By Kavitha Srinivasa
Thinkerbell Labs, a Bangalore-based ed-tech organization, dreams of democratizing access to quality education for everyone, including differently-abled individuals. Technology is at the core of this vision.
Stepping into the shoes of the visually impaired isn’t something that everyone would want to do. But that’s what Aman Srivastava and his classmates have done. These students were blindfolded during a project session, and those brief moments of darkness have given light to an unusual career. At that time, Aman was pursuing an engineering degree in computer science at the BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science) Pilani Campus in Goa, along with Sanskriti Dawle, Dilip Ramesh and Saif Shaikh.
This turning point came during a research project at a rehab centre for the visually impaired in Hyderabad. The extended session exposed them to the pedagogy and tools used in Braille learning. The project had to do with teaching Braille to visually impaired children faster. They built a Braille alphabet song box on a Raspberry Pi that received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic feedback from visually impaired students and their teachers alike. “We then figured out what a visually impaired learner requires for learning - all the teaching aids and the pedagogy around it. We then digitised the entire pedagogy to create a device and that’s how Annie was born,” said Aman, Thinkerbell Lab’s Chief Operating Officer.
Project Mudra, the research project executed over five years ago evolved into an organization focusing on inclusive education – Thinkerbell Labs, which has just completed its third year.
The ed-tech organization then created Annie. Named after Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s instructor, Thinkerbell Lab’s flagship product managed to attract attention even in its demo stage. The fact that it’s a self-learning device for visually impaired learners who needn’t depend on the availability of special educators is its winning point. Till then, the world had probably not seen such a digital literacy device for the visually impaired.
It was no surprise that Aman and his team won the Great Tech Rocketships Award in 2016 from the Department of International Trade, UK Gov. They showcased the demo to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge who learnt to type ‘George’ in Braille using Annie. Naturally, the event snowballed into an international media blitzkrieg and brought in investors. Investment has come from industrialist, Anand Mahindra, and the Indian Angel Network.
Teaching Braille is a 1-1 process between the educator and the individual. The educator needs to handhold the individual to place the finger on the dots. Learning happens alphabet-by-alphabet, in a gradual manner. To top it off, access to special educators is not ubiquitous, even in developed countries. It’s also a fact that technology intervention in Braille teaching is low, resulting in a lopsided student-teacher ratio. That’s all the more reason why Aman and his co-founders felt the need for a level playing field brought about by technological intervention in Braille learning. At Thinkerbell Labs they’ve tried to multiply the impact of special educators. The multiplier effect is created by Annie’s ability to let 1 special educator monitor and evaluate many students at the same time.
Annie is for students from 5-15 years of age and adults as well. Think of Annie as a sort of companion app. In contrast to other companion apps, Annie is audio-tactile, which lets a student learn to type, read and write on their own. Annie’s Smart Classes can be deployed in low network regions as well.
The tactile hardware modules tailored to teach, coupled with a soft human voice guiding students through lessons eliminates the need for handholding and constant supervision.
The Braille slate is digital and hence paper-free. The Braille smart class comes with an analytics platform, Helios. The educator gauges the student’s learning skills through the web app. Other than tracking the student’s progress, teachers can schedule tests and homework, and generate a report card. Evaluation is continuous and offers feedback. The digitized output is precise and quick, whereby a group of students can be monitored at a time, instead of 1-1. Teachers are convinced, as students show clear signs of learning & progress. “The kids love it. As teachers, we are able to supervise many kids as they learn at the same time,” said Rauvish Kumar, Headmaster, Government School for Blind in Ranchi.
It’s also inclusive in nature, as parents have the know-how of their child’s performance. It’s a learning ecosystem comprising of interactive content and audio-tactile features. Every device is connected to the local server, data from which is transmitted to the educator. Both Annie and Helios can work online and offline as well.
Annie has disrupted the manner in which visually impaired learning happens in India, and perhaps, the world too. Learning braille is no longer a mundane task. It is a fun-filled exercise, thanks to the gamified interactive content on Annie that manages to lift the students’ spirits and keep them engaged. Annie also comes with an exhaustive word bank, with thousands of words enabling students to build their vocabulary in English and Hindi.
Of course, such positive feedback has largely been possible due to the outreach. This happens through district collectors who have connected Thinkerbell Labs with rural schools in various states.
Convincing the schools hasn’t been difficult. The device with its teaching module itself has been quite convincing. That’s why the organization is focusing on region-specific Braille. “We map and record audios which are translated into Indian vernaculars in-house. We have a 20-member team comprising professionals of different dialects. This is then recorded by a voice artist and passed on to schools in different states,” explained Aman.
In order to fine-tune its offerings, Thinkerbell Labs leverages Braille expertise from the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad through a content partnership.
So far, Annie has enriched students in the schools in Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Telangana. Schools in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are in the pipeline. Annie is all set to spread its wings in the UK, Middle East and North America via a distribution network.
“Visually impaired students should be able to go to regular schools. Education should be inclusive in nature,” said Aman, sharing his vision.
We wish him the very best.