In this second (and last) post in our mini-series on edtech that revolutionizes access for differently abled communities (last time we explored tech that enabled visually disabled students) we’ll explore eye-gaze technology — the rapidly advancing assistive technology that is offering physically disabled students enormous freedom in terms of accessing education, communication, information and entertainment.
Undoubtedly eye-gaze technology has created the greatest advance in access for people with serious immobility such as those suffering paralysis or ALS. In fact eye-gaze technology is now being preferred even by students with limited mobility due to its increasing accuracy and ease-of-use.
The most advanced of these types systems is a software bolt onto Windows (or iOS) such as those from top supplier Tobii, which allows the user full control of their desktop computer: clicking links, scrolling and moving cursors. When combined with a speech to text app, users can reach out to any aspect of the online community — be it for education, fun, connection or entertainment.
Edtech that transforms access for physically disabled students
Of course when teaching children in younger grades, who have to first grasp the functionality before they can start engaging with the educational programs, this requires an additional step. Thankfully, as we know, young children are like sponges, and highly adaptable to learning new things. The trick is to start early; the earlier the better. Ava’s story is an inspiring case in point.
Another point to consider when asking children, or indeed even young adults, who may have already spent many years using rudimentary communication technologies, to try something new, one is likely to come up against resistance, and a lack of motivation. It is perhaps inconceivable to imagine the patience and trust required to adapt not only to the changing physical circumstances, but to ever changing technology.
With that in mind I have curated a few tips and tricks that educators and parents should consider when using new technologies to increase and improve their students’ interface with the world.
The first experience with the technology should be light and fun
Try and choose activities within the new software or adaptive technology that is fun and light, such as games or simple puzzles. Also try to choose activities that match the students’ interests, and which enable high levels of feedback and high levels of success. Simple points scoring games etc.
Additionally, try and avoid inserting yourself into the process too much; it may be tempting to prompt the student, but invariably you may find it better to simply let them explore and experience the technology themselves.
The goal is to have the same technology across abled and differently abled students
The great part of the emergence of better and better education and communication technologies is that they are decreasing the distance between able and differently abled students.
For instance, previous iterations of eye gaze technologies required immobile students to be stuck in a specific computer lab to enjoy the lessons. Today mobile eye gaze technologies makes it possible for the the pads and computers to be mounted on wheel chairs, and students can occupy the same classroom spaces as their peers.
Furthermore, where once differently abled students were studying using computer aides and the rest of class was perhaps gathered around dissecting tables or chemistry sets, in today’s Augmented Reality enhanced classrooms, you’re likely to find everyone gazing at the experiments through their mobile phones. In this way differently abled students are not studying in a noticeably different way to their peers.
Analyzing eye-gaze data is deeply informative
Experts in internet marketing will tell you that eye-tracking software is increasingly essential to defining what is — and what is not — working in terms of commercial websites. This same thought process is very helpful for teachers whose students are not only immobile, but also non-verbal.
Using eye tracking software, teachers and educational content developers can assess where and when students are looking at something and for how long. This is also naturally helpful for students with learning disabilities, as it allows teachers insight into what they are and are not fixating on.
While eye track data is certainly not medically diagnostic, it certainly can be mined for useful insights into how particular students are responding to the images and inputs.
Moving on from young students to young adults, I have plumbed the depths of the vibrant community of disabled gamers. Blogs, posts and forums are keeping gaming manufacturers — even behemoths such as Microsoft — on their toes when it comes to providing advanced access options for highly skilled disabled gamers. Often unearthing a number of more nuanced challenges, such as how do color-blind gamers interact with most video games?
It doesn’t take much contemplation to realize what kind of a release and joy gaming must be for people with immobility or other communication challenges. Empirical studies tend to back this up; in 2012 a study published in International Journal of Disability, Development and Education found that disabled individuals who had joined Second Life (the virtual online world) scored significantly improved measures on self-confidence, anxiety and depression.
Technological advances are blending not just classrooms, but communities. It is really heartening to realize that disabled communities are now able to use precisely the same technology the rest of the world uses, and as a consequence are better integrated into broader society — finding freedoms, skills, friends and outlets that were conceivably not available to them a short while ago.