'How Was School Today?'
'How Was School Today?' is the name of a piece of Scottish software/hardware developed with the spress aim of facilitation the possibility of allowing disabled children with severe communication impediments to take control of and manipulate the flow of conversation. In essence including them in activities they would otherwise be marginalised in, and forcing their inclusion in a general social mix.
The system is the result of a year long collaborative project between computing scientists from the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen and Capability Scotland. Obviously the capabilities are fairly limited, as it is an initial study, and the program's capabilities are focussed around just one subject: Taking about school. Still, it is an extremely healthy step in the correct direction for better integration of those with social/speech difficulties.
Dr Ehud Reiter, from the University of Aberdeen's School of Natural and Computing Sciences said: 'How was school today? uses sensors, swipe cards, and a recording device to gather information on what the child using the system has experienced at school that day. This can then be turned into a story by the computer - using what is called natural language generation - which the pupils can then share when they get home.'
'The system is designed to support a more interactive narration, allowing children to easily talk about their school day and to quickly answer questions.'
Its mostly designed for wheelchair users as the hardware component is intended to clip onto the frame of the wheelchair itself. However, this is not a core requirement, and a different attachment mechanism is not a big deal. It does need to be attached to something however, as it involves a sensor which tracks and records where they are going within their school day. Swipe cards are then used by the teachers or carers who interact with the child to tell the system who the child has met and what activity they have been involved in.
A sound recorder also integrated allows notes to be made by the child, or by others the child has come into contact with, in order to better pad out the day.
Natural language generation is used to convert the sensor data into English, e.g. if the sensor data places the child in the hall at 1.30pm, the system would generate a sentence such as 'After lunch I went to the hall'.
Sue Williams, headteacher at Corseford said: 'In the week we used the system we found it very useful to pupils, teachers, therapists and parents alike. It allows children to take control of the conversation without having to rely on help from us.'
Rolf Black from the University of Dundee's School of Computing explained: 'For a child with severe motor disabilities and limited or no speech, holding a conversation is often very difficult and limited to short one to two word answers.'
'To tell a longer story a communication device is often needed to form sentences but this can be very time consuming, putting a lot of strain on holding and controlling the conversation.'
Plans are now in place to further evaluate the system to examine how it could be used to support children with different levels and types of impairments, and widened out to incorporate conversations around other themes.
After the promising results and overwhelming support at Corseford, the prototype is to be used with more children over a longer period of time. The pupils who have already trialled the technology are delighted to have the chance to test it again.