The Seed for our Project:
A Graduate Seminar Based on Collaboration between Computer Science Students, Faculty and People with Cognitive Impairments

In the spring of 2000, the mutual interests of Professors Fickas and Sohlberg at the University of Oregon led to the formation of a graduate seminar for students in advanced software engineering. In particular, the following grad students participated in the seminar:

The seminar was conducted with the help of several persons with brain injury and their caregivers and written up as a model course demonstrating the effectiveness of multidisciplinary teaching collaboration.

The seminar focused on developing assistive technology to address social isolation problems faced by people with cognitive difficulties. Three of the clients and one of their caregivers from Dr. Sohlberg's clinic acted as consultants to the seminar students providing feedback to their developments. Clients had two kinds of isolation problems: 1) difficulty writing and keeping in touch with friends and family and 2) inability to independently access the community and venture into the community unattended.

The students in the course worked to develop a web-enabled distributed system prototype that supported both e-mail interaction and a travel assistant device to be worn while navigating city streets. More generally, the components of the computer prototypes included:

A cyberevaluation component: Students built a tool to evaluate a user's cyberspace skill set (i.e., the user's ability to use internet tools such as e-mail) The user interacted with the evaluation tool through a web interface,responding to a set of tasks. The outcome of the evaluation was coded and stored in a user profile. Examples of skill sets that were evaluated included cognitive skills (e.g., ability to learn the procedures) and physical abilities (e.g., ability to read the screen, depress keys etc.)

An e-mail toolkit: Instead of supplying a single e-mail system, the students built a toolkit that allows construction of a family of e-mail systems. The goals were to begin the process of building a tailored e-mail toolkit matching the skillset of the user. The output of the cyberevaluation system guided the construction of the e-mail tools.

A travel assistant: The goal of this component was to store navigation information, the destination of the user, and to use Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide the user to the destination. The device was capable of wireless internet connection, and could call for help if a user wandered off course or pushed a panic button.

After the seminar concluded, Fickas and Sohlberg evaluated the results with input from the student and class consultants with cognitive impairments and drew the following conclusions:

  1. While the travel assistant component was interesting, social isolation needs could be addressed more quickly by focusing on the e-mail applications.
  2. The process of incorporating multidisciplinary perspectives (cognitive rehabilitation, users/caregivers, and computer scientists) in the design and evaluation of e-mail prototypes was very effective.
  3. The complexity and importance of user acceptance of assistive technology and caregiver support was critical and needs further study. Increasing understanding requires longitudinal data gathered by observing users in naturalistic settings over time.
  4. The prototypes that came out of the seminar provided enough of a proof of concept to warrant further exploration.

These conclusions encouraged Drs. Fickas and Sohlberg to form a preliminary collaborative research group. They conducted an exploratory pilot project described on this Web Site over the summer (2000) to hone in on the research questions of import and gain a broader perspective of research problems and opportunities.