On February 12 and 13, the Second Annual CTED Conference took place in Abu Dhabi, titled: “Enhancing Economic Development through Technology: Focus on Africa and other Developing Countries”. Read below CTED PhD student Sunandan Chakraborty’s post on the Education and Accessibility Panel.
The panel opened with a talk by Indrani Medhi of Microsoft Research Lab India, titled Characterization of Accessibility focusing on methods of increasing access to ICTs for low-literate population. She explained that a large share of mobile users in developing regions use their mobile phones just for voice calls. Other services offered by the mobile phones, like SMS, are left unused. In her talk, Medhi spoke about designing User Interfaces (UI) with which even low literate users can access different services with minimum assistance. Based on studies performed in India, Kenya, South Africa and Philippines, some usage patterns were observed. The users were unable to read text messages and texts in other phone applications; navigation, particularly through a hierarchical structure, was difficult and some application terms did not translate well into the local languages, making the terms difficult to understand. Based on these observations, Medhi presented some design recommendations. They include adding graphical cues; increasing the use of the local language, particularly through audio and minimizing the use of scroll bars and text inputs. Experiments were performed exploring the different options of input methods: text, audio and graphics. Based on the results of these experiments, Medhi concluded with the following design options for better performance: i) Live operators (if possible), ii) Spoken dialogue supported by live operator for troubleshooting, or iii) Graphics augmented Interactive Voice Response System.
Joyojeet Pal (University of Michigan) gave a talk on Assistive Technologies, which started with an overview of different technologies available for different kind of disabilities, such as mobility aids, solutions for communication and assistive technologies for vision and hearing impairment. Pal, whose work is mostly centered on vision impairment and the use and effects of screen readers, raised various issues with assistive technologies. For one, the high cost of such systems lead to the use of pirated versions for home usage and introduces reluctance in purchasing assistive softwares in workplaces, making visually challenged people unemployable for those places. Furthermore, all the existing solutions are designed mostly for English speakers. Having no support for other languages make them almost unusable in non-English speaking developing countries. He also showed that the (audio) quality of the screen readers is inversely proportional to the application support. Asked about the difference between developed and developing countries when it comes to assistive technologies, Pal pointed out that in the industrialized regions, people learn to use such technologies at an early age, whereas in developing regions they only start learning as adults. This makes the technologies hard to grasp and prevent being used to their full potential in developing regions.
The final talk in the session was given by Rakesh Agrawal of Microsoft Research, titled “Enhancing Quality and Accessibility of Education through Technology”. Agrawal began by stating the importance of education in improving economic well-being of people. He emphasized the role of textbooks being the most widely used and cost effective means of education. However textbooks, particularly in developing countries, often lack clarity and completeness of information. As a solution, Agrawal suggested improving the quality of textbooks by augmenting the textbooks with materials from the Web. This approach deals with two problems. What to augment? And, where to augment? Not all sections in a textbook are poorly written. Hence, it becomes important to find the sections which need augmentation. The solution involved finding the key terms explained in the section and their inter-relationship. If in a section the key terms are sparsely related, it makes it difficult for a reader to grasp the section’s content. Actual augmentation from the Web is also based on these key terms, where the Web is searched for materials emphasizing such key terms. So, the challenge is to mine textbooks to find the key terms in each section and their interrelationship. Agrawal further discussed the future of education and gave insights on how future classrooms might look like, giving examples such as the Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare and Shankar Academy. Agrawal concluded by suggesting a way of funding education in the future, citing an ancient practice in India. There, students offered gurudakshna or a gift to their masters to show their gratitude, much later when they are better established.