Let's say you need to know what a rhombus is. Or how many people died of AIDS in 1998. Or what the acronym AIDS stands for, or NTSB, or CDC. Or how many people live in Laos. Not so many years ago you'd be scrambling to the library or thumbing through dictionaries, encyclopedias, or other books, running your finger down indexes, flipping through tables of contents, assuming you knew what books to look in, and that the information was available in a book.
First Encounters - Voice Technologies
As a veteran of the text user interface days, there were times when I encountered computers and voice in a way that startled me into realizing the world had changed.
In 1996, I downloaded a free program called "Read-to-Me" (now known as HELP Read) on my home computer. It was a voice engine that went word by word (or sentence by sentence - your choice) down a Web page, or any text document, highlighting each word and reading it out loud. You could pick from several voices, speed it up or slow it down, skip around the page, teach it to pronounce tough words.
My son was thirteen at the time and a "reluctant reader." I pulled up a Web site with "Transformer" stories on it, turned on HELP Read, and let it rip. One by one the words of the story on the screen were highlighted as the speech engine read its way across the first sentence. In an instant, my son realized what was going on. He shoved me (gently!) out of the way and slid into the chair in front of the screen. For four hours we could hear story after story being patiently read aloud by the computer. When he finally tore himself away, he said, "Mom, that's the first time I could read by myself."
More recently, this past January when, after about 10 minutes of "training" my new computer with a microphone (or was it training me?), I opened up a new document, clicked the microphone icon, and saw tiny blue dots begin to stream across the empty page as I spoke. The blue dots turned into neatly typed words - the words I had just spoken into the mic. I switched modes and said, "File, Save." Et voila! Finally, somebody listens to me!
Now you can easily find the answers to these and all sorts of other questions on the Internet. Speech technologies are beginning to enable people with visual and other disabilities to use this amazing technology. Developing technologies can be delightful to play around with, and as they become more and more ubiquitous they have great potential to augment both the creative habits of individuals and the best practices of instructors. If you don't need a pencil and paper, or a dictation machine and a transcriber, or a keyboard, to get your thoughts down for posterity, or even just for yourself, then the written word is really not so different from the spoken word. How will this change our writing? How will this change our books? How many more people will become writers? The words still need to be edited, just like they always have been. But the tiny message at the top of the screen says "listening" and it's writing it all down as fast as it can.
Never has it been so easy to see, hear, and share so much. You don't need a publisher or even a print shop to make your writing, pictures, designs, or songs available to the world. You still can't make people to pay attention to your work, but you can put it out there for all to see.
Google has indexed over two billion Web pages. A few years (or months?) from now we'll be laughing at that number. Computer chips become smaller and memory becomes cheaper. With the coming of human/computer voice interaction, the human will need only a telephone to access certain Web-based services.
Text on the Web has invaluable features:
It's not just that we must avoid putting up barriers to people who don't see or hear or think or work the way we do. As educators, we must especially be aware of the possibilities of this new medium and channel them to enhance our efforts.
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