Exclusive Interview with Suzanne Feit, Cambium Learning
The name “Kurzweil 3000” sounds like it belongs to a spaceship. In many ways, it does. Instead of blasting into outer space, this computer learning software helps struggling readers “listen” to the written page. A paid subscriber must log onto the system in their computer and upload a text-heavy document. This text, which can be in the form of scanned class notes, chapters from physical books or even PDF pages from a website, will be read aloud. Much like an audio dashboard, the user selects a prerecorded female or male voice from a dropdown menu and can then play, stop, pause, fast forward and rewind those words at their own pace, right on their computer. As each word is read aloud, it is highlighted in a format that resembles a karaoke sing-along—with words underlined as they are spoken. One may select entire paragraphs to be read at once, or merely a few sentences. This software can be empowering to those with learning or physical disabilities or even those who just find it hard to read on their own.
It’s no wonder that the program seems to combine science, technology and learning, it was named after Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, an innovator who developed the first print-to-speech machine for the blind and the first text-to-speech synthesizer. Dr. Kurzweil, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also developed the first music synthesizer, which is capable of recreating the grand piano, as well as the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. Dr. Kurzweil currently works as a director of engineering at Google. The Kurzweil 3000, the second software produced by the Kurzweil Educational Systems, was founded in 1996. If a student has access to Kurzweil 3000 at their school, they are able to login via the website or free iPad app without needing an additional license at home. . That app, aptly named Firefly, helps light the way to literacy for those students. The software is available for purchase in private homes, as well.
Suzanne Feit, who trains teachers and educators to use Kurzweil 3000, answered some of our questions in this exclusive interview. With nearly two decades of extensive experience in the field of special education, Feit is confident that the software is much more effective than using just a pencil as an educational tool.
Jasmine Bager (JB): What is the story behind Kurzweil 3000?
Suzanne Feit (SF): Ray Kurzweil started with the first optical character recognition, a way of taking text and putting it into the computer so people who can’t turn pages in a book can access it. He came up with the idea on a plane when a blind person sat next to him, so they added a tool to help people for the blind and visually impaired. Some students aren’t blind, but they have problems with the text. Some students need to see the text but they also need to hear it. The evolution of the software and tools is driven by need.
JB: Why should a teacher or student consider using Kurzweil 3000?
SF: It’s really interesting how people learn so differently. Some of the right-brain engineering people at MIT, are brilliant people who may not be able to write as elegantly, so they use tools like vocabulary support to make you a more effective writer. It is also for people who can’t spell or those with hidden disabilities, who end up in college and can’t process the textbooks. When you raise a child with disabilities, sometimes they become almost puppets. Teachers say that they can read their students’ minds, and then something magical happens; the student communicates that “My body doesn’t work but my mind is there. Help me.” Like Stephen Hawking, [acclaimed physicist who is well-known for his science and his physical disabilities] we don’t know what’s going on in their head. Physically, their bodies don’t function as well as they want and we can try to find that switch where the students can read their work and practice their independence. People like Stephen Hawking; they had the right intervention and the right support.
JB: Is the software strictly limited to academia? Can teens use it to access social media or use it for online banking?
SF: You can use it for anything. You can use Google Translate and convert any text to a foreign language, but with the reading out loud [service], we only handle a few of the Latin languages. Some states use it to read SAT tests out loud to students and you can use it for social media like Facebook. A lot of times the publishers will make a PDF version of a book. On our website, there are 1,800 books from the Gutenberg library [classics available free in ebook format].
JB: What is the future of education?
SF: We are stuck in an educational system that hasn’t changed, but now there is a big push in education to get deeper, to ask students, “What does that mean?” or “Let me use my own words,” which is a different way of learning. For teachers, the world of education has changed. With interactive whiteboard, teachers now use the tool to teach the tool. We are promoting the opportunity to feel the technology for the kids today.
JB: How can teachers engage students who use Kurzweil 3000 with the rest of the class?
SF: Teachers can use iPads, they say, “Let’s give everybody an iPad and everybody has access [to Kurzweil 3000] and that way nobody feels isolated.” There are examples of students who felt like failures in high school but they used the software and graduated. Given the right tools and resources, it is so much more effective and helpful. As a teacher, the most important rule is helping people learn how to learn and use resources, and looking for that magic thing that helps them say they are independent.
JB: How do you measure success?
SF: When there’s a sparkle in the student’s eyes. With the right resources, the right teachers, the right intervention, you never know how much the person is capable of.#
For more information, visit: www.kurzweiledu.com