Daniel, a sophomore at BU, struggled last year with his reading assignments. He tackled them the first couple of weeks of class, but—because of his dyslexia and ADHD—everything took three times longer to complete than it took classmates. So he found himself tossing aside his books and relying heavily on lectures for information. But that meant he missed many of the finer details available in the texts that could have improved his scores on exams and papers. Audiobooks were useful, when available, but often arrived after class discussion had already taken place.
Then, in August, Daniel downloaded software recently made available by BU. Called Read&Write GOLD, it is designed to improve learning and comprehension. Daniel says the software’s highlighting and read-back tools have proven so helpful that he uses them to complete all of his reading assignments.
“This is probably a game changer for my college career,” says Daniel, who asked BU Today not to use his full name. “You have to manage your time and treasure those 15 minutes you have. It’s all about being efficient, and Read&Write GOLD makes your life more efficient.”
Boston University purchased Texthelp’s Read&Write GOLD this year and in July made it available as a free download to everyone with a login and Kerberos password. Those familiar with the software say all students, faculty, and staff could find its reading, writing, and studying tools helpful, but that it’s especially beneficial for people with learning disabilities.
“It’s not just a little piece of assistive technology in the corner,” in the Office of Disability Services, says assistant director Lorraine Norwich. “It’s something that everyone can use and can benefit from.”
Norwich looked for years for a way to give her students greater independence in their studies. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all universities to make print resources accessible, which the Office of Disability Services did by purchasing and scanning required reading for students and making it available in house. Yet it’s not always convenient for students to visit the office. Norwich wanted to find software that would allow students access to materials everywhere while using tools—like read-back features or MP3 converters—that would improve their overall comprehension.
In 2010, she approached Tracy Schroeder, vice president for information systems and technology, to brainstorm solutions. Instead of recommending software, Schroeder referred her to Pamela Andrews, an Information Services & Technology senior service delivery administrator. The two forged a formidable team: Norwich provided deep knowledge of students’ learning needs and familiarity with existing assistive learning software and Andrews recognized the importance of finding a universally compatible program that didn’t hog laptop or desktop memory space. Together, they searched for software programs, whittled their choices down to five, and ran a pilot study over summer 2011 to determine which one students preferred. Read&Write GOLD won out.
Norwich and Andrews still had to sell their recommendation to BU. They presented the software to various groups on both campuses, and IS&T and Mugar Memorial Library agreed to split the software’s $13,000 cost, making it available to all students, not just those registered with Disability Services.
Read&Write GOLD can be downloaded onto any PC or Mac from the IS&T website, and is also available through the College of Arts & Science Lab Room 330, 685 Commonwealth Avenue, IS&T training rooms, and Mugar’s research support desk. A web application is coming soon, Andrews says.
The software is unobtrusive, opening as another toolbar at the top of the screen, and packed with at least 30 tools and video tutorials to help users study, write papers, and read scanned documents, PDFs, websites, and graphics. One of the more notable features allows users to highlight sections within a document to be read back aloud at a speed, voice, pronunciation, and translation of their choosing. With other tools, users can copy and paste notes to a separate document for future study, check spelling, search for homonyms, or store facts in concept maps.
Gail March, director of instruction design and faculty development for the School of Medicine Office of Medical Education, says the software could help medical students and faculty who need to collate large amounts of research from various sources into one document. She also thinks the pronunciation feature could help foreign students. “For medical students who have English as a second language, they may experience challenges in communicating with patients and their families,” she says. “RWG provides the opportunity for these students to build their medical vocabulary and interpersonal communication skills needed to talk to and understand patients.”
Nia, a second year medical student, says she also struggled with reading assignments and often used features on her computer designed for the visually impaired. But for a student with dyslexia, they didn’t quite fit her needs. Using Read&Write GOLD has allowed her to convert text into audio files that she can now take everywhere.
“I can listen to the MP3 files at the gym or on the bus,” says Nia, who preferred BU Today not use her full name. “It’s also great to see the words highlighted to increase recognition and help make connections between how a word sounds and how it is spelled.”
Norwich and Andrews acknowledge that there are some drawbacks to the software. A computer must have the full Microsoft Office suite for the software to work (rarely an issue). There are size limitations for the conversion of text to MP3s. And pronunciation of certain medical and scientific terms can be strange, as Nia discovered. She says she continues to tinker with the pronunciation guide for certain words and likes the fact that her changes are saved for future documents.
Nia is sold on the software and pitches it to colleagues. “I’ve recommended it to people without learning disabilities just for the convenience of being able to do your reading on the go,” she says. “I really enjoy the software, and I’m glad that all BU students have access to it.”