wisdom: Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels. It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages." In the classroom, humor, used skillfully not negatively, has the potential to improve learning. It reduces anger, deflates frustration, relieves fears, improves motivation and helps kids to feel good. What a joy!

So what can you do to bring more play, humor and joy into your classroom?
  • laugh
  • play games
  • create cartoons
  • encourage wit
  • foster creativity w/ inventions
  • tell jokes
  • play right brain games
  • have fun
  • smile
Pass it on.