What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Google Chrome and Assistive Technology Applications

What is Google Chrome and how can it benefit the Assistive Technology world and Special Needs students? 

 There are 4 parts to the Chrome world:
  1. Chrome Browser
  2. Chrome Operating System
  3. Chromebook (hardware)
  4. and of course, Google Drive should be thrown in here too
Google, Chrome, Google Drive, Chromebook... it has all hit the schools like crazy! You might be reading this because you too are being bombarded with, "You need to use ____, now!" Okay, let's try figuring this all out together. 

The Browser:
Google Chrome, an Internet browser designed by Google, Inc., is one of the newer additions in the competitive Internet browsing market. It is the Google version of Internet Explorer... with so much more.

From CNET: "Google Chrome has matured from a lightweight and fast browsing alternative into an innovative, standard-bearing browser that people love. It's powerful enough to drive its own operating system, Chrome OS. The browser that people can use today offers highly competitive features, including synchronization, autofill, and standards compliance, and maintains Google's reputation for building one of the fastest browsers available."  To learn more about how it works, continue reading on the CNET site.

The browser is very simplistic in its appearance, but that is by design. According to the Web site for the browser, "Like the classic Google homepage, Google Chrome is clean and fast. It gets out of your way and gets you where you want to go."

Google Chrome is among the first to offer a number of different features. For example, their tabbed browsing takes tabbed browsing a step further. Instead of just opening up a blank page, the browser opens a page with thumbnail shots of the most visited sites. This allows you to quickly navigate to their desired pages. Think how powerful this can be for our population!

So, how can Google Chrome benefit us? Well, first let's look at their statement about:
"As educators we believe that students with vision, hearing, physical, communication, and learning challenges have the same potential to learn as anyone else if the "mechanical" impediments to participation in the classroom are removed or lessened. Note-taking, spelling, organizing, reading, and mathematical constructions all require mechanical skills. Thinking, although reliant on these input and output constructions, is not tethered to anyone way of receiving or expressing. Often mechanical demands (visual tracking, decoding, handwriting, etc.) get in the way of these students developing critical thinking skills because of some old-fashioned perspective that regards the manner of learning as a strict path toward educational outcomes. We have attempted to collect many of the available apps and extensions which we believe could foster alternative forms of access for real learning to occur, with the ultimate hope of extending the definition as to who can be a learner in any particular setting."

What are the tools available through Chrome?
If you download the Chrome Browser you can install free extensions or apps. While in Chrome, click on the "apps" icon in upper left corner, then click on the store, then search for the apps/ extensions. The Chrome browser supports screen readers and magnifiers, and offers people with low vision full-page zoom, high-contrast color and extensions. For a listing of Chrome Accessibility Features, visit AZTECH Crazy for Chrome for a very thorough listing.

Resources Lists:
Staying true to this site, below is a list of resources that I have found worth reading that will help to acquaint you with some of the tools and apps provided in Chrome:

Hint: Install Chrome extension Adblock Plus to automatically remove ads that may be inappropriate in a school setting. 

Google Drive: 

Google Drive is a free service from Google that allows you to store files online and access them anywhere using the cloud. Google Drive also gives you access to free web-based applications for creating documents, spreadsheets, and more. Files can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection. It eliminates the need to email or save a file to a USB drive. And because Drive allows you to share files, working with others or sharing with a teacher becomes much easier.

Google Drive doesn't just store your files; it also allows you to create, share, and manage documents with its own productivity apps. If you've ever used a suite like Microsoft Office, some things about Google Drive's apps might seem familiar. For instance, the types of files you can work with are similar to files that can be created with various Microsoft Office programs.

These are the types of files you can create and share on Google Drive:

  • Documents: For composing letters, flyers, essays, and other text-based files (similar to Microsoft Word documents)
  • Spreadsheets: For storing and organizing information (similar to Microsoft Excel workbooks)
  • Presentations: For creating slideshows (similar to Microsoft PowerPoint presentations)
  • Forms: For collecting and organizing data
  • Drawings: For creating simple vector graphics or diagrams
Imagine, now our students can have access on any Internet based machine: iPad, home computer, school computer, special needs classroom, general education classroom... They can start it in one place, open it in another and keep on going! The teacher can communicate with them right on their assignment, "Johnnie, take a look at this paragraph...." before it is turned in... all while using text-to-speech or speech-to-text or word prediction!

Shelley Haven has shared that there are at least three different virtual keyboard extensions available in Chrome, and they all work differently.
  • Chrome Virtual Keyboard - When enabled, a tiny keyboard icon appears next to the star at the far right of the Chrome address bar.  Click that icon and select whether you want the keyboard to appear Always or On-Demand.  Under the Extension settings for this extension, you can click "Options" and select a smaller keyboard that can be moved around the page.  
  • Virtual Keyboard Interface - Double-clicking a text-entry area (search boxes, password fields) displays a re-sizable keyboard directly beneath that area.  Also has a hide-able number keypad and over 90 international layouts in different languages.  
  • Virtual Keyboard for Google Chrome - Their original version; now "deprecated" by Google, but some people may still have it and it still works.  Little keyboard icon also appears at far right of the address bar.
Google Resources worth Exploring:
Chrome has many apps for your classroom designed for elementary, middle and high school, including apps such as (for more, please see AZTAP's Symboloo on Google App Attack):
  • Clicker Docs for Chromebook has a speech supported spellcheck and word predictor.
    It also includes topic-specific Word Banks, and access to free, curriculum based resources from their LearningGrids website. It helps students of all abilities to achieve writing success. It is particularly useful for learners with dyslexia and struggling spellers.  
  • MeeGenius Children's Books which allows you to read each book with audio playback, word highlighting and automatic playback.
  • MindMeister which is a mind mapping app that raises student achievement through brainstorming and real-time collaboration. 
  • Pixton Comic Maker where you can create comics with characters, speech bubbles, background, images, voice-over and more.     
  • ScootPad which provides you with Math and Reading practice with data through a personalized and self-paced learning experience. 
  • Snapverter allows a teacher to take a photo of the test, email it to themselves and w/in a min or 2 converts it to document that can be read out loud
  • Stupeflix where you can turn photos, videos, text and music into beautiful videos that tell meaningful stories.
  • Typing Club so you can practice typing skills and track performance through an admin interface.
Google Chrome AT Toolbox 2.0 has a database with the reviews being community contributed.  They want you to help out and write up your favorite tool while also exploring what others are saying!  

The Chromebook
There is also a Chromebook (type of netbook) which is advertised as, "Boots in seconds. Nothing complicated to learn. Comes with your favorite Google apps. Built for everyday use and perfect for sharing with others." 
  • Looks like a laptop computer 
  • Is light weight, thin
  • Provides for immediate connection to the Internet 
  • Uses the Chrome Web Store (to get extensions and apps)
Pretty much anything you can do via the Google Chrome Web Browser on Macs/PCs, you can do with a Chromebook. Here are links to a couple of videos from Google that you may find helpful to begin to learn about Chromebooks:
The Chromebook has become very popular. At less than $300, how can it not be tempting?  So, what is a Chromebook? A Chromebook is a personal computer running Chrome OS as its operating system. The devices are designed to be used while connected to the Internet and support applications that reside on the Web, rather than traditional applications that reside on the machine itself. Chromebooks are primarily sold online, both directly from Google and from the company's retail partners. By 2012, schools had become the largest category of customer.

Chromebook Features was initially created by Nicole Lakusta in response to conversations and questions asked by the staff and students she works with. (The framework for this list is presented in the same format as the iPad Features to ensure consistency.) This is a good resource to help you through Chrome General and Access Features. 

To iPad or ChromeBook?? 
Chromebooks are quick to boot, battery life is great, the Chrome environment provides excellent delivery of content, student submission is straightforward. The Chrome environment has many options to support students with print disabilities, and spelling/writing issues. They are less expensive than the cheapest Netbook, almost at a 2-1 price advantage.

With that said, always remember: one size does not fit all. I urge our teachers to evaluate the needs of a student and learn to justify providing what works. Chromebooks fit our general population well, and our special needs population...most of the time, but not always. It really depends on the student's needs. They are different tools. Refer to the iPad Features Chart and Chromebook Features for guidance.  Look at the pros and cons from the accessibility standpoint, and perhaps a framework for decision-making in general.

The other side of the story! Assistive Technology and access tools- not so easy!!!  
The Chromebook is not a real intuitive tool at this point, so buyer beware. Google Chrome OS is relatively young compared to the far-more-refined Mac and Windows operating systems (remember, Chrome is only a few years old) but it is catching up quickly. It takes a lot of searching to find out how to "activate" a Chrome extension (or even what that means), and then you still have to dig through Chrome to find the setting. You will need to have a lot of perseverance and determination along with some technology skills to really make this work. I am hearing a lot of frustration out there. Remember: it is another system! We have Windows, Mac/iOS Systems and now Chrome. But, if you are willing to learn...

The National Federation for the Blind challenged the use of Chromebooks:
"Because use of the Chromebook technology and Google applications would discriminate against blind and print-disabled children by denying them equal access to educational programs, and because public schools must not deny students with disabilities the benefits of their programs and activities, those of your districts that choose to use Chromebooks will be violating federal law, specifically Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Thus, when a school district selects inaccessible technology and a blind student subsequently enrolls, it is too late and the district faces the costly and undesirable imperative of ridding itself of technology it may not use…" Hmmmmmmm.....

So know, the Chromebook is not appropriate for all students. Looking at the functions before deciding on the hardware is a good idea.  Nicole Lakusta's Chromebook Features Chart provides us with a good place to start with this.

Chrome AT Toolbox: Chrome Toolbox is a resource site that highlights free accessibility apps and extensions for Google's Chrome browser.  It was designed by Mark Surabian, an Assistive Technology Practitioner, and John Calvert, a K-5 Technology Learning Facilitator.  The site includes links to the free downloads and is arranged in several helpful ways. "This collaborative space was created to celebrate the many Apps and Extensions made by developers which serve the accessibility needs of individuals with disabilities. Although Google already highlights accessibility features built into the Chrome browser or through add-ons, we have collected numerous other free tools that we feel further contribute to that mission.

Stay tuned. I think Chrome will continue to grow and be innovative.  If you need more, see my Pinterest selection, "Chrome and Google in Education" and AZTAP's Symboloo on Google App Attack.

For many how to guides on Google Drive in education and more on Chrome, check my Pinterest Page for an abundance of resources: "Google in Education (with a smattering of Chrome) Using Google Docs? Chrome has come your way? Let's make the most of it"