The listing below looks at tools to support different learner needs.
Under each need we cover a variety of platforms. Learners who can choose appropriate tools and strategies according to the device they are using can be more agile and independent than those who require a particular piece of software on a specific device.
Implications of free and open source software
Freeware (free software) is, as you may imagine, completely free of charge.
Free and open source software (FOSS) or free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) is distributed on licences that allow you to use and adapt the source code. In the case of FOSS, free refers to the 'freedom' to use and edit the program, but much of it is also available free of charge.
Before downloading any free and open source software or plugins we recommend keeping your computer secure using antivirus software1.
Many freeware and FOSS tools can benefit learners and staff, those with disabilities as well as those without. There are literally thousands of tools available, from software for designing accessible learning objects through to simple widgets and programs to help you find the cursor on your screen.
Pros and cons of FOSS tools
- Learners have the opportunity to try a wider range of tools since there is no financial commitment
- Ability to use the tools at home, on work placements and in employment
- Shorter learning curve as the tools are simple to use
- Culture of active experimentation and independence
- Access to user and developer communities with support and advice to new users
The disadvantage is that there is unlikely to be a great deal of technical support for smaller programs apart from a help file. Some of these tools have a ‘freemium’ model – you have the basic tool for free but have to pay to get enhanced functionality.
Before using FOSS tools, it is important you:
- Check reviews – there’s a lot of dross as well as gold
- Take care where you download from and stick to reputable sites or suppliers like PortableApps.com and www.eduapps.org, or academic products like www.atbar.org
- Take care with download and installation – some downloads will offer to install or update additional tools like browser plugins or the download page will have links to unrelated products
Mobile phones and tablets
The combination of media recording and playback, web connectivity, inbuilt accessibility and a wide range of free apps make smart phones and tablets an ideal assistive technology for a very wide range of accessibility needs.
Built-in accessibility options
Standalone software for PCs
Learners using a Windows laptop for most of their work can significantly improve their productivity using a range of free and open source software tools. Most of these will run happily from a memory stick and therefore can be used on other PCs as well - for example on a work placement, on a library PC or in an IT room.
These include tools to help with:
This is software used to read Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) format books for blind and visually impaired learners. It is self-voicing which doesn't require screen-reading software.
DAISY enables navigation by audio and/or sight – see the Load2Learn video on using DAISY.
This fully featured text-to-speech and text to MP3 tool is free to use with pre-installed computer voices (eg the default Windows voices or other free or commercial voices).
Users can adjust the text display then read aloud and save in most popular audio formats. Files can be split into more manageable ‘chunks’. Text can be highlighted as it is read, making it suitable for supporting reading skills.
See also DSpeech – similar functionality but a simpler interface.
Dictionary with built-in word pronunciation. It provides contextualised examples of the use of the word in a sentence and can be configured to display the output in users preferred fonts and sizes to improve readability.
A text to speech tool that can be used on all PCs and on mobile devices. Files and content can be uploaded and read as well as web and cloud-based content.
Provides easy text to speech functionality.
Visual comfort on PCs
Has options to zoom an area around the mouse, create a fixed zoom window or zoom the entire desktop.
Colours can be inverted for clarity and the original screen can be made transparent
Creates a coloured overlay for the whole screen and T-bar provides a translucent coloured block you can either drag around the screen or lock to your mouse.
Both can be downloaded as part of the MyStudyBar suite of tools from the Eduapps website.
Alternatively the ATBar from Southampton university provides colour overlay functionality as well as text to speech.
Specialist tools - screenreaders
Screenreaders are one of the few assistive technologies which are not “productivity tools for all’. Learners with deteriorating sight may need support in making the transition to operating a computer by audio feedback alone. This is a daunting task but confidence can be built by using some of the free assistive technologies available.
By the time the learners require commercial screenreader tools a good deal of transferable skills and confidence can be built up.
WebbIE provides a free suite of utilities designed for blind and visually impaired people to provide access to digital news sources such as RSS and radio, including a browser based in Internet Explorer which can display web page as structured text.
WebbIE displays the text of the page in the user’s choice of font with a simple toggle between the text view and the original page layout.
WebbIE helps users get familiar with the way webpages get presented via a screenreader.
Thunder is a free basic screenreader available in several languages. It can navigate through lines and individual words with the keyboard cursor keys.
It works well with Windows 7, Vista or XP and integrates with Microsoft Word and WebbIE.
Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) allows blind and vision impaired people to access and interact with their computers by providing feedback via synthetic speech and Braille.
NVDA is an excellent training ground for commercial screenreaders and can be run from a USB stick meaning it can offer independent access to computers that do not have a screenreader installed.
- 1 This information is provided in good faith on the basis of positive experiences with the tools but Jisc can make no warranties as to the suitability of these tools for your systems nor be liable for any problems that may arise with their use