Enhance your Knowledge with Online Sources

There are an abundance of online sources available today to enhance learning. You may want to start with the librarians at your university before looking further afield. They should be able to assist you with locating helpful online resources to enhance your knowledge of a particular topic. Additionally, a large number of universities and other organizations around the world offer podcasts of lectures and seminars. For example, you can access University of Oxford podcasts on iTunes or on the university’s parallel site. There, you can search for resources by university name or by subject area. Keep in mind that the content, as well as sight and sound quality, can vary greatly depending on the institution.

YouTube can also be a valuable site for learning. A few years ago I was grappling with statistics as part of my coursework and was introduced to the book Discovering Statistics using SPSS by Andy Field. I was pleasantly surprised to find YouTube videos of Andy Field teaching, as well as a number of other helpful videos on statistics. It is certainly worth checking YouTube for useful sources. However, keep in mind not all sources are credible.

If you’re looking for more structured university resources, then check out the open courseware (OCW) offerings at the University of Oxford Mathematical Institute, MIT, and Yale. You can download selected course content free of charge. You may also be interested in massive open online courses or (MOOCs). One popular MOOC provider in the UK is FutureLearn, a private company owned by the Open University. They partner with over 70 universities and offer a range of courses in various subject areas. In the U.S., two popular MOOC providers are Cousera, which started in 2012, and EdX, also started in 2012 and founded by Harvard and MIT. Both have a large number of university and organization partners around the world. The MOOCs are free. However, for a fee, you can receive a certificate for certain courses. Additionally, EdX has partnered with Arizona State University to create the Global Freshmen Academy which offers college credit for courses. While a MOOC cannot replace the full classroom learning experience, some do offer opportunities to participate in online discussions with peers. Also, many students find the audio and video aspects of MOOCs appealing and enjoy taking advantage of anytime anywhere learning.

The University of Oxford does not offer MOOCs. However, the Department of Continuing Education offers a number of fee-based online courses.  Additionally, the University of Oxford IT Services department has partnered with to provide members of the University with free online courses to develop IT skills. Also, see the University of Oxford IT Services site for free downloadable IT course materials available to everyone.

Mapping to Manage the Mind – Organise your Thoughts

If you are looking for an alternative to the linear method of taking notes and organizing your thoughts then consider using mind maps. A mind map is a visual diagram of thoughts and ideas. This visual tool can help with the organization and structure of ideas. The term “mind mapping” was coined by Tony Buzan, who talks about the importance of images to the way in which the brain works. Multisensory strategies can stimulate learning because they incorporate more than just the auditory system. Note taking using mind maps allows the user to create a visual representation of a lecture or reading by using nodes or branches that connect concepts and ideas. Also, the use of symbols and images and the ability to manipulate font shape, size and colors can be useful to all learners. They may be especially beneficial to those with dyslexia or anyone who experiences difficulties with concentration or processing information quickly. However, each learner is unique and it is important to experiment to determine what tools work best for you.

Mind maps are well suited for radiant thinking, another term coined by Tony Buzan and used to describe the various ideas that are connected to, and branch out or “radiate” from a main idea. For example, lets say that I am a university student taking notes on a lecture about ethnography, a particular research approach. I could create a mind map (see below) with the topic “ethnography” in the center. Radiating from that topic would be the main ideas from the lecture. I have used FreeMind in this example. It is a free, easy to use downloadable tool which allows the user to add, delete and connect nodes or small chunks of information.  It also provides the user with a variety of options for manipulating fonts and colors, as well as adding images. The maps can also be saved and added to other documents.

Image of mind map on Ethnography

If you have never used a mind map, it may take some time to learn how to use them effectively. You will also need to determine if they will be beneficial for you. You can create a mind map using blank paper and colored pens and pencils. Alternatively, there are a variety of online mind mapping tools available for use on your laptop, tablet or smart phone.  Some are free (or free for a limited period of time) and others are fee-based.

Mind mapping tools can be great for taking lecture notes and also for organizing and structuring your thoughts for essays and presentations. If you would like to learn about the features offered in a variety of mind mapping tools, visit Mashable. They provide a description of 24 popular tools.

The Benefits of Speech to Text Software

About a year ago I was having a conversation with a good friend about her doctoral dissertation. She was having challenges with the writing process. However, when I began to ask her questions about her research, she was able to talk it through clearly and at length. She knew her topic well and was very enthusiastic about it. I suggested that she take out her iPhone, record our conversation, and use it as a springboard to jump-start the writing process. She found this extremely helpful during the writing up phase of her doctoral journey, as our talking sessions were beneficial in helping to strengthen her arguments and clarify her ideas.

I am sure there are many other students who find it useful to verbalize their ideas before writing them down. Others who find writing challenging, in particular those with dyslexia, may prefer to dictate streams of thoughts or even entire essays. Speech to text software is invaluable for this process. In addition, text to speech, the converse of speech to text, can be used to play back the text that was dictated. The two together can aid in further thought and revision of work.

Most newer Macs and PCs are equipped with built-in speech to text tools which are easily enabled. To learn how to activate this on a Mac, see Apple Support. The accuracy is not perfect but pretty good for a built-in tool. To activate the tool in Windows, see Office Support.

Another really nice benefit of using speech to text tools is that you don’t have to be chained to a desk to work. As students, we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk and are often torn between remaining stationary and continuing to work or taking some time for much needed exercise. Exercise can help stimulate your thinking, so instead of neglecting it, go for a brisk walk and take your mobile phone. While you’re walking and taking some time to smell the flowers, you can dictate your thoughts and ideas as they come to you, using the dictation feature and the built-in notes app on your phone. On the iPhone, do make sure Siri is activated by going to “setting,” “general,” “Siri” and toggle to the right to enable the feature. Also, make sure that when you are ready to dictate, you have access to wifi or a 3G connection. Simply click on the microphone at the bottom left corner of the screen keyboard and start dictating. Your words will appear in the notes app and you can sync those notes with a Mac computer or email them to yourself.

I have used the built-in options on my iPhone and have been pleased with the results. However, you may want to check out the app store to learn about a variety of alternative dictation and notes apps. If you are a student with learning difficulties or other disabilities, do check with the Disability Office at your university as you may be eligible for the Student Disability Allowance (DSA) which may allow you to purchase more advanced tools based on your needs.

Understanding Visual Stress

Visual Stress, also referred to as Meares-Irlen syndrome, is a term used to describe multiple symptoms associated with visual perception problems. Symptoms may include eye strain, migraine headaches, light sensitivity, experiencing glare from a page, the perception that words or letters on a page are blurred or moving or that patterns are emanating from the text. Some people may also experience difficulty tracking words on a page. The range and severity of these symptoms vary between individuals. However, these symptoms affect reading ability and can be extremely problematic for students.

The British Dyslexia Association report that approximately 15-20% of the population are affected by visual stress and a significantly higher proportion, 35-40%, are dyslexic. There is a strong link between dyslexia and visual stress. One method used for treating the symptoms of visual stress is through the use of color. For example, individually prescribed tinted reading glasses may help. In addition to tinted glasses, text overlays and screen overlays are also available. Another option that may help is changing the background or font color of documents read on a computer or other digital device. All of these options help to reduce the glare from the white background on a page or computer screen. This reduction in glare may improve reading speed and accuracy for some individuals.

In addition to color variations, changing font style, font size and line spacing may also be helpful. San serif typeface is often easier to read than serif and increasing the font size and line spacing reduces the amount of text the eyes need to focus on at one time. Lexia Readable, Open-Dyslexic and Dyslexie are free fonts designed for dyslexic readers. Have a look at them to determine if they will be useful for you. Each individual has their own specific needs and you should experiment to determine the tools and adjustments that work best for you.

It is hoped that the information above will be helpful if you or someone you know is experiencing visual stress or related issues. However, be sure to see your optometrist to rule out any ophthalmic conditions that may be affecting your vision. If you are a student and have questions or need assistance with matters associated with dyslexia, contact your university disability office. You can also visit the British Dyslexia Association for a wealth of resources on visual stress and specific learning difficulties.

The Benefits of Text to Speech Software

Text to speech software enables you to hear text on the screen read aloud. It can be an extremely useful tool for all students, particularly those with learning difficulties. For example, you can use text to speech tools to help improve your writing. Just activate the function on your Mac or PC to listen to the text you have written. Hearing your words may help you detect and correct mistakes. It can also help with concentration and understanding, as you have typed your thoughts but hearing them read back to you may help trigger new ideas to enhance your writing. In addition to helping with the writing process, text to speech tools may also increase your understanding and retention. For example, if you are following the text (an article or book) visually as it is being read aloud, you are taking advantage of both visual and auditory senses and the two combined may enhance understanding.

Built-in text to speech tools are available on Macs as well as PCs, although the capabilities of each will vary. If you are using a Mac, visit Apple Support for instructions. If you are using a PC, see Office Support. As a Mac user, I have been able to listen to text in Microsoft Word as well as text on web pages and PDF files downloaded and opened in iBooks and Preview. Additionally, the Adobe Read Out Loud tool allows you to listen to PDFs in Adobe Reader. For easy instructions on how to set this up, see pages 3 to 6 of Accessing PDF Documents with Assistive Technology. While listening, you can always pause the voice and add digital sticky notes in the margins and highlight text within iBooks, Preview and PDFs in Adobe Reader. This will be helpful if you plan to summarize the text or incorporate it along with your ideas into another writing assignment.

Text to speech functionality is also a great feature to use with the iPad and iPhone. Listening to documents on a mobile device is a perfect way for busy students to take advantage of time spent traveling on trains or busses or even just waiting in a queue. Again, it is easy to set up. Just choose “Settings > General > Accessibility > Speech” and select “Speak Selection” if you want to select particular texts to be read back to you. This works well with web pages, text messages, and emails. However, selecting the text takes some practice, as it can be a bit tricky. When you press a particular word on the screen with your finger or a stylus, a magnifier appears and the word you selected is highlighted with a selector on each side. Drag the selector across any additional words or paragraphs you would like to have read aloud, then press the speak button above the highlighted text.

Menu showing copy / speak from iPhone accessibility menu

I would recommend using a third party app for utilizing text to speech on your iPhone or iPad. I have used Voice Dream Reader with good results but there are a number of free and fee-based apps available through the app store and you will want to experiment until you find one that is right for you. If you have learning difficulties or other disabilities, do check with the Disability Office at your university, as you may be eligible for tools which are covered by the Student Disability Allowance (DSA).