How can technology play a role in helping students with special needs learn? That’s the question a group of graduate students from Lesley University sought to find out. The graduate students, who were enrolled in a course called Technology and Special Needs, tested the Kurzweil 3000 to determine if this technology would be beneficial to special education students, elementary school students, those taking high school science, business, special education, and computer science, as well as those who learn at home.

The Kurzweil 3000 software (www.kurzweiledu.com) has a variety of capabilities including text to speech, voice adjustment, dictionary, spell checking, syllabification, synonyms, word prediction, note taking, highlighting with different colors, scanning text, reading Internet text, zoom, test tools, and foreign language translation.

The task was to test the software with students, identifying benefits and problems, describing the software’s ease of use and the helpfulness of the directions, and comparing Kurzweil 3000 with the built-in PC or Mac accessibility tools that the graduate students had already tested.

We tested the Kurzweil system with elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as with adults, some of whom have learning disabilities. The variety of ways the course participants chose to test Kurzweil was quite remarkable:

Celeste Best’s high school students liked the study skills features and recommended that students use the sticky notes feature to identify problem areas for their teacher.

Veronica Clinton and Lynn Bielin used a software evaluation tool to gather their students’ feedback on the use of Kurzweil.

Micaela Massey and Stef Mutter compared successful Kurzweil use with poor reading/writing performance on the same material.

After a morning reading session on Kurzweil, Leah Cantrell reported that her student volunteered to participate in the whole-group discussion on the same content that afternoon.

Joanne Nelson’s student with special needs successfully wrote an essay from previously researched information.

Rebecca Andersen’s adult friend, who has reading and comprehension difficulties due to dyslexia, agreed to try it out while studying for a workrelated assessment.

Benefits

We identified the following benefits of using Kurzweil 3000 for students with special needs:

• Students with speech disabilities who cannot be easily understood by others can communicate using the text-tospeech feature during group work or while answering a question in class.
• Kurzweil 3000 can accommodate test taking and some states’ standardized testing.
• The program encourages the students to implement higher-order thinking. If they don’t have to worry so much about decoding what they are reading, they can get to the work of comparing and contrasting, demonstrating, calculating, analyzing, and evaluating.
• Students can “contextualize” reading by giving each subject a different computerized “voice.” This can help students focus more quickly if they begin to daydream.
• Students are more likely to take tests in the regular classroom if this technology is available.
• The ability to work independently builds confidence in students.

Especially revealing was Kathy Weise’s interview with a colleague who had first-hand experience teaching with Kurzweil 3000. Weise reports:

She feels the value of the program is shown in the amount many students use it for their writing. She said when the students hear what they write, they quickly pick up on missed words (one of the most common problems), misspellings, wrong words, and grammatical problems. Some use the word predictor and vocabulary lists a lot. The amount and quality of  their writing improves dramatically, as the students want to use the program whenever they have writing to do. Students use the program quite differently, and it ends up being quite specialized depending on their abilities and disabilities, how competently they learn the technology, and how engaged they are in taking the time to learn the program. And those factors vary widely.

Issues

The graduate students identified some questions to consider before using Kurzweil 3000 with their special needs students:

• Are the students socially and technically ready, and do they know how to use a keyboard?
• Is the software too expensive?
• Will the students be able to access it at home?
• Will they be distracted by the bells and whistles?
• Will they feel singled out by using the software?

Ease of Use and Directions

Mutter spoke for us all when she described the ease of use and directions:

The Flash tutorial on the Kurzweil Web site was a wonderful guide and introduction to the software. It was presented with clear speech, easy-to-follow directions and quick images of the software actually in use. The directions that came inside of the trial software also were helpful in installing the software and using the reading comprehension, dictionary, scanner, highlighting, erasing, text notes, and fill-inthe-blanks features.

The graduate students compared Kurzweil with the free software that comes with the PC and Mac. They all preferred the Kurzweil, mainly for its versatility.

“When compared with PC accessibility tools, the obvious choice would be Kurzweil because it offers a suite of learning tools, including syllabification, pronunciation, text preview, thesaurus, phonetic spelling, and a dictionary,” Wendi Meunier said.

Our experience testing and evaluating Kurzweil 3000 has increased our knowledge of software designed to support learning and has given us valuable insight into how it might be used with students with special needs.

—Barbara Green, MEd, is a certified special education teacher who works with fifth grade students with learning disabilities at Russom Elementary, Paulding County School District, in Dallas, Georgia.

—Joan Thormann, PhD, is a professor at Lesley University and teaches a variety of online courses including Technology and Special Needs.

Copyright © 2009, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 1.800.336.5191 (U.S. & Canada) or 1.541.302.3777 (Int’l), iste@iste.org, www.iste.org. All rights reserved.

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