Eye Gaze for Special Needs Classrooms
Eye gaze can be the most direct form of access and communication.
Eye gaze technology is opening up a world of possibilities for students with complex instructional needs due to cognitive, communication, physical, sensory even visual impairments (see below).
In a classroom or resource room, eye gaze systems can offer new opportunities for learning and communication. Educators, therapists and parents have been astonished as to what's possible, how quickly their students could progress.
Not all your students will benefit. Just like not all your students will be switch or touch or mouse users. And not all students who can use eye gaze for an early learning activity will go on to use eyegaze all the time to communicate and learn.
But eye gaze is so direct, so intuitive that it can be a powerful shared access method for many of your students, opening-up profound learning experiences.
Explore the stories, videos and articles below to learn about a whole new world of possibilities for the special needs classroom and high instructional needs student.
Delve deeper into eye gaze in the classroom with resources, tops, and strategies form the Bridges Blog:
Try eye gaze technology for yourself at our next Bridges LIVE!
Join us for one of our eye gaze webinars.
Components of an eye gaze system
Successful eye gaze depends on more than just a camera.
Bridges EyeLearn Packages assemble the essential components for successful eye gaze implementation in the classroom based on our, almost, a decade of experience with this technology. See it all working together or click on the individual components described below.
|EyeLearn Desktop Package||EyeLearn Rolling Package|
Flexible mounting means you can easily move the camera to target different students' eyes. The mount pictured above just swings into place and can be easily adjusted to different positions for different students from reclining wheelchair, to standing.
2. Computer and Monitor
This can be a laptop, tablet or desktop running full Windows 7 or higher. If you already have a computer, you can attach the camera to that or to an external monitor. New USB monitors have no need for external power -- one cable runs to the computer. But you can use most existing monitors too. To mount securely, monitors need to be VESA wall mount compliant.
Software specifically designed for eye gaze and early learning, with ready made activities designed to build skills:
Other learning software that is ready for eye gaze access:
Customizable software for communication and computer access for writing, texting, web browsing, and all you expect a computer to do.
4. Eye Gaze Camera
Eye Gaze cameras track the movement of a user’s eye to direct the mouse cursor’s movement. Eye gaze cameras plug into a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port on Windows computers (currently there are no eye gaze cameras for special needs access that will run on iPads, Chromebooks, Android tablets, or Mac PC’s).
Cameras come with their own software and drivers for calibration, and other settings.
Calibration is typically done once for a user and takes just a few seconds.Different calibrations for different users can be saved. So in a classroom you can have multiple users using the same eye gaze package for different activities.
Factors that can determine an individual calibration include: size and shape of the eye area, glasses, uncontrolled head movement as well as other factors.
As recently as a few years ago, uncontrolled head movements (such as you might see in a student with cerebral palsy), lazy eye or strabismus, or a small eye opening would be severely limiting factors for the potential effectiveness of eye gaze.
Camera technology has improved dramatically even while prices have dropped significantly. There are no prerequisite skill with eye gaze. Trying out the technology is the best way to know if it can work for your student.
To generate a mouse “click” you use a dwell setting, blink activation or an external switch. By far the most popular option for high instructional needs students is dwell. You look at the target, and the target is activated based on how long the “dwell” is set for.
For students with emerging eye gaze skills or just beginning with eyegaze, the dwell period is usually set very short -- a fraction of a second -- to make it clear the link between looking and triggering an action on the screen.
For other users an animation, like a wheel or closing circle, pops-up to keep the gaze focused for activation. Dwell of around 2 seconds is common. But an extra half, or tenth of a second either way, can make a big difference for a user's efficiency depending on their preferences.
Why Eye Gaze for Early Learning?
We try to connect individuals with disabilities -- physical, cognitive, sensory – to computers because they are such powerful and flexible tools. They can speak things out loud, help us make choices, read, write, listen to music, watch movies, play games, communicate over large distances, shop and a lot more.
And like switches, joysticks, touch, keyboards, etc., eye gaze is just another potential access method for those with physical disabilities. However, for many students with profound physical and cognitive needs, eye gaze as an access method is proving to be:
- Less fatiguing
- Less restrictive
than any other alternative access method.
Eyes are the most direct access
We look into a person’s eyes for recognition, emotion, connection and direction. For most people, even those with profound visual impairments, eyes also indicate direction and intention.
Let’s go back to computer access.
Q: What is it you do before you decide to make something move on a computer screen?
A: You look at it.
And when you want to move it, you glance at where it’s supposed to go. There is nothing more direct than that.
Using a switch, or even touch on a tablet, requires motor skills to be trained and developed that are specific to that access method. But for a learner who has to overcome significant physical, cognitive and sensory obstacles to learn and communicate their learning, eye gaze has the potential to deliver access with the least amount of skill building and practice compared to any other access method.
Failed Access = Failed Learning
Experienced teachers have seen how failure with the access method can lead to frustration and withdrawal from attempts to communicate and learn.
That's why we've seen students who try eye gaze are engaging in amazing new ways - the cognitive load is taken off the access method and applied to the learning and communicating.
We ultimately want our students to focus their attention on the learning content of the activity and be able to communicate and participate -- not for the focus to be on the means of access. Practice so far shows a relatively short learning curve for many students introduced to eye gaze, particularly when compared to students mastering good switch access skills.
That is why, in special needs classrooms with eye gaze, we’re hearing things like "I had no idea what was going on in his head!” and "I’m going to re-write her IEP, tonight. I have to.”
Elements of Eye Gaze
Communicating with eye gaze is not a tiered process. Instead, each element supports the others in an ongoing cycle of development, inclusion, and learning.
An individual can have physical issues with their eyes and still experience success even if:
- they wear glasses
- they wear contact lenses
- have one functional eye
For early eye gaze users, use one calibration setting for everyone. With big images and targets, one general setting can be used for most students, making the technology easy to use for several students in a classroom.
You can always calibrate for students who are having more difficulty or for instances where activities need finer targeting.
Vision Assessment for the Non-Verbal
Picture a non-verbal student with an IEP that says "blind" or "visually impaired."
But what does that mean? How much can the student see? How to best take advantage of the remaining site? Even medical information like "optic nerve atrophy or "cortical VI" doesn't let you know what the student actually sees.
This is a problem that teachers, care-givers and therapists, often confront.
We know that the vast majority of individuals who are classified as "blind" have a significant amount of usable sight. We need to take full advantage of all senses and any vision for successful alternative and augmentative communication.
But eye exams for most people is a trial and error process where the client communicates to the practitioner what option is best. How can we know what sort of vision we're dealing with, without feedback and cues from the individual?
So someone with a communication disability and visual impairment runs into a chicken/ egg type conundrum:
- How do we develop alternative augmentative communication (AAC) without aiding vision?
- How do we aid vision without effective AAC?
Eye Gaze Analysis - See what the client sees
Eye gaze analysis software shows you what the student can follow with their eyes. You can try different options, like changing contrast, position of objects within their field of view. The heatmap or track map of where the subject's eyes went during an activity communicates what the client sees without the client having to describe anything.
The heat maps in Figure 1 suggest that the student may have vision trouble in the top right quadrant.
Figure 2: Line Trace recordings demonstrate where a student looked on the screen and how much they moved their eyes around the screen. Useful when observing searching behaviours.
Figure 3: Heat maps are particularly useful in quickly showing eye movement patterns (e.g. smooth pursuit in tracking activities) and can show at a glance where a student’s focus of attention is.
Eye gaze can help gain insight into the visual and cognitive processing of our students. We can observe:
- how our students respond to different stimuli and prompts;
- the physical location of where the student can best see objects and text (left side, right side, horizontal, vertical, etc.)
- what attracts their attention on screen and motivates them to participate;
- movement patterns that may point to preferences and understanding.
This can dramatically change what you can do with the student, and how you approach teaching, learning, and communication.
As one teacher told us with the eye gaze camera and gaze analysis tools, "I finally understood what the student saw. I realized I had to change the layout of the communication boards, and where I positioned them so he could actually see the messages… I had to completely rewrite his IEP!”