Sofia: Seeing in lectures and seminars

August 14, 2017

How can a visually impaired student see the board in lectures and seminars? Here I explain how I solved this problem and was able to follow along in theoretical physics lectures.  

 

In a lecture or seminar, I typically can't see what's written on the blackboard (yes, in physics we do still occasionally use blackboards). When I started my university degree, my biggest challenge was figuring out how I could follow the lectures in real-time. In this post, I'm going to tell you how I solved this problem.

 

First a little background though, so you can see where I'm coming from. When I was younger and still in school, I was able to follow along pretty well in the lessons. I usually sat at the front of the class and could see the general shape of the writing and figures that were drawn on the board. I also have good auditory memory and have learned to take notes at the same time as the teacher speaks. By piecing together the auditory information and what I could see on the board I was able to understand the content and obtain good grades.

 

Things changed when I went to university to study physics. There is a lot more material to get through in one single term than in school. As a result, the pace is much higher. This might not have been a problem were it not for the nature of physics - just listening didn't work anymore since it is extremely hard to understand mathematics by listening alone. For example, if the lecturer says "x times y squared", does he or she mean xy^2 or (xy)^2? The meaning is not clear, and the more complex the equations become, the harder it is to distinguish them correctly by hearing alone.

 

   "The solution that worked for me was to use a

     commercial video camera connected to a small

     external screen. I would point the camera at the board

     and stream the content to the screen."

 

As a result, I needed something that would allow me to follow the lectures in real-time. I should mention here that the university did record the lectures and made them available online. I could have used them for learning since I was able to zoom in on the board in the video, but I decided against it because I preferred attending the lectures in person. Another alternative would have been to attend the lectures and then supplement them with the recordings, but this would have required a significant time-commitment on my part, which wasn't possible with the additional workload placed on us.

 

The solution that worked for me was to use a commercial video camera connected to a small external screen. I would point the camera at the board and stream the content to the screen. With a decent optical zoom, I would use the camera zoom function to increase the content on the board to such a size that I could comfortably read it on the screen.

 

I actually started off with quite a bulky camera that we had lying around at home, just to see if it would work. Connecting it to my laptop via firewire (a connection type which is now discontinued) allowed me to stream the camera output to the computer. Later I invested in a smaller, cheaper camera that would connect to an external screen with an HDMI cable. The screen is basically a small surveillance camera screen but it works remarkably well for this purpose too.  I also bought a small tripod to steady the camera and raise it up a bit. This allowed me to swiftly move it around and keep it steadily focused on various sections of the board.

 

Using the system, I was able to follow the lectures perfectly; the camera allowed me to see equations written on the blackboard, the contents of PowerPoint slides (which saved me from chasing the lecturers and ask them for the slides in advance) and even small experiments carried out by the lecturers at the front of the lecture theatre. It was sometimes a bit fiddly having to move the camera at the same time as taking notes, but it was worth it. It also worked well in seminars, although the positioning of the camera was a bit more challenging compared to in a lecture theatre - the setup works best for larger rooms.

 

There are actually cameras that have been built specifically with visually impaired people in mind which are classed as assistive technology. In Sweden, I was able to get one of these for free and test it, but they usually cost around £2,000, which is a lot of money. Unfortunately, I found this camera to be way too bulky. It weighed around 5 kg and would not fit into my backpack. It also required there to be a hole in the table, which made it rather inconvenient for quick setups. It came with all this nice functionality though - controls for increasing the contrast, taking snapshots during the lecture and recording the material. For me, the mobility was the most important thing - it means that I could also easily move it from room to room. It meant I had to invest in my own camera, but it was worth it.

 

A disadvantage of using the camera is the limited battery life. I had to remember to charge it every night between days with lectures, which I sometimes forgot. The camera had a battery life of about 1.5 hours and the screen lasted for 3 hours. Fortunately, I would rarely have more than 3 hours of consecutive lectures, which meant that I could charge the camera over the lunch break. Fortunately, some of the lecture theatres had plugs in specific places, which allowed me to charge the camera during the lecture.

 

Since technology does sometimes fail, the university also helped me by also paying a PhD student to take notes during the lectures for courses where notes were not provided. This helped me a lot, since I would sometimes be too slow in moving the camera and take notes at the same time, or if the battery unexpectedly ran out.

 

To summarise, using the camera to see the board worked out really well for me. Aside from the lectures, I also used it to record various music events around campus. In the end, this system will not suit anyone, but for students with low vision who need to see the board, this is certainly a viable option.

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