How I led a Field R&D team to deliver ARISE Impact’s SEM within 1 Month

Self-learning, audio special education module developed to prepare visually challenged students for their upcoming exams

During my first visit to the Institute for the Blind (IFB) in Chandigarh on January 13th, 2017 I got a chance to interact with the Principal, teachers and the amazing students of the school. It was an introductory visit and Mr. Abhishek Syal, Founder of ARISE Impact, accompanied me. We wanted to carry out conversations around the pain-points and needs of the students when it comes to learning.

Two students at the IFB in Chandigarh, India

I was amazed and impacted by how the visually challenged students moved around the school. They were functioning effortlessly. I went to their computer lab, where students were listening to YouTube videos, playing games, listening to news and audio books. I observed how smoothly they were interacting with technology. This truly fascinated me.

We had a short discussion with the principal, Mr. J.S. Jayara Sir and he discussed and highlighted the problems being faced by the students. We then got the opportunity to interact with the teachers who also shared similar concerns. We were told that the Grade 12 students had the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) Certificate Examination in less than 2 months from then and that they did not have the appropriate study and revision materials. English was a tough subject for them due to less interaction in the language and lack of materials.

Most of the regular course books and NCERT textbooks are available in Special Education Module (SEM) mp3 format, but there was no SEM audio revision material for the students. They needed audio material, which not only helps them to understand the language better and to improve their pronunciation, but also would act as a question and answer format revision material. This would give them effective material for peer to peer coaching after the school hours. This material would also have a human touch.

In India, the Grade 12 marks sheet is of utmost importance. Not only does it decide the college one gets to select, but it also stays with the candidate during his/her lifetime and is thus vital for job interviews. For the students to bag a decent marks sheet, they needed proper study material. We quickly identified this need. And I took up a project initiative to record the English sample question papers and solutions to help the students revise the complete course before the exams.

The second visit was on 22nd of January 2017, when I collected the material to be recorded. I had a short discussion with the English Teacher, Ma’am Anu Tandon. She handed me the book that had several question papers from previous years and sample question papers as well as their solutions in the format similar to what the students would face in the exam. She also explained the style and methodology of recording. I was told that English is not their first language and that the recordings needed to be done at a slow pace, not rushing through the content and that proper Indian accent should be used. I interacted with the students and read out the material in various tones to find out the tone they were most comfortable with.

To accomplish this task, I needed a team. So, I contacted my friends and told them about the task and its high priority status. Some of my friends agreed and I set up a short interview session for them. I finally got two candidates on my team, Kulvender Singh and Ritu Sinha. I trained them and explained the procedure as well as the style of recording.

The recording process was very basic and simple. We used our earphone microphones and the voice recording application on our phones to record the SEMs. The recordings were done in parts that needed to be pieced together. We downloaded an application from the app store that stitched the audio pieces together. On hearing the material we were not satisfied with the sound quality, so we amplified the recordings. Once we had each recorded one paper, we wanted to get our work tested and approved before we proceeded further.

The next visit was on the 7th of February 2017. We had done 3 sample SEM audio recordings. This was the testing time. The recordings were shared with the teacher. We wanted to email her the recordings, but to our surprise, the teacher did not have an email ID! For all the communications, approvals and sharing of material, we had to personally visit the Institution. The teacher was satisfied with the quality, pace and accent of the recordings. She especially appreciated the voice modulation and the pronunciation. We were glad the work was approved and that we could continue recording further.

Content testing with the end users: the students

The fourth visit was on February 18th 2017, when the completed recordings were tested and submitted to the IFB. Ma’am Anu and a few students sat in the computer lab and the recordings were played. The students were very satisfied with the new material that they heard. The teacher was very happy and appreciated the effort and quality of the audio SEM.

The last visit was on 21st of February to take feedback on the usage and the collect the letters of appreciation. The teachers at IFB appreciated our work. The students were able to revise and retain the materials using the audio SEMs. My basic aim of giving them adequate study material before their exams was accomplished when the students said that they were satisfied.

It must be noted that we tried to automate this process by using a scan to text software, which enabled us to convert the book into a word document. The next step of this process was to use ’text to speech’ software (TTS). We found many TTS software, but the ones with Indian accent did not give outputs as expected. The results were not great because the TTS software with a proper Indian accent and an accurate pace that the students could understand and comprehend was not available. Since, we were not satisfied with the outcome of this automated process, we did not take it to the user testing level.

The major challenge I faced during this project was the juggling of my college and the IFB timings. The school (IFB) timings clashed with my college timings on all weekdays. So, I could only visit the IFB on Saturdays. If I had to visit on any other day, I had to miss my classes. This could have been avoided if I were able to email the recordings and information back and forth to the school but the teachers at the IFB do not have a work email. So any communication meant that a meeting was needed.

Me with one of the students from IFB, Chandigarh

The overall work experience for me has been very enriching. It was truly a privilege to work with differently-abled students, to see how they find the ability to do everything despite having a disability. It was great to be closely associated with the IFB, where the principal, teachers and students were very cooperative. Next steps lie in the surveying of the usage of the SEMs by the students. Such a survey and impact study that is conducted after the students have taken the exams, will help us refine our resources as well as gain knowledge for future resource planning and design.