“MacGyvering” Low Cost Alternatives to Assistive Technologies

“Necessity is the mother of invention” may be a highly overused phrase, but that is probably because in practice it is often true. When presented with challenges and obstacles, we often come up with surprising and innovative solutions. Sometimes, the fix is a “Plan B.” In some instances, however, it opens doors to new ways of doing things, as I found out on a recent trip to the Lower North Shore of Québec.

St. Paul River, Québec
CC image “St. Paul River” courtesy Robert Costain

This year part of my work is to provide part-time RÉCIT services to the Littoral School Board. For those unfamiliar with Littoral, it is a “special status” school board whose remote geography and sparse demographics make it one of a handful of school boards in Québec not defined along linguistic lines. About a dozen schools both English and French are home to a total of about 570 students. The schools are in small villages spread out over 460 kilometers along the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, from Kegaska on the western end to Blanc-Sablon in the East near the Labrador border (as well as a school in Port-Menier on Anticosti Island).

The focus of my mandate for this year is to support the use of interactive whiteboards and assistive technologies in the classroom. I am based in Montréal, but have visited seven schools so far to provide face-to-face accompaniment. The visits provide an opportunity to get to know the staff and culture in each school, and to perform an informal needs assessment that guide the support I provide upon returning to Montréal.

One major preoccupation of schools is supporting students with special needs. In small communities with limited resources and access to support services, schools often rely heavily on technology to help students with learning or physical disabilities. The finer points of this approach are open to debate, but the fact is that assistive technology has been added to the Individualized Education Plans (IEP) of many students.

One assistive software program that has made its way into many schools is WordQ. Although originally intended to assist with writing, WordQ is often used for its text-to-speech functionality in the place of dedicated software like Natural Reader or Kurzweil for students who have great difficulty reading because of a visual impairment, dyslexia or dysgraphia.

A common practice is for a teacher or class helper to use a flatbed scanner to digitize pages or selections of printed text. Then, using an optical character recognition (OCR) software such as OmniPage, ReadIris or FineReader, the scanned page(s) are converted into readable text that can be read aloud by WordQ (or another program).

Each step in this multistep procedure must be working for the student to have access to the text. The process is too complicated for many students, especially those who need it the most. The OCR is imperfect and requires careful proofing. Furthermore, technical glitches are common. For example, in one school I recently visited, the use of text-to-speech to help students read was brought to a grinding halt because the scanner had stopped working. As a result the teachers were stuck and unable to provide their students with texts.

CC image "Smartphone performing OCR" courtesy Robert Costain
CC image “Smartphone performing OCR” courtesy Robert Costain

It so happened that just before visiting this particular school, I had been experimenting with OCR options for my iPhone and downloaded a basic OCR program called ABBYY TextGrabber. The app uses the built-in camera on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to photograph printed text. It then connects to the Internet to perform text recognition. Since text-to-speech is standard in iOS devices, I wondered if this might be a stopgap solution for the non-functioning scanner, so I did a little experiment with one of the teachers.

We photographed a selection of printed text with TextGrabber. The app was able to extract the text from the photo with about 90% accuracy. With a little bit of proofreading, we were able to recreate the printed text. Unfortunately, TextGrabber itself does not support text-to-speech unless the selection scanned is copied or exported. However, we were able to copy and paste the text into the iPhone’s built-in Notes app and read the selection aloud using text-to-speech. The procedure is demonstrated in the accompanying YouTube video.

Another approach is to use TextGrabber (or a similar app) in conjunction with WordQ by emailing the scanned selection to a computer with WordQ software installed. Similarly, if a flatbed scanner is available, but OCR software is not, Google Docs can be used to perform basic OCR provided the source text is clear enough. WordQ, Natural Reader on Windows or the built-in text-to-speech in Mac OS X will read text from a Google Doc quite well.

What makes these procedures compelling is that iOS and Android devices are becoming commonplace, even in remote locations like Littoral. Students and their parents have access to the technology, the apps are not expensive, and as a result this relatively easy text-to-speech solution is quite accessible to many.

There are some caveats that should be noted when using text-to-speech with students:

  • The appropriateness of using assistive technologies is based on the needs of individual students. There is no “one size fits all” solution and each student should be evaluated carefully before an assistive device is assigned to his/her IEP.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) is rarely 100% accurate. Scanned text MUST be carefully proofread before using it with students.


Videoconferencing: Pitfalls, Pedagogy and Possibilities

by superkimbo
by superkimbo

I have a love/hate relationship with videoconferencing (VC). Ok, hate might be a tad strong. Love/irritation? Love/frustration? You see, living in a rural community here in Quebec, I get to use VC a lot. Granted, it’s incredibly convenient NOT to have to get up in the darkness of early morning and drive for hours in order to attend a meeting or do a presentation in Montreal. But more often than not, I feel that I’m missing out on something by not being physically present: the backchannel conversations that take place out of range of the microphone, the informal discussions around the lunch table, the more subtle body language of participants and colleagues. So, I was very happy to meet Craig Bullett (via VC no less!), as he made me see that this oft-maligned technology as I know it can be used effectively, and not just for something as pedestrian as a meeting, but for the highest of purposes…for teaching and learning.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and experience?

Craig: For the past 4 years, I’ve coordinated videoconferences for the Community Learning Centre initiative that make links to the Quebec curriculum. The CLC concept is a MELS project, with over 37 centres across Quebec, which are dispersed through all 10 English School Boards in the province. These centres serve as hubs for English-language education and community development in their respective communities. We also partner with various local organizations and help them bring their resources to the educational community. I have taught many high school subjects over a 10-year teaching career with specializations in computer & technology and FSL. I also have a Masters in Educational Technology with experience in Distance Ed and e-learning.

Would you share a specific classroom project that you feel was particularly successful in terms of both effective use of VC and student learning outcomes?

Craig: One of the most memorable classroom VC experiences I’ve helped to coordinate was a writing workshop with “The Joy of Spooking” author PJ Bracegirdle. He was in Montreal and the participants were at an elementary school in Magog. This session was good because it was on time, it was on topic, it was on task and…it was interactive! The presenter was teaching a lesson about character development. For the ice-breaker, the author read an excerpt from his novel, a spooky book for young readers. Then, he and the students shared strategies for creating a character’s name. Once the students had a name, they were asked to draw their characters and each student was invited to walk up to the camera for a brief show and tell of the drawing. The final activity involved further development of their new characters and the writing of a sequence of events. The post-event feedback from all involved was highly positive and the teacher reported having difficulty in getting the students to stop writing when it was time to work on other subjects. I was also informed that the school library had to create a waiting list for students requesting spooky books!

Explain how you approach a VC event when working with teachers and others to create engaging learning opportunities. What are some of the conception phase considerations that determine whether VC is an appropriate medium?

Craig: My main caveat is this: If you don’t need interaction/reaction from your participants…DO NOT VC! Unlike face-to-face presentations, with VC you actually need to design the interactions. VC interactivity is more like a game-show or talk show than an infomercial. The host and the participants need to be equally prepared. So, when teachers consider using VC for an event they should be asking themselves:

  • What is the purpose of my event?
  • Who is my audience? (Location and numbers are important.)
  • Why will I use VC? (Think about outcomes. Can VC get me there?)

Once you’ve decided that using VC is the right choice, if you are the organizer some of the pre-planning involves:

  • Setting a date.
  • Inviting participants  (don’t forget to get confirmations or send reminders).
  • Booking a venue(s).
  • Sharing material, resources and links with all involved.
  • Reserving bridging and technical support as needed.

If you are the classroom teacher you will need to:

  • Reserve the VC room.
  • Preview and modify content for your students.
  • Create buzz for learners about the upcoming event.
  • Prep the class to introduce themselves at the beginning and make closing remarks or “thank you’s” at the conclusion.

And once everything is over, evaluating the session is of the utmost importance. Follow-up to confirm successful outcomes and critical reflection on the experience are essential in order to integrate improvements into future events.

Where can interested teachers find resources to help with the ideas stage and planning for a VC event?

Craig: I thought you’d never ask! No, seriously there are tons of great resources listed on the LEARN site and you can find specifics in terms of CLC collaborations and educational videoconferencing here: www.learnquebec.ca/clc

As well, the 2Learn.ca Education Society has some amazing resources that support teachers who are interested in VC opportunities. These are mostly within Alberta but there are many collaborations with Quebec partners: www.2learn.ca/VC

And of course, I’m always available if people want to connect directly!


Have you been involved in any interesting classroom or professional development VC experiences that you’d like to share? Please don’t hesitate to school me in the comments section below 🙂










Happy Valentine’s Day from a Life Long Learner

(c) Karen Horton
(c) Karen Horton

I have spent the past twenty years of my life entrenched in the Elementary school system here in Quebec. My roles and responsibilities may have shifted and evolved over the course of time but my underlying focus and driving impetus have remained constant; to discover ways to engage and expand children’s understanding and love for literacy.  My dedication and passion for literacy began at the start of my teaching career in developing critical literacy lessons for my own classroom in the English Montreal School Board inner city and has deepened through my work with pre-service teachers at McGill University in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education as I encourage them to consider how their choice of resources and pedagogical approaches will have a distinct effect on their ability to create a community of readers and writers in their future classrooms.  My time spent traveling across the province as a consultant for English Language Arts Elementary Education at the Ministère de l’Éducation du Loisir et du Sport with our team’s fundamental intent on assisting in the understanding and implementation of the Language Arts competencies of the Q.E.P to now working for LEARN in generating and supporting dynamic and enriching literacy experiences for students and teachers of all ages has allowed me to remain an active participant in the field of education and literacy.

All my life I have loved school.  As a child, I remember with fondness the excitement of a backpack filled with school supplies, a new dress for the first day, the smell of autumn leaves, the sound of the entry bell and best of all the anticipation of all that would be accomplished that year. As an adult working in the field, I remember that feeling of excitement once again when the Q.E.P. was introduced with an English Language Arts curriculum dedicated to the study of literacy.  I have prided myself in trying to be a true role model of lifelong learning for my students. I have always done my utmost to better my teaching abilities and my own professional knowledge.

As I strive to advance my understandings and perceptions on how literacy might be best taught in today’s elementary classrooms, I am once again filled with those same feelings of excitement and anticipation as I find myself a few nights a week in the classrooms of McGill’s education building…not as teacher but as a student.   It is because of the children and teachers with whom I have had the good fortune to meet and speak with throughout my educational career that I know I am ready to continue on to the next steps of my own academic journey of discovery.

Our world is changing and evolving at an extraordinary rate. We now live in an increasingly diverse, globalized, and complex, media-saturated society.  In order for our students to be prepared to navigate this 21st century world, they must become literate in 21st century new literacies that include, but is not limited to, critical, multicultural, digital, and media literacies.  If we are to encourage them to be passionate literacy learners then we need to meet them where they are at and engage them in a way that they too will discover a love of literacy that will last a lifetime.

Literacy instruction has traditionally referred to the teaching of basic literacy skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, in today’s digital world, technology has contributed to an expanded understanding of literacy. Besides having basic literacy skills, 21st century students also need technology skills for communicating, analyzing, accessing information, thinking critically about messages inherent in the media, understanding data, and developing strong opinions. If students do not sufficiently learn these new literacy skills, there is a distinct possibility they will be unable to properly process information they are presented within the very near future.

What sends the blood pumping through my heart at this moment is the possibility of looking at literacy from a different perspective; of re-inventing the way I have been used to seeing literacy in action.  I want to explore deeply and sincerely the actual impact of incorporating the new literacies into an elementary English Language Arts literacy curriculum. This venture will contribute to a more holistic understanding of teaching multiliteracies within Quebec’s elementary classrooms.  It will provide a greater depth and breadth of understanding of how the new literacies can be implemented in unison with the traditional literacies, look at the contribution that these pedagogies and practices can have on teachers and students alike, and draw conclusions that will be important to the English Language Arts educational community province wide, and beyond.

What has inspired me to want to really gaze intensely at the new literacies was actually the following piece of traditional poetry.

Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.


This is my Valentine to you all in hopes that you will find love and passion in everything you do by simply looking at what is around just a little bit differently.  After all, that is the life force of a poet…to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.  Poets do indeed see with the heart; maybe we can too.

Thank you!

photo by Ben Fredericson
photo by Ben Fredericson

When I speak with LEARN’s teachers about what is different for them about teaching online compared to their face-to-face experience with students in schools, one of the things that comes up frequently is the gratitude that their students express every day. When I visit classes, I notice it: almost every student includes thanks as part of his/her daily parting words to teachers.
I secretly asked LEARN’s online cycle 2 students if they would like to express their gratitude more publicly this week as part of the celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week in Quebec. Here are some of the responses I received, in the students’ own words:

Dear Mrs. Drolet,

I can’t imagine how fast the year came by. My math classes with you were wonderful and amazing. Throughout the year, I’ve had difficulties in every single chapter we went through but you were always there for me and helped me get through it.

I know you sometimes were disappointed by the work handed in by me, but I did try my best to succeed and have good marks and it is because of you. You were there for me and I am so grateful and happy that you were my teacher this year.
Good thing Marianne convinced me to take the online class or else I wouldn’t have met the awesome teacher you are. I definitely will miss you terribly and you forever will stay in my heart because even though we haven’t met, I love you a lot and you are a great person.

Thank you so much for being there for me. You made me a better person. I am now taking my responsibilities seriously and I can’t be more thankful than I am right now. You definitely were the best friend you told us you’d be at the beginning of the year. My text seems cheesy a bit, but it really is what I think of you. Thank you so much.

Lots of love,


Dear Mrs. McGoldrick,

You have made Math class so interesting for Marica and me, as well as the rest of your other math students. I could’ve never asked for anyone better to teach us math over the internet. This has been my first time doing online courses and no matter how much I panic over not understanding things you’re always there to explain something or giving us help when we need it.

We love your random outbursts and your doodles you write on the whiteboard in class; Marica and I always get a good giggle out of them. We love looking at the new pictures you put on the sakai page every week because it always gives us something to yarn about. You’re so successful with all your awards and such and you should get a #1 teacher button because you deserve it!

You’re so enthusiastic about teaching and it’s amazing how you can put up with us sometimes. (Well, our math class isn’t that rough but you get what I mean 😉 Thank you for being so patient with us and being one of my favorite LEARN teachers.  You don’t understand how much it means to all of us when we say how easy it is to get along with you and how we really enjoy your math class. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help us and thank you for anything else I might have missed.


Mr. Ross,

I think I speak on behalf of all your LEARN students that you are doing a great job as our physics teacher!

Teaching from behind a computer monitor can be a challenging job it seems, but you seem to have adapted very well! I never thought we would be doing labs, in this course, but we have actually done several interesting ones. You always keep the class interesting with all the examples and scenarios you give, and you make sure everyone gets the material well before we move on.

I was also not a very organized person before your class, but I can feel myself improving in that as well!

Thank you for all your effort, and let’s finish off a great year!


Dear Mrs.Cule,

Even though the year is far from over, I wanted to thank you for all that you have done and will do for me and the whole class this year. I want to thank you for all your patience and hard work. It must not always be easy to teach a bunch of teenagers online, but yet, you manage to do it amazingly!

I love how you share your love of chemistry with the class through tons of fun activities, exercises and experiments that we remember and enjoy so much more than reading a textbook and doing the textbook questions all year long! I believe diversity is one of your strength, just like your dedication. Preparing all these activities shows all of us how much you care and I will always be grateful for it.

I have always been the student who wants to do the best she can to assure herself the best future.  In your class, I feel like all is planned to make sure of it, so that I don’t have to worry about missing something, or being scared to get to the end of year exam and rip my hair out because I don’t feel prepared at all. I know you always have our best interests in mind and that you will do everything you can for us to succeed. I know that even if I don’t understand something and feel discouraged, you will always have my back and that we will work through it together to make everything be fine in the end.

It is for all of this, and much more, that I am the luckiest chemistry student because I have you as a teacher.


Dear Mrs. Pasteris,

 First of all, thank you for putting up with all of us! I’d also like to thank you for all the hard work and effort you have put in for us to ensure we really understand the material.

I appreciate all of your dedication, hard work, patience and understanding. You are such a fantastic teacher! I remember when I couldn’t really understand the first chapter, and I just didn’t get how all the online stuff worked and how to understand it, but you made sure that I did and helped me through. Not all teachers are so caring and helpful like you have been. It must be so tough to do it as well over the internet rather than person to person. I can’t imagine the amount of patience you have with all of us.

 I just really want to thank you and tell you how much I appreciate you and how much work and time you have put in for the class and me. Thank you so much Mrs. Pasteris! I hope we get to actually meet one day!



To all of Quebec’s teachers:  Thank you and happy Teacher Appreciation Week to you all!  What would be a meaningful teacher gift for you?

Students:  Feel free to leave a comment to add thanks for your teacher(s).  Let your teacher(s) know that you appreciate what they do for you and your classmates every day.