Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Week 5.5-6: 9/07/06 - 9/15/06

I'm back in Bangalore and things have really picked up. I can't believe its my last week already. Lots has happened.

[ New Breakthrough! ]
While I was away, the teachers switched out the three students from each group that were already on the tutor with those that weren't. I returned to a major success. Mangala*, a third standard student, has been taking Braille class for the past four years or so (I think she's been held back). According to Muktha and the teachers, in those four years she has never written a single word of Braille. After one week on the tutor, Mangala started writing Braille.

* Not the student's real name.

It seems that Mangala half-understood the concept of Braille. Apparently, whe knew there were six dots and that (1=a)(1,2=b), etc. but when told to write the alphabet on paper, she would write every letter in the same cell. The result: at the end of 10 minutes, every single dot in just one cell was punched out; the other cells were empty (this is what I saw when I tested her when I arrived). To the teachers, this meant Mangala did not know Braille at all.

However, the Braille Tutor allowed the teachers to "see" what Mangala was doing. Because the tutor does allow you to write the same cell in every letter (if you want) and speaks those letters, the blind teachers could hear her write "a b c d ... "! She was still writing in the same cell, but now we had insight into why she apparently couldn't write on a regular paper. In this case, the tutor acted as a diagnostic tool which demonstrated her problem to the teachers; now they can focus on teaching her how to switch cells!

You might wonder: couldn't somebody have caught this problem just by watching her? This is one of the challenges blind teachers face: they cannot see what the student is doing and have to assess what is happening from the end result (the paper).

A student writes with the tutor.

[ Visitors ]
I was visited at Mathru by Shiv and Ashish, two engineers working in local companies. Shiv is working on a device to help autisic children communicate with others. Its a really interesting project that he's working in independently in his spare time. Also, he gave me some great suggestions about the reducing the cost of the tutor and insight into how much it might cost to manufacture in india (maybe only $20!).

Left to right: Shiv, me, and Ashish

Shiv's device to help the autistic communicate.

[ Presentations ]

I gave a presentation of the Braille Tutor at Microsoft Research here in Bangalore. I was very excited to be there and share my ideas -- the response was very positive and I believe there is scope and interest for future collaboration. Hopefully I'll submit and then have accepted a paper into their IJCAI workshop on ICT for Development.

I visit Kentaro at MSR.

[ Press Club ]
I gave a press conference at the Bangalore Press Club to about 20-25 reporters and journalists from both local and national media. The conference was all about the collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and Mathru to use innovative technology (i.e. the Braille Tutor) to improve literacy among the blind. I'm very excited about that and am looking forward to seeing the articles. I'll post the news organization/date/pages etc. as I become aware of them. Also, I gave a live demonstration but I forgot my Braille half way through! I eek-ed by.

I talk to a group of reporters and journalists.

The entrance to the press club.

[ So Long, Farewell... ]
And, of course, I'm leaving tomorrow. Although I miss Pittsburgh , I am very sad to leave Mathru. The experience has been one of a kind. I have learned so much from the teachers and teh students, about blindness, about charity work in India, about technology, about teaching, and much more. I hope to come back in about a year and a half with a better Braille Tutor. But until then, the collaboration will continue.

Here's some photos of my last couple of days...

Manoj and I have a picnic on his roof
after returning from the Microsoft visit.

Manoj takes me around on his motorbike.
Who's that in the mirror?