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?

Week 4 - 5.5: 8/26/06 - 9/6/06

I spent the past 10 days in Delhi visiting my family members, many of whom I haven't seen in a few years. We shopped, ate out, and enjoyed my cousin's birthday. I caught a cold too (can you imagine? In Delhi, where its regularly 100 degrees.)

In Mathru-relevant news, I visited the National Association for the Blind (NAB) in India and showed them photos and videos of the tutor. They were very interested and eager to help out if we needed to remotely do user testing and the like. That will be huge for anyone who continues doing the Braille Tutor but who perhaps cannot come to India.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Week 3: 8/19/06 - 8/25/06

Sorry for the delay in posting. I've been on dial-up for the last wee while and it hasn't been easy to do much online. Also, because the computer I'm using has an ancient version of Internet Explorer, I can't upload pictures yet. -- (9/10) Okay, I'm back on broadband. Here are photos.

[ Clearing your mental buffer ]
This week I made the 4th+ standard Braille tutor which includes math symbols and punctuation. Although I'm not doing testing with the 4th standard students, I plan on getting qualitative feedback from them. In designing the advanced version of the tutor, I discovered something interesting about how the students interpret and internalize their use of the tutor. The fourth standard students asked me (via the teachers) if I could make a "carriage return" button on the stylus so they could start writing on a fresh line as they would on a real slate and stylus. Now I explained that you can already start on a fresh line whenever you want just by going to the head of the line -- you don't have to explicitly create a new line since its all digital anyway. Still they insisted. I then explained that I could just as well make a dummy button that says "newline!" but does absolutely nothing else. They said that would be fine, but nevertheless, could I please create it. I was reluctant to just go ahead and incorporate something that seemed so pointless to me; my confusion suggested that I was misunderstanding something fundamental about how the students used the tutor.

Long story short, I'm learning that the students really want to use the Tutor as they would a regular slate in which they "start fresh" by leaving a blank line between sentences; in a sense, this allows them to flush their mental buffer of the sentence they were previously writing. It seems that the students were unable to achieve this "fresh start" in particular because the tutor does let you start wherever you want. That is, because they know that starting at the beginning of a line does not have any effect on the tutor, they are unable to clear their mind as they otherwise would. So, I've simply created a dummy carriage return that says "Newline!" and then clears the tutor's history buffer. They love it.

[ Visitors to Mathru ]
We also had quite a few visitors at Mathru this week to see the Braille Tutor. First I meet with Rana Nanjappa, the Project Steward at Asha for Mathru, and two software engineers from Bangalore who work at Dell. I gave them an informal presentation of the Braille Tutor and we had a very lively technical discussion. Prasanth and his brother have agreed to help out with the project after I leave. I've shown them how them the code, hardware schematics, and installation procedures in case anything should break or need to be reinstalled.

They brought some toys for the children.
The blow-up dolphin was a real hit!

Also, Ranaji brought his family and friends to see the Braille Tutor. Shalini is twelve years old and blind, and she studies at the main blind school in Bangalore. I was particularly interested to have her try out the tutor. Although she was not used to using a slate and stylus since she transitioned several years ago to a Perkins Brailler, she quickly learned how to use the tutor. Her response was enthusiastic and she felt that the tutor would have been very useful and entertaining when she was just learning to write. Shalini is very talented and sang and played her recorder for the whole school during prayer time. (On a side note, some of the kids are cutely naughty. I noticed at least one fast asleep during the 45 minute prayer period, but nobody else could tell.) We also had a lot of new ideas for improvements such as having a single large braille cell for the young children to learn six dots and using different voices for the text-to-speech synthesizer that are more appealing to children.

Shalini and company.

Shalini's teacher, Maya, claps Nagesree's hands to the rhythm of the prayer.

Shalini's mother brought a tactile map of India
which she had made when Shalini was young.

Satish, front and right,
catches up on his beauty sleep during prayers.

[ Extra stuff ]
These are random photos from around the school.

A brightly colored lizard basks on the wall surrounding the school.

Food is served on a banana leaf at a local politician's open house party
to which the students were invited.

The school uses solar energy to heat the water for bathing.
They are right outside my bedroom window,
but it took me a week to figure out what they heck they were.