Sunday, June 8, 2008

WriteOnline from Crick Software- First Impressions

Several weeks ago I shared with you the impending release of a new assistive technology application called WriteOnline from Crick Software. The release of WriteOnline is a departure from the release of any other software product, that I know, in that the application is delivered through the browser. This is a monumental paradigm shift for the industry and one that I have been talking about for years. WriteOnline raises the bar for other software developers as we move to software as a service model. But more importantly having software tools delivered through the web enables students to have access to their files and the supports that they need wherever and whenever they want to work on it. No longer will students have to give up their software supports when they leave school and go home to work on projects and papers.

Since that post I have the opportunity to use a beta of WriteOnline which will soon be available in the UK. Once I was given a link to the program, WriteOnline installed the the Java application and within seconds I was into the WriteOnline writing environment. For those of you are familiar with Wordbar from Crick Software you will certainly see the similarity. I for one was up and running within seconds and using all of the supports provided in WriteOnline. The screen is divided into three windows: the word processing area, the word prediction pane , and the Wordbar pane at the bottom of the screen. WriteOnline provides powerful text to speech support right within the application and by setting up the user preferences you can set the word prediction and wordbar pane to read the words by right clicking on a word. The text to speech engine produced clear annunciation of what was being read and the user could change the unit of how WriteOnline would read the text. With this release the text to speech engine used British speech engine but an English engine will be used when it is released here in the United States. I did have a chance to show some of my graduate students WriteOnline and many were really excited by all of the features. Most of my students whom are themselves are special education teachers shared that it was a great tool for differentiating the instruction.

Quite frankly when one is using WriteOnline it is hard to discern that the application is working online. For students with writing disabilities WriteOnline provides and incredible level of supports. WriteOnline comes with a host of Wordbars that are ready to be used with a click of the mouse. Additional free Wordbars can be downloaded from Crick's LearningGrids site. I was able to develop my own custom wordbars by simply shift clicking in the cell and typing the word. This worked very similar to Wordbar or Clicker 5. When you right click WriteOnline will read the content of the cell and is an excellent support for students who may also have reading disabilities. Students who need spelling support will find the word prediction tool really handy. I should note that the user has the option of hiding or showing the word prediction and wordbar pane as they see fit. The word prediction dictionary can be adjusted in size (number of words) depending on the age and skills of the student. The word prediction library can be set from anywhere from 250 to 60000 words and can also be set up to predict from the wordbar list as well. The word prediction tool was surprising good and was able to determine the proper ending of words depending on what looks like some grammatical rules. The word prediction tool had more difficulty when I spelled word phonetically. I will have to inquire about this feature. Using both the wordbars and the word prediction tools can provide students with the scaffolding they need to help them complete their writing. More importantly one must remember that since WriteOnline is an online application, students can access their files and continue to use these supports at home or wherever they are as long as they connected to the Internet. Now this is truly a paradigm shift!

Overall I was very impressed with the feature set of WriteOnline and will continue to explore the nooks and crannies and share with you new information as I find out about it. I should note that there are a number of writing analysis tools built into WriteOnline which would be helpful for a teacher as they look at a students written work over time. WriteOnline does support the insertion of comments which would lead me to believe that the student's teacher could access the written work and add comments where appropriate. While I certainly have more to learn about WriteOnline I for one was extremely pleased with the feature set and its capabilities. More importantly this marks a real transition in how assistive technology applications are delivered and I for one am overjoyed by the fact that students will have the writing supports they need wherever and whenever they need it. No longer will they be tied to one computer with their specific tools- this is a very liberating feeling and one that goes a long way for students having real access to what they need.

I should note that I would like to thank John Crick for giving me access to WriteOnline and if anyone is going to NECC 2008, please stop by the Crick Software booth and see for yourself the incredible tool set that can be found in WriteOnline. When you see John Crick, just tell him that Brian sent you:-)

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