New assistive technology research focuses on iPad, communication skills


Most of the projects for 2010 dealt with communication skills.

Most of the grant-winning projects for 2010 deal with improving students' communication skills.


In what might result in great new strides for assistive technology, the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) has announced the winners of its “Tech in the Works 2010” competition, which funds innovative projects that pair researchers with industry vendors to improve educational outcomes for all students—and especially those with special needs.

NCTI will award $20,000 to each of four researcher-developer teams this year. Each winning team has pledged to match this amount to facilitate its research project.

“Tech in the Works,” which began in 2005, promotes collaborative research in developing innovative and emerging assistive technologies. Funding for the competition is provided by NCTI’s own grant money, which comes from the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

“The key part of this program is collaboration,” said Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, deputy director of NCTI. “What’s crucial to getting these projects from the lab to the people who need it most … is the partnership between researchers and vendors.”

The four winners this year are:

1. “Touching Lives and Creating Abilities: Social and Communication Skills with the iPad.” Researchers Scott Renner and Margaret Flores of Auburn University have partnered with PUSH Product Design to improve the social and communication skills of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using Apple’s iPad.

Taking advantage of the iPad’s large touch screen, PUSH will develop communication software and podcasts designed for the device. The communication software will target children’s communication skills, and the podcasts will target their social skills. The podcasts will display social story interventions using words, pictures, audio, and video. Once the software and podcasts are developed for the Apple iPad, Auburn University’s Assistive Technology department will assess their impact on children’s social and communication skills.

According to Renner, who heard about the contest through his university, the competition’s goal of using collaborative research to improve educational results for all students fit perfectly with the university’s new Center for Disability Research and Services.

“Being an individual with a disability, and knowing how assistive technology and other types of technology have improved my quality of life, furthers my passion to conduct research in this field,” said Renner. He said it would take about five months to collect, analyze, and compile the data into a comprehensive research report, but the development of the new software and the social stories will begin immediately and will be ready for implementation this summer. The final report will be completed by January 2011.

2. “Efficacy of the GoTalk Express 32 for Increasing Communication.” Researchers Susan M. Bashinski, Melissa Darrow Engleman, and Alana Zambone of East Carolina University have partnered with Attainment Company to examine the effect of Attainment Company’s newly developed GoTalk Express 32, a voice output communication device, on the communication rates of individual learners who have disabilities.

GoTalks are battery powered augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) devices used by people who can’t communicate well by speaking. Another person (a teacher, classmate, sibling, or friend, for example) records messages the user likely will need, and these are linked with an overlay of pictures, words, or symbols that help the user remember where to find these messages. Users can “talk” simply by pressing on a picture to play a message, allowing them—maybe for the first time—to communicate quickly and easily just by pressing a button. The Express 32 has the added ability to play multiple messages in sequence.

Bashinski, whom Attainment contacted for the competition, said her research has “consistently focused on issues associated with, and strategies for improving, the nonsymbolic and symbolic communication skills of learners who experience multiple disabilities, including deaf-blindness. One of Attainment Company’s primary foci is the development of materials for effective instruction with learners who experience intellectual disabilities; this is a perfect match with the population of learners with whom I conduct research. Nearly all participants in all of my studies do have some degree of intellectual disability.”

Bashinski said research will start immediately.

“I believe, in my soul, that all learners do communicate, and that all learners’ communication skills can be improved,” said Bashinski. “The onus is on us, as their families, friends, and educational team members to make this happen.”


Researchers: Even violent video games can be learning tools

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

You’re at the front lines shooting Nazis before they shoot you. Or, you’re a futuristic gladiator in a death match with robots. Either way, you’re playing a video game—and you might be improving your vision and other brain functions, according to research presented May 27 at a New York University conference on games as a learning tool.

“People that play these fast-paced games have better vision, better attention, and better cognition,” said Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester.

Bavelier was a presenter at a daylong symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games from NYU’s Games for Learning Institute. The event was another indication that electronic games are gaining legitimacy in the classroom. (The University of Wisconsin-Madison also hosts an annual conference on educational gaming.)

President Barack Obama recently identified the creation of good educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation,” and the federal Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton, attended the conference as well.

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

“People do learn from games,” said J. Dexter Fletcher of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Sigmund Tobias of the State University of New York at Albany said an Israeli air force study found that students who played the game “Space Fortress” had better rankings in their pilot training than students who did not.

He added that students who played “pro-social” games that promote cooperation were more likely than others to help out in real-life situations, such as intervening when someone is being harassed.

Bavelier’s research has focused on so-called first-person shooter games like “Unreal Tournament” and “Medal of Honor,” in which the player is an Allied solder during World War II.

“You have to jump into vehicles, you have to crouch and hide,” said Tammy Schachter, a spokeswoman for game developer Electronic Arts Inc.

Bavelier said playing the kill-or-be-killed games can improve peripheral vision and the ability to see objects at dusk, and the games can even be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, a disorder characterized by indistinct vision in one eye.

She said she believes the games can improve math performance and other brain tasks as well.

“We are testing this hypothesis that when you play an action video game, what you do is you learn to better allocate your resources,” she said. “In a sense you learn to learn. … You become very good at adapting to whatever is asked of you.”

Bavelier believes the games eventually will become part of school curricula, but “it’s going to take a generation.”

Schachter said the purpose of “Medal of Honor” and other games is to have fun, and any educational benefits are a bonus.

“Through entertainment, these games test your memory skills, your eye-hand coordination, your ability to detect small activities on the screen and interact with them,” she said.

Not everyone is a fan. Gavin McKiernan, the national grassroots director for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group concerned about sex and violence in the media, said that when it comes to violent video games, any positive effects are outweighed by the negative.

“You are not just passively watching Scarface blow away people,” McKiernan said. “You are actually participating. Doing these things over and over again is going to have an effect.”

Bavelier said games could be developed that would harness the positive effects of the first-person shooter games without the violence.


Report: Percentage of high-poverty schools rises

The percentage of public schools where more than three quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a key indicator of poverty—has increased in the past decade, and children at these schools are less likely to attend college or be taught by teachers with advanced degrees, reports the Associated Press. The findings come from a special report on high-poverty schools included in the 2010 Condition of Education study, which reports on a broad range of academic indicators across K-12 and higher education. The U.S. Department of Education report, released May 27, found that high-poverty schools rose from 12 to 17 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2007-08 school years, even before the current recession was fully felt. By comparison, the overall poverty rate for children increased from 17 to 18 percent, leading researchers to believe that a higher percentage of poor kids were signing up for the federal lunch program. In all, there were 16,122 schools considered high poverty. Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said students at high-poverty schools tend to start out behind their counterparts at low-poverty schools and get less support at school…

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Supreme Court gets RIAA copyright case

A case testing the meaning of the so-called “innocent infringer’s” defense to the Copyright Act’s minimum fine of $750 per music track that is downloaded or shared illegally has landed at the U.S. Supreme Court, Wired reports. The case the justices were asked to review May 26 concerns a federal appeals court’s February decision ordering a university student to pay the Recording Industry Association of America $27,750 ($750 per track) for file-sharing 37 songs when she was a high school cheerleader. That decision reversed a Texas federal judge who had ordered defendant Whitney Harper to pay $7,400 (or $200 per song). The lower court, without a trial, had granted her the innocent infringer’s exemption to the Copyright Act’s minimum fine, because the teen claimed she didn’t know she was violating copyrights. The appeals court, however, said she was not eligible for such a defense, even though she was between 14 and 16 years old when the infringing activity occurred on LimeWire. The appeals court concluded that the Copyright Act precludes such a defense if the legitimate CDs of the music in question carry copyright notices—but Harper’s attorneys argued she should get the benefit of the $200 innocent-infringer fine, because the digital files in question contained no copyright notice. The High Court justices have the option of taking the case and issuing a ruling, or declining to hear it altogether…

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Time Warner, Universal push back at iPad

Time Warner and NBC Universal have told Apple they won’t spend the time and money to rework their Flash-friendly video libraries to make them compatible with the iPad, CNET reports. CNET’s story refers to a report in the New York Post, which cites unnamed sources. Apple’s iPad has roared off shelves in the United States since its U.S. introduction in April, helping the company move past long-time nemesis Microsoft in market value. But some say the power has gone to the company’s head, and they point to Apple’s tussle with Adobe Systems over Adobe’s Flash software as one indication. The iPad doesn’t support Flash, an all-but-omnipresent application for creating and viewing web-based animation and video. Apple says the software is proprietary, outdated, insecure, and unstable—but the pushback from Time Warner and Universal could indicate a growing frustration with Apple’s need for control. Still, many other major media entities, including Disney, CBS, CNN, and Fox News, offer at least some iPad-compatible content…

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Privacy groups say Facebook changes don’t go far enough

Facebook’s new privacy changes haven’t been enough to satisfy its most vocal critics, CNET reports. A group of privacy activist groups said in a joint conference call on May 27 that they’re hardly ready to declare a truce, even after Facebook simplified its privacy settings for users—including slicing the number of settings from 50 to around 15 and consolidating seven pages of choices into three pages. Most, if not all, of the groups on the call have been lobbying for new government rules targeting social-networking sites. The Federal Trade Commission is considering just that, with an announcement expected late this year, and related legislation is being drafted in the House of Representatives. “We want legislation to address this massive and stealth data collection that has emerged,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, adding that he wants “opt-in” instead of “opt-out” data sharing. In an interview with CNET, Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt rejected that argument: “I’d say that our efforts to educate our users have been pretty unprecedented. We required more than 350 million users to go through a process that required them to check their privacy settings.”

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3D gaming firm, Duke Medical School team up for virtual training

Virtual Heroes, a Raleigh, N.C.-based firm that focuses on so-called serious games technology for use in education and training, has teamed up with Duke University School of Medicine to use virtual reality and 3D technology for medical training, LocalTechWire reports. The two organizations have collaborated to develop a first-person video game (3DiTeams) for use in medical education. On May 27, the two said they would partner on efforts to further develop training tools. “This partnership brings together two world-class organizations with complementary resources and a shared commitment to advancing and improving medical education and training,” said Jeffrey Taekman, assistant dean for educational technology at Duke…

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Software could ease pain of Windows 7 migration

InstallFree says their technology is less about virtualization and more about problem-solving.

InstallFree says its technology is less about virtualization and more about problem-solving.

The migraine-inducing process of migrating Windows from XP to 7 could get easier now that virtualization developer InstallFree has released InstallFree Bridge 2.0, a program that reportedly eliminates software compatibility issues.

InstallFree said this latest product should help speed up the migration of schools and businesses to Windows 7. Bridge 2.0 does this by giving users the ability to run older versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and other applications on Microsoft’s newest operating system—a process the company calls the “application repackaging business.” (Read “School IT chiefs mull Windows 7.”)

InstallFree says its software creates isolated, modular, and portable virtual applications that can run on any version of Windows and be updated on the fly. These applications integrate seamlessly with the user’s environment and communicate with the operating system (OS) and other applications without making any changes to the underlying OS file system or registry, according to the company.

“The typical problem is that you install an app, and it isn’t compatible with another app or program or breaks that app or program. By isolating these applications, these problems won’t happen anymore,” said Alon Yaffe, director of marketing for InstallFree.

Even though Windows 7 has an “XP Mode,” which allows users to run a virtual edition of XP from inside Windows 7, Yaffe said this mode is more of a “one-off, or niche solution,” that isn’t effective if you have multiple conflicting applications.


Win more than $10,000 by balancing technology and the environment

Each year, The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation provides grants of up to $10,580 (a symbolic amount representing the cost of the Spirit of St. Louis) to men and women whose individual initiative and work in a wide spectrum of disciplines furthers the Lindberghs’ vision of a balance between the advance of technology and the preservation of the natural/human environment.


Win up to $10,000 to nonprofits that connect with teens

The Best Buy Foundation created @15, a style of philanthropy that focuses on people who are important to business and society. Through the @15 Community Grants Program, Best Buy teams across the United States select nonprofit organizations that provide positive experiences designed to help teens excel in school, engage in their communities, and develop leadership skills. This year, Best Buy Children’s Foundation will give a total of $2 million through the program. Special consideration will be given to programs that serve a diverse population in local or regional communities; build social, academic, leadership, and/or life skills in early adolescents (ages 13-18); show positive results against a demonstrated community need; and reach at-risk children in working families.