American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2021 SKILLS
by Prem Sylvester
From the Editor: In the United States and around the world, the education of blind children is hampered by a critical shortage of properly trained and qualified teachers. A team of engineers and programmers in India has developed a promising new system for teaching Braille that can be used remotely or in the classroom. In this article Prem Sylvester recounts the development of Annie and explains how it may help increase Braille literacy throughout the world.
Anne Sullivan Macy, the passionate educator who guided Helen Keller's learning of Braille, has a legacy that reaches through the years. This legacy inspired us at Thinkerbell Labs to create Annie, the world's first Braille self-learning device. This legacy also spoke to the blind child at the National Association for the Blind in Goa, India, who, upon learning the history behind Annie's name, insisted that she would learn Braille only from "her."
Annie's story has been a rewarding one for the past four years. As developers we are driven by the belief that our work can contribute to Braille learning in a significant way. The story of this learning begins, as it does for us all, with the alphabet.
In 2014 Sanskriti Dawle and Aman Srivastava, students at BITS Pilani in Goa and cofounders of Thinkerbell Labs, had a unique project on their hands. Made with a Raspberry Pi and coded in Python, Project Mudra was Annie's simple predecessor, a dicta-teacher designed to help teach the Braille alphabet. However, they realized that the device had the potential to be much more than a student project. There was, in fact, a very real need to improve the modes of Braille teaching and learning.
Braille literacy rates are at worrying lows all over the world. In the US Braille literacy is at around 10 percent, and in India it's at less than 1 percent. A shortage of trained educators is a major impediment to promoting Braille, a script that typically is taught through close engagement between the teacher and the learner. The fewer the teachers, the harder it is for blind children to get the attention they need for a truly beneficial education.
The modes of teaching and learning Braille have remained surprisingly unchanged for several decades. There seemed to be value in using technology as a means to improve how blind children engage with Braille by themselves and in their classrooms. As Sanskriti puts it, "I grew up with better educational games in the Nineties than blind children [have access to] today . . . That had to change." It was time to build the technology for Braille learning that would come to be known—and loved—as Annie.
Annie was built to be a comprehensive Braille self-learning device, one that could make learning fun, engaging, and intuitive for blind students. It was important to develop child-friendly hardware that had a sense of playfulness, a device that encouraged the learner to have fun. At the same time, the learning materials on Annie had to engage the attention of children through a mix of Braille lessons and games to improve their performance in reading and writing Braille.
With these needs in mind, Annie was designed to engage with children through both touch and sound. With the guidance of encouraging voice instructions, kids can figure out how to interact with the lessons and games on the device by themselves. The large Braille display makes learning by touch even easier. By exploring Annie and its different learning opportunities, kids are keen to try out the content and learn at their own pace.
One of the major challenges lay in creating this tactile and auditory user experience, known as the UX. As sighted developers, we needed to understand for ourselves what blind learners required from their learning tools in order to have an effective educational experience. In 2017 we conducted field trials for gathered learner feedback on the hardware, software, and content of Annie at the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities at Dehradun and Shree Ramana Maharishi Academy for the Blind, Bangalore.
While designing the learning experience, we prioritized learner retention as well as sustained engagement with Annie's contents, be it from the software, content, or hardware perspective. Annie's content draws on Hands On, an introductory Braille reading scheme from RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind) in the United Kingdom. Hands On is widely known and well regarded. Our content reflects the best of the Hands On scheme and the founding team's experiences learning Braille, as well as our collective knowledge from the development of Annie.
Our team's advocacy for Braille literacy comes from personally witnessing the difficulties Braille educators faced in imparting quality education to their students and recognizing that many more blind children could participate in self-learning, given the right resources. Sanskriti recounted her experiences with a blind entrepreneur friend from Austria who actively used Braille and assistive technology. She notes that for blind children, "Braille learning needs to become available by default, for people to make real choices not defined by [external] constraints." Learners and educators may not even realize that there are better ways to teach and learn Braille. The onus for filling this gap with the innovations of Annie lay with us.
We based Annie's pedagogy of interactive learning on two lessons that we understood early on. First, Annie is, after all, meant to help children. Children like to play and learn from their surroundings. They like to compete with their peers, and they can get frustrated by the mundanity of a classroom. Second, we recognized that blind children's learning is not limited by their disabilities but by the conditions of their education and the often outmoded forms of engagement with Braille, engagement that sighted children often enjoy as they learn to use print.
In April 2016 Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton were among the first people to interact publicly with Annie at an event for the awardees of the Great Tech Rocketship by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). Our team fondly remembers their delight in learning to spell their son George's name in Braille. It came as an early validation of our mission.
Annie was launched globally in March 2018 at the VIEW Conference in Birmingham, UK. We received strong interest from educators and institutions interested in enhancing Braille learning with Annie. Such interactions led to the conceptualization of Annie Smart Classes. Multiple Annies could be set up in virtual classrooms supervised by teachers. Learners could make the most of the collaborative and competitive learning materials on Annie. To empower teachers and parents to track kids' performance and plan their lessons, we also built Helios, a digital suite to work in tandem with Annie.
India's first Annie Smart Class, and our first deployment of the Annie ecosystem, took place in June 2018 at the Rajyakrit Netrahin Madhya Vidyalaya, a school for the blind in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Our most important triumph here is the fascination the children have with Annie, and their excitement to learn with it. Since this deployment we've logged hundreds of hours of learning in the classroom. Shivam Agarwal, a member of our engineering team, remembers an incident where the teachers from a future deployment at Jashpur visited Ranchi, curious to see how students were learning on Annie. He says the visiting teachers were surprised to find that the kids were the ones teaching them everything about Annie, instead of the teachers. One child even corrected a teacher when they went wrong, saying, "Arre yahan nahi hain games, mujhe do." (This isn't where the games are, give it to me.) The child then directed the teacher to the game on their Annie.
We have since set up twenty Annie Smart Classes across India and partnered to have Annies at inclusive schools across the world. In later deployments, too, the attachment and affection children—and even teachers—have for their Annie, treating it as a companion rather than simply as a teacher or learning device, is one of our greatest achievements at Thinkerbell Labs. The team recounts several incidents where children grew personally fond of Annie. In the Government Blind School at Karimnagar, children who showed little interest in sitting in class began asking to skip lunch breaks so they could continue learning Braille on their Annies. At the Silver Linings School in Chandigarh, a seemingly shy student soon could be heard cheerfully reciting the alphabet with Annie's Letter Story. The children at Belaku Academy in Bangalore hummed Annie's Alphabet Song even while they played outside the classroom.
To many children, Annie is not something but someone talking to and learning with them. Dilip, our CTO, remembers an incident from Chantry Private Academy in Luton, England. A student grew emotional when Annie politely pointed out an error in his work. He was invested so quickly that the school wanted to have an Annie for him immediately. During an exhibition of assistive technologies, one of the visiting children from a school for the blind breezed through Annie's introductory lesson on Braille typing, recollects Nandakrishnan, one of our business development managers. When Annie's voice congratulated her for completing the lesson, she leaned in and whispered, "Thank you, Annie."
The fondness for Annie that our team shares with the children isn't limited to their learning Braille. We intend our work with Annie to demonstrate that the education, needs, and wants of blind children are just as important as those of anyone else. Braille learning can be state-of-the-art, it can be fun, and it can and should make a difference in many lives.
Annie has helped hundreds of blind children learn Braille reading, writing, and typing in schools across the world, from India to the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom. It teaches through interactive lessons across contracted and uncontracted Braille. Students have enjoyed hours of multiplayer games. We think this is just the beginning. We dream of taking Annie to more and more blind children everywhere, to reach the children who would benefit most from everything the marvels of technology bring to Braille learning.