To continue exploring ISTE Coaching Standard (CS) 3: Digital age learning environments, this week we are looking at three of its indicators:
CS 3b – “maintain and manage a variety of digital tools and resources for teacher and student use in technology-rich learning environments.”
CS 3d – “select, evaluate, and facilitate the use of adaptive and assistive technologies to support student learning.”
CS 3f – “collaborate with teachers and administrators to select and evaluate digital tools and resources that enhance teaching and learning and are compatible with the school technology infrastructure.”
These indicators spoke very directly to some recent tools I’ve been trying to learn to use for myself, and the experience has lent itself wonderfully to the creation of my investigation question:
How can I evaluate, select, and manage text-to-speech (TTS) tools and resources for teachers and students that are compatible with my institution’s technology infrastructure?
Why This Question?
I have always found course texts difficult to read. When I was interviewed for admittance to SPU they asked me something to the effect of “what is something you think you might struggle with in the program?” Or maybe they asked if I had any fears about the program, or if I expected any particular challenges. The gist of my answer was: I know I struggle to keep up with course reading materials and I expect there will be a lot of required reading. And it’s not that I can’t do a lot of reading, because I can…when I’m reading novels. When I’m not in school I like to go on the occasional “reading binge” and read a handful to a dozen books consecutively. But learning by reading? It’s never been something that’s come easily, and the thought of it feels heavy.
So when I started this quarter and saw that I needed to read an entire book on the history of American education for one of my classes, I went “I gotta find a way to get my computer to read this to me.” I tried to figure out how to do that, but I got so lost in the forest of technology I scrapped my efforts. Or maybe I didn’t even get into the forest – I got stuck trying to make it through the bordering brier patch. (One of the main reasons this has been so difficult is because my ebook is a protected text and displayed as images instead of text. I’ll get into this more later.) So I committed to reading the book without any assistance, and after 9 hours reading the first two chapters, my brain was fried.
By the time week three came around I said it one more time: “I have got to figure out how to get my computer to read this to me.” So there (re)began my adventure of trying to get my computer to read me my textbook. It sounds like an easy task, but it has been anything but. I won’t describe the whole process of how I came to the information below, but I will say that all of this has been new information to me.
Important note: It seems pretty typical that you need to download a voice pack along with whatever TTS software. I didn’t know that and spent a good deal of time going “…Really?! How is this the only voice option?”
Selecting and Evaluating TTS Technologies
TTS technologies benefit many populations of learners with a range of needs, such as those who are blind, dyslexic (The Regents of the University of Michigan), learning English (Carroll, 2014), or simply anyone that has any reason to want to listen to writing, and the needs of the user will play a role in how you assess a TTS tool. One of the obvious features to assess when selecting a reader is how it sounds. Of course that counts for a lot and could ultimately be the deciding factor in whether or not you like a given reader, but there are other factors that come into consideration too. Some other things that matter to me are whether or not you can read from a chosen place in the document and if you can pause. The Kurzweil Blog Team wrote a nice article called The Many Facets of Text-to-Speech which lists things to consider when selecting a reader for yourself or for others. Their list includes: accuracy of TTS, variety of available voices, and options for highlighting the text as it’s read.
Two of the suggestions I really like from Kurzweil’s blog are: before recommending a reader, make sure you can listen to it for 10 minutes; and when using a reader, test out different voices for different content areas – you might find that one voice doesn’t fit all.
My number one favorite tool so far has been the TTSReader X In-Page Text to Speech. This is a free, super easy to use Chrome extension that reads the text on a webpage. Of all the free readers I looked at, this one definitely has the best voice (I like the UK Female). And that comparison almost doesn’t say enough; plain and simple, I think it sounds pretty darn good. It’s also really smooth to use: highlight the text, right click, select “Play Selection.” Then from the extension button (which is next to the address bar) you can pause, rewind, and otherwise control the reading. Once it starts reading the selection, you can even leave the page if you would like.
Here’s a quick video to demonstrate how the reader sounds. With Ryan’s permission, I am using and excerpt from Ryan’s Blog, The Worst of All Possible Worlds – ISTE Coaching Standard 3 and the Dystopian Future of Education? (2017). It’s a great post on the future of education with technology – I recommend giving it a read!
In addition, they also have a website ttsreader.com, which is the same tool but on a website. It’s a little more ergonomic than the extension tool if you are copy+pasting a chunk of text. The website works in Chrome and Safari (you can go to the website in other browsers, but it won’t work properly or fully). This Chrome app, TTSReader – Unlimited Text-To-Speech, will enhance the functionality of the website, making it so that the website remembers your voice settings, the last thing you entered into the text box, and where you left off listening.
TTS in Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat
Microsoft Office actually has a built in TTS tool called “Speak” – here’s how to access it, and here’s how to get to Speech Properties to change the reading speed. This TTS doesn’t sound nearly as good as ttsreader.com, but I’d guess that you can download other voices – Microsoft Anna is the only voice available in my settings – I just haven’t investigated that yet. To make it read you highlight what you want to read and click the Speak icon. Click it again to make it stop. There seems to be no way to pause and resume.
***Update: adding new voices is apparently quite the issue in Windows 7. I tried and it didn’t work. There are many forums documenting this issue and there are basically no good solutions. Some people have gotten things to work by making changes in the computer’s registry (which is a risky thing to do). Oh, that reminds me! I forgot to mention: Windows still does free upgrades to Windows 10 for people who use assistive technology (Hubbell, 2016, blog post here).
Here’s a quick video to demonstrate how Microsoft Anna sounds. Again, I’m using an excerpt from Ryan’s post.
Similarly, Adobe Acrobat has a built in reader called Read Out Loud – here’s how to access it. Mine currently only reads in the Microsoft Anna voice. I see that there are other voice options, but none of them seem to work. Again, I’m guessing you can download a voice pack. On PDFs that I create, I can click a paragraph and the reader will read that paragraph, but for other PDFs (like articles downloaded from journals that I can access through my university library) it will only start from the top of the document or page. There are hot keys to control pausing. Despite having settings for changing the reading speed under Edit > Preferences > Reading, the speed seems to actually and only be controlled from Speech Properties in the control panel (i.e., the same way you change the speed of Speak, which I linked above).
Since I tend to want greater control in where the reader starts from, and I read a lot of journal articles that only want to start reading from the top of the page, it was good to learn that you can actually open PDFs in Word. (Select the file, right click, select Open With > Word.)
JAWS seems to be the screen reader and it was suggested to me more than once. (Screen readers seem to be a special class of TTS with extra capabilities for controlling your computer via audio and the keyboard.) But trying to use JAWS was a bit like trying to pilot an aircraft after only playing Pilotwings on Nintendo 64. I really would need to put in some time to figure out how to use it.
Also, JAWS is $900. However, you can download a free 40 minute trial (here), and restarting your computer renews the trial. There is a separate voice pack to download (here), and yes, the voice pack works during the trial.
I want to quickly mention one last TTS reader. At the recommendation of my program director, Dr. Wicks, I bought the Apple app Voice Dream for my iPhone. In spite of having a hard time changing the reading speed, I’m very happy with it and it was well worth the $15. I have regularly wished that Siri would read PDFs, but it never occurred to me to look for an app to do that. (Of course there’s an app for that!)
It sounds great. It shows how long it will take to read any given document. I can adjust how far it rewinds/fast-forwards. I can load a variety of text-based documents into it, including webpages. I even have it linked to my Google Drive which makes it super easy to access the documents I want. I recommend it.
Reading My Class Textbook
So with this information in mind, what did I do to read my protected ebook and why is this so challenging? The major challenge here is learning to use screen readers (e.g., JAWS). If your protected ebooks are like mine, then screen readers are basically your only way into TTS technology.
My school uses ProQuest: Ebook Central for its ebooks. On this website, the pages are displayed as images, and in order to turn on accessibility mode*, which displays the pages as text, I need to use a screen reader. If I download an ebook, the only program that will open the file is Adobe Digital Editions. There is no built-in TTS feature in Digital Editions (like there is with Adobe Acrobat), but this blog post from Adobe (Kirkpatrick, 2012) suggests that they have improved the accessibility of protected texts and it lists screen readers that are compatible with their software.
(*Accessibility mode is not available on mobile devices.)
But recall the JAWS/Pilotwings analogy… Not knowing how to use a screen reader made all of this very difficult. While talking about these difficulties, my friend immediately asked me: “Did you Google it?” (“It” being how to turn on accessibility mode or otherwise get my computer to read my ebook to me.) Yes, multiple times. The information surely exists, but finding what I needed, while not knowing the right keywords to search with, was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Two days ago I finally figured out how to turn on accessibility mode on the website, and in my silent apartment, next to my fiancé, I had visions of fireworks, marching bands, and confetti falling from the ceiling for about the next hour. I was so happy!
In the weeks prior, while I figured out how to use a screen reader, I used up my copy+paste allotment for my textbook by copying a page at a time from Digital Editions into ttsreader.com. (Publishers set copy+paste limits on ebooks, and I assume Digital Editions keeps track of how much you’ve copied because it’ll cut you off.)
Tying All This Back to CS3
That was a lot, so let me restate my investigation question.
How can I evaluate, select, and manage TTS tools and resources for teachers and students that are compatible with my institution’s technology infrastructure?
Knowing about these programs and features is the first step in being able to make recommendations for teachers and students; I’ve learned a lot and there’s a lot to learn. I also feel a heightened sense of awareness about the importance of making course materials available in a timely manner so that students have time to use them in ways that support their learning (thank you, DEL program, for consistently posting all course materials for us at the start of each quarter!).
Now that I have my feet wet about some (overstatement) of the realities of trying to evaluate, select, and use this technology, I am more prepared to think about how math teachers can make the materials they create TTS friendly. For example, how would a reader speak through an equation or graph? How do images and diagrams get read out loud? I don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but I know to ask them. I also see that the occasional math equation I put in my posts, like this (which reads d equals x-sub-2 minus x-sub-1), simply gets skipped over by tssreader.com. The same is true of all the equations on Paul’s Notes (a very popular website for additional math notes). This has pretty big implications for choosing the format of instructor-provided notes. To give a different example, when I have tssreader.com read Dr. Lambers Multivariable Calculus notes, it reads much of the math text, albeit not 100% accurately (e.g., and , that is, x-squared and x-sub-2, are both read out loud as “x-two”). Add in the difficulties of finding/using/paying for readers that are compatible with a school’s technology infrastructure and you’re looking at a lot of hurdles to use TTS technology with a math textbook. Again, I don’t have answers, but these will all be things to keep in mind as I start my math program in August.
Making Technology Work for You
One thing I have really taken away from all this is a better understanding of the phrase “make technology work for you.” This TTS technology is like a revelation. Where has it been all my life and why have I never tried using it to read? I mean…through the thicket of technology…that’s where it’s been. I’m definitely a little TTS-crazed at the moment and I’m having fun exploring when it best aids me. I also know at least a handful of people who would love to know how to use TTS technology and I’m guessing that a lot of students would benefit from TTS if they knew how to use the technology effectively and efficiently.
My one tip for any first time user who thinks TTS could benefit them is: Give it a chance. It took me a few tries to settle into a rhythm using TTS, and initially it was distracting to hear the words out loud. But after I got used to it, it became incredibly helpful. So give yourself a chance to find that rhythm.
Carroll, Jason. (2014). Digital supports for English language learners. Retrieved from https://www.texthelp.com/en-us/company/education-blog/december-2014/digital-supports-for-english-language-learners/
Hubbell, D. (2016). Microsoft accessibility blog: Windows 10 free upgrade page for people who use assistive technologies. Retrieved from https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/accessibility/2016/07/29/windows-10-free-upgrade-page-for-people-who-use-assistive-technologies/
ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches (2011). Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches
Kirkpatrick, A. (2012). Adobe accessibility: Digital Editions 2.0 available. Retrieved from http://blogs.adobe.com/accessibility/2012/09/digital-editions-2-0.html
Kurzweil Blog Team. (n.d.) The many facets of text-to-speech [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.kurzweiledu.com/blog/2016/05-11-2016.html
The Regents of the University of Michigan. (n.d.) 10 helpful text-to-speech readers for back to school. Retrieved from http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/tools/software-assistive-technology/text-to-speech-readers