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39 Cross Street
Susan spends a lot of effort in her history class, trying to decode the textbook contents. She does not have scaffolds to help her comprehend the text. John is slow reader and is easily distracted. He is unable to focus attention on what he reads. Zoya is a non-English speaking student who has difficulty reading English as well as learning to speak the language. Ali fully comprehends the meaning of the text but finds it tedious to take the textbook home and read it. Hence he skims over the contents.
The examples above are of learners who are either learning disabled or non-English speaking or just unmotivated readers. CAST has created a tool that can provide such students with a supported reading environment. CAST's existing Ultimate Reader(TM) is a tool that highlights words on the screen while simultaneously reading them aloud. Users can adjust both the display (font; font size; background, foreground, and highlight color; window size) and the voice (speed, pitch, prosody, etc.) to suit their needs and preferences. Ultimate Reader(TM) can read and highlight web documents as well as other kinds of digital content.
The tool allows one to combine different kinds of read and highlight modes. For instance, combinations such as "read by word, highlight by sentence" or "read by sentence, highlight by paragraph" may be selected, giving you tremendous flexibility while reading. A slow reader can use the highlighting as a pacing device to help focus his attention. The text-to-speech functionality can also serve as a tool for tracking content. A student can follow along with the reading even as she listens to the contents. Eventually she may even reduce the amount of text to speech that is used and step through the contents manually, stopping to have only difficult words read and pronounced. In this manner, she can go from being in a fully supported reading environment, to one where she gets minimal support. We have also found that in the Ultimate Reader(TM) environment students with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as well as those with low vision can engage better with the text, since they can set a higher contrast between the background color and the foreground text color.
Using this tool one can toggle between a web browser mode and a regular rich text mode. Hence, while a student is reading a web page he can also easily copy and paste contents of that web page into the rich text document or even type in his own notes. These two modes will be discussed in detail in the following paragraphs.
CAST's Ultimate Reader(TM) can handle Rich Text Formats (RTFs) in interesting ways. Once you open an RTF document within the Reader you can drag and drop media files into that document. The drag and drop capacity is felt to be much easier for many students to use, as opposed to the slightly more complex 'copy and paste' function. Any text or multimedia file that is inserted into the RTF document using either the 'drag and drop' function or the 'copy and paste' function can be launched from within the Reader. It is also possible to create links in the rich text document to other rich text files as well as HTML files.
A teacher can use this capability to build a Table of Contents for a chapter, which includes not just text elements but also relevant multimedia files. He can even record instructions and embed them in the document as audio files. The student can then get to the specific contents by just clicking on the appropriate link. A student can also use this environment to communicate her ideas. CAST is exploring this medium as a tool for expression and creation of content.
Since the Ultimate Reader(TM) has been built as a host for Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 (IE 4.0) component, it can read and highlight web pages, navigate tables and frames, read the ALT tags and even provide a tone signal at the beginning and end of web links. It also offers all IE 4.0 preference settings. The web environment poses some challenges for us in the development of the tool, since we do not have control over the creation of HTML documents that can be read and highlighted. If a web page has been poorly designed or is inaccessible, then currently the Reader navigates through that document with some difficulty.
We are continuing to test the tool using several kinds of web pages and are encouraged with the way it displays scripted pages, pages with plug-ins and pages using several frames. A big advantage of using IE 4.0 component as a host is that any updates made to the Internet Explorer browser will automatically update the tool. For instance, when IE handles CSS2 (Cascading Style Sheets -used to separate presentation from content and aimed at making the web page more accessible) our tool will also be able to handle this feature. Also, for those who cannot or prefer not to use a mouse, IE 4.0's keyboard shortcuts can be utilized within the Reader.
CAST is convinced that the Ultimate Reader(TM) should be able to handle web documents as effectively as it handles other digital documents. Some of our efforts are devoted to ensuring that the tool handles existing web technologies better. Also, we will continue to research emerging technologies such as XML, SMIL, etc. in order to build capabilities into our tool to handle those as well.
Currently, the Ultimate Reader(TM) uses Microsoft's Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI), which allows developers to incorporate both speech recognition and text-to-speech into their applications. At this time, CAST has exploited the technology for text-to-speech purposes only. Future versions of the Reader will possess more intelligible SAPI voices and we will have the ability to add speech recognition as well. Speech recognition will allow us to experiment with the tool as a medium of expression. It will also provide a new method for accessible control of the application itself using voice commands.
The web environment is both rich and complex. Learning disabled students in particular, need support in order to navigate a web site, search for salient information, organize that information and use it to complete a task such as writing a paper. CAST has been funded to build supports into the Ultimate Reader(TM) so that learning disabled students can use the web environment more effectively. The features we develop will be relevant for web documents as well as other kinds of digital content.
CAST has also been funded to take the tool out into the field and test it among student populations. The feedback we get will be valuable in making decisions about which features we need to refine and what additional functionality we need to incorporate. In order to understand how to balance support and challenge, we will study when computer-generated speech is useful and when it is likely to interfere with the development of improved basic reading skills and information processing. We will also experiment with using information provided by both the student and the teachers to suggest features of the program that might be particularly appropriate for use in a given situation while discouraging the use of others.
CAST is continuously striving to design an environment that is optimally accessible to and supportive of the broadest spectrum of learners. In order to achieve this, we incorporate CAST's three principles of Universal Design for Learning in our development efforts. Multiple means of representation of content can occur through the translations and transformations in different media such as text, pictures, diagrams, voices, and sounds. Multiple means of expression and control can be achieved by providing varying degrees of scaffolds and supports to find the main ideas, take notes, organize and present information. Multiple forms of engagement can occur through the provision of different entry routes, preference settings, levels of support, and so on. Some of these aspects of Universal Design for Learning are being built into the tool itself. However, the Reader is merely a shell into which publishers and instructors place their content for student use. It is important to encourage them to build Universal Design elements into their content and also to guide them in their efforts.
The Ultimate Reader(TM) is evolving into a tool that provides scaffolds and strategies to students so that they become better readers as well as effective learners.
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