2000 Conference Proceedings

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LIBERATED LEARNING PROJECT:
Improving Access for Persons with Disabilities in Higher Education Using Speech Recognition Technology

David Leitch, Ph.D.
Project Director/Chair

Keith Bain
Project Manager

Atlantic Centre
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

 



The LIBERATED LEARNING PROJECT is a unique application of speech recognition technology as a tool for assisting students with disabilities in the university classroom. The Atlantic Centre of Research, Access and Support for Students with Disabilities at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia in conjunction with a consortium of universities and industry partners, is working to provide greater access to university lecture content for all students. The main objectives of the project are to develop and evaluate a model of using automated speech recognition in the university classroom and to focus global attention on this concept as a method improving access for persons with disabilities.


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The Atlantic's Center at Saint Mary's University has been responding to the needs of students with disabilities for nearly two decades. A major thrust of our response is understanding the role technology plays in mediating the integration of persons with disabilities into higher education. Since its inception, the Atlantic Centre has advocated and advanced the use of technology to level the playing field for our students. For the past decade we have carefully and critically watched the development of speech recognition technology, believing that one day it may revolutionize the learning experience for students with disabilities. The introduction of true continuous speech recognition products with large, expandable vocabularies engendered a commitment from Saint Mary's to explore the concept further. Thus, a world first initiative- the LIBERATED LEARNING Pilot Project (1998) was born.

In the fall of 1998, after intensive voice training on computers, three Saint Mary’s professors, wearing cordless microphones, utilized speech recognition software (voice-to-text) in their classroom. Their spoken lectures were digitized and simultaneously translated into text via speech recognition software, then displayed on a large screen at the front of the classroom. Students could not only hear the lecture, but also see the lecture as it was delivered. More importantly, they could also obtain a nearly verbatim transcript in either hard or disk copy for study purposes.


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The initial testing of this application for speech recognition was enlightening. Our brief exposure to the concept suggested it could indeed provide an alternative to conventional note taking for students with disabilities. Serendipitously, we also noticed that non disabled students were using the instantaneous display of the lecture as a reference check for their own notes- the concept gave students access to both auditory and visual learning channels, helping them better integrate the lecture content. They could use the software-generated notes to embellish or augment their own notes. Therefore the successful application of speech recognition technology was seen to have valuable implications for every student in the classroom.

Now, with recently approved funding from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, a group of international partners are laying the groundwork for a three-year development of the LIBERATED LEARNING concept. Because of the considerable interest from Canadian and international universities alike, Saint Mary's University will be collaborating with several institutions in a close working relationship. These strategic alliances will help develop and test multi-applications of speech recognition in the classroom.


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PROJECT STRUCTURE: COLLABORATION

Saint Mary’s has recruited several implementation and research partners that are essential to the success of the Project, including IBM, Maritime Telephone and Telegraph (MTT), University of Southampton, UK, University of Texas At Austin, and Ryerson Polytechnic University. Representatives from each institute will collaboratively forge the project's development, from the initial planning stages through to the in-class trials and beyond. An independent Evaluative Team will evaluate the project on expected outcomes and the methods employed to arrive at these outcomes.

The LIBERATED LEARNING PROJECT features a unique mandate to recruit additional national and international partners. We are particularly interested in the more universal application of the concept and hope to forge an implementation model capable of making a difference for students and faculty alike around the world.


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TECHNOLOGY

This visionary concept requires intensive technology and technological support. IBM’s industry leading speech recognition software, superior computer systems and other interactive devices will be the tools employed to meet our objectives. IBM’s Human Language Technologies Division will provide their expertise to analyze the efficiencies of the technology and its effect on teaching and learning. MTT will develop a sophisticated communications support structure, ensuring the ability of participants to share text, audio and voice data through a global web-based telecommunications system.


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WHERE TRADITION MEETS THE FUTURE

It was 120 years ago that Alexander Graham Bell, who had strong ties to Nova Scotia, began experimenting with voice recognition to help the Deaf. It seems fitting that a Nova Scotia university is assuming a major role in advancing speech recognition to help persons with disabilities in the classroom. We believe that speech recognition technology may potentially revolutionize the way students and professors interact in a university environment. It has the potential to spark exciting and unprecedented outcomes for both students and faculty. It is our hope that this innovative concept will be a stepping stone in developing and nurturing an educational environment free of boundaries, where all students have equal opportunity to pursue their educational aspirations.


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