iAssist: Using the iPad to Reach Different Kinds of Learners

Different types of assistive technologies have been around for years. However, these technologies involved students with learning differences using specialized devices. These devices were often quite expensive and even more troubling for many students, they often had a stigma attached to them. Students who used them were the "different" students who could not handle the same notebook, pen, or computer as everyone else. The iPad has changed all of that. It is so versatile that it is not only the "cool" device for average students but can easily be adapted to handle the task of many assistive devices needed by students with learning differences.

This was first pointed out to me in an excellent workshop that I attended a little over a year ago at ISTE 2012 on iPads for Struggling and Special Needs Students in Inclusive Environments by Dan Herlihy and Pati King-Debaun. You can read my notes here. Two apps that they discussed that I have blogged about in the past are Dragon Dictation and Evernote.

Dragon Dictation is a highly accurate dictating tool. Students dictate into their iPad sentence by sentence, even using an iPad 2 which does not have a dictation button on their keyboard, and Dragon Dictation converts their words to text and does a fairly good job doing it. This can be an excellent tool for a student with strong auditory skills who for whatever reason has trouble getting words down on paper. Just let them speak and the app will write the words for them. 

Evernote is an app that I have spoken about extensively in the past as THE go-to note-taking app. But for the student with learning differences, there are a number of features on the iPad Evernote edition that are tremendously helpful. Firstly, one can record audio or insert photos directly into the app. For the student with difficulty taking notes, this can be transformative as the student can just jot down a few main ideas and then supplement this either with the teacher's voice or with pictures of the board. I know a number of teachers in my school who have also used this audio tool to create augmented review sheets before tests. The teacher can attach a regular review sheet to a note and then read the text to the student, supplementing it with additional information. When this note is emailed to the student, she sees the text and gets a separate audio file of the teacher's reading.

This can be even more powerful if the teacher or student creates a shared notebook with these augmented notes. As I have blogged in the past, Evernote allows you to share a link to a note or even to an entire notebook so the that whenever the note is updated, the link will also update dynamically with the new information. This can be used to automate any note-taking system where students who need notes can receive them automatically updated by the student or teacher taking them. This can also be used to create online journals where students create entries on a daily basis in their Evernote, share this Journal notebook with their teacher once, and then the notebook link automatically updates for the teacher to read new entries in real-time.

Below are step by step instructions for creating a shared Notebook on Evernote. The direction screenshots are from the earlier version of Evernote that many are familiar with. The new version for Evernote designed for iOs 7 would use the same directions but the screenshots would look different.

1. Log into Evernote or Create an account for Evernote

2. Click on Notebooks

3. Click on plus and click on Journal. Then click Done.

4. Click on Plus to create a Note.

5. Type note and click close when done.

6. Click on Action Button on top right. Then click "Create a Public Link" to share a link to this notebook or "Invite Individuals" to invite individual students to view this notebook by email. 

The iPad also has a number of very inexpensive apps that read to the student any text based document or PDF. For example, the book the Catcher in the Rye is available in PDF online here. Using the very inexpensive app Voice Reader Text to Speech ($1.99 on the app plus $.99 for an additional offline voice), a student can set up the entire book to be read back to her. The app will even highlight the words as they are read, allow one to adjust the speed, and the voice, although a computer, pauses and uses inflection at the right places to almost mimic an actual voice. This app and others like it can be a key scaffold for older students who still are emerging readers. Obviously, this is still not the same as listening to a real human voice. For human voices, one is reliant on purchasing audio books when they are available, although some works are available for free online. For example, one can find a fine reading of the Catcher in the Rye and some other works as MP3 files here.

Finally, even without purchasing an app like Voice Reader Text to Speech or listening to an audio file, one can easily make the iPad read back any selected text. This feature works for English and for many common foreign languages like Spanish and French. (It does not currently work for Hebrew.) This can be invaluable for students with learning differences who have difficulty with silent reading. There are also teachers in my school who have started using this tool for students who are learning a foreign language who could benefit from hearing that language spoken to them by a foreign speaker.

Below are step-by-step instructions to enable the iPad to read any selected text.

1) To enable this feature, go to Settings>General>Accessibility.

2) Select Speak Selection

3) Turn Speak Selection On (green). Turn Highlight Words On (green). You can even make the speaking rate faster of slower.

4) Highlight a text in any app on your iPad like Notes, Evernote, iBooks and select Speak and the iPad will speak the text to you.

It is my hope that through the many powerful tools available on the iPad and similar new technologies, we can begin to realize that in reality all of our students have learning differences. All students can benefit from different assistive technologies whether it be through a pen and paper, a computer keyboard, or a system that reads back the text to you. When all of these various technologies can all be available using the same device that is both cool and highly functional, the iPad, we can begin to break down the barriers and remove the stigmas which unfortunately still exist when striving to reach all of our learners.