Dave Tucker, director of Sonocent, argues that writing remains a key skill for all students and describes how Audio Notetaker can help those for whom it is an obstacle to learningFor students with dyslexia, dyspraxia, visual impairments or challenges with their fine motor skills, the barriers to writing are clear, but what is often misunderstood is the size of the affected population.
Research shows that people with dyspraxia alone represent between two and six per cent of the UK population. Add to this the fact that approximately 10 per cent of the UK population are dyslexic (British Dyslexia Association) and you start to realise that this isn’t an individual problem affecting a few.
Consider too the numerous reluctant readers and writers (20 per cent of UK boys start secondary school unable to read at the expected level according to the Boys’ Reading Commission), and those who are simply auditory learners who make slow progress because of weaknesses in comprehension and understanding letters and sounds. Include these and it becomes increasingly clear that a significant proportion of the population is potentially restricted in its ability to learn.
Of course the response to this statement could simply be that we all have our own preferred learning style, so whether you have a labelled special need or are simply a reluctant reader, why can’t you learn through listening? But in all learning environments today, writing is expected.
If we look at a standard day in any classroom, the activities and assessments are all channelled through writing. From primary school upwards, on any given day, a student may be given a book to read and asked to write a review of it afterwards. They may then move on to reading a poem and answering questions on it. In the afternoon they could be given a maths or science assignment where they have to document the results. When they hopefully then move up to further and higher education, taking notes from lecturers is a vital part of information absorption and retention.
If these students continue to be restricted in being able to express their thoughts, their full potential will not be realised and the chances are they will become increasingly frustrated and drop out of the education system as early as possible.
Opportunities for all
But do educators know how to support these requirements?
During our work with schools and colleges in America, we frequently refer to the work of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), the association working to increase opportunities for everyone to learn. It is their view that the way we all absorb information is as unique as our fingerprint. However, while we all recognise our own preferred way to learn, for teachers the challenge isn’t as easy. Faced with a class of 20-30 students all with their own diverse requirements, it means that the curriculum must be designed from the start to meet these individual needs; this is the only way to minimise the barriers to learning and maximise opportunities for all.
Each student brings their own background, strengths, needs and interests and the curriculum should provide genuine opportunities for all to thrive. So how do teachers deliver a curriculum that challenges and supports these diverse learners? Without this, students will have no enthusiasm to gather the knowledge and develop skills.
Obviously there are strategies for engaging reluctant readers in a love of reading; much success has been realised in recent years with eBooks for example. However, there are still thousands of people who either can’t or simply struggle to write. When students arrive at college, this becomes more of a restriction as the ability to write lecture notes and produce articles and assignments increases. The majority of lessons follow this format because in general, for most students, it works.
In some cases the school may use the teaching assistant to help the student with his or her writing. Some colleges provide people to transcribe a student’s spoken words and write the lecture notes for them, while others offer technologies.
There are obvious disadvantages to using teaching assistants or scribes in this way.
First, their use is limited to the classroom. As students start to have homework or maybe just have thoughts and ideas that they want to record, this solution is ineffective. It also ties these students to having a person with them throughout their education, at the very time when they crave independence.
Second, and most importantly, all the person listening to a lecture or a student’s thoughts is able to do is to write down exactly what is said. As this is commonly a diverse stream of thoughts and ideas, the student may simply end up with a document that is a direct translation of these thoughts without any structure.
Finally, this option isn’t cheap.
Technology to the rescue
So more recently it has been a case of technology to the rescue!
One such technology is a pen that converts written work to a digital format but of course this doesn’t support those who simply struggle to write. A more recent version of this technology does have an audio feature which records sound, but as reluctant writers tend to be reluctant readers as well, having a large file of digitally written notes can be hard to digest and therefore of little use to these students.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking is another tool that converts words to text. For the partially sighted this can be used in conjunction with a screen reader; basically enabling the student to have a conversation with their computer. However, the same problem arises after this is done: the student is left with pages of notes that they can’t or are not inclined to read. Another software package Audacity helps students capture audio for playback, review and editing, but it has its limitations as a tool for study. There appears to be no one solution that supports the wide ranging needs of so many students.
What we have found at Sonocent, is the need for these types of tools but with the next step built in; as the lecturer, teacher or student’s dictation is being recorded, the student should be able to mark (or tag) some sections depending on their importance, rearrange the audio-based notes into a well-structured, organised and logical flow.
You can add data sheets, images or presentation files to aid in the synthesis of information. In this way, our reluctant readers (or of course, those students who have a writing disability) have the information in manageable chunks that they are more likely to make sense of, absorb and be able to refer to later. With its inbuilt transcription tools, it provides a platform to kick start the writing process. For this reason we developed our Audio Notetaker tool, which enables users to work more effectively with information in text, audio and visual formats.
What we have found over recent years is that while this breath of functionality is important to all students challenged by writing, it is something that we all should be aware of.
Each year, highly educated students with and without disabilities, arrive at secondary school or college without the knowledge of how to study. They sit through the lessons and lecturers focusing so much on writing notes, that they aren’t really understanding what the teacher is saying.
In this world where we are faced with an abundance of information, whether we are challenged or reluctant writers, managing, structuring and prioritising this content is an increasingly important part of information absorption and retention.
In today’s world of 21st century learning, the traditional method of recording learning content and handing in written homework may no longer be appropriate; technology enables a more open approach, where each student can learn and be assessed in a way that optimises their learning advantage.