Today I'm trying something that I think is fun and unique, the only problem is for several very intelligent and very creative people this isn't really unique, it’s just necessary. What I'm doing right now is dictating this blog to my laptop and a Google Document is being typed with my voice. I'm not touching my keyboard at all except to make sure I take care of the spacing and make the odd edit here and there.
As a special education teacher I see students who have incredible narratives to tell but simply can’t use a paper pencil method to get their stories out. Most often the solution to this kind of problem will be to try to teach a student how to type. Typing is an excellent option and for a lot of students it really really works, the only problem is that for a lot of students it simply doesn't. Students who have learning disabilities that affect their written expression can sometimes overcome that learning disability through typing and I would always encourage teachers to help their students learn how to be proficient with a keyboard. However, there are some really excellent advantages to also having our students work with effective speech-to-text technology. I'm thinking about students who are still developing their typing skills or who are rather young and haven't had an opportunity to become proficiently coordinated with their typing and quite frankly there are always going to be students for whom typing does not make a difference in improving written expression. There will also be students for whom oral expression will always be the best indicator of understanding on any given topic.
Right now I've just switched to using my smartphone and this is one of the most incredible features of this kind of technology. In some ways the Google Document is more accurately recording my voice through my smartphone and that's pretty awesome. So we really have to think about the applications of a technology like this. For me this is a little bit awkward and I'm probably not generating my best writing, however, I think we've all found students who were really strong orally and we still haven't had excellent speech-to-text technology to really get an accurate idea of what the students are capable of and really get the narratives that these students have to offer and the understandings that these students have inside of their heads documented.
I don't want to make this sound like some kind of plug for Google products because I’m really not endorsing any technology over another. Right now I'm speaking out loud without making any special effort to articulate and this Google Document is picking up almost everything word for word. When I've used Dragon Naturally Speaking in the past students have sometimes become frustrated in the training process and ironically students need to read passages in order to train Dragon to understand them. Now, here's the thing, when we're working with students who have language-based learning disabilities we're quite often dealing with students who have difficulty decoding and of course I don't need to explain how trying to read passages out loud would be a less than ideal way for these students to train a speech-to-text software. My colleague Joe Florio (joeflo) can certainly attest to the frustrations that his SERC students have sometimes experienced trying to train on Dragon. On the other hand, I do think that Dragon Naturally Speaking is a great product and I am in no way critiquing it beyond simply stating the genuine experiences that I have had and that I have seen as an educator.
So what's the point of this? did I just feel like dictating into a speech-to-text software? Maybe a little bit! But really this is a lot more than just some kind of blogging stunt. You see, one of the most important things that we can provide for our students is the opportunity to genuinely express themselves. In many ways our stories are the most important things we have. When we can provide our students with user-friendly digital tools that help to bridge the gaps between "traditional learners' (if there is such a thing) and learners with differing abilities (really this is all of us, isn't it?), we basically have an obligation to do so. In a day and age when we are so focused on student voice and student well-being while simultaneously trying to be precise and meticulous in the data that we collect from our students, we simply have to provide tools like this for students who need it. I think it's also very important to remember that a technology like this is going to be useful for a lot of our students but absolutely necessary for others. There is a large number of students whose capacity to express themselves, tell their stories and show their teachers what they know might hinge on technologies like this.
Knowing our Learners through assessment is is an important part of effectively teaching them. When we can find easier ways to incorporate tools that allow our learners to express themselves we will be able to gather more meaningful assessments from all of our students not just those who may actually require some of these accommodations.
A final thought that I think is worth mentioning is the question of whether or not tools such as text to speech software are doing more than just replacing paper pencil tasks. When we think about the SAMR model we usually consider replacing paper pencil tasks with digital tasks as simple substitution or augmentation at best but for the student who nearly can't express himself or herself through writing with a pencil perhaps providing text to speech is almost redefining the task because quite frankly when we’re able to bridge the gap for these students we are allowing them to express themselves and create in ways that aren't possible without the digital tool that they are using.
I've just taken a moment to look back and read through my entire blog. I noticed that I probably express myself better when typing then I do through dictation but since you're reading this you know that I still decided to post this. Here's the thing: I would have no problem writing this blog with a pen, with a pencil, typing it on my laptop, or dictating it into a speech-to-text device. However, with tools like the one I'm using right now this blog could still be written and I could still tell my story, even if something kept me from being able to effectively “write it down”.
Here's the link to my original Google document: Providing Our Learners With Tools To Tell Their Stories - Google Docs