Text to Speech just got easier

Most of us are probably familiar with products that turn digital text into speech.  Programs like Read&Write Gold and Kurzweil are feature packed applications that will not only read almost any digital text to you, but also provide numerous other supports such as advanced spell check, word prediction and more.  Other programs, like ReadPlease are basic (but free) and allow you to copy and paste any text in and have it read out loud.

The only major downfall to these programs is that a student must be sitting in front of a computer to use them.  Having one computer with text to speech capabilities doesn’t do you much good when 15 kids need it at the same time.

To help remedy this, there are several products out there that allow you to turn text into an audio file (typically an mp3 or wav file).  Once created, students can listen to it on their portable mp3 player, cd player, or even their computer at home.  Granted, this isn’t always as effective as being able to see the text as it’s being read out loud, but it does work for many students.  Surely you’ve seen all of the earbuds hanging out of kids’ ears haven’t you?

Before I list some options, I should mention one concern I consistently get is that not all students have the mp3 players.  This is true, but according to a recent report specializing in tracking the use of digital music and digital music players, over 70% of respondents ages 12-17 already have some type of portable music player.  This is up from 54% last year.  What’s more is that not all portable media players are as expensive as iPods.  A recent search on WalMart.com showed a 2GB video and audio portable media player for under $30!

Now that that’s out of the way, how do we turn text into audio files?  Well, there are really 2 ways: a software application (or one feature of a software application) and a web site.  Let’s look at each…

On the Web:  These websites allow you to paste digital text in and they will automatically create the audio file for you.

Software Applications:

If you know of any additional programs, especially free programs, be sure to post in the comments section or send me an email.

Converting Videos to and iPod Format

Finding a solid free application to convert videos to an iPod format isn’t easy.  I’ve tried several out and have came to the conclusion that WinFF is about the best available at the time of this writing.
WinFF is about as simple to use as it can get.  Simply click “Add” (see screenshot below) to add the video you would like to convert, then choose what format you would like to convert it to.  The purpose of this post is to show a good converter for converting videos to an iPod format, but WinFF can convert to many other formats as well.

Download WinFF for free at http://code.google.com/p/winff/

Podcasting 101

I’ve held off on doing a post on podcasting because every school, district or organization I help get started have things in place that make them unique.  For example, I typically recommend using a blog to run your podcast through, but many places do not have or even allow the use of blogs.  Others may want to use their own server for podcasting while some organizations do not provide access to their servers by anyone except IT staff.  Having said this, I’ll use this post to provide the basic information you will need to create your own podcast.  You may email or leave a comment if you have additional questions.

The first thing I recommend is to give my previous post on “Podcasting and Podcatcher Options” a read.  It talks specifically about what a podcast is and how you subscribe to one.  This is important because I find that most people interested in creating their own podcast would be just as well off finding podcasts that are already out there.  There is no use in re-creating the wheel when many high quality podcasts are already available for you to download and use with your students for free.

Keeping the above in mind, here’s my 4 step process to creating your own podcast:

  1. Record your audio.  Most podcasts are audio podcasts unless defined otherwise.  To record audio, I recommend downloading the free application Audacity.  It is simple to use and works great for podcasting.  One thing to note is that by default Audacity does not save audio files as MP3 files (the format needed for podcasting audio).  To remedy this, you must download the LAME MP3 encoder.  You can find this on the Audacity download page.  Once downloaded, upzip the file and copy the folder onto your computer in a location that you will not delete or move (your C drive, my documents, etc…).  The first time you use Audacity and export your audio to an mp3 file it will ask you if you would like to locate the encoder.  Just select yes, and browse to the folder. You will only have to do this the first time.  Audacity will remember the location for future exports.  Although Audacity works with both PC and Mac, most new Macs come with Garage Band, which has all sorts of additional bells and whistles for creating audio podcasts.
  2. Store your audio file. This is where the unique part comes in.  Once you have created your audio file, you will need to store it in a place that is accessible via the web.  For example, my organization has a website at www.cksec.org.  If had an audio file named audio.mp3, and uploaded it to our server, you could access it by going to www.cksec.org/audio.mp3 (this is just an example, it will not work if you try to access this link).  Once there, you would either download the file or listen to it straight off the site.  This is important because if your file is not accessible through the web, no one except you can access it.  So where will you store your file?  Several options exist… For example, you may be able to store it on your organization’s server.  There are also several hosting services, like switchpod.com, that will host your files for you (usually for a fee).  You may also use a blog to store your files.  Blogs typically come with a predefined amount of storage space for videos, images, etc… that you want to share.  I use Edublogs.org and it gives me 100MB of storage for free.  This should be sufficient for several short audio files.  If you plan to produce large files (like video or long audio segments) you will want to upgrade your storage limit or only keep them up for a specified amount of time and remove them afterward to save space.
  3. Syndicate your files.  Syndicating your file simply means making it available for subscription.  I explained in fairly good detail why you want to be able to subscribe to your files in my podcasting and podcatcher options post mentioned earlier.  In short, a podcast is not a podcast if you can’t subscribe to it.  It would only be an audio file on a website.  Syndicating your files is the primary reason I recommend using a blog to run your podcasts through.  Since blogs are already syndicated, simply including a link to your file in a blog post should suffice.  If you are not using a blog, you will want to use a service such as RapidFeeds.com to create RSS feeds for your files so users can subscribe.  Other services, like feedburner also help with syndicating feeds, tracking your subscribers and more.
  4. Subscribe to your podcast.  Most information you need here is also available in the podcasting and podcatcher options post.  You need a podcatcher, such as iTunes, to subscribe to podcasts after they are syndicated.  Once you have your feed from step 3, simply go to Advanced – Subscribe to Podcast in iTunes and enter it in.  Then iTunes will automatically download your most up to date podcasts each time you open it.  If you use a blogging service, like Edublogs, this feed can be found by clicking the subscribe to posts button.  After clicking, copy the link from the new web page that is displayed and paste it into the subscribe to podcast box in iTunes.

Hopefully this post will be enough to get you started with podcasting.  If you are interesting in video podcasting, know that is very similar to audio podcasting excpet you will be recording video instead of audio in step 1.  I’ll go over some things to think about when recording video in a separate post.

Removing Shortcut Arrows

OK, so this post doesn’t really have much to do with educational technology, but it solves an annoying problem.  In Vista, if you have a shortcut icon on your desktop there is a huge arrow that attaches itself to the icon to show that it is a shortcut to another location.  One way to fix this is to edit your registry, but that’s never really recommended unless you are an experienced user and aware of all the risks.  Instead, download the free Vista Shortcut Overlay Remover by FXVisor.  You can download it from http://www.frameworkx.com/ or PC World.

After installing, simply open the program, choose no arrow and log off.  Once you log back on you’ll see that you no longer have a shortcut arrow on your icons.

Free Learning Styles Inventory

One of the first steps in creating a Universally Designed classroom is to complete a learning styles inventory with your students.  This gives you a better understanding of how your students learn best, which in turn should effect the way you deliver content.  My personal favorite free online learning styles inventory comes from Learning-Styles-Online.com.  Not only does it provide information on how you learn best, but if you are an educator it allows you to create an account so that after your students complete the survey it will build a classroom profile for you.  This is much easier than calculating and putting together a profile manually.  

Learning Styles Diagram