Webinar Highlights: The Benefits of AI to Assistive Technology in Digital Learning
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On June 20th we were joined by guest speaker Sue Meehan, who hosted an online webinar exploring ‘The Benefits of AI to Assistive Technology in Digital Learning’ alongside our own course director, Eva Kilar-Magdziarz.
During the session we explored:
How AI has been used to advance AT to date
How this can promote inclusion in an educational setting
Overview of the types of AT students may use in an online learning environment
Considerations for content design & choice of digital tools
Sue Meehan is a learning technologist at Southeast Technological University. Sue has extensive expertise in assistive technologies and a deep passion for universal design principles for learning (UDL), accessibility, student support, and leveraging technology for enhanced learning experiences. In addition to her role, Sue actively serves as a coach, providing support to individuals with ADHD and other factors that can influence their unique functioning and learning.
Assistive Technology Definition and Provision
Assistive Technology is an umbrella term for any product, service or system that assists a person with a disability in performing a function. It’s not that it replaces their need to do it, it assists them to do it.
By doing this it:
Increases independence for individuals with disabilities.
Increases opportunities for access to education, access to employment.
Helps them to take part in life in general in the community, in civic life and so on.
Despite the name, assistive technology (AT) can have no tech. Things like pill organisers or memory aids with no technology involved are also a form of AT but then it goes right up the spectrum to be very advanced on the spokes systems like a screen reader for an individual who is blind or has low vision and switch access for someone who has limited mobility who can’t access a keyboard or mouse.
Assistive technology can have a profoundly positive impact on the health and well-being of individuals with mobility difficulties who face challenges in accessing computers. This, in turn, can have far-reaching effects on their potential in terms of socioeconomic factors and throughout their entire life journey. By enabling access and support, assistive technology has the power to make a significant difference in improving their quality of life and empowering them to reach their full potential.
There are around 2.5 billion people in the world who need at least one assistive technology device now and it is estimated that by 2050 the number of people needing at least one form of assistive technology will be 3.5 billion because of the ageing population. This is something that is going to impact all of us at some point.
Despite the fact that it can have such a positive impact on an individual, and that there’s so many individuals affected, you would expect that there would be due consideration given to the provision of AT. But, in most countries there is no policy in place, there’s not a specific service delivery model in place, and this is even in high-income countries. There might be some level of service delivery but it is not very well integrated within the healthcare system.
Take, for instance, the provision of hearing aids by healthcare systems such as the HSE or NHS. Often, only one hearing aid is provided to older individuals with hearing difficulties, even though most people require two hearing aids for effective functionality. This approach falls short in terms of effectiveness. Moreover, the existing system itself is fragmented, requiring individuals to visit multiple locations, consult various professionals, and navigate through different processes to obtain the assistive technology they need. In many cases, these technologies must be acquired privately, making them inaccessible for a significant portion of the population. While there are charitable organizations that offer assistance, eligibility is contingent on several factors, limiting accessibility further. As a result, the overall costliness of obtaining assistive technology restricts its availability to a wide range of individuals.
Can AI help democratise the system technology? Sue showed an example of a refreshable braille display, this device converts digital text into braille. These were around €5000 up until recently. The company that designs them have began working with Microsoft AI for an accessibility grant and they’re developing this much more affordable refreshable braille display. The company based in India are hoping to provide this to school students. They also have a learning management system that goes hand in hand with the refreshable braille display so that teachers can push content to the refreshing braille display.
You can imagine the life changing impact of this technology, and that has been made possible through AI.
It is important to note that technology should never replace the human side of support! Sometimes you hear stories about robots in care homes to provide companionship or perform basic tasks. That should never be used to override a person, even if in some cases assistive technology seems like it would be an ideal solution, if that’s not what the individual with a disability wants then they should have that choice.
The impacts of Leveraging Artificial Intelligence to enhance Assistive Technology
Artificial Intelligence can really broaden the possibilities for inclusion and for advancement in the field of assistive technology. There is a lot of overlap between mainstream and assistive technologies. There will always be advanced bespoke AT systems that are there to specifically help individuals with particular disabilities like the refreshable braille display but there is also a lot of technology that might have started as an assistive technology and now it has become more mainstream.
For example, the speech to text function on mobile devices would have originally been in the accessibility menu. Tech companies realised there is a broader application for its use so now there is people using this feature for other reasons and this assistive technology has now moved into mainstream. Sue believes that AI is going to blur the boundary even further.
Sue also mentions that there is other fields that are going to benefit from artificial intelligence, such as the medical field. In the medical field we have wearable technology that’s going to provide data to doctors to help with preventative medicine and more.
Sue prepared some tutorials on how artificial intelligence tools can be used in the education field… See clips below to learn more!
Literacy Support tools
Optical Character Recognition and Text to Speech
Optical character recognition (OCR) and text-to-speech (TTS) often work in tandem, with many applications seamlessly integrating both functionalities. In fact, it is common for the same applications to perform both OCR and TTS tasks concurrently.
Optical character recognition, commonly known as OCR, utilises computer vision techniques to convert printed text into digital format. By employing specialised applications, users can conveniently scan hard copies and obtain digital copies on their devices. What sets OCR apart from simply taking a regular photo or making a copy is its ability to recognise individual letters, enabling the resulting copy to be searchable and accessible for those who rely on text-to-speech software and other similar tools. This functionality greatly enhances the usability and accessibility of the digitised content.
Text to speech has been around since the late seventies but is often associated with a more robotic voice, the most famous example being Stephen Hawking. But now with artificial intelligence using neural networks and machine learning we can create a much more natural sounding selection of voices.
Below are some examples of this assistive technology tools for OCR and TTS…
Sensus Access & Anthology Ally
Speech to Text
Speech-to-text technology represents a significant application of artificial intelligence in assistive technology. By leveraging natural language processing and machine learning, it achieves remarkably accurate transcription of spoken words. Notably, its performance has undergone substantial advancements over the past 3-5 years. Users can access this functionality in popular platforms such as Microsoft Office and Google Drive. Remarkably, considering that these tools are available for free, the accuracy they provide is truly impressive.
When utilising speech-to-text technology, it’s important to adapt to the practice of verbally indicating punctuation marks like full stops and new paragraphs. Additionally, there is a noticeable delay in processing time between thoughts and the physical act of typing, which can significantly affect users. This requires individuals to adjust their processing methods accordingly. It is crucial to note that speech-to-text may not be recommended for high-stakes situations or assessments due to the need for subsequent editing. While it offers convenience, it is still necessary to invest effort in refining the transcribed text.
Discover more speech to text tools below…
Captioning/ Transcription Tools – Caption.Ed, Otter.ai, Ava
AT for Low Vision
The last assistive technology tools Sue touched on were for individuals with low vision. See below to learn more about these tools…
Mercury 13/ Connect 12
Image Recognition Apps
Even though we have these huge advances in assistive technology, we as educators still need to think about accessibility and producing accessible content. Assistive technology will still be limited if what you’re providing isn’t accessible in the first place. So when creating original documents always try and use the accessibility checker that’s in word, PowerPoint or excel that is in the review tab. This will walk you through and pinpoint all of the accessibility issues and explain to you how to fix them. A lot of virtual learning environments now have an accessibility checker built in as well.
One significant concern surrounding artificial intelligence is the potential for rampant plagiarism and the need to establish effective assessment methods in response. Ideally, this would prompt a reevaluation of our current assessment practices in education, leading to a revolutionary transformation of the entire system.
In the context of universal design for learning, it becomes essential to offer diverse means of action and expression, recognising that using the same assessment formats consistently would disadvantage certain learners. Therefore, incorporating a variety of assessment approaches is crucial to prevent undervaluing the benefits of different assessment types due to concerns about potential abuse.
Rather than reverting solely to traditional exams, it is important to maintain a balanced approach that embraces a range of assessment formats. When exams are utilised, it is beneficial to include a mix of question types throughout the assessment, moving beyond relying solely on multiple-choice questions. Furthermore, students should be made aware of the accommodations available to them and provided with information on how to access them. In the case of online exams, specific measures should be implemented to ensure that students who require additional time due to their accommodations can receive it.
The future of education appears promising, as significant advancements are being made and exciting developments are on the horizon with the aid of artificial intelligence. These advancements aim to enhance accessibility and inclusivity within the realm of education.