Friday, August 18, 2006

Week 2: 8/12/06-8/18/06

We made a lot of progress this week in incorporating the Braille Tutor into the students' regular curriculum. Firstly, I got the tutor to work on the school's laptops with relative ease. Its a simple two step process: copy the Braille Tutor executables and wav files and install Cepstral's Callie voice for text to speech synthesis. I was very excited to get it working so quickly. We also have all three tutors working in three dedicated stations.

The Braille StationThe Braille Tutor Station

I held a session last Friday evening with the teachers to ensure they could run the tutor by themselves. This meant more exercises with the tutor to familiarize them with the interface (e.g. the button functions). I also showed Vanaja the computer instructor (who has very low vision) how to hook up the power supply, serial cable, and stylus to the E-Slate. We didn't wrap up the session until almost 11 pm.

[Trip out of town]
My aunt came to visit me on Saturday and I spent the next three days with her and two of her friends traveling around Bangalore. We spent two days at Sringeri, a large Hindu temple complex with 1000 year old history. One of her friends spends a lot of time there and knows the students/priests at the temple; she gave us a VIP-only look at the research center. Much work is going on to preserve centuries old texts on paper and palm leaves (average age, 400 years). Turns out, the Sringeri research center is part of the Digital Texts project that CMU's Raj Reddy started! They have a very impressive high-res scanner and will begin scanning and translation work soon. On our way back from Sringeri, we also stopped at Belur and Halibedu, two ancient temples with very intricate sculptures and carvings.

Halebidu's TempleThe temple at Halebidu.

The cow statue at HalebiduA statue of a cow at Halebidu.

[Worrisome developments]
When I returned to Mathru, I was pleased to find that the teachers had practiced using the tutor and also introduced it to more of the students. Wednesday was a long day. I set up the tutor on a second laptop and we created the Braille Tutor stations. We started out having all of the second and third grades students give it a try. The first hour was surprising and worrisome. Many of third grade children are very proficient at Braille using a regular slate and stylus but they were writing very slowly with the E-Slate. I was concerned that there is some fundamental flaw with the tutor system. I tried to have a dialogue with the students individually to see what was going on but there were additional challenges there.

Firstly, there is an incredible language barrier that I hadn't anticipated. The younger students can read English but their grasp of conversational English is limited. Moreover, my american accent is impossible for them to understand so really there's no conversation between us. Second, the students are very eager to please. They don't want to suggest that they don't like the tutor so they hesitate to say anything remotely negative and it becomes a real challenge to get their honest opinion. Third, they are not often asked their opinion about things and usually try to figure out the right, factual answer to things (which is useful in math but a problem for me).

So, I had to carefully explain to the teachers so that they could in turn explain to the students that I would like their honest, thought-out answer and there is no right and wrong answer, that I won't be angry, and that "yes miss" is not an acceptable answer to a "why" question. So, back to the original issue of why they were slow. It turns out that they were *afraid* of the tutor! I would never have guessed this! They were concerned that they would get an electric shock if they touched the wires on the slate so they were handling it very gingerly. Additionally, they were afraid they would break the tutor if the used it as they use a regular slate. So, i first made it clear to them that the slate could not hurt them. I took the slate in my hand and put their hand on the back of mine. Then I pressed the stylus to my face and on my neck and forehead and showed them that there was nothing to be afraid of. I also made it clear that they could not break the stylus. At most, the cells might pop off but I would glue them back on. So, after a solid hour of discussion about the threat the E-Slate posed to them and vice versa, we were on a roll and the kids really started enjoying themselves.

[The quantitative study]
With this success, we decided it was time to start the quantitative portion of the pilot study. We have the 2nd and 3rd graders two simple test of proficiency. The first was to see how well they could punch all six dots in the cells in one minute (this allows us to test students who don't know the alphabet yet). And then the more proficient students also took an alphabet test (how far along can you get in writing the alphabet in 60 seconds and how many mistakes were made). Finally, we randomly chose three of the six students in each of 2nd and 3rd grade to work on the tutor for 2 weeks. After that time, we will test again and switch the students using the tutor. Finally, we will test before I leave. Because of the small sample size and wide range in students' abilities, I'm not expecting statistically conclusive results, but its good to have the data and demonstrate that we can measure skill.

Krithika, Ms. Muktha's niece, helps with the braille tutor.Ms. Muktha's niece Krithika is visiting
from California and helps the children with the tutor.

[The emotional impact of technology]
We also showed the tutor to the older students who know Braille but can benefit by using the tutor for practice. Preethi picked up the concept immediately and within five minutes had spelled out "c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r" using the tutor and gotten the text-to-speech software to say "computer." She was so overcome with shock and happiness that she almost started crying! It was a very moving moment for me (and clearly for her); it reminded me how little it takes to make these children glow and showed me that there are so many beneficial aspects of the tutor that I hadn't anticipated.

[The tutor as a beginner's device]
Unfortunately, not all the children are as skilled as Preethi. Aditi, a young student, is finding Braille extremely challenging. She doesn't yet understand that there are six positions in a Braille cell and is lagging behind her peers. When Aditi uses a regular slate and stylus, she punches away but, because of the feedback delay, doesn't appear to correlate the presses she makes to the raised dots that appear on the paper. This is where I hope the Braille tutor can help. Right now, we are trying to show Aditi that the cause and effect relationship by having her repeat aloud the number she hears when she touches the stylus to the E-Slate. Hopefully the idea of dots and positions and letters will follow.

* I've changed the names to protect the students' identities.

[Independence day]
August 15th is independence day and the school had prepared a small program. Turns out I was the guest of honor (and walked to the front of the school to the sound of drumming!) and had to give an impromptu speech about the meaning of independence and the importance of education. The children sang some songs and Satish gave a speech about the history of India's independence.

I give a speech at the independence day program.I give a short speech on the importance of education.

The kids sing patriotic songs.The kids sing patriotic songs for independence day.

[Teaching dance]
I was watching Vanaja teach the young students how to dance and am intrigued by her technique. To teach them a series of steps, she places their hands on the tops of her feet and performs the steps herself. They pick it up after a few repetitions and are able to do it themselves. I'm impressed by the creativity.

[The cockroach incident]
I was up in my room on Friday night, getting ready for bed when I was thrown into panic at the sight of a cockroach the size of a small gila monster perched high on the wall near the door. I then saw a baby gila monster cockroach a few feet away from it. I tried to calm my self with the thought that at least they were far from my bed and couldn't fly and that if I just moved my bed from the wall, there's no way they could get me. I watched alertly as they wandered about and was about to go brush my teeth when -- ba bum -- the mommy cockroach started *FLYING* around my room! I nearly had a coronary and threw my blanket over myself so it wouldn't "get me" and took off to find Ms. Muktha or the night watchman or somebody to get them out of my room.

The school was dark and I only saw Vanaja wandering around. I told her what was up but she said everybody was asleep. After pausing a minute she shouted for Bhagya to get a broom and told me they would take care of it. I was relieved as they confidently marched up the stairs, until it dawned on me that they were *BLIND* and that there was NO WAY they were going to find, kill, and throw out the cockroaches. I insensitively called after them, "Hey, you're BLIND! How are you going to find this thing?" Bhagya called back to me, "Nevermind, miss. Its okay."

Once upstairs, they went into my room and asked me to show them where the cockroach was, but just as I was about to enter, the mommy cockroach started whirring round and I leapt back outside and peered in through the window. Inside, Vanaja (with 5 inches of vision) thwacked away at something small and black on my bed. I was relieved until we heard it fall to the floor with a decidedly plastic "clink". It was the cap of my USB drive. Doh.

So, they clearly needed my eyes and I gathered my courage and shuffled to a corner of the room. I could see the baby cockroach behind the chair but no sign of the mommy. I pointed it out to Vanaja who stuck her face right up to it to see (then I really started shouting) and began her attack again. This time they got it and threw the carcass out of the room. Whew. We then basically turned my room upside down looking for its mommy but found nothing. They tried to assuage my fears by telling me "Its just a small thing. It won't hurt you" but it didn't help. After all, I'm the only one who actually saw the thing. I went to bed that night imagining all types of creepy crawlies but the momma hasn't turned up since. Whew.

In addition to being grateful for their help, I am incredibly impressed by their self-confidence (two blind women trying to find a bug in my room!) and fearlessness. I obviously could not do what they did.

Electronics street.A picture of the "electronics street" where
I bought power supplies for the tutors.


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3:20 PM  

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