February 13, 2008

Spokentext – Making Written Text Come to Life!

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

I have taught psychology at the Universities of Waterloo, Guelph, Carleton, and most recently at Heritage College. As a doctoral student at Carleton, I’m fortunate enough to have a career based at both a CEGEP and university (separated only by the Ottawa River!).

My university research has permitted me to create a resource which I have found useful in my college teaching and which could be used by other teachers as well. The flexibility of this technology offers students the opportunity to learn at their own pace without putting undue pressure on the teacher, furthermore, it can be used by students totally independently of their teachers!

I didn’t set out to develop a resource like Spokentext, but looking back at what happened, it now seems almost inevitable! Shortly after starting graduate school at Carleton, I found a device to turn documents into tactile graphics in one of the labs. It permitted me to use something called microcapsule paper to take a photocopy on which everything in black was raised.

This process fascinated me and I wanted to explore it. Working with members of the Department of Geography, I took a map of the Carleton campus and turned it into a tactile map. I thought it would be useful for students who were visually impaired. Unfortunately, measurements of how long it took blind students to navigate on campus indicated otherwise.

Mark McKay

Dr. Robert Biddle

This failed experiment, however, put me in touch with Mark McKay, who is legally blind, and Dr Robert Biddle at Carleton. We realized that there was a synergy between us, and we began working on several projects to assist people with visual impairments. One of these was a camera cell phone to take pictures of signs so that the information on the sign could be then translated into digitized voice. This made us become increasingly aware of the need for digitized voice services.

We eventually developed a website to enable students to hear text as well as to see it. The technology behind the site was innovative but surprisingly simple. We took a variety of Open Source components and linked them in a new way. Feeding with MS Word, MS Powerpoint, text, email, and web pages, we enabled students who are visually impaired, learning disabled, or just busy and mobile to turn their course and lecture materials into a digitized computer voice that they could they play on their computers or their iPods.

Although we had originally targeted students who were visually impaired, students at Heritage College, Carleton University, and numerous higher education institutions around the world using SpokenText told us that there are a lot of people who want to listen to text materials:

  •  There is a large and growing population of students who carry iPods or other MP3 players who would like to listen to lectures as a primary or supplementary way of taking classes. (There are nearly 200 million Apple iPods sold to date and there are now more students on the planet than at any other time in history!)
  • Estimates are that as many as 15% of students suffer some kind of learning or “print disability” that makes it difficult for them to effectively comprehend the text materials in courses. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that the number of Canadians with learning disabilities is increasing with approximately 631,000 in 2006. Listening instead of (or in addition to) reading, could be really useful to many of them.
  • 25% of us will eventually have eye problems caused by diabetes, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts. Also, many baby boomers like myself are experiencing problems reading text (presbyopia is why so many of us need reading glasses). Listening to the text, instead of squinting at it, works around this problem.

As you’ll discover in the video clips, there were other surprising users for Spokentext as well.

Translation and Russian ESL

User Cases

In brief, we started with a narrowly defined target audience for our invention and have seen its use expand in ways that we never imagined.

Spokentext allows my students at Heritage College to download material distributed in class as podcasts. Using Spokentext to create MP3 files of your material is simple for both teachers and students. Teachers (or students) can send a Word or Powerpoint or text document to my website and receive an MP3 file back in a few minutes. Many students already know how to load songs into their iPod, so loading lectures is a snap. Give it a try at

Heritage College supported my application for funding for this research through the Innovation Alliance Intellectual Property Mobilization Program (with funds provided by NSERC & CIHR). Carleton University’s HOT Lab was involved as well as a partnership with the Carleton University Innovation Transfer Office.

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