New Math-to-Speech Technologies to Help Blind and Visually Impaired Students Master Mathematics

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Princeton, N.J. (May 24, 2011) —

Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Design Science have announced they are working jointly to modify MathType™ and MathPlayer™, so that classroom materials, tests and other documents containing mathematical content may be clearly spoken by computers. This new math-to-speech technology will provide students who are blind or have other visual impairments the tools they need to learn, practice, and take math and science tests on a more equal footing with their classroom peers.

Some of the country's leading subject-matter experts and developers of assistive technology for students who are blind or visually impaired, will assist on the project which begins July 1, 2011, and is supported by a $1.5 million Institute of Education Sciences grant.

"Existing assistive technology that provides synthetic speech for electronic text does at best a limited job of making math accessible for this group of students," explains Lois Frankel, an ETS Assessment Specialist and the leader of the effort. "The current technology falls short because it generally does not ‘know' how to describe mathematical expressions, especially in a way that provides access to their nonlinear structure.

"ETS and Design Science will work together to enhance MathPlayer, the tool that voices the math encoded in MathML, so that it sounds more like what students — particularly those in Algebra I — are used to hearing," Frankel says. "We also plan to work on a number of customizations to MathType, including a feature to allow teachers and other users to select how mathematical expressions are described. For example, they could select whether the machine says ‘four over five' or ‘four fifths.' Another customization we plan to add is keyboard navigation that allows blind or visually impaired users to go back and replay voiced segments in mathematically meaningful ‘chunks.' Our goal is to provide students and teachers with a better system for voicing mathematical notation that includes some truly useful functionality."

"It has been a long-term Design Science goal to make math accessible, and our team has been working hard at it for over six years," said Neil Soiffer, Senior Scientist at Design Science. "It's a great opportunity to be partnering with an organization the stature and importance of ETS, to push the state-of-the-art forward."

Working with Frankel and Soiffer on the effort are ETS Assessment Specialist Beth Brownstein, Research Scientist Eric Hansen, and Senior Research Scientist Cara Laitusis. Among the other organizations and consultants who will take part in the project are:

  • De Witt & Associates, specializes in accessibility training, learning systems and support, and will provide advice on the implementation of MathML accessibility tools and assist in the development of training modules for students and teachers.
  • GW Micro, a leading firm in the adaptive technology industry, will modify its Window-Eyes screen reader software to work seamlessly with the tools developed by the project.
  • Jim Allan, the accessibility coordinator and webmaster for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
  • Maylene Bird, a teacher of mathematics to visually impaired students at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
  • Christine Hinton, a Program Development Specialist for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, will help recruit student participants from inclusive schools in New Jersey.
  • Gaylen Kapperman, a professor with a visual disability, with specialization in research and development projects pertaining to mathematics instruction and assistive technology used by individuals who are blind or are visually impaired.
  • Abraham Nemeth, the author of The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation and a blind expert in making mathematics accessible to blind individuals.
  • Susan Osterhaus, a secondary mathematics teacher and statewide math accessibility expert at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

"The criteria for success in this project will be three-fold," explains Marisa Farnum, Vice President of Assessment Development at ETS. "First, will students using the tailored tools over the status quo be better able to solve algebra problems at an appropriate level? And, are they better able to correctly identify the structure of algebra-level math expressions when using the tools? Second, will math teachers be able to use the authoring tools developed by this project to quickly and easily create math materials that are accessible to their students with visual impairments? And finally, do the teachers and students who participate as subjects in these development efforts find the tools provided usable and convenient?"

About ETS

At nonprofit ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. www.ets.org.

About Design Science

Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Long Beach, California, Design Science develops software used by educators, scientists and publishing professionals, including MathType, Equation Editor in Microsoft Office, MathFlow, MathDaisy and MathPlayer, to communicate on the web and in print. For more information please visit www.dessci.com.