Figure It Out: A Review of Virtual Pencil Arithmetic and Virtual Pencil Algebra from Henter Math
Your computer can now simulate a pencil and paper when doing math problems, thanks to Virtual Pencil software from Henter Math. The software creates a workspace that looks like a piece of paper. The computer cursor becomes a pencil, allowing you to solve problems, show the work, and put numbers in the correct columns.
The two Virtual Pencil programs were designed by Ted Henter, the founder of Henter-Joyce and the creator of JAWS. After Henter-Joyce merged with Blazie Engineering and Arkenstone to form Freedom Scientific, Henter started a new company called Henter Math. "Virtual Pencil gives students the ability to solve math problems independently, and it is the first software of its type," said Jim Watson, head of sales and marketing for Henter Math. "Virtual Pencil is a software application specifically designed for students who are blind, visually impaired, learning disabled, or motor-skill impaired."
Watson continued, "Ted is an engineer, and his oldest daughter would come home from school and ask him to help her with her homework. Ted, knowing a great deal of math, understood how to do the math and could come up with the answer, but he couldn't do it by himself to show his daughter. Hence, the idea of Virtual Pencil was born."
Virtual Pencil offers two math programs: VP Arithmetic and VP Algebra. VP Arithmetic covers such operations as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. VP Algebra allows you to solve both simple and complicated problems and equations.
Virtual Pencil Arithmetic works with JAWS; Window-Eyes; Connect OutLoud; and several SAPI speech engines, including the Microsoft text-to-speech engine, as well as with a refreshable braille display. JAWS scripts are included with the Virtual Pencil programs. The scripts were written for JAWS 7.0, but JAWS 5.0 and 6.0 work well and require just a simple adjustment. From within Virtual Pencil, hold down the Insert key and hit the F2 key. Then type in the letter "s" for Script Manager and hit enter. Then do Save and Compile. Virtual Pencil will talk you through this process.
Users with low vision can customize the screen with the built-in Windows color palette, which allows you to modify the font size, foreground and background colors, text color, and other parameters. ZoomText and MAGic can be used with this application. Switches and a mouse can be used by students who have difficulty with motor skills.
Virtual Pencil Algebra does not work with Window-Eyes or a refreshable braille display. It does work with JAWS and the Microsoft text-to-speech engine.
Teachers can choose how to present assignments: They can type the problem directly into a student's computer in Virtual Pencil, put the problems on a disk, or send the problems as an e-mail attachment. With the latter option, the student just opens the attachment, and it automatically loads into the application. The student can e-mail the completed assignment, copy it to a disk, or print it out using an ink printer. VP Arithmetic also supports a braille embosser, whereas VP Algebra currently works only with the embossers from ViewPlus Technologies that draw a raised-dot image of what is on the screen.
Both Virtual Pencil products work with any version of Windows, from 95 to XP. For this article, Windows XP was used. To install the software, simply place the CD into the CD-ROM drive. The software that was used for this article was a demonstration version, and both VP Arithmetic and VP Algebra were offered, as was Connect OutLoud. However, VP Arithmetic and VP Algebra are stand-alone programs and are purchased separately.
For this installation, VP Arithmetic was selected. Once the application is chosen, pressing the Tab key presents four more options: explore audio training sessions, review the "Read Me" file, install, and exit.
The software installation is simple to do, and verbal prompts are given throughout the process. Once the installation is complete, you are presented with three options: View the "Read Me" file, launch the application, or finish. Selecting Finish will take you out of Virtual Pencil. The program is also automatically installed on the desktop, which makes it easy to find.
Getting Started and Getting Help
The audio training sessions, which are located on the installation CD, provide extensive information about the application. The "VP Intro" audio training session provides a great deal of general information about the software. This tutorial contains a list of 11 separate files, including VP Overview, Using Help, Context Help, Menus, and Hot Keys. Although some of the information may seem overwhelming, the training sessions provide a foundation for using VP Arithmetic and VP Algebra.
Before you install either application, you may want to review the specific audio training sessions. The VP Arithmetic audio training sessions cover such topics as customizing various aspects of the program through the Options dialogue and performing operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and navigating the work area. VP Algebra's audio training sessions cover similar topics, plus others that are related specifically to algebra, including radicals, elements, and expressions. Both audio training sessions provide many sample problems and solutions.
Along with the audio part of the tutorial, there is a visual component that is shown on the screen at the same time. Although this component is of little use to someone who is blind, Watson thought it would be a good idea for families and teachers to see the visual component.
There are extensive on-board help topics for both applications. The help topics are displayed in "tree view" format. Both applications have the following topics: getting started, options/settings, student topics, teacher tasks and options, glossary, and technical support. Within their help section, both applications provide sample problems and step-by-step instruction on how to solve them.
Both programs offer many ways to customize the application. Standard Windows menus, such as File, Edit, View, Insert, and Actions, are present and are easy to navigate. When either program opens, there is an Assignment Properties page, where there are edit boxes for the student's name, teacher's name, and due date. Watson likens this page to where a sighted student would write the heading. There is also an Instructions edit box, which by default tells the student to solve the problem. The teacher can put in different and additional instructions if desired.
The screen in both programs is divided into two sections. The "problem tree" is on the left and displays the problems to be solved. On the right is the workspace, where the actual mathematical operations are carried out. Sample problems are presented or original problems can be added to the problem tree via the Insert menu.
Many parameters of the program can be changed through the Options dialogue in the View menu. The first tab in the Options dialogue is for customizing the workspace. Settings that can be changed include verbosity, sound effects, and appearance for students with low vision. The second tab in the Options dialogue is the Commands section. You can easily change any of the hot keys here.
The third tab in the Options dialogue is for message strings. By default, both programs use the technical names for standard mathematical terms for all operations and number positions. Since VP Arithmetic is designed for children from kindergarten to Grade 12, younger children may not know these terms. More age-appropriate terms can be used. For example, in an addition problem, the summation row could be called the answer row.
The final choice in the Options dialogue, Enable Command List, may be of some benefit to people with low vision. A list of commands is shown on the left side of the screen, and you can use the mouse to activate them. These same commands can be easily accessed through key strokes.
Virtual Pencil Arithmetic
When Virtual Pencil Arithmetic starts, Bugs Bunny's voice says, "And away we go." This voice, as well as other voices in the program, can be turned off. The voices give positive reinforcement, which may be helpful for young children. Through the Options dialogue in the View menu, the program can be customized to be more appropriate for students of different ages. A young child will need more information than an older child.
VP Arithmetic offers two modes of operation: Tutor Mode, in which each step of the math operation is spoken, or Test Mode, in which no help is given. The mode is set via a combo box on the Assignment Properties page. If a teacher uses this program with a student, the teacher can lock the assignment into Test Mode. Even if the teacher e-mails the assignment and it is locked for Test Mode, it will not change when the student opens the attachment.
I inserted the problem: 32 + 49. Then I tabbed around to set the mode to Test Mode. Then I tabbed to the Begin button. VP Arithmetic took me to the workspace.
My cursor landed on the 1s column in the summation row. By using the arrow keys, it is easy to navigate the columns in problems. At the top of the problem was the carry area for the 1s column. Under that were the two numbers of the 1s column, in this case 2 and 9. Under that was the summation place for the 1s column. The 10s, hundreds, thousands, and so forth work the same way. The left and right arrows move you through the columns in the same horizontal row. The up and down arrow keys move you through the numbers in each column.
For this problem, I typed a 1 in the summation column of the 1s and added a 1 to the 10s carry area at the top of the problem. Then I added the 10s columns, 1 + 2 + 4 and typed in 8. My answer was 81. Since I was in Test Mode, I was not given any prompts or help.
For a more complex problem, 265 + 454, I used Tutor Mode. This mode is accessed by the F1 key. When I hit F1, I was told to add 5 + 4. I then placed my answer, 9, in the 1s summation column and pressed F2, the key for advancing to the next step in Tutor Mode. I was then moved to the 10s column, and after I pressed F1, the tutor told me to add 6 + 5. I typed the 1 in the summation column and hit F2. Next I was moved to the carry area in the hundreds column, and after pressing F1, I was told to "carry a digit." I then pressed F2 to confirm that I got it right. When I pressed F1, the tutor told me to add 1, 2, and 4. I typed 7 in the hundreds column. Next, I checked my answer and was rewarded with a cartoon voice. If I had made a mistake at any point, I would have heard a sound when I moved to the next operation and been told that my current step was incorrect.
Another feature in Tutor Mode is called the "Extended Tutor." It gives even more detail about how to work out the current step of the problem. By default, the Extended Tutor will come up if a student makes three mistakes on the same operation, but this number can be changed. It is also possible to use a screen reader to go back and read each word that the Extended Tutor said, one word at a time.
I loaded a sample problem, 814 − 42, into the problem tree and chose Tutor Mode. When I got to the 10s column, I had to subtract 4 from 1. This meant that I had to borrow from the hundreds column by using the F5 key. VP told me it was borrowing and that it was changing the 8 to a 7. If I was in Test Mode, I would need to do this operation manually. Now I was able to subtract 4 from 11. My hundreds column was now 7, and my final answer was 772.
I chose the problem 24 x 543 from the sample problems list and selected Tutor Mode. I was first told to multiply 4 x 3. I put 2 in the 1s column and was moved to the carry area for the 10s column, where I typed in 1, which I had carried over. I was then moved to the first product row for the 10s column. The tutor told me to multiply 4 x 4 + 1. My answer was 17, so I put the 7 in the first product row of the 10s column. The tutor told me to carry a digit, so I put the 1 in the hundreds column. Next I was told to multiply 4 x 5 + 1. My answer was 21, so I put the 1 in the hundreds column and was told to carry a digit. I put the 2 in the thousands column.
Virtual pencil automatically inserted a 0 in the 1s column of the second product row and took me to the 10s column of the second product row. I was again given instructions for how to multiply and carry digits. After I completed the second product correctly, I was moved to the summation row of the 1s column. Then the tutor walked me through adding the rows, just as in an addition example. The final answer was 13,032, and I was verbally rewarded for my correct answer.
It was now time to get into long division and give up the tutor. I chose the example 879 divided by 36 from VP Arithmetic's sample list. There are columns in the workspace to show the various operations involved in doing a more complex example. VP Arithmetic also has a "Scratch Pad" option, which brought up a blank screen. If the example were done in Tutor Mode, the step of the example being done would be present. This new window takes the place of the workspace, so you must exit the Scratch Pad to get back to the workspace. Also, the information written on the Scratch Pad is not saved. In the quotient area, there are remainder columns. The answer was 24 with a remainder of 15.
Watson said, "VP Algebra looks more intimidating, but it is really not. If you follow the steps, it is actually straightforward, and it walks you through step by step. I've got kids in the sixth and seventh grades using Algebra, and once you get them oriented to doing algebra on a screen, using a screen reader, they pick it up, no problem."
VP Algebra does not include a tutor. Watson explained that even a simple algebra problem, such as 4X squared + 3 = 39 would involve doing several equations. A more advanced student might skip some of the preliminary steps, such as taking away 3 from both sides of the equation, therefore making the equation 4X squared = 36. Watson said, "We had to release VP Algebra without a tutor because the program would be 20 times as large as it is now if we actually had to put in a tutor that would look at every single line and look at every possible answer." There are detailed instructions about how to solve several types of algebra problems in the audio training session and in the help topics under Getting Started.
I admit right here that it has been about 35 years since I studied algebra. Since I use Window-Eyes, which does not work with VP Algebra, I used the Microsoft text-to-speech engine, which is easily enabled in the Options dialogue. The voice sounds like a bad version of ET, but it is usable. I tried some of the sample problems using step-by-step directions from the Help menu. They were extremely clear, and I was able to follow them to solve the problems.
Since algebra uses exponents and other vertical dimensions, JAWS and the Microsoft text-to-speech engine raise their pitch when told to enter an exponent or other vertical dimension. This is called "step in." Once the vertical dimension is entered, hitting the F3 key will exit from the position and bring the cursor back to the linear equation. This is called "step out."
Watson said that some schools are looking into using these programs for their general classrooms. He added that Henter Math had just entered into a grant project with the University of Wisconsin, ending in late 2007, in which children from all over the state will be using these programs, and their progress will be tracked.
The Bottom Line
VP Arithmetic and VP Algebra are easy to use after a little practice and offer many customization options. I recommend starting with simple problems to become familiar with the software.
Free demonstrations of both programs can be downloaded from Henter Math's web site <www.Hentermath.com>.
Virtual Pencil Arithmetic and Virtual Pencil Algebra.
Manufacturer: Henter Math, P.O. Box 40430, St. Petersburg, FL, 33743-0430; phone: 888-533-6284 or 727-347-1313; e-mail: <info@Henter Math.com>; web site: <www.Hentermath.com>.
Price: Virtual Pencil Arithmetic, $199; Virtual Pencil Algebra, $399. Henter Math does not charge for product updates.
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