Fostering hands-on learning for visually impaired
New technology developed and field tested by European researchers could help blind and visually impaired children better integrate into mainstream schools.
A team of nine universities, two research centres and two enterprises came together in project MICOLE to create a system to support collaboration between visually impaired and sighted children. The system they designed allows the children to use computers to explore data, communicate and be creative while working together.
Because, in practice, the main place for sighted and visually impaired children to meet and work together is in schools, the scenarios developed by the researchers, and the applications they chose are designed for classroom use.
The researchers consulted and collaborated with teachers and either tested the applications in schools during normal classes or in a separate room outside of normal hours.
All pull together
The tests were made as realistic as possible with sighted and visually impaired students working together to learn something or accomplish a school task. The researchers used the same test procedure in six participating schools, each in a different country.
There were also tests done where visually impaired children worked individually and with teachers, using the collaborative system to guide and help the pupils with tasks and solutions.
Overall, the researchers evaluated five applications to check their individual performances and to ensure their compatibility with the MICOLE platform developed by the project. The applications all met both criteria, and received positive feedback from students and teachers.
The first of these applications was AHEAD, the Audio-Haptic Drawing Editor and Explorer in two dimensions. AHEAD employs cutting-edge haptic technology, which allows the user to interact with a computer via the sense of touch.
Using a phantom pen
AHEAD is a general-purpose graphics editor and explorer that can be used both for examining prepared drawings and for creating drawings. Sighted students can control the software with a mouse, while blind students use a stylus called ‘PHANToM’.
This is a special device, connected to a robot arm, that makes it possible to feel virtual objects in three dimensions. The user holds it like an ordinary pen. It can be moved in all directions and gives resistance when it touches a virtual object.
Another application is the Solar System, which as the name implies allows visually impaired pupils to learn about our solar system in collaboration with sighted pupils.
The PHANToM stylus allows the user to explore the orbits of the planets. A speech synthesiser describes which planet’s orbit is in question. A combination of touch and speech also allows the pupil to explore the surface of each planet.
Now for bit of fun
The project’s Electric Circuits application uses the same type of technology to allow users to explore electric circuit schematics, while the Mathematical Working Environment (MAWEN) software is a scientific documents editor.
Blind students use the Braille Mathematical Code application while their sighted partners use standard graphics as they work together on a document.
Finally, for a bit of light relief, there is the King Pong game, which takes account of different levels of visual impairment and can be played by one player and a computer or by two players.
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Funding SchemeSTREP - Specific Targeted Research Project