Let me start by introducing my daughter, Arianna. She’s now seven, and she has cerebral palsy. She’s unable to sit upright or stand and is virtually nonverbal. For more than six years, Ari communicated by visually responding to questions, expressing emotion with her face, or glancing toward something she wants.
That changed a month ago when Ari’s school sent home a the “eyegaze” device they purchased for her use. Basically, it’s what’s known as an augmentative alternative communication (AAC) device designed to allow nonverbal people to communicate by selecting tiles, drilling through a series of activities or pages with additional tiles to speak words. While the device is touch sensitive, what enables Ari’s speech is the eyegaze attachment that reads her eye position and uses that gaze information to control the mouse pointer. When Ari selects a word, it’s spoken by the device and the word appears in a sentence-building area. After adding words, Ari can then select that area to speak the sentence. If you want to see this technology in action, a short video of her first weekend home with the device follows this article.
Learning despite awkward design
Ari’s ability to communicate is limited by her accuracy. For the eyegaze device to work, Ari must gaze persistently at her choice on the screen, requiring a high degree of eye control. At times her bigger challenge is avoiding nearby icons she does not want to select. She is more than marginally able to do this, despite poor head control, by compensating with her eyes. When she does make a mistake, she alternates between correcting it immediately or navigating to a screen where she can say, “no,” and then making the correct selection. This can be exhausting, yet Ari is so motivated by being able to communicate that she spends hours at a time doing so. The result is continually improving accuracy and discovering new options quickly when they’re added.
Despite all these challenges, Ari is learning to use the eyegaze device effectively. It’s hard not to draw parallels with the workplace when motivated employees learn despite poor instructional design. While we work hard to build engagement and good design into our programs, the 99% solution isn’t always the best answer. At times, an 80% solution is appropriate. Even when we fall far short, motivated learners still find a way.
Restrictions on learning
Ari can also only communicate what’s programmed into the device, restricting what she can say. During this early learning period, the eyegaze consultant retained by the school deliberately limited access to a relatively small number of screens with tiles. Ari learned so quickly that she clearly wanted more, so we added a page full of family members, another with favorite foods, and yet another with places and rooms around our home. Getting to all of these choices requires first that she navigate through other pages and select the correct tile. As each of these were added, Ari eagerly found each and explored how to use her new speakable vocabulary.
As workplace Learning and Development (L&D) professionals, we think we know what’s best for our employees. When we package content into courses and offer it to employees, in many ways restricting how and what they can learn. We also expect them to learn in our prescribed manner and achieve our intended learning objectives. In reality, we often don’t know what they really want or need, and they will get out of our programs that which they will use. This may match some of our objectives, but may also include things we hadn’t even anticipated.
Finding new ways
I realized I was hearing odd sounds coming from the eyegaze device. When I saw what Ari was doing, I was both surprised and impressed. The system contains many screens from which Ari can choose words. Each screen also includes consistent navigation choices, and a “clear” button to clear the sentence-building area. Only on the QWERTY typing page is there is a character-delete button. What Ari had discovered is that she could put a word into the sentence area, then navigate to the QWERTY page, and then delete characters, one-by-one. Each time she deleted a character, she selected the sentence area to hear what the word now sounded like.
When I’m in an instructor-led session (which is often), I’m constantly impressed how those motivated to learn find their own pathways to learning. When materials are provided, they’re looking ahead. They’re using smart phones to research topics of interest, whether directly or tangentially related to the topic being explored. They’re on laptops looking up many pieces of information, from the organization the facilitator represents to details of the topic far beyond the confines of the classroom. More importantly, they’re talking to one another, challenging thinking, and synthesizing new knowledge. These are only a small subset of the ways learners work around L&D’s control to find new ways to learn.
I look forward to hearing more of what Ari has to say and can’t wait for the day when we have complex conversations together. Until then, I’m happily continuing to learn from my smart daughter.
Thanks for reading!
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Based on a work at tom.spiglanin.com.