Pakistan presents a particularly challenging case in special education where it places second in global children-out-of-school rankings: many of these children are those with special needs. Thus, most children who suffer from developmental disorders, such as intellectual disability, autism, and cerebral palsy, do not have access to education. This could be attributed to a dearth of special education schools, or to the stigma associated with developmental disorders. In fact, existing special education schools are mostly not-for-profit organizations or private charities. The teaching methodologies employed at such schools differ, and depend largely on the school's resources and ability to provide specialized teacher training.
For this project, I completed it in 4 stages spending a major chunk of my time on user research and data evaluation. The details of each stage are as follows:
User Research Phase - In order to clearly define and address the challenges faced by special children, I spent a good amount of time in this phase to perform primary and secondary research. I started with performing a thorough systematic review in order to find out what research has already been done in this area and the problems left to be solved. I then went to the Rising Sun Institute School for Special Children multiple times to have a chat with the principal, teachers as well as the students.
Design Phase - In this phase, after multiple brainstorming sessions and user journey mapping, I started with creating low-fi prototypes of my system. I went to the school and tested my mockups with the users trying to identify where the challenges lie in the user interface in order to improve it. When the low-fi mockups were approved by the users, I then created a mood board moving on to high-fi prototypes. Only after showing the high-fi prototypes to the users and getting confirmation on the design, I moved on to developing my system.
User Testing and Evaluation Phase - Oh the phase that I get most anxious as well as excited about, the judgment day! After fixing the Estimote iBeacons in the school and handing over the system to the teachers, I visited the school couple of times a week in order to get my subjective and objective data. The plan was to divide into 2 groups and conduct in-between subject testing where the first group carries on with their regular speech therapy sessions in the school and the other group uses our tool. It took some time for the kids to get used to the new system but after a while, it was great to see how most of them were enjoying it and even learning from it!
Discussion & Solution
As a result, there is a need for educational tools that address special needs in a way that is both effective and affordable. Raabta is designed to address this need. It is an application that uses pictures and sounds as media for communication. It does this by using a framework that is similar to prevalent picture exchange communication systems (PECS) methodologies. Raabta also provides content that is context-aware. That is, the application displays content to the user that is relevant to the user’s location. This is intended to simplify the user experience for children with special needs. It was developed in close collaboration with the Rising Sun Institute for Special Children in Lahore. Instead of using generic pictures, the app uses photographs and pictures from the Rising Sun itself. This was designed to make it easier for students to recognize objects familiar from everyday interactions.
Raabta aids to bridge significant gaps in special education and promises to be different from other existing applications. This is because it is specific to a local context, all efforts to explore context-aware augmented and alternative communication (AAC) systems. Raabta aims to combine elements common to all three - a graphical, picture-based interface with content determined by beacon-emitted Bluetooth micro-location signals. At the same time, the effort is to develop a tool that is relevant to the local context of a special needs school in Punjab, Pakistan. Therefore, an additional feature implemented was a voice-over in Urdu that reads out content generated on-screen.
After a thorough usability testing of the tool, we determined that the children with special needs who are verbally impaired, got better at communicating and learning new vocabulary words by using Raabta. The display of location-aware content using Proximity beacons, Bluetooth technology, and voice feature were a breath of fresh air for the students. They sometimes get tired by attending their session in a specific class setting and the speech therapy room, so when they were able to take a tour of the school and be able to tap and hear a voice from the phone added a lot more excitement and hence increased their ability to learn as well.