Hacking the Way to Better Reading Technologies – Jeff Petty and Kevin Larson, USA
Innovation is a word we use a lot here at Daily Edventures. Whether you’re a teacher or a school leader, pushing innovative learning is likely top-of-mind every day.
Spurring innovation is also top-of-mind here at Microsoft. For the second year in a row, Microsoft employees took time away from their day-to-day tasks to take part in a one-week, company-wide “hackathon” that brings together teams from across the country. This year, over 3000 projects were entered, each built to change lives for the better through the use of technology.
The 2015 winning team – chosen by Satya Nadella – had a simple mission: “Our goal is to make computers easier to use for everyone,” says Jeff Petty, the accessibility lead for Windows for Education and the program manager who led the grand prize-winning team. “We want to make computers easier to see, easier to hear. We want to make it easier to read and write with technology.”
“We came to understand that there were so many demands on teachers’ time and that their classrooms are so diverse, that technology can be a barrier for teachers,” says Petty. “They can spend a lot of their instructional time deploying and maintaining technology rather than focusing on the needs of different students. We asked, ‘Where is an area we can help the most, with something as basic as reading? How can we help everyone read better? What are some of the techniques that work for students with reading disabilities?’ [We thought], maybe we can bring those to the table for everybody.”
Petty and his team — including members from Windows, OneNote, Bing and Microsoft Research – created the OneNote for Learning Literacy toolbar. The toolbar has special text formatting tools that can make reading, writing and note-taking easier. Features include: enhanced dictation powered by Bing speech recognition services, immersive reading that uses Windows services of simultaneous audio text playback with highlighting, and natural language processing that relies on Microsoft Research.
Kevin Larson, from the Windows Advanced Reading Strategies team, was a key player on the winning Hackathon team. Together with the Hamlin-Robinson – a school in Seattle that specializes in programs for students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences – Larson has been studying how technologies that aid students with dyslexia can help everyone to read more easily on devices. Their work led to innovations in the OneNote for Learning Literacy toolbar, such as font spacing (which reduces visual crowding) and breaking words down into syllables.
“It’s about holistically tackling all aspects of reading,” says Larson. “Not just pagination or how do people absorb content, but how can we make that content more easy to absorb? These new developments are all based in research, so [all students] will have better reading comprehension.”
A beta of the OneNote for Learning Literacy toolbar will be piloting in schools over the next 30 days, with plans to broadly release the toolbar at the end of the year.
Petty and Larson recently sat down with me in Seattle to discuss their project. They shared the details of how their Hackathon team came to be, the intricacies of their research, and why this project promises to improve our devices and products – all for the benefit of teachers, students, and readers of all ages and capabilities throughout the world. Enjoy!
Jeff Petty, Accessibility Lead, Windows for Education and Kevin Larson, Researcher, Windows Advanced Reading Strategies Team
Redmond, Washington, USA