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Mission Impossible!! May 14, 2007

Posted by davidit in Education, ICT Integration, mission.

I have been quiet of late, not because of the Easter holidays but in spite of them! I have so many plans for this blog to plot the process of integrating ICT at my school, but all that has been on hold for the last four weeks. The reason for the silence? Impatience!

On the middle Saturday of the holidays I was servicing my bicycle, (I cycle to work, anyone who knows Tamaki Drive and the view to Rangitoto Island will know how wonderful that journey to work can be and who would want to rush such a view in a car? Oh and I get fit into the bargain!) I changed the tyres, serviced the gears and brakes and was testing the machine in the vicinity around my home, when I ran out of leg power on a hill (I was in the wrong gear) and as I was clipped into my pedals, I toppled over and broke my radius! But wait there’s more! It transpired that I had done more than that and what I had done warranted a two day stay in hospital, an operation and some metal work! Take a look at the picture.

Meccano Man!

The upshot of this is that I have been in a temporary cast for four weeks and tomorrow I get my light weight fibre glass cast put on. I can hear a resounding so what from those educators out there who do not know me and want to know what possible relevance this post could have to the integration of ICT into my school. Well it goes like this:

Q: What is the definition of useless?

A: A one armed IT guy!

With an arm in plaster, I have had to type one handed, nay one fingered for the last four weeks, a slow, dispiriting process that almost made my love affair with all things IT terminal. Steve Jobs and his vision of a digital hub with a computer at the centre of it is all very well if you are able bodied and for the last four weeks I have been anything but. This leads me to the focus of today’s post.

Undaunted by my accident I thought that I would use voice recognition software to help my plight. I was excited at my plan and saw that my accident was a golden opportunity to test out voice recognition software; furthermore I thought that if I could iron out any wrinkles with voice recognition I could introduce it to school because there are several students in my school and in every school on the planet, for whom the artificial construct of writing, spelling and all that muscle memory stuff is frankly a struggle. This it seemed to me was a classic example of being able to use ICT to supplant a traditional pedagogy to assist those children.

I started simply, I installed the voice recognition engine that is part of the XP Office suite on my home computer and started training. On the face of it the XP freebie is a good solution, for cash strapped schools, the big bonus is that it is free! It also claims to be 95% accurate, I reasoned that I could put up with an inaccuracy rate of 5% to be freed from the tyranny of one fingered typing! The other benefit of the XP software is that one machine can have many voice profiles so several students could have their own voice profiles on the one machine, solving a potential resourcing issue.

I duly set about training my machine to recognise my voice by reading the training texts, this was when I first encountered a problem with my cunning plan. To put it mildly the texts are in the main arcane, OK they are classic literature, but that is the problem, we speak in a much more informal way than the way we write, especially the way the chosen authors wrote in the latter C19th and early C20th. Reading these texts aloud is a challenge and as a teacher I am used to reading aloud! But this issue is a double whammy for those target children that I had hoped to liberate from the tyranny of writing/typing. Literacy is, to say the least, a challenge for them and to release them from this, to enable them to be orally engaged, to talk and let something else transcribe for them, they have to read aloud these arcane, classic tracts and enunciate clearly! A non starter! I was really upset for them. I was also really annoyed. I spent several hours reading all the training texts, carefully re-training the computer on the words that it consistently got wrong, no doubt my enunciation is not accurate enough!

I then decided to use the tool on my computer, the first limitation is that the XP voice recognition program only works on Office programs, not IE and certainly not Skype or anything else. Well what do you expect for nothing? I toggled between the dictation and command functions to open Outlook and compose an e-mail. I quickly became frustrated at the operation of the program, there is a considerable delay between what you say and what the computer interprets what you say. It is a question of trust and one that for me was quickly eroded. I started talking in great long convoluted sentences and then lost my thread and waited for the computer to catch up. When it did, what it typed bore no resemblance to what I had said and trying to un-pick the interpretation only made regaining my original thread more difficult. So I started to talk in phrases, fractured speak and with little or no improvement in accuracy I quickly lost interest in the whole project, despite the assurances from the XP program that I would be up and running in no time, five minutes to be exact, I found that it quickly became more of a hindrance than a help.

So what is the solution? I looked at Dragon Naturally speaking and at present am reluctant to spend NZ$400 on a single licence, when I have such a skeptical view of what voice recognition can do. Dragon claim to be able to enable you compose three times faster than you can type and that the training is almost negligible with a higher degree of accuracy than the XP freebie. As far as I can tell this is the option to go with, but it has one serious drawback for schools. The licence is for one user per machine. This would mean that if you had two students in your class that had need of this software you would need to use two separate machines and two licences an expensive option for some schools.

My questions are:

  • Is there anyone out there who has used Dragon with young children? If so, how easy was it for them to train the software to recognise their voice?
  • Has anyone found an education workaround to this licence issue?
  • Has anyone found another product that works well for children that is cheaper or even free that works?

I look forward to your comments almost as much as getting the light weight cast tomorrow. No really!



1. Marnie - May 15, 2007

Hi David,
I am disappointed to hear the voice recognition software didn’t work out as I would be interested in using it in the classroom. With teaching juniors it could allow them to get their ideas down without the slowness of typing, and it would even be able to be read by others without the child there to interpret what it is supposed to say! $400 per license for only 1 user on a computer would surely be an impossible financial cost at any school… let’s hope someone out there has some other options for us. I will stay tuned in hope!!

2. Rachel Boyd - May 16, 2007

Sorry no good ideas about the voice recognition software, but perhaps someone in the special needs area may know of one that is cheaper?

I love the way that something like this hasn’t stopped you! It has only motivated you to find a technological solution to working around your problem.

Well done and good luck on your search for a cheaper alternative!

Cheers, Rachel

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