Helping Low-Vision Students Succeed in the Classroom

Last month, winners for Microsoft's Imagine Cup were announced. Among those competing in this prestigious worldwide competition were students of Team Note-Taker, a group of Arizona State University students who placed second in the Software Design category. spoke with team member Michael A. Astrauskas about the Note-Taker, a device that makes it easier for low-vision students to take notes in class.

Team Note Taker

Team Note-Taker, from left to right: Qian Yan, David S. Hayden, Shashank Srinivas, Michael J. Astrauskas and team mentor John A. Black

For many visually impaired college students, it's difficult to watch professors write on the board while taking notes of their own. The Note-Taker, developed by a team from Arizona State University (ASU), is designed to enhance the classroom experiences of low-vision college students. The portable device, which incorporates a video camera, attaches to a laptop and streams what professors are writing on a split-screen display for students. Using the Note-Taker allows visually impaired students to more easily cycle between viewing lectures and writing notes of their own. The invention was been met with widespread praise. You and your team recently won the top U.S. prize in Microsoft's Imagine Cup. Can you provide information about this competition?

Michael Astrauskas: The Imagine Cup is an annual competition held by Microsoft at first at a national level, and then at an international level. Teams of up to four students compete to use technology to create solutions to the 'world's toughest problems,' most targeting United Nations Millennium Development goals. In Seattle, where the national competition was held, Team Note-Taker competed against nine other teams in the Software Design category. Over 70,000 students within the U.S. originally signed up to compete. Not only did you win the U.S. competition for creating the Note-Taker, you also took second place at the international round of the Imagine Cup last month. Can you describe the device you created?

MA: The Note-Taker combines a custom-built pan-tilt-zoom camera that connects to a tablet laptop. A student with low-vision places the laptop and camera - facing the front of the classroom - on his or her desk. On-screen is a split-screen view with half showing what the camera sees. The student can aim and zoom the camera using natural finger gestures right on the screen. There is video and audio recording as well as the capability of jumping back a few seconds in case the professor blocks the board. On the other half of the split screen is Microsoft OneNote, an application that allows notes to be written on screen with a stylus or typed with a keyboard. David S. Hayden, a low-vision student in your group, came up with the idea of the Note-Taker to address his own disability. Can you share how David's academic background and experiences helped him to conceive this assistive technology?

MA: As an undergraduate student, David added a mathematics major to his computer science major and found he could not keep up taking notes in class. Normally, students with low vision (including David) use an assistive device like a monocular (sort of like a tiny telescope) to see the board at the front of the classroom. Due to the process of switching and the monocular's narrow field of view, there's a significant delay every time the student switches from looking at the board, to their notes, to the board (what we call the board-note-board or BNB delay). Previously, David had accommodated for this by spending extra time outside of class reading the textbook. However, his senior-level math classes did not use textbooks, and professors could fill a whiteboard a dozen times in 45 minutes!

David was forced to drop his math courses. He came up with the idea for the Note-Taker by attaching a conventional camcorder and USB-controlled pan-tilt mechanism to a desk using a clamp from a hardware store. He wrote basic software that allowed him to get live video from the camera and control the pan and tilt using on-screen buttons. This was the first-generation Note-Taker. David retook his math classes and earned A's in all of them.

After being awarded funding from the National Science Foundation, David created a team including industrial design graduate student Qian Yan, who wanted to create a product that would be used outside the classroom; computer science graduate student Shashank Srinivas, who has an interest in robotics; and me, Michael J. Astrauskas. My background is in electrical engineering, and I enjoy making software and hardware interact. Can you describe the process of developing the Note-Taker?

MA: David created the first-generation on his own in ASU's Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing. After receiving funding and expanding the team, the goal was to make the software more user-friendly and make the camera more precise and durable. The software changed from showing a simple video stream and a little panel with tilt controls to a touch-based interface that used intuitive gestures, not unlike a smart phone. Many features were added, like the ability to record (including organizing recordings by class), jump back a few frames and apply image enhancement features (for example, to increase contrast or invert colors). The use of Microsoft OneNote was added so that students could take their notes on the laptop itself, further decreasing the BNB delay. Video is time-indexed with notes, so a student can highlight a portion of notes and replay the video recorded as they were writing, in case they were so busy writing they didn't hear their professor.

For the camera, commercially available industrial parts were used to make a brand new pan-tilt-zoom camera that could move faster and quieter, as well as more precisely. This became the second-generation prototype. User studies were performed at ASU with actual low-vision students to test the software's interface. This feedback was used to produce the third-generation prototype and further improve the software.

The third-generation camera was designed to be a prototype of a real product. 3D printing (via stereo lithography) was used to produce a strong plastic body to house the components, which also reduced noise. This is the camera that was demonstrated at the Imagine Cup. User studies and the design of a fourth-generation camera prototype are currently underway. What were some of the primary considerations during the development of this device for low vision students?

MA: The primary goal was to allow low-vision students to take their notes independently - without reliance on support staff or classroom infrastructure - as quickly as fully sighted students.

We also wanted the Note-Taker to be portable. Thus, we targeted making the camera lightweight, portable and durable (it will easily survive travel in a backpack). Many students already bring laptops to class, so the switch to a tablet laptop, assuming the student doesn't already have one, is simple.

Third is cost. Assisstive technologies frequently target the 'sweet spot' of $2,000 to $3,000. We feel this is too much, especially outside of developed nations. With the fourth generation camera prototype, we plan to reduce the size, weight, number of components and construction complexity to a manufacturable level. You're currently testing the effectiveness of the Note-Taker with low-vision students. What do you hope to learn from this trial period?

MA: While David is a low-vision student, we quickly learned from a focus group that each student has unique needs. From user studies we've already done, we've learned about the variety of needs of low-vision students. For example, some can only type or require significant magnification to read on-screen text. Currently user studies include writing and typing tasks to test multiple ways of using the Note-Taker. We also will soon issue Note-Takers to ASU students to use in their classrooms for a real-world trial. We hope to find out if the Note-Taker does indeed help the students take their own notes (all participants in the original user study were anxious to try the Note-Taker in the classroom), and if the camera is as portable and reliable as hoped. Are there plans in the works to mass-produce the Note-Taker? What are your ultimate goals for the device?

MA: Although the Imagine Cup was very validating for the project and great for publicity, the team is quite enthusiastic about getting the Note-Taker into the hands of real students around the world. There have been preliminary talks with manufacturers, but nothing formal has been finalized. The team may either license the technology, or start a company.

Want to read about more innovations in note-taking? Check out MIT's NB too, which allows students to collaborate via annotated PDF files.'

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