Independent learners and students need digital friends like 'Read&Write Gold', says Sal McKeown
Come the autumn thousands of students will be bereft. For years they have relied on the support of teachers, parents and a close knit group of friends for ideas and advice, for proof-reading services and maybe to test them as they revise.
Higher education can be a very lonely experience. Instead of being in a familiar class of 30, a new student may well be in a group of more than 100 strangers. It is easy to become demoralised when assignments pile up and there's no one to help them structure their answers, nag them about deadlines or cheer them on. Unless there is an alternative.
Suitable technology can make a newbie student's life a little easier. We are not talking smart phones, tablets or designer accessories but software which will speed up text input, suggest the right words, correct spellings and read out web pages.
'A friend to many students with specific learning difficulties'
TextHelp's Read&Write Gold (now in version 11) is one of the most enduring support tools. It has been a friend to many students with specific learning difficulties or who are second language learners. For a start its spell-checker is a little bit different.
Whereas in Word the user really needs to get the first letter correct for its spell-checker to have a chance of guessing the word, the TextHelp spell-checker is accustomed to sometimes bizarre combinations of letters. Even better, when it comes up with a suggestion, it will read aloud a definition and a sentence with the word in context. This is also very useful for overseas students who may be unsure of the exact word they want.
The prediction tool will be popular with a texting generation used to technology which finishes their words for them. Composing is a much more fluent process when you don't have to type in every letter of each word.
Even better, copy a passage from the internet on a specialist subject and the software will deconstruct the syntax and vocabulary, store them in the prediction tool and incorporate them into the suggestions bank.
The latest version feels more streamlined with a default choice of only four voices so learners don't waste time seeing how their text sounds when read by a Dalek or someone who sounds like a refugee from Family Guy.
In the past Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer were the standard programs, but these days many students prefer Google Docs with its cloud capability and use Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox as browsers. Read&Write Gold works well with all of these. Just highlight the text and get "Daniel", with his standard BBC-type voice, to read it aloud. This is a very effective way of absorbing information and getting immersed in a topic.
There are three dictionaries which come as standard: basic, advanced and web. The advanced one is good for most student users while the web dictionary is a glossary of technical and specialist vocabulary. However, the basic dictionary is just perfect for those learning English who can be bamboozled by having too much choice and those dyslexic learners who struggle with reading and may spend too long pondering definitions and not enough time writing. There is also the option of additional support in the form of a picture dictionary which uses Widgit's Rebus symbols.
The speech maker is bigger and better than in version 10. Take a set of written notes and transform them into an MP3 file, great for going over lecture notes in the gym or for rehearsing for a presentation while waiting for a bus.
Read&Write Gold will read out text in any format. Perhaps there is a diagram or a notice in a corridor. Take a photograph and the technology will identify the text and read it out. This is also a very handy way of getting information from reference books on restricted loan and will save the cost of photocopying.
Better universities provide 'Read&Write' site licences for students
Then there are voice notes. These are the modern equivalent of scrawling in the margin of books. When a student encounters phrases such as "Theatre of the Oppressed" or "Just War Theory" it might be timely to add a quick definition. For many it is faster and more intuitive to record a note on the text than to write it down.
TextHelp Read&Write Gold costs £320 so it is a significant investment for a student. Some are already committed users as they have used it at school but for others it might seem like an awfully big step.
Higher education does have a duty of care to its students, to help them fulfil their potential. Now with fees of up to £9,000 a year a student may well expect institutions to provide resources such as this as standard. Some of the better universities are already ahead of the game: Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and Cardiff all have a site licence. Others should follow suit.
TextHelp Read&Write software (versions also available for iPad and cloud)
Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child, published by Crimson Publishing