24 Assistive Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities: Kurzweil 3000

Hayley Taylor

hayley.taylor4@uoit.net

Ontario Tech University
Centennial College

Abstract

In the 21st century classroom, it is essential to ensure that every student has access to an equal-opportunity learning environment. Although this concept was not easily fostered in the past, due to the advancements in Assistive Technology, what used to be a difficult approach, has now become an optimistic reality. According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association (2019), Assistive Technology (AT) can be defined as “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities” (para. 1). AT can range from low-tech (including visual schedules, highlighters, and pencil grips), to mid-tech (including voice recorders, Smartpens, and portable talking dictionaries), and high-tech (including specialized and customizable software, screen readers, and text-to-speech devices) (Georgia Tech, 2019). Although a plethora of AT devices could be examined, in this chapter, the evolution of the historically-recognized Kurzweil brand will be further analyzed in the context of the North American classroom. This chapter will briefly step back into history to discuss the company’s progress since the creation of the Kurzweil Reading Machine circa 1976 (Kurzweil Education, 2019a), and take a look at how the ever-advancing company has remained an essential resource in the 21st century classroom.

Keywords: Assistive Technology (AT), Disabilities, Low-Tech, Mid-Tech, High-Tech, Kurzweil, Kurzweil Reading Machine, 21st Century Classroom, Technology

Introduction

In the 21st century classroom, it is essential to ensure that every student has access to an equal-opportunity learning environment. Unfortunately, however, that has not always been the case, especially for learners who have been identified as having a disability. In fact, the Ministry of Education reported that only “6% of students in the publicly funded school systems are receiving special education programs or services” (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, 2015). Fortunately, the number of highly developed assistive devices for individuals who identify as having a disability continues to grow, in hopes of making an equal-opportunity learning environment a reality.

According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association (2019), Assistive Technology (AT) can be defined as “products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities” (para. 1). AT can range from low-tech (including visual schedules, highlighters, and pencil grips), to mid-tech (including voice recorders, Smartpens, and portable talking dictionaries), and high-tech (including specialized and customizable software, screen readers, and text-to-speech devices) (Georgia Tech, 2019). This chapter will explore the evolution of the historically-recognized Kurzweil brand to determine the impact that its software has on the curriculum.

Background Information

Ray Kurzweil is a 71 year old engineer, inventor and futurist who holds many titles including the principal inventor of “the first CCD flatbed scanner, omni-font optical character recognition, print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, text-to-speech synthesizer, [and a] music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments” (Kurzweil Technologies, 2019), to name a few.

A more in-depth timeline for Ray Kurzweil and his inventions starts in 1975, when the Kurzweil Computer Products company was founded (Kurzweil Education, 2019a). In 1976, the first Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind was introduced; in 1996, Kurzweil Educational Systems became incorporated and Kurzweil 1000 was released (Kurzweil Education, 2019a). In 1997, Kurzweil had its first customer- Stevie Wonder (Kurzweil Education, 2019a). By 2005, Kurzweil Education had been acquired by Cambium Learning Group, whose aim is to leverage technology with student-centered learning to serve the world across many curricula (Kurzweil Education, 2019a).

Applications: Kurzweil 3000’s Assistive Features

The Kurzweil platform caters to students with physical, intellectual, learning, psychiatric, visual, hearing, and neurological impairments (National Educational Association of Disabled Students, 2019), and anchors its technology to reflect the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles.  Among the many possible resources within Kurzweil, the text-to-speech and language translation features will be examined in greater detail, and three organizational features as well as Kurzweil’s technical support will be briefly identified in order to allow the reader to understand the broader scope of this AT, and its impact on the 21st century curriculum.

Reading Support

Comprehension Issues.

Reading comprehension is the process of constructing meaning from text. The goal of all reading instruction is ultimately targeted at helping a reader comprehend text” (University of Kansas, 2019). For students who have a comprehension disability, however, fully understanding a text can be easier said than done. With the assistance of Kurzweil 3000, students are given the opportunity to explore picto-dictionaries, which provide the learner with visuals of the highlighted text, as well as speaking dictionaries, which allow students to read the dictionary definition along with examples of the word(s) at focus (Kurzweil Education, 2016).

Dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a life-long neurological disorder “that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding)” (Mayo Clinic, 2019). This disorder impacts the Wernicke and Broca areas of the brain, which can be found between the temporal and parietal lobes and are responsible for speech comprehension. According to the International Dyslexia Association, approximately 85% of learners who have been diagnosed with a learning disability also have dyslexia, and dyslexia itself has been found as the most common learning disability in the United States of America (Kurzweil Education, 2019d). As one of the most used features on Kurzweil 3000, Text-to-Speech (TTS) uses “voice synthesis software to provide oral reading of…electronic text files, such as word-processed documents, text on webpages and e-books” (Balajthy, 2005, p. 3). This platform allows students to gather their readings in a different format and listen to it at a speed and voice that best suits their needs.

Low Vision.

Learners may be impacted with low vision for many reasons. According to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (2019), low-vision learners include those who are legally blind, suffer from progressive glaucoma, and have lost their best-corrected visual acuity (BVCA). For students with low vision, beyond the text-to-speech software option, Kurzweil 3000 also offers a text magnifier which can be adjusted manually or verbally by commanding the software to minimize or enlarge the text. This feature is compatible for both physical and electronic copies of text (Kurzweil Education, 2019b).

Translation Support

Braille.

When young blind student Louis Braille first attended the Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children) in 1819, he was taught a communication system using writing dots originally invented in 1819 by Captain Charles Barbier, a French army officer (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). The initial name of this 12 dotted-system was Night Writing which was invented for the purpose of night-time battlefield communications. At 15 years of age, Louis Braille took this configuration and turned it into a 6-dotted-system, containing 63 different embossed patterns which is now known as the Braille Tactile Reading and Writing System (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). As technology continues to evolve, multiple means of representation must also evolve at the same pace. In using Kurzweil 3000, learners are able to translate scanned files to digital braille or printer-friendly embossed transcriptions (Kurzweil Education, 2019e).

Multi-Language Translation.

In addition to the disabilities that may challenge a learner on a daily basis, another aspect that may also impact their understanding is a language barrier. North America is home to more immigrants than any other country in the world (Migration Policy Institute, 2019). Looking further, Canada’s migration level has increased to account for 79.6% of the population growth in 2017/2018 (Statistics Canada, 2018). Of the 303, 257 welcomed immigrants in 2017/2018, the top three native languages spoken (besides English and French) were Mandarin, Cantonese and Punjabi (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2018). As North America continues to grow in its cultural diversity, Kurzweil has taken such student needs into account, currently allowing software access for text and speech translation in over seventy different languages including: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Finnish (Kurzweil Education, 2019e). In just a few clicks of the system preferences bar, the translation tool can be used to translate words, phrases and entire texts, and can be reverted back to English at any time (Kurzweil Education, 2019e). By assisting student who have additional barriers through Kurzweil’s assistive translative technology, one’s learning no longer has to be limited to one language.

Speech-to-Text Transcription.

Under the Disabilities Education Act, between 2017 and 2018 it was recorded that the number of students, ages 3-21 in the USA, who received educational services was 7 million, or 14% of all public-school students; which is an increase in 1% from the previous statistical year (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). As of 2018, Kurzweil’s platform has re-established an assistive tool that has allowed students of any disability the opportunity to use a speech-to-text feature. This feature allows students to speak into a microphone that is synced to the Kurzweil software and have their speech become words on the screen. This platform is an incredible advancement in the software itself, allowing students with disabilities, the opportunity to express their ideas in an inclusive way. Through Kurzweil’s speech-to-text feature, students are able to sync their voices to the system and speak anything from one word, to entire reports without the use of a keyboard or other restrictive principles.

Additional Noteworthy Features of Kurzweil 3000

Beyond the aforementioned assistive support, Kurzweil 3000 also includes an educational ‘toolkit’, which allows for both learners and educators to interact with provided texts and translations in order to better understand the concepts at focus. This toolkit, or Study Skills Tools includes three main features which are essential in student engagement. A brief description of each feature will be defined below.

Academic Features

Highlighting & Extracting Text.

Within Kurzweil’s toolkit, a feature has been made available for students to highlight and colour-code imperative information from their texts and transcriptions. As the student highlights their work, they also have the ability, in just a few steps, to extract the highlights and store them in a word processing document. This document will follow suit to the student’s highlights, and also separate them by the colours that they used.

Bubble Notes.

Bubble Notes is a tool offered through Kurzweil 3000 which can be used both by the educator and the learner simultaneously. Bubble Notes, similar to the comment option in Google Documents, allows students to make notes of certain concepts in the margins of the text for future reference. Bubble Notes can also be used for educators as they can outline instructions and further expectations in the margins and provide feedback on the student’s work in a more efficient manner.

Brainstorming Organizer.

Generally speaking, for many students, working through the initial steps of brainstorming and planning an assignment can be quite a daunting task. With Kurzweil 3000’s software, customizable concept maps are made readily available for learners. Under the ‘Write’ feature of Kurzweil 3000, students are able to choose from four options: brainstorm, outline, draft and review. These options guide students step-by-step in the process of creating work from the prewriting stage, through to the final draft. These steps are strategically made with the success of the student in mind- allowing them to have a guide to work with to ‘fill in the blanks’ (Closing the Gap, 2009).

Technical Support

One of many challenges oftentimes associated with new technology in the classroom is the lack of initial and ongoing technical support. As referred to in the TPACK model, although one’s pedagogical skills and content knowledge may be superior, if the technological understanding is lacking in a 21st century classroom, especially in terms of AT, it can quickly turn into a spiraling chaos for many! Through the growth of Kurzweil Education, their team has divided technical support services into five categories- ensuring that its users receive the fastest and most accessible assistance possible. Both the Customer Service and Technical Support Teams allow its users to speak to live representatives regarding the many features of Kurzweil to both current and prospective customers. These services can be reached during the general business hours of the company. The remaining three categories, however, those being Kurzweil Academy, Professional Development and Frequently Asked Questions can be accessed at any time, answering support questions through videos, past webinars and other helpful documents (Kurzweil Education, 2019c).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Overall, Kurzweil 3000’s AT is most definitely an asset to educational institutions and the development of the curriculum on a global scale. By allowing learners to engage in classroom activities and assignments in a modified manner that best suits their needs, a noticeable change in educational communities may prevail, allowing for continued and accelerated learning opportunities for students with disabilities both in and out of the classroom.

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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Hayley Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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