Tag Archives: assistive technologies

Beyond the Textbook: Gamifying Classroom Management


 Would you consider using a gaming model of classroom management even if you yourself are not a gamer and don’t really get gaming? Tweet @learnquebec or reply below.

What if the engagement level of students in your classroom increased simply because they felt responsible for overseeing their virtual team of avatars? What if your students naturally police unfavorable behaviour while creating opportunities to build team-building skills? What if classroom noise levels were self-monitored by students? What if effective collaboration with peers gave you more time on a test? Well, ponder no longer. Every classroom in the world can now imitate gaming experiences in which students and teachers play and learn together.

Education is continually, albeit slowly, innovating with new technology. Many teachers are expanding beyond our standard and static textbooks, notes, worksheets, paper and pencil test routines to develop new research, writing, and analytical skills in students. We are now seeing the emergence of classroom management tools that incorporate gaming philosophies to managing classroom life; in essence teachers are turning their classrooms and their daily routines into an engaging real-life game. This is because in a game, natural consequences for transgressions are built into the system. For example, student collaboration will increase if students feel they will gain a token reward for their efforts, or will more likely try to keep their noise level down if they can see their noise level is off the chart!



One such ingenious tool, available since September 2014 is called ClassCraft (http://www.classcraft.com)Already with over 160 000 users, thousands of involved educators, in 60 countries, and in eight different languages, Classcraft is improving classroom management. In a recent interview, co-creator, Shawn Young describes his innovative product as a “behaviour game, which acts as a layer on top of standard teaching” to manage student conduct and to amp up engagement. In fact, games like Classcraft place student engagement and classroom behaviour at the epicentre of its’ learning management system (LMS). The teacher’s dashboard is rich with an integrated clicker system, timers and stop clocks, random student “pickers”, the ability to post assignments, test dates, and to interact with student avatars like never before by adding or removing points depending on their classroom behaviour.

What would this look like in your classroom? Let’s follow a student in a Classcraft class and witness the adventures that unfold throughout physics period.

Our student, Willy Common, better known as “Merlin Cool” in physics class, strolls in 5 minutes late, provoking the teacher to subtracting 5 “life points” from his character for being late. However, a fellow teammate, a healer called “Sara Health” heals him with one of her powers she earned through long-term positive behaviour, essentially erasing Merlin’s lateness. She immediately gets rewarded with XP for helping out her teammate. As she levels ups, she also gets gold pieces that now gives her enough money to add a cool new cap on her avatar. As the class rolls along, “Merlin Cool” lifts his hand up twice to answer a question about significant figures and is rewarded 50XP for his involvement from their game master (the teacher). He uses to gain a power that allows him to hand in his homework a day late. This is great for him, because he has a basketball game, and knows he’ll not have enough time to complete it all. As Merlin leaves class, he high fives his team, called the Labyrinth Gypsies, and gives an extra thanks to Sara for healing his lateness.



Team play provides on-going interaction, instant and direct feedback, second chances, opportunities to navigate challenges so students can learn from their mistakes while being reinforced by their successes – the philosophy of good video games. These gaming principles are embedded in some amazing digital tools that can easily be applied in any classroom, influencing student learning across the board… social, interpersonal and cognitive.

Now not all behaviour management tools are as elaborate as Classcraft, but can be just as effective. For example, Classroom Dojo (https://www.classdojo.com) is an immediate feedback tool that rewards or removes points for positive or negative classroom behaviour, for a plethora of reasons from participating in class to encouraging group work. This feedback can produce reports for teachers and parents to share with the students, reinforcing the good, providing a place to dialogue about effective behaviour to get your goals met.

Too Noisy (http://www.academyapps.net/toonoisyliteonline/), helps student self-monitor their noise level when collaborating in class, a great reinforcement tool for keeping noise down to acceptable levels.

Remind 101 (https://www.remind.com), another cool app, allows the teacher to quickly notify students and parents through text about behaviour, assignments, tests, pyjama day activities and so on.

Have a look at the infographic below to see how digital behaviour management tools can readily gamify classrooms and change student behaviour in an exciting, meaningful way. Find examples of simple tools that remind you of important classroom information, similar to getting a second chance in a game, to Classcraft, a complete classroom gamification platform which can turn your whole classroom experience into a fun, engaging game.

Infographic BM



Many interesting digital tools are now turning classrooms into interactive game-like environments, blurring the lines between school and the larger community: between school and home, and between school and communities beyond the classroom. Students learn to be part of a motivated team with a common goal. Positive behaviour, as in life, advances the team. The teacher builds token rewards into the system as added incentive to engage with him/her and the team… hey, we all need our cookies!

Here is the main conundrum of this whole gaming-as-behaviour-management: as educators, we have the wistful desire for our students to exhibit positive behaviours just because. We would like them to be intrinsically motivated to be “good”. This very adult desire casually leaps over the powerlessness and lack of control that many teenagers struggle with at school. Using games or gamifying the very structure of the learning scenario are ways of balancing the power dynamic and giving some control back to the students, in a positive way. By applying simple gaming principles, students become a functional part of the classroom, experience how their actions affect their peers… and create communities of learners.

In the Eye of the Beholder: iPads, Smartboards and Visual Impairment

Philip Edmondson, Creative Commons Attribution

I recently had a request from a resource teacher in a remote school.  She has a young student who has vision problems and great difficulty seeing what is on the Smartboard from anywhere in the room.  The student has an iPad and the teacher was wondering if there was a way that the image from the Smartboard could be sent to the iPad so that the student could view it up close and if need be enlarge the image.  In fact the student was recently diagnosed with severe Hyperopia (farsightedness).  Getting a better view from up close would be a more effective strategy for someone who is Myopic (nearsightedness).  However, in this case any way of seeing what was on the board in a closer view would be an improvement.

Exploring the possibilities

The first step was to see if there was an app for that.  Because they were using a Smartboard I started with Smart Technologies. It turns out they have recently come out with a product (Bridgit conferencing software) that seems to come close.  It is actually to interact with the Smartboard remotely from the iPad but you can see what is on the Smartboard on your iPad in order to do that.  The problem is the cost.  2700$ for the software license and the need for a server to run the software.  Not a simple or budget solution, but this led me to the search for other remote access apps.  There are quite a few out there and many are free.  Beware, you have to read the fine print.  In many cases the app is free, but to make it work you need special software for the computer that is being controlled remotely by the iPad.  That is not so free.  The software licenses cost anywhere from 200$ to thousands,  and like in the Smart solution, some require a dedicated server for that purpose as well.

Hitting on a viable solution

mochvncThere are a few remote access apps for the iPad that are free that do not require additional hardware or costly software.  One such app is Mocha VNC Lite.  It worked out really well.  Mochasoft does make a full version that costs 5.99$ but for the needs of the student in this case, the added features are not required.  Also needed is another piece of free software for the PC that runs the Smartboard.  It is used to set up and use VNC.  The one that is recommended is the free version of  Real VNC.

Using the VNC (Virtual Network Computing) settings of the host computer, the one running the Smartboard, the iPad can connect to and show what is being seen on the board.

With iPad gestures, one can enlarge the view and move to sections of the screen to see them.  Moving things on the iPad does not affect what viewers of the Smartboard see.  Being the Lite version, scrolling does not work, which in this case is a plus.  In addition, in the settings there is an option to disable mouse clicks so there is no danger of the student clicking on a link or opening a shortcut to other software on the Smartboard.  It really works as a “viewer” for the user.

The school board will be installing the app and the software shortly and I hope to have feedback as to how it is working for this young student. Hopefully, it will be helpful to others as well!

Below are links to both the app and an explanation of how to setup and use RealVNC.



“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.


Benefit over Buying-spree: Making Decisions about Assistive Technology

Students with special needs benefit greatly from assistive technologies that help make their learning – and their lives – easier. With the new rules from the MELS with regard to use of assistive technology there is a renewed interest in “what to get”. It is extremely important to not forget the main purpose here, which is to aid the student and help make their life as “normal” as possible. Too often the focus is on the technology, or the software, or app, and not on the needs of the student who will be using it.
High contrast font and display
The documents from the MELS are very clear.



They define assistive technologies as:

Assistive technology refers to assistance by means of technology that allows the student to perform a task that he or she could otherwise not perform (or could perform only with difficulty); this technology must prove essential to the student.
MELS (2011)  Considerations When Determining Adaptations for Evaluation Activities, p.6

In sum, they emphasize that, whatever the adaptation :

  1. It must be an adaptation and not a modification
  2. It must be noted in the students IEP, and
  3. It must be used by the student on a regular basis throughout the year, not just at evaluation time.


Here are some things to keep in mind when making selections for your school or classroom:

1. Simple is better

In most cases the main piece of technology will be some kind of computer.  Again, here the discussion should be around what the student needs, not on brand names.  The ergonomics of the keyboard, trackpad or mouse and screen and how these function in relation to the work the student will be doing need to be considered.


2. Free can be just as good

Before looking for “special” software, what already comes with the computer and what useful tools are available for free if possible (Open Source or Freeware) should be explored.  What are the main things that a student would be using the technology for?  In most cases the primary use of the computer would be as a writing tool.

To help plan and organize ideas for texts, visual mind mapping tools are very useful.  There are a few fancy commercial ones that do a nice job, but again before spending money it would be good to try out how this works for the student.  Cmap Tools was developed by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and is available for free to education.   It allows the students to put ideas onto the screen as key words, move them around, make connections and links, etc.  These concept maps can be saved in a variety of formats.  The most interesting is as an outline .txt file.  This can be brought into the word processor, becoming a basic outline for a writing piece (no retyping).

There are many word processors out there the most common being Microsoft Word (part of the Microsoft Office suite).  If your school board has a purchasing plan for this software at a good rate then this will work fine (MAC or PC).  However here is the first place where costs can be reduced.  LibreOffice is an Open Source package, is fully compatible with MS Office that can be downloaded from the Internet for free. Work created in this program can be saved in MS format and it is capable of opening MS documents.


3. Harness the power of  basic features

Teaching the student how to control and use the different writing tools available in a word processor will be important.  For example, one of the features that can be very distracting when drafting a text where the purpose is to get your ideas down on the paper, is the spelling and grammar squiggles.  These can be turned off.   However, when it is time to check the spelling and grammar of a text these tools can be accessed and present the student with suggested possible alternatives to the text in question, not just pointing out that, “this may be wrong”, with a coloured line.

Text to speech can be very powerful in providing the student with oral feedback about their written text.  Listening to what they have written and asking, “Does this make sense?,   Does this say what I want to say?”  can help them learn to self monitor their writing.

Text to speech can also be used to have the computer “read” downloaded text that may otherwise be too difficult for the student to decode.  The text can be broken down into manageable chunks by selecting a bit at a time to listen to.  A separate word processing page can be open to make notes as you go.

The MAC comes with Voiceover technology and can be customized to the student’s needs.  On the PC side there is NaturalReader. The free download version provides a good starting point.  Both allow you to highlight a piece of text and then with a keystroke the computer will read the text  (earbuds or headphones are useful here).  The reading rate can be adjusted to the needs of the student.  A variety of voices can be selected.

The capacity to use the computer as a recording device can also be very powerful for students who have great difficulty with listening and making notes at the same time.  Audacity is an OpenSource program (PC/Mac) that allows easy recording and editing of sound files.  In cases where the effort of decoding blocks the student from understanding what they are reading, recording the text and then listening to it can make a difference. The recorded files can be put onto MP3 players.


4. Support users and teachers alike

In addition to supporting students in their use of assistive technologies, it will be important to support the teachers of the students who use these tools. They will need to know how the student is expected to use them (I.E.P.) and how this will be of benefit to the student’s learning.  To be effective and to also meet the requirements of the MELS, adaptations need to be used regularly by the student.  They are deemed essential to the students continued academic success.


When making any technology purchasing decision, the focus should always be on: “What are the students needs and what will benefit them most?”. This does not change when making decisions on behalf of students with special needs. Hopefully, rather than merely asking, “what do we get for the student?”  We can change that to,  “what adaptations does the student need in order to succeed?”  This will lead us to consider which tools will then facilitate these adaptations, allowing us to make more informed choices. Students of all stripes cannot help but benefit from this.

Basic help documents for adapting WORD, Cmap Basics, Text to Speech (OS X) and Text to Speech (WIndows) as well as Voiceover info for OS X and iPad are available on our LEARN website.