Guest author Lisa Vincent, an Assistive Technology Facilitator in Oak Park, Illinois, provides an educator’s inside look at how Learning Ally's service and technology is making a difference for students with reading-based disabilities.
My name is Lisa Vincent and I am the Assistive Technology Facilitator at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois. My school district has used Learning Ally (formerly RFB&D) for many years, as a paid service for audio books for our students with reading disabilities, visual and physical impairments. We are a school of 3200 students with a very large special education program (over 500 students).
During our years using RFB&D's paid service, students would primarily use CDs and the available Daisy players. While we would order the materials for students, they would typically never even come to pick up their CDs and players. They were not interested in another tool (a big clunky special CD player) that made them stand out from their peers and feel different. And even when a student did pick up their discs and player, there was no way to monitor their usage, no way to measure whether this resource even helped them.
We have many students who are eligible for and require alternate format text as a way of bypassing their reading disabilities (or physical and visual disabilities). I have worked to support students using text-to-speech software with digital text as a way of letting students with reading skills sometimes several years below their chronological age access grade-appropriate reading material. Little did I know that once I received a new grant and was required to take training as a part of it, and thereby truly learning all that Learning Ally had to offer, that Learning Ally was going to change how I support my students.
For years while supporting students to use audio to enable their reading, I've seen that follow-through and carryover to home has been incredibly challenging and frustrating. I attributed those challenges to three things:
- The available technology made them look different from other students.
- It was not easy to use.
- It didn’t fit into their (student) world.
All of that has changed with Learning Ally this year! In my eight years at OPRF, I have never had students embrace supportive technology as quickly as when I offered them the free Learning Ally Audio app
on their smartphones or iPods. Students’ responses were universal: “Yes, I want it!” and “Can you get me ______ book?”
Dyslexic students who have spent 10-plus years in special education, hating and avoiding reading, became readers in a day, once they had access to the Learning Ally app. The changes that have gone on within Learning Ally this year have revolutionized my practice as an AT facilitator! Now that Learning Ally can go on students’ phones, iPods and iPads, their school work looks like the rest of their world! Nobody knows if they are listening to Kanye West or their American History textbook. The simplicity of the app allows for greater ease of use as well.This is truly powerful.
Additionally, now being able to offer the software on computers (if a student doesn't have mobile technology), for FREE, allows me to reach out to even more students. This makes all the difference for my lower socio-economic students – who are often the ones most needing this support.
Lastly, being able to monitor students’ use of this technology through Teacher Ally
is allowing us to collect data on the effectiveness of this tool – something we could never do before.
The changes that Learning Ally have made this year has transformed it from “some organization that we used to get books on CD from,” to a tool utilized in every self-contained special education classroom in my building and on the smartphones of all qualifying students. It is now a tool that teachers and students know by name; that students come and ask for; that is allowing students to read “just for fun” for the first time in their lives - because now they can!
Learning Ally is now my number one “go to” solution for students that are disabled by their reading abilities. As an educator who works day in and out with struggling students, I cannot express how powerful it is now to provide a tool that can help students and that they buy into using. Learning Ally is a tool that can transform learning for students. It is a tool worth investing in. At my school, it is making a difference.
Lisa M. Vincent
Assistive Technology Facilitator
Oak Park, Illinois