I’m in the computer science building at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the windowless basement office of Dr. Bernardine Dias, and she is telling me about the moment in 2006 when she knew her school’s computerized Braille tutor for blind children could change lives.
“When we took the first version of this to Mathru,” Dr. Dias says — referring to a school for the blind in Bangalore, India, that has become a close partner — “we wanted to involve all of the kids who were there, at that time it was a really small school. For one of the children, the teacher said, ‘This child just doesn’t understand the concept of Braille, so we don’t need to include this child.’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s okay. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’ And the child wrote Braille perfectly.”
How was this possible? And why was a student who was totally unable to read and write Braille before now suddenly so proficient?
The inspiring story of the Braille Tutor begins about a dozen years ago, when Dias started a program called TechBridgeWorld at CMU. The program’s mission was to find ways that simple technology, developed by students at Carnegie Mellon, could be used to help underserved communities around the world.
The Braille Tutor became one of the first projects to emerge from TechBridgeWorld. It is essentially an inexpensive, computerized machine that helps children in elementary schools from impoverished nations learn Braille. The machine is being used in schools for the blind in India, Tanzania, and Zambia.
The project was started by two graduate students at CMU almost ten years ago. The founders have since moved on, and CMU undergrads, post-grad, and staff have cycled in through the years to continue their work.
To understand why the Braille Tutor is so impressive and potentially important, you have to understand Braille, and the current method of teaching it. Dias and TechBridgeWorld project manager Ermine Teves walk me through an initial lesson of learning the system the traditional way. Braille maps each letter of the English alphabet into a system of two rows and three columns, like so:
The thick dots here are dots that you can feel; the thin ones are flat against the surface.
To write Braille, you would typically use a thick piece of paper, a stylus, and a plastic slate to manually create the embossed dots. Each of those little rectangular cells would represent one letter, with two to five dots placed inside each cell, and you would work from left to right to compose words and sentences:
Dias and her students found many limitations with this method for students and their teachers: Braille paper can be expensive; existing computerized versions were even more costly; young students had difficulty keeping track of their place on the slate, and the lessons can be boring and difficult. Perhaps most pressingly, there was no way for one teacher to give instant feedback to a class of dozens of students –– especially if the teacher was also blind. The student in the story at the beginning for this article, for example, was impressing the letters in the first cell over and over again, instead of moving across the slate. When the student would turn in his work, there would just be six dots at the top left of the page every time. His teacher assumed he was a hopeless case.
The Braille Tutor is CMU’s solution to all of these problems. It now comes in two models: One that can be hooked up to a laptop or desktop computer via USB cord, and runs via software on the computer; and a newer version which is self-contained and must only be hooked up to cheap external speakers. Both versions give the student audio cues and instructions, recorded by CMU students. A version that hooks up to a smartphone, rather than a more expensive laptop, is in the works.
Three versions of the newest Braille Tutors, which do not require connection to an external computer. On the left, a Braille Tutor for use with a stylus; on the right, a Braille Tutor that teaches the alphabet; and in the middle, one that can do both.
Both boxes do everything a student needs to learn to write the dots of Braille; a panel of buttons helps the student learn each letter, and a digital replication of the stylus and paper teaches the student how to write via programmed audio queues. In both cases, the computer can sense both correct and incorrect letterings, and give instant feedback whether a student gets it right or makes a mistake.
A prototype of the laptop-connected Braille Tutor, next to the analog slate-stylus version.
The Braille Tutor is by no means a finished product. CMU students are preparing for a nine-month trip to the Mathru School for the Blind in Bangalore to study how the different machines are being used in classrooms. The engineers are also trying to reduce the cost of producing a Braille Tutor, which can run anywhere from $25 to several hundred dollars, depending on the version and the number of machines ordered.
The software is being refined, as are the audio instructions; blind students who have used the Braille Tutors have requested more games, so CMU engineers in several different departments are working to create them.
All of this costs money, of course, and funding a project to assist impoverished blind children does not attract as much speculative funding as a photo-sharing app startup in Silicon Valley. The Braille Tutor project recently won the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation, an award that comes with what Dias described as a much-needed $20,000 grant. There have been offers by manufacturers to purchase the project, though Dias has turned all of them down as she has not been convinced that any of the technology’s suitors would stay true to the goal of serving the underserved.
For now, the Braille Tutor is staying in-house, at Carnegie Mellon. For Teves, the project manager, this represents not just a commitment from the university to continue its technology-based social good efforts but also a potential culture shift on campus.
“A lot more students now are asking places that they work for, ‘What are you doing for underserved communities?’ ” Teves says. “That, to us, is great.”