By GREGORY ZELLER //
First Anne Sullivan, now this.
Fans of historical education will recall Sullivan as the gifted 19th century teacher who helped blind and deaf student (and future renowned humanitarian) Helen Keller learn to communicate – not unlike the decidedly 21st century efforts happening right now at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, where educator Stephanie Hannigan keeps a keen eye on the cutting edge.
Hannigan, a speech and language disabilities teacher with the educational cooperative of 51 Long Island school districts, is responsible for bringing the MyGaze Power eye-tracking system to Long Island – first as an uber-successful 2017 pilot program (the first in New York State), now plugging dozens of severely challenged BOCES students into a new world of opportunity.
Manufactured by U.K.-based tech firm Inclusive Technology, MyGaze Power combines hardware and software to help cognitively impaired students use a computer – essentially, allowing their eyes to act as a mouse and “click” selections.
There’s no actual clicking: Incorporating Bluetooth connectivity and a host of other technologies, MyGaze Power – which works equally well with students who wear glasses and the non-bespectacled – tracks the user’s eye movements through a bar mounted to a touchscreen, then executes the user’s selections based on super-sensitive visual scanners.
It’s some seriously next-level tech – and exactly what Hannigan, frustrated by the limitations tormenting her nonverbal and non-ambulatory students, wished for.
“A lot of them speak with their eyes,” Hannigan told Innovate LI. “Really, the only thing they can do is move their eyes.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a technology out there that allowed them to use their eye movement to access a computer?’” she added. “‘If we can teach them that their eyes do something, maybe we can teach them other communication skills.’”
Hannigan’s wish was granted by MyGaze Power, which essentially trains students to fixate on a target on a computer screen, leading to choice-making and similar concept development, all while reinforcing the eyes as communications tools.
Fellow BOCES staffers tipped her off to the U.K.-based tech, Hannigan noted, and she recruited a cross-section of in-house specialists – from vision experts to classroom teachers – for her official proposal.
But it was Hannigan’s urging that convinced Eastern Suffolk BOCES to bring in a single MyGaze Power system for a 2017 trial run, which could accurately be described as a success: Today, some 80 BOCES students at three different facilities use the tech, which has proved to be “really kind of awesome,” according to Hannigan.
“You can use this to check email, click and drag, even type things … and art programs, where the student looks at the screen and different colors appear,” she noted. “So the teachers get a new tool in the classroom, and the students get more interaction with technology.”
In addition to facilitating computer use for the severely cognitively challenged – essentially, anything a user with a mouse and keyboard can do – the system helps educators better understand each student’s individual abilities, replacing guesswork with a factual baseline.
That’s a much better starting point for therapeutic work, according to Hannigan, who noted the importance of “benchmark assessments to see where the students are starting from.”
“With this technology, we get more objective data, rather than a guess,” she said. “We get a better idea of what we can actually teach them.”
The system requires both precision tracking of the most minute eye movements (Inclusive Technology has that covered, including a built-in “heat map” that shows precisely where the student is looking) and a cognitive understanding of the cause-effect relationship created by those eye movements.
That, ultimately, is up to the student – though MyGaze Power is built to help them along, Hannigan noted.
“The software progresses up to teach [students] how moving their eyes can access the different functions,” she said. “And the software is evolving – we’re learning new programs as we go and trying new software all the time, working together on new ideas for new experiences for these kids utilizing this new technology.”
That “working together” part is key. With “more and more [BOCES faculty]” looking to be trained on MyGaze Power, the tech fosters collaboration among instructors, speech experts, physical therapists and others – providing a more holistic therapeutic package for each student, according to Hannigan.
“That was the main goal of this project – it really brings us all together,” she said. “We utilize the occupational and physical therapists to help with seating positions, and the vision teachers to help select the programs that match the child’s visual skills, and the classroom teachers to create lessons that increase communications skills in the classroom environment.
“When everyone works together, you’re creating an optimal work environment,” Hannigan added. “And you’re giving the students the best opportunity to communicate.”