Making It Real in Assistive Technology

Presentation slide about the glove prototype stage 1, with several photos.

Students in 6.811 Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology develop their projects in close collaboration with individual clients, learning about their needs and preferences. (Slide courtesy of MIT students. Used with permission.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

In conventional thinking, the “real world” is a different space from the undergraduate experience.  In fact, one of the great challenges of education remains how to make theoretical, “book” learning relevant to the practical problems people face every day.

6.811 Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology breaks through this boundary, “to tap into the interest of undergraduate students to work on service learning projects or to apply their design and engineering skills to something meaningful,” in the words of co-instructor William Li.

The syllabus for 6.811 sums it up nicely: “an interdisciplinary, project-based course, centered around a design project in which small teams of students work closely with a person with a disability in the Cambridge area to design a device, piece of equipment, app, or other solution that helps them live more independently.”

User-centered, Iterative Design

The focus is on user-centered design. The students must get to know their clients well, understand their problems and concerns, and make productive use of their feedback on iterations of prototypes. The challenges are varied, substantial, and pressingly real. For instance:

  • An attachment to enable the user of forearm crutches to carry a coffee mug without spilling
  • A glove to alert a user when her grip is slipping
  • A framework to enable a sightless person to sign legal documents in ink
  • An app to enable a person in a wheelchair to navigate a college campus reliably and efficiently
  • A call-button app that allows users to request urgent or non-urgent assistance using their iPad

The solutions must be functional, inexpensive, and lasting. Not easy!

Students on the Student Experience

The OCW course site captures the student experience in videos of student presentations at mid-term and semester’s end. The mid-term presentations included video portraits of the clients, a review of the various ideas that had been brainstormed, and metrics for success. Final presentations reported on the latest iteration of the solutions. All presentations were given before a review panel of experts on engineering and assistive technology, who provided key feedback.

A number of students shared their thoughts about the course in video interviews conducted at the final class session. Their remarks can be inspiring: “If there’s one thing that PPAT has taught me, it’s that a disability isn’t a good enough reason to stop doing anything.”

The rewards of the course can be huge. Beth Hadley, one of the students on Team Margaret, which developed the call-button app in Fall 2014, continued to collaborate with her client after the semester ended. The refined app, called InstaAid, is now “the preferred communication for residents to reach assistance in any location” at The Boston Home, according to its CEO Marva Serotkin. The app can be downloaded for free on iTunes and uses open-source code.  The Boston Globe reported  that the app “won a major award from AT&T and New York University’s Connect Ability Challenge, a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Instructor Insights

The lead instructors of 6.811, William Li and Grace Teo, reflect on their own experience and how they taught the course in video interviews on the course site’s This Course at MIT page. They had their own practical challenges, such as how to identify clients willing to work productively with student teams, how to help students face failure as part of the iterative design process, how to assess students in a project-based course, and more.

As Grace says, teaching the course isn’t “so much about knowledge of subject material, or knowledge of a specific skill, but just the ability to facilitate learning, which a lot of times just comes down to knowing how to ask the right questions of what is needed at this moment to help my student learn and succeed, and being able to answer their questions.”

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