In this project, it's obvious the children were engaged in the learning process and interacted with the objects in a natural way. The technology became a facilitator, not a distracter.
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Hammond (Vocus) September 2, 2009
In a unique approach to deaf education, two members of Southeastern's education faculty are using technology common in logistics and supply chain management to improve instruction in sign language for young deaf children.
With a $390,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, assistant professors Robert Hancock and Becky Sue Parton are looking to build on their earlier research that combines radio frequency identification (RFID) technology with common objects in a goal to help deaf children learn American Sign Language (ASL) more efficiently.
The two-year grant was one of six ''Steppingstones of Technology'' grants awarded by the Education Department nationwide.
Using ''physical world hyperlinking,'' a term used to describe the process of connecting digital data on a computer and real-world objects, the researchers are constructing an initial set of 500 objects with RFID tags. When waved in front of an RFID reader, the tags - which are really small antennae - trigger a computer to respond with instructional content, such as a video of a human interpreter signing the word and several photos or other images of the object.
"Most parents of deaf children don't know sign language and unfortunately never learn to be fluent in it," said Parton, a specialist in deaf education. "That's why these children tend to fall five or six years behind in language acquisition. We're hoping this system will enable the children to pick up ASL vocabulary directly, as a supplement to peer and teacher interactions, just like kids use LeapFrog products and similar educational games. We can use this in a classroom environment and also send it home with the children."
Traditionally deaf children learn sign language by coupling objects in a classroom environment with simple drawings to depict the corresponding signs. This also usually involves intensive teacher guidance, Parton explained.
"We recognized that technology could provide a valuable and viable component of deaf education," she added.
In an earlier pilot project, Parton and Hancock developed LAMBERT (Language Acquistion Manipulatives Blending Early-childhood Research and Technology), a small-budget effort that involved the development of a set of 25 frequently used words for children in the three to four-year-old range. Working with pre-schoolers at the Louisiana School for the Deaf in Baton Rouge, they used simple concrete nouns as the basis for 15 to 20-second multimedia presentations.
"A pre-schooler picks up an object, like a plastic apple, and waves it in front of the RFID reader," explained Hancock. "This triggers the presentation on a computer screen that includes a video of a human interpreter signing the word with an image of the object superimposed."
What follows in the next several seconds are three to five photos or clipart images of variations of the object, such as a red and green apple or a male and female lion, a video of an animated character signing the word beside the object, the written English translation for print recognition, and an audio pronunciation for hard-of-hearing children.
"First and foremost, it is very user friendly, both for teachers and students of all functional abilities," said Susannah Ford, a teacher at the Louisiana School for the Deaf who has used the pilot version for the past six months. "A simple touch of a card activates the program, and this grabs the students' attention. The video and graphics are varied, colorful and animated, and the children love that."
"In our pilot study, the kids rotated to various stations to play with the toys," Parton explained. "We were amazed at how quickly they picked up the process due to their age. Their teacher showed them in a group how to use the toys, and the kids picked it up immediately. You could see their noticeable excitement as they used the various objects, and often they would sign along with the video because they were familiar with most of the vocabulary.
"Children learn by exploring their surroundings, usually through play," she added. "In this project, it's obvious the children were engaged in the learning process and interacted with the objects in a natural way. The technology became a facilitator, not a distracter."
"It's a hands-on approach, which is truly the best way for deaf students to learn and acquire language," Ford added.
The new version will allow the output to be projected onto a Smart Board rather than on individual monitors to foster a more collaborative, group-oriented teaching environment. Parton and Hancock are also in the process of installing the system on smaller, more portable laptops, which would be available for students to take home.
"The mobile kits would allow students and parents to be able to acquire sign language together in the home," Ford added. "The parents are quite excited about this. They love the portability and feel that it's a great learning tool that can compete with the TV and computer games that often grab their children's attention."
In addition to the project at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, the program is also being tested around the state with parents who have deaf children who do not attend the school.
Parton and Hancock also are evaluating the possible expansion of vocabulary to include words other than nouns.
"We believe this will spawn a debate on what is the best reinforcements we can use in the videos," said Hancock, who was named Post Secondary Teacher of the Year by the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators in 2007. "The technology and its use in this setting is so new that there are a lot of areas that need refinement. Right now we're still at the very basic stage of answering the question, 'Is this really going to help?' We have a very strong feeling that it will."
Available online at http://www.selu.edu/news_media/news_releases