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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Read Aloud: Text to Speech Extension

Recently, a teacher asked for a recommended text to speech tool for Chromebooks.  Of course, a Chromebook means it has to be a Chrome extension and can't be a program to install.  While there are many to be found, most text to speech extensions fall into one of two categories.  The first: they are very useful but cost for their full capability (a popular example is Read & Write for Chrome).  The second: they are free but offer limited usability and/or functionality.

I hadn't looked in a while, so I was glad to take a peek at the Chrome Store to see what was available now.   After playing with several and reading Chrome Store reviews, I found one that I can easily recommend: Read Aloud.  It is free with no hidden charges.

Note the bullhorn extension icon for Read Aloud in the upper right.

While some text to speech (TTS) tools may excel in an area or two, Read Aloud ranks highly across multiple aspects:
  • It is easy to use!
  • It grabs text from the website, simplifies the font/formatting, and puts it in an easy to read “box”; it then highlights text as it reads (although in settings, you can turn highlighting off).
  • Multiple male and female voices are available in a fairly normal “American” accent.  These are included at no charge.  (Many TTS tools have only one voice with an English affect, or additional voices cost additional money.)
  • It works on Google Docs.  (Many do not!)
  • You can adjust speed and pitch.  (Many only have this option for a premium/paid version.)
  • It is one of the few TTS tools that can read a PDF that is opened inside a tab of your Chrome browser. 
  • It is important to note that while typical websites should be fine, Read Aloud will NOT work inside a learning management system (LMS) such as Schoology or Edmodo.  However, this is true of nearly all TTS extensions (such as Read & Write), paid or free.

You can get to the settings (gear icon) by hitting the bullhorn icon, then hitting stop to end reading the text aloud. Here you can change the voice with dropdown choices, use the sliding bars to adjust speed and pitch, and turn text highlighting on or off.  You can also test what this sounds and looks like without using an actual website page.

Do you recommend a different text to speech Chrome extension that is free?  Share in the Comments below.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Student Journals, Personalized Learning Plans and More: The Power of HyperDocs

Happy New Year 2019!

Are you needing students to make a journal, as well as see and possibly comment on each other’s blog?  Finding a tool with easy visibility and simple user interface inside of some kind of protected space can be difficult to find, in addition to doing all of it for free.  (While Blogger is an excellent free Google tool -- obviously I'm a fan! -- I know it is blocked by some districts due to monitoring and privacy concerns, or considered to be too complicated for their younger students.)
One way to have safe, free, and easy blogging, especially with younger students, would be to utilize and organize Google Docs in some kind of “HyperDoc” stylized fashion.*  How much you do, versus how much the students do, will determine the amount of heartache and labor involved to set it up.   The steps below assume a higher capability/age of student, perhaps upper elementary or older (which will make the least amount of work on you); adjust and scaffold the work flow for K-2 students as needed.
  1.  Create a Google Doc that serves as a journaling “template.”  Be sure to make a space/field at top for them to type their name and a way to date each of their entries. Make it a sharable URL as "view only."  Copy the URL.
  2. Do the “force copy trick” with the URL so that, when the URL is clicked, it forces the user to copy to their own Drive.
  3. Provide this “force copy URL” inside of your learning management system (LMS). As students click the link and save the copy to their Drive, make sure they change the words “Copy of” inside the title of the Doc to “First and Last Name” (for example, “Copy of Journal Log” becomes “ADAM WATSON Journal Log”).
  4. Have each student open the sharing link on their new Doc.  Make sure the permission is “[District Domain] Users Only, view and comment.”  The student should copy this URL.
  5. Create a simple Google Form for students to submit responses; again, link the URL in a LMS.  Ask for their names, but make sure the Form automatically collects their email addresses.   The students should paste their journal’s sharable URL as an answer to one of the Form’s questions.  (Note: organizationally you may want to create a different Form for each class; the reasons why will become obvious in the next steps.)
  6. Within the responses tab of your Form, make sure you create a Sheet to go with the Form’s responses.  You now have ONE spreadsheet that has links to ALL of the journals of the students.   Now, make the Sheet “view only” and provide that link inside a LMS for your students to access.
  7. By clicking on the Sheet’s URL, you now have an easy way for students to access each other’s Journals and read them (without the students, or you, creating hundreds of sharing permissions).   Additionally, if they Comment, they will be identified (no anonymous comments allowed) and some privacy is maintained as students have it restricted to visibility only within your domain's users.   By having “view and comment” instead of edit rights will also prevent students from intentionally or unintentionally writing over each other or even nuking each other's journal with deletions.   Of course, multiple Sheets also make it easier for you to look at the various journals class by class.  Bonus #1:  collecting the journal URLs in this way avoids receiving all of those inbox-cluttering sharing email notifications.  Bonus #2: the Form and Sheet  automatically organizes the journal links without you spending time creating multiple Google Folders and organizing all of the student journal Docs inside them.
  8. One last step/tip: if students are to respond to each other's journals, make sure students understand not only what a valuable “uptake” Comment is (beyond “that is great!”), but also make the expectations clear.  Should they Comment on someone else’s journal twice a week?  Two different journals, or two Comments on the same journal ok?  Should they eventually Comment on all student journals at least once? Do they need to reply to the Comments made by other students?  Will they be assessed qualitatively (do you have a rubric?), quantitatively, or both?

Note that using this same workflow could be applied in other ways you want students to make a copy of a template, share it with you to review, and possibly have others give feedback.  One example could be a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) that students initiate, periodically reflect and edit, and share with you (and their advisors).  And speaking of personalized learning, if you want to really create an intricate, HyperDoc work flow that could track mastery per standard and per student as well as link to archival evidence, I recommend taking a look at my “SCANMoST” directions.   While SCANMoST was originally created to optimize the 2017 integration of Google Drive into Schoology, it could easily be adapted for Google Classroom or any LMS by utilizing the same “force copy”/template work flow. 

* "Stylized" is an important qualifier here.  I should definitely point out that HyperDocs are a larger construction than merely a heavily hyperlinked online document; as this article by Jennifer Gonzalez defines very well, a HyperDoc is a "digital document . . . where all components of a learning cycle have been pulled together into one central hub."  The potential impact on pedagogy and personalized learning go way beyond just providing a helpful organization structure for a teacher.  Nevertheless, the further you read into my entry, the closer you get to the student-centered "hubs" that would meet Gonzalez's definition of a HyperDoc.