Monday, 17 October 2011

Assistive Technology Literacy Support

What is MyStudyBar v3

MyStudyBar (MSB) version 3, a simple floating AT toolbar, is packed with a comprehensive suite of compensatory reading, writing, organizing, editing and planning support tools. The latest initiative from the JISC RSC Scotland North & East, MyStudyBar is a  set of open source and freeware applications to support learners with literacy difficulties including dyslexia as well as vision challenges such as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome often called perceptual dyslexia.

MyStudyBar is similar to popular commercial programs which use a floating toolbar. The main difference is MyStudyBar is free. The toolbar includes a range of tools to support inclusive teaching practices such as mind mapping, screen masking, word prediction typing, text magnifier, talking dictionary, language translator, text-to-speech, Save as MP3 and voice recognition, etc. 

It provides easy to use applications right on your desktop for struggling readers and writers, giving them access to literacy across the curriculum. As a portable freeware download it provides convenient and quick access on any stand-alone pc at school.  And it is accessible to all without having to pay or subscribe to a service like most commercial AT programs. As the developer's website claims, it is -

    easy to install, simple to use, handy and effective.  MyStudyBar provides   
    comprehensive learning support at the desktop, where it is needed. And if this    
    is not already attractive enough, a further eye-catching feature of MyStudyBar   
    is that it is completely FREE to download and free to use.

Technical Benefits
Developed by Education Scotland and EduApps, although MyStudyBar is designed to support learners with literacy-related difficulties, this 'wee' toolbar can potentially offer powerful benefits to all learners.  Previously available only for Windows pcs, Version 3 is also available for Macs. It can conveniently be transported and run from a USB/flashdrive or downloaded on a computer.

This tool, once installed, stays on top of whatever you are doing on your computer so that it is easy to access whenever it is needed.  You can save it to your desktop or install it on a USB drive so that you will have access to all of your information from whatever computer you use.  Using the USB option is a great feature for students who don't use the same computer all of the time. In addition, MyStudyBar learns from the user as they use it so it becomes personalized to their individual needs.

See the Education Scotland and EduApps website for downloads and upgrades at

Video Tutorials
The following video tutorials, produced by Education Scotland and EduApps, will familiarize you with the main features of MyStudyBar v3.  Note: Some tools may refer to previous versions of MSB in the tutorials.

How to download/upgrade to version 3

ssOverlay: Reading focus feature similar to paper 
                      overlays but for the computer screen

ssOverlay provides a means of changing the colour of the background and print. It is not very intuitive to use at first, but once you have tried it, it’s easy to remember the steps. When selected from MyStudyBar, ssOverlay becomes a yellow arrow icon on the taskbar. You have to right click in order to access it and go to settings in order to choose the colour you would like to tint the screen with as well as its intensity. To remove the tint, right click the icon again and exit. The next time that you choose ssOverlay from the MyStudyBar toolbar, your previous settings will appear.

T-Bar: Screen masking program to support learners 
               with visual stress

This app aids in focusing on whole lines or parts of text and would be helpful in tracking what you are reading. Once activated, simply right click on the box that appears to change its size, colour and to add different coloured lines within the box to best meet your needs. After you have created your own box, it can be moved across the text on the screen with your mouse or it will remain stationary while you scroll through the page you are viewing as you normally would. The T-Bar has much more flexibility than the Vu-Bar and can be adapted to encompass whole lines of print.

RapidSet – change colours
This app is a quick and easy way to enhance the visibility of text that you are trying to read. Once opened, you are presented with a box that shows your current settings and a box to show any changes you have made. You can then select your own background and font colours (you can even create your own custom colours), experimenting until you find combinations that provide the most clarity for you and apply them to what you are doing.

Vu-Bar – screen ruler
Vu-Bar is rather self explanatory. It is a small rectangular box that you can move around with the mouse to encase text that you are trying to read. The size of the box is not adjustable and does not go across the entire width of the screen as you can with T-Bar. There are also no options to change colour or to provide shading.

Xmind: A mind mapping application

Xmind is an app for creating brainstorms/thought webs. It is similar to Inspiration but a bit more organized and not as flashy. It has a very clear layout but would still be a bit challenging for younger students to use independently. You can simply right click on the Central Idea to produce offshoots that are automatically linked together and are well spaced so that they don’t overlap one another. As you create the web in the middle of the screen it is automatically translated into list form on the right hand side of the screen. Your brainstorms can include hyperlinks, notes, pictures and text, you are even able to view hyperlinks within Xmind while you are creating it. An important feature of this app is the ability to export your brainstorms into other programs; including Word, PowerPoint, Firefox, etc. You are then free to use the brainstorm within another program for the purpose of completing an essay for example. This would be a very useful planning tool for those with difficulty writing. The above video does a wonderful job of explaining how to use Xmind in more detail.

Sunbird – portable calendar
Sunbird is a calendar program that would be more suitable for older students and those with good typing and reading skills. It is fairly text based, but seems like a good way for secondary students to remain organized and keep track of extra-curricular activities and homework. Sunbird can be loaded onto your USB or desktop and allows you to have one or several calendars on the go. You can input events or tasks to your calendar using the provided icons or familiar drop down menus. You can activate reminders at a variety of intervals (minutes, hours, days) when events are created or by clicking on the entry in your calendar. It’s also possible to track the completion of tasks. This calendar allows you to include a lot of details about events, including guest lists and precise times, and lets you view your calendar in daily, weekly or monthly chunks.

Hott Notes – sticky notes
Hott Notes is a lovely little organizational tool. You can generate 3 different types of notes on your screen that are accessible from your taskbar. You can create notes, checklists or scribbles (pictures or diagrams) to aid in your thinking and to help keep you on task. Notes can also have auditory alarms attached in order to make sure you don’t forget anything! Alarms, font and colour changes can be completed by clicking on the note you have creates. In addition to being viewed on your desktop, the notes are stored in a Notebook with 3 different sections. Desktop has all of your active notes, Wastebasket has all of your “crumbled” ideas (in case you realize you really did like them :) and Archive houses all of the notes you select as being important. This app allows you to multitask, have an outlet for creative scribbling without being removed from the task at hand, organize all the tasks that need to be completed before you start, or to simply record the random thoughts that pop up unexpectedly. All of these options are available by right clicking on the icon that appears on your taskbar when you activate Hott Notes. Under settings you even have the ability to create Hot Keys, key combinations that you create to perform an action in Hott Notes.

Let Me Type: Predicts words as you write
This app is word prediction tool. It’s flexible: the user can add multiple lexicons/vocabulary to the program that can be geared towards subject matter. The program can be personalized: under Settings, font and background color can be changed. When typing starts, an empty dialogue box opens up that suggests words. Click Settings check box Learn Words. Open word doc from your own file, wiki file, notepad etc. Copy paste into box. After vocabulary is added uncheck Learn Words so as not to add spelling mistakes to the vocabulary. The newly learned category of words can be saved under File, Save As….  Easy to use and appropriate for students who need assistance with spelling as adjustments can be made in the interface box for the word prediction to start upon typing of the first letter. Also can benefit individuals who have a mobility difficulty and find it difficult to input text or who are slow typists.

Dictionary: Lingoes talking dictionary

Lingoes is a talking dictionary that functions as a dictionary and  text translation software.  Clicking on Lingos in the StudyBar opens up a user interface that provides buttons for use. Clicking on the settings tab will give users a choice of adjusting the font style and size. It uses the voices on your computer for audio support. Highlighting a word of text brings up a support box with various word meanings. This can be read to the user by pressing the speech button. When typing, a dynamic search ‘guesses’ your word much as in a search engine for ease of use. The context of the word is displayed at the bottom of the word box: good for words such as read which have two usages. Dictionaries can be added to the program, and translation is a feature as well. A good program for ESL students or students learning a new language.

Speech Recognition: Speech to Text/Text to Speech

Balabolka: Writing support, MP3 and pdf text-to-
Part 1 -   Introduction to Voice Application

Part 2 - Voice settings & saving text to MP3

Part 3 - Dictionary and Spell Checker

Writing support/MP3 Text-To-Speech software application. Balabolka is a Russian word; it can be translated as "chatterer". All computer voices installed on your system are available to Balabolka. Clicking on the icon opens the app which is a large window box designed to hold text. It can upload word and PDF documents by clicking on the file icon and selecting the content to open. One can type directly into the box as well. The cursor needs to be ahead of the word, then the central green play button (says read aloud) will read the text when pressed. The reading speed and pitch can be controlled by on screen bar slides. The on-screen text can be saved as a WAV, MP3, OGG or WMA file by selecting "Save Audio File" or "Split and Convert to Audio Files" from the "File" menu. There are many features to this useful app but the one that I see as the star performer of Balabolka is the ability to make a sound file from any electronic text. If one has a converter on their computer that converts scanned documents into electronic text, Books can then be scanned for students and read back to them or stored as a sound file.  This app is very useful to help students monitor their writing process as it will read back exactly what they typed. Self-correction can occur without having another person involved. Balabolka is useful to individuals who find it helpful to read and listen to text. It is especially useful for portability of information to a personal listening device such as an ipod thus benefiting students with visual differences. Students would initially need some assistance to get familiar with the program. Balabolka can also help those for whom English is not their first language. The company’s printable user guide can be found at:

Rapid typing – touch type tutor

As it sounds, teaches people to touch type. Not assistive technology in the traditional sense but a fun app. It times typing speed; backgrounds can be changed behind the letters as well as language and themes by using the settings option. There are many settings to customize the user interface. Can be configured for multiple users.  Good for IT students who need to be accurate for coding. Much less expensive than Mavis Beacon typing tutor.

Tiny spell – A simple spell checking application.
Does what it says and stays active on the computer while you type on any program. Clicking on this icon in MyStudyBar starts the application. You’ll notice a small yellow box in the lower right hand position of your taskbar. Misspelling of a word causes a small box to open next two your misspelled word along with a chime sound to indicate a misspelling.  Clicking on the yellow box prompts a popup menu with suggested spellings.  Appropriate for students who need assistance with spelling but a handy tool for typing for all students.

Text Reader
Orato: Text to speech tool that reads documents aloud
This is a wonderful and very easy to use app for turning text to speech. Turning on Orato produces a new floating toolbar on your screen. You simply highlight whatever you want to have read aloud and select “copy” from your regular ‘Edit’ dropdown menu or hit Control C (a shortcut). Underneath ‘Options’ on the Orato toolbar you can choose to have the text shown, have words or sentences highlighted, as well as select your choice of voice, speech rate, volume, and colour background. This can be used with any program that has text, whether it’s a document or an internet page. It is one of the easiest apps to explain but quite possibly the most useful for the widest range of students.

Magnifier – screen magnifer
This is a classic tool for those with vision difficulties. Once activated from the MyStudyBar floating toolbar, the magnifier appears on your screen. It can be dragged over whatever program is running to enhance pictures and text. If you click on the magnifier while open, it will minimize itself to an icon on your taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Right-clicking on this icon allows to you to change settings, including the size and shape of the magnifier, as well as the level of magnification required. You can also select to have the text/background colours inverted within the magnifier to provide additional clarity, and to have the magnifier take up permanent residence on your bottom taskbar. One challenge to using this app though, is that once it is on the taskbar it’s small size would make it difficult to find.

Sonar – cursor ring
This app causes a large ring or rectangle to appear around the cursor, making it much more visible. Like the magnifier, once it is activated from the floating toolbar, an icon takes up residence on your bottom taskbar. From here you can adjust the settings of shape, the line colour and thickness to best meet your visual needs.

Thunder – screen reader
Thunder is a very helpful app that can be used to navigate folders, pop-up boxes and will identify the type of document/program that you have opened. Once you are using a writing program for example it will tell you what you are typing as you are typing it. There are settings that allow you to have each character read individually for slower typers or to have each word for those with more proficiency. The voice and speed of speech can also be adjusted. Another feature of this tool is that it will indicate where your cursor is on the page vertically and horizontally, as well as when you are utilizing function buttons, such as backspace or enter. Also, even if you have elected to have your text read to you word by word, you can go back to check spelling or spacing by using the arrow keys. Going through text with the arrows prompts Thunder to read each character, punctuation and space. Thunder’s use on the Internet however is limited, as it will only vocalize what you are inputing or choices that are available to you (ie pop-up boxes).


Speech recognition software.  To be used in any text to speech or speech to text apps for a computer such as Orato or Balabolka on MyStudyBar. Clicking on this icon activates your computer’s speech recognition software and can be useful for individuals who have mobility difficulties and find it difficult or impossible to use a keyboard and mouse.  A headset with a microphone is needed to set up the program properly. Similar in a lot of ways to expensive speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally speaking but without the cost. Upon activating the speech recognition software on your computer, a set-up screen will appear. The instructions begin with placement of the microphone from your mouth and continue with a series of exercises where one is asked to repeat words and phrases for the computer to get a sense of one’s voice quality. A visual floating tool bar with an equalizer-style volume sensor will float at the top of the screen. With the ongoing usage of the voice recognition software, the accuracy rate of the text produced increases. One is prompted to print out the user guide for voice commands to fully take advantage of all the program’s features.  However, it is very easy to use by starting the active listening by saying “start listening” and finishing by saying “stop listening”.