Tag: Assistive Technology

Project VITALL group explores Consumer Electronics Show

Buddy

Buddy, “the companion robot” developed by BLUE FROG ROBOTICS. Photo by Stacy Kelly.

Stacy Kelly wants a robot.

The associate professor in the NIU College of Education’s Vision Program came to that realization after she and a trio of graduate students in the Project VITALL master’s degree program spent three days at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“We need to have a robot,” says Kelly, who interacted with the machines and watched their realistic movements.

“People who are blind or visually impaired now often use guide dogs for traveling safely and effectively. How could a robot take the place of a guide dog? Dogs have a life expectancy. Guide dogs have to retire. People wouldn’t have to get a new dog every six or seven years. They could get a four-legged robot,” she says.

“Although the technology is not fully there now, it will be there soon, and we don’t want to wait until it’s there,” she adds. “We went to see the technology for the masses to think about how it could apply to the blind. We want to understand it now and know how it can help with our instruction.”

NIU’s group glimpsed myriad mind-boggling possibilities for robots as assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired – all things that the practitioners Kelly prepares through the Department of Special and Early Education must know to best serve their future clients.

She and the students – Julie Hapeman, Lizzy Koster and Lacey Long – will present their findings Feb. 15 at the 2018 Illinois Chapter of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired Conference.

They also plan to publish an article about their Consumer Electronic Show adventure.

Stacy Kelly

Stacy Kelly

“It was the cutting edge of all cutting edges. It was the edge of the edge of the edge. That’s where we were,” Kelly says. “Everyone there was so entrepreneurial, and it was like having a crystal ball that works in being able to see the future.”

Among the coolest things they experienced: driverless vehicles.

“We had the opportunity to ride around Las Vegas in a self-driving car and other automated transportation – self-driving buses, trolleys, things that no longer require a human to get from one place to another in a timely fashion. That was just off the charts!” Kelly says.

“One of the biggest constraints for people who are blind or visually impaired is figuring out methods of safe and independent travel,” she adds. “Now, someday, they can have a car in their garage or in the parking lot and just go.”

Called “the world’s gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies,” the Consumer Electronics Show “has served as the proving ground for innovators and breakthrough technologies for 50 years – the global stage where next-generation innovations are introduced to the marketplace.”

NIU’s contingent financed its trip with Project VITALL, part of a five-year, $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch of a new master’s degree that provides specialized training in assistive technology.

Both students and professor were excited to see how many smart home and voice-activated technologies were powered by Amazon Echo and Google Home.

“Everybody’s linking into the same ecosystem,” Kelly says. “We have Alexa and Google Home in our classrooms already, so it confirmed to me that we’re on the right track.”

From left: Julie Hapeman, Lacey Long, Lizzy Koster and Stacy Kelly

From left: Julie Hapeman, Lacey Long, Lizzy Koster and Stacy Kelly

 

She also realized that NIU, home to the world’s first academic program in assistive technology in the area of blindness and visual impairments, has proven prescient in its long emphasis on tech.

Just talking to the many vendors about how their technologies could have additional applications for those who are blind or visually impairment sparked light bulb moments, she adds. “People were saying, ‘Oh, for the blind! I never thought of that!’ ”

Hapeman, a certified orientation and mobility specialist in the Milwaukee Public Schools, reports that her ride in the self-driving car made “an immediate impact on two of my students.”

Julie Hapeman (center) with students Carlos and Xin Ju.

Julie Hapeman (center) with students Carlos and Xin Ju.

“As I was waiting for my turn, one of my students, a 15-year-old student who is totally blind, sent me a text to ask how I was enjoying the conference,” Hapeman says.

“The time she sent her message was the time I would have seen her for our weekly lesson, and it was serendipitous that her text arrived right after my Lyft ride had been confirmed,” she adds. “I texted her back that I was about to ride in a self-driving car, and her response was, ‘OHMYGOD! I AM SO JEALOUS!!!!’ ”

Hapeman knew she had to call her student from the car, turning the phone over to the engineer on board: “The questions she asked with all of the excitement in her voice were marvelous!”

After texting the news to another student, Hapeman realized the magnitude of those moments.

“For both of these students, the possibility that in their lifetimes they might be able to own and operate a car by themselves seemed within their grasp,” she says. “Helping these students move one step closer to one of their dreams was the greatest moment of the entire CES.”

Lacey Long

Lacey Long

Long, a teacher of students with visual impairments and a certified orientation and mobility specialist in the Morton-Sioux Special Education Unit of North Dakota, calls the Consumer Electronics Show “amazing.”

“There was such a diverse range of technology available. Our group used the opportunity to question how these technologies can be adapted for individuals with visual impairments across the board,” Long says.

“One upcoming product that I thought would be extremely useful was the Casio Mofrel 2.5D printer,” she adds. “Although it is being marketed to design professionals, it has the capabilities to print textures and Braille, which could increase the accessibility my students have to tactile illustrations for improved literacy.”

Lizzy Koster

Lizzy Koster

Koster, who has explored the potential of Google Translate for people with visual impairments, found the Las Vegas experience an informative one.

“The Consumer Electronics Show serves as a barometer for how the tech industry gauges consumer interests and needs and their response to those projections,” Koster says.

“At present, connectivity, be it through social robots or smart home innovations, is at the forefront,” she adds. “What this means for our students and clients with visual impairment is that while select innovators are developing products to better serve their needs, consumer trends are moving toward more reliance on smart devices and automation.”

For teachers, she says, “this indicates that our students and clients will need to be well-versed in basic ‘smart’ technology in order to determine how they can work with it and adapt it as necessary.”

NIU facilitates that readiness in its graduates.

“Our field desperately needs this program,” Kelly says. “All the time and energy we’ve put in for the last several decades is paying off. We’re not at Square One. We’re at Square Million. Every single day, we’re working with the newest technology and we’re bringing it into our classroom.”



Visual Impairments grad student hopes to improve lives, system

Lizzy Koster

Lizzy Koster

When Lizzy Koster graduated from Hendrix College in Arkansas, she took a job as an assistant at a political consulting firm. It didn’t last long.

“Politics wasn’t what I imagined it would be,” says Koster, an NIU College of Education graduate student with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology.

Because she had always nurtured an interest in health care, she soon found herself working at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Her skillset quickly grew to include the processing of medical paperwork, knowledge she deemed valuable for future endeavors.

Yet another career – one woven into her DNA – beckoned.

“Education is a family business of ours,” says Koster, a native of Elmhurst, Ill. “My aunt went through the NIU Vision Program, and she went on to work in the Chicago Public Schools. She called me and said it would be a great fit for me. Kapperman actually called me, too.”

Kapperman is Gaylen Kapperman, who joined NIU’s program in visual impairments in 1974 and remains active in the Department of Special and Early Education as a Professor Emeritus. He and colleague Stacy Kelly are relentless recruiters for the graduate programs, which offer free tuition, fees and health insurance along with stipends to woo more professionals into a critically understaffed field.

Gaylen Kapperman

Gaylen Kapperman

Now Koster is on her way to a career as a teacher of the visually impaired and as a specialist in assistive technology as well as orientation and mobility. She also has joined Kapperman in conducting research and writing several manuscripts, one of which has been accepted for publication in a referred journal.

“Vision is a good fit for me,” says Koster, 27. “I love working with people and with different cultures, and when you work in special education, it’s kind of inevitable. You come in contact with kids from different backgrounds, and you have to come at them with an understanding approach.”

Gaining early experience through substitute-teaching at the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County has provided confirmation of her new direction.

“I feel like educators, in public schools specifically, are so pressed to get the right test scores,” she says.

“But with vision, although our students might participate in that statewide or national testing, their benchmarks are so different. Vision is not so much about grades but in giving them life skills and even social skills. Seeing them make a friend is such a big deal,” she adds. “Their goals might not translate to academic grades but to really improving their quality of life, and being able to watch them achieve their personal goals is so exciting.”

She also is eager to exercise her love of languages.

Her interest in learning Spanish began at age 3, when her grandfather gave her a book about Mexico. Her fluency blossomed as she studied Spanish from second-grade through high school.

koster-lizzy-3As an undergrad at Hendrix, she enrolled in a course on social justice and human rights in Argentina, traveled throughout the region and spent her junior year as a study abroad student in Brazil. Before embarking, of course, she taught herself Portuguese.

During the summer after her junior year of high school, she studied in Spain.

One summer later after her graduation, she volunteered in Paraguay, where she learned the indigenous language of Guarani.

True to form, she also learned Braille on her own before coming to NIU in August 2016.

Language, naturally, is the focus of research Koster has conducted and presented with Kapperman at the conference of the Illinois Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Kapperman is interested in a research project using a screen-reading technology for those who are completely blind or who need that vocal feedback,” she says. “We’re also working on figuring out Google Translate and other means of using screen-readers for those who are learning a foreign language or for whom English is not a first language.”

Following her graduation in August 2018, Koster won’t close the book on college just yet.

koster-lizzy-2She plans to earn a doctoral degree that will prepare her for administrative roles in special education – that’s where her experience in processing medical paperwork will come in handy – or to serve as an advocate for teachers.

“My biggest interest is in benefiting the system, helping all of the working parts – students, teachers, aides and assistants, families – to operate a bit more smoothly,” she says.

But the advocacy role might tackle an even greater concern, she says: teacher burnout.

“If there’s a way to make people stay in the field, that’s ultimately helping the students, too. They need that longevity and consistency,” Koster says. “If I could help people to achieve that, then that would be great.”



NIU Visual Disabilities Program awarded $1.25 million federal grant

(This story originally appeared on NIU Today)Stacy Kelly and students

Want a challenging and rewarding career with guaranteed employment and free tuition?

Thanks to a five-year $1.25 million grant recently awarded to NIU by the U.S. Department of Education, the Visual Disabilities Program of the College of Education’s Department of Special and Early Education (SEED) will enable the launch of a new master’s degree.

Beginning this fall – and in another format next summer – the program provides specialized training in assistive technology used by people with visual impairments.

Most of the federal dollars go directly to recruiting students to NIU for this high-need area of specialization: Graduates will receive the Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist designation from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.

Two options are provided:

  • Project VITALL (Visually Impaired and Assistive Technology for All), taught two years during fall and spring semesters to people with bachelor’s degrees in any field; and
  • Camp VITALL, taught over two summers for currently licensed professionals in vision. This includes teachers of students with visual impairments (TVI), certified orientation and mobility specialists and certified vision rehabilitation therapists.

“NIU is the first university offering a course of study toward this,” said Stacy Kelly, associate professor in SEED and alumna of the program. “Individuals who choose this career path experience a sense of fulfillment not commonly found in other careers. These teachers play a significant role in the lives of children who are visually impaired and their families.”

And they are desperately needed.

“We have a critical, national shortage. It’s crazy how many blind students there are who don’t have teachers,” added Sean Tikkun, who is a SEED graduate staff and also an alum. “It’s a crisis. It always has been and it always will be. We will never catch up.”

Project VITALL encourages students in its cohorts to complete both licensure for teaching children who are visually impaired, which takes 16 months, and to also obtain dual certification in CATIS.

Classes are taught face-to-face on the NIU campus in DeKalb.

The deadline to apply is June 15; each cohort begins in the fall. The financial aid – all tuition and fees as well as health insurance and a stipend of $5,520 per calendar year – is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to qualified applicants.

Camp VITALL, which provides the CATIS credential without interrupting the August-through-June employment of teachers includes full tuition, fees and a $920-per-summer stipend for two consecutive summer sessions.

On-campus courses take place over eight weeks in the summer of 2017; the 12-week internship is completed in the summer of 2018.

For more information on either program, contact Kelly at (815) 753-4301 or skelly@niu.edu.