Reviewed by Karen Van Duyn
High School English & Drama (IN)
Teacher Leaders Network
What does a teacher do when she starts to feel like an “old” teacher? Why, she finds something new to learn! Lately my lessons have mostly been in the area of technology, as that seems to be an area of constant development and change. In the past couple years, I’ve become dependent upon my LCD projector, gone wireless at home (with some tech support), and scratched the surface of Moodle and online learning (great potential and lots of upfront prep time). Very recently I started my relationship with a Smart Notebook and its many wonders. While I’m adept with most of these devices and do so enjoy using them, I have come to the realization that I truly prefer to be a USER rather than a TECHNICIAN.
Coinciding with this revelation came the opportunity to review a new software program. Of course I couldn’t resist seeing what I could or couldn’t do with it. Dragon Naturally Speaking is voice-recognition software, and I’ll admit, I approached it with some trepidation. I had used other such programs in the past that required hours of “practice” with my speech patterns in order to be able to give dictation and came away with less than satisfactory results. Naturally Speaking, however, produced great results with a minimum of set up and training time.
I’m still learning all the available commands, but the basics can be picked up very quickly. Admittedly, some of the commands are quite techy – like “Listen to me” and “Stop listening.” I know, I know, pretty difficult. The real bonus is that this software does not require its own special word processing software, but works with Microsoft Office products and other such commonly used programs. It can be used not only to dictate text or data, but it also allows the user to navigate the software itself. This requires the use of other high-tech commands such as “File,” “Open,” “Save,” and “Close.”
Kidding aside, I can perform almost any task with the microphone that I can with a mouse, and the dictation is amazingly accurate. My students even asked me to challenge the software with that old favorite, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Naturally Speaking won that challenge.
While I found this dictation software to be the best I’ve ever used, there were a couple drawbacks. The microphone that comes with the product is hardwired to the computer and is sensitive enough to provide excellent transcripts; however, both these features also cause some problems. Extraneous sounds will cause errors in translation (so don’t be working with the TV on or while herds of students are tromping down the halls), and being tethered to the computer by a 4-foot cord limits possible uses. What I couldn’t do with a wireless version of this microphone!
I have had brief love affairs with a great many technological products, especially while the representative is presenting all their features and their ease of use. Often the honeymoon has been over quickly. Either the demands of my classroom prevented further experimentation or the lack of “up-front” time kept me from getting the product to work as well as in the demonstration. This has brought me to my two ultimate litmus tests for technology: Can a USER rather than a TECHNICIAN operate it easily? and How quickly can it be available for educational purposes in my classroom? In other words, would it make my life easier enough to use it?
Skepticism nurtured by experience caused me to take what seemed like an inordinate amount of time experimenting with Naturally Speaking before finalizing my evaluation. In that time, however, I discovered real educational uses that help and excite me as well as my students.
Capturing instructions and teaching note-taking
I type rather quickly so simple dictation features don’t really appeal to me. However, when that dictation is made while I’m actually addressing a class with important information about requirements for an upcoming paper – and I’m able to create an exact transcript of what that class was told, saved to a Word document—then I do get a little excited! Without having to exit from the program or use other peripherals, I can upload the transcript to the class web page for later reference by students. And when one of them says, “You didn’t tell us that,” we have a routine way to check the accuracy of their claim. If, right before the due date, there is a need to recheck the criteria to be met, it’s available to everyone. All this without any extra bit of time to create!
And how about this: the dictation utility can be used to teach note-taking skills. Imagine I’m introducing new information and I expect students to take notes. Using the LCD projector, I can have the Naturally Speaking software capture my words as I present the lesson. I can even organize what’s captured, using bullets or tabs, in real time. I’m modeling note-taking skills to the students without any extra preparation. (Warning: today’s cellphone-obsessed students love to watch text appear and could be distracted watching the technology.)
As students improve on their note-taking, lessons can be dictated without the projector (see warning above) and students can later check their work against the transcribed notes posted on the webpage. Those posted notes can be especially helpful with inclusion students. They can use the real-time visual of what is being said and/or benefit because their learning center teachers now have ready access to the lecture and can enhance their tutoring. A wireless microphone would allow me to move around the classroom and check their notes as I present them.Mixed student reviews on paper-grading
With recent cuts in staff, my paper load as an English teacher has greatly increased—along with the number of students in each class and the number who need extra help. Finding time for conferencing with students on their papers is much more difficult. With Naturally Speaking, I worked on making verbal comments on a student’s paper as I read through it, as if they were sitting with me. Those comments were then saved as a Word document and sent to their student folder on our network for their retrieval at any time. This process isn’t as comfortable as I originally thought it might be because tone of voice isn’t always obvious in the transcribed text—especially when text is the product of an impromptu, stream-of-consciousness type of assessment. The students have given this strategy mixed reviews. They felt the comments are sometimes clearer and more thorough than the paragraphs describing the strengths and needs of their paper that I write on each title page, yet not as effective as one-on-one, face to face discussions.
Overall, this USER is pretty impressed with Dragon Naturally Speaking. It has multiple uses, including replacing keyboards and mice for those who are dexterity-challenged. I have two senior boys who already have this software on their graduation wish list so they won’t have to type their college papers (Mom won’t be there to help).
You might discover other uses for Naturally Speaking that fit your particular teaching needs or style, but the bottom line for me is that it can both enhance my educational strategies easily and keep this “old teacher” learning new things. Now, if I could only find the proper wireless microphone, I could try to...
Karen Van Duyn, a 34-year veteran, teaches English/LA and drama at a rural high school in Indiana, where she also sponsors the Student Council and the National Honor Society. The awards and honors she has received for her teaching are always overshadowed by the experience of seeing the “AHA” in the eyes of her students.
[NOTE: Karen tested Dragon Naturally Speaking (Standard edition) for the PC. The company has recently acquired MacSpeech for Macintosh OS X, but we haven't tested that one. Karen received a review copy of DNS at no cost but was free to judge it completely on its merits.]