Heather heralds a whole new world

15th August 2008 at 01:00
A normal voice in a recognisable Scottish accent makes all the difference to digital resources for pupils to access the curriculum. Neil Munro finds out more

With the excitement of the exam season over, candidates in the future will be able to take advantage of another "first" in Scottish education - a new computer "voice" which is being made available free to schools and pupils.

It follows the development of digital papers for exam candidates with visual impairment or dyslexia, who would otherwise have to rely on readers or scribes (TESS May 9).

Like the new voice, known as "Heather", this is a product of the groundbreaking work undertaken by the Communication Access Literacy and Learning (CALL) centre at Moray House School of Education.

When he introduced Heather to the nation in parliament in early May, Adam Ingram, the Minister for Children and the Early Years, could not resist pointing out that the SNP Government had funded the CALL centre project enabling pupils to listen to digital curriculum materials "spoken out in a Scottish voice".

Paul Nisbet, senior research fellow at CALL, said: "We are delighted that Heather will now be available free for all pupils in Scotland. Most Windows and Apple computers already have one or two computer voices installed on them, but the voices are quite robotic and usually have an American accent.

"Better computer voices are supplied with some commercial text-to-speech programs, but they usually have very English accents and, of course, schools and parents have to pay for them.

"The new Scottish voice sounds great and is free. It means that pupils can listen to, for example, Scottish digital exams being read out in a Scottish voice. As far as we know, the Scottish Qualifi-cations Authority is the first exam board to offer digital exams for pupils with additional support needs and, with the launch of Heather, I believe we have another `first'."

Schools and education support services in Scotland can download the voice free from CALL Scotland's site and install it on all computers in a school. Pupils can also install the voice on laptops or desktop computers at home. Those who don't have internet access can ask for the voice on CD.

Once installed on the computer, pupils can use Heather with most "text-to- speech" programs to read a whole range of different materials. In addition to the digital exam papers, pupils can access materials such as workbooks or worksheets in Microsoft Word, because Heather is said to work well with the free WordTalk text reader. The voice can also be used to read eBooks.

According to David Fletcher, ICT development officer in additional support needs, the invention is "excellent". The fact that programs such as Clicker 5 can now give pupils audio feedback "in a pleasant Scottish accent" was extremely valuable.

He said support for learning teachers had been "very complimentary" about the quality of the voice and were very keen to use it with pupils.

At present, Heather is available for Windows PCs only; a Mac version is planned for August.

Mr Nisbet stressed that "Heather isn't just for reading in exams. There are thousands of pupils in Scotland who have difficulty reading books, textbooks and other materials in school and, by converting these materials into digital format, pupils can read the books themselves without having to rely on another pupil or a member of staff to read to them".

He said that, by installing Heather with suitable text-to-speech software like WordTalk on school computers, local authorities could not only help pupils read curriculum materials more independently, but they would also be complying with the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act to help pupils access the curriculum.

Heather is even proving useful to those without any impairment - for proof-reading reports, documents and emails, for example. It is also possible to convert text into audio MP3 files for listening to on an iPod.

"I must admit that even Heather doesn't quite match up to listening to Stephen Fry reading a Harry Potter book," Mr Nisbet said, "but it can be quite useful for listening to electronic documents."

The call has now gone out to create a male companion for Heather. CereProc, the leading Edinburgh company specialising in text-to-speech technology which developed Heather, says it could easily make a male voice, but it needs funding and a good "voice actor" to provide the recordings from which it will make the voice.

Contrary to popular rumour, the female voice is not "Heather the weather". Paul Welham, chief executive officer of CereProc, revealed that she is a young Scot based in Glasgow "who, at this stage in her career, wishes to remain totally anonymous, thereby adding to the mystic which surrounds her".



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