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Delaware Assistive Technology Initiative

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AT Messenger Logo - Bringing Technology to You

Volume 14, No. 4, Fall 2006

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The Holy Grail in Leveling the Educational Playing Field

Dan Fendler, AT Specialist
Sussex County ATRC

Much of the education-related work we do at DATI revolves around tools and techniques that have the potential to level the educational playing field for all sorts of learners. We are often asked to train educators on the application and use of a number of available technologies. What I have come to appreciate while conducting many of these trainings is the importance of having educational material available in digital format. Being a "techie," the availability of digital text is something that I often take for granted. If I can't find a resource that has text already digitized, I'll take care of it myself, usually through the use of a scanner.

I often assume that everyone fully understands the power and promise of digital text. Hopefully, by discussing the topic in more detail, more educators will understand why access to digital text is so critical. 

Digital text is simply any text material that is available in a format that can be read and manipulated by any number of electronic devices, including computers, personal digital assistants, and cell phones (think text messaging). Digital text is created in many different ways, but by far the most common way is through the use of word processors. Any documents, emails, or websites that you create are stored digitally, and thus have the potential to be manipulated. If you have paper based text material and want to digitize it, you can use an optical scanner in conjunction with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, which will translate the image on the paper into digital text. (I will come back to OCR scanning later in this article.)

Advantages of Digital Text

Think of all the printed materials used in a classroom today. They include textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, articles, name it.

Now, consider how it is distributed to students. More often than not, students get photocopies of original material. The photocopies may not be in the best condition. With my own child now in the 6th grade, I've seen my share of bad photocopies. Often, the material is blurred, too dark, too light, has holes punched through a critical portion, or is otherwise unreadable. Poor quality material can negatively influence the abilities of a struggling student. Believe me; it can also negatively influence the abilities of a struggling parent!

There are a number of reasons that photocopies provide poor quality materials: they can be copies of copies (of copies...); they can be copies of bound books that don't lie flat on the scanning bed; or they can be fed through automatic sheet feeders that don't position the original correctly. Whatever the reason, poor quality text reproduction can present an unintended barrier to the learning process.

If you have the material available in digital format, you have more options. Having digital text, and digital media, gives you the flexibility to accommodate a number of different learners and learning styles. Digital text separates the content from the way in which it is displayed, and thus allows the format of the display to be altered to suit the needs of the student.

Sources of Digital Text

If many of the materials that you use in class are paper-based, there are several ways you can convert the material to a digital format. One of the most frequently used methods is through the use of optical scanners and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. The other option is to create your own material, or enter existing material manually.

Scanners are relatively inexpensive, and most come with software that will allow you to scan a document and convert it to a digital form. While it can be a useful technique, the drawback is that scanning (and editing) can be very time consuming, as the scanned document is rarely converted without errors. Manually entering material is also extremely time consuming.

There are a number of sources that provide free access to text material in digital format. Here are a few:

These sites are great, but not helpful for material still under copyright. Most material used in the classroom is subject to copyright, so what options do you have? First, check with the publisher and see if the material is already available in a digital format. Some publishers have the material available. Unfortunately, not all do. Here is an opportunity to flex your considerable consumer muscle: if you are in the process of purchasing new text materials, insist that the publisher provide it all in a digital format. New mechanisms for accessing digital text continue to appear (see NIMAS article on Page 6), but you can help speed the process by putting the onus on publishers and insisting that they provide you with the materials you need.

Digital Text and its Applications

Once you have the text available in digital form, there are so many wonderful options available that can be incorporated into your lessons. Some of the more obvious options include altering the font size, the use of color, tailoring the text to meet your lesson, etc. It can also be used by more sophisticated applications, like text-to-speech software. We have covered some uses in previous editions of The AT Messenger.

As always, if you have any questions, or need additional information regarding digital text and its applications, please contact the ATRC nearest you.

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