Friday, November 28, 2008

Spore: Experiencing Evolution

A hugely anticipated PC game, Spore - was launched worldwide in September this year. This game has not only enthralled many kids and adults alike around the world, but also got educators talking about the value of this game in education - to help children learn about the concept of evolution, survival, migration, city development, trade and trade routes, and design of creatures and spaceships (among other things). The best part of Spore is that this learning is not overt - it just happens as kids play this immensely enjoyable (and addictive for some) game.

You can read about the accolades it has received and also visit the official spore website for more info, including an amazing demo of how you can nurture the creature your create through five stages of evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space.

Here's a write-up my 12-year old son Sidhanth wrote on his Spore experiences. He's enjoyed creating and uploading videos of his Spore creations to youtube - a cool feature that is integrated into the core functionality of the game.

Check out this Spore Ad video from the Spore youtube channel:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Chat Widget for Blogs

Here's an interesting tool that was shared on yesterday - a live discussion widget that can add a chat feature to any blog or website.

It is of particular importance to India, as it incorporates the Google's transliteration API for typing indic scripts for Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. It requires one to be signed in with their Google (gmail) account to make sure that only the signed in users leave comments.

It integrates with Google Talk as well so that people can see their "friend" lists and "presence" cues (online/offline/busy/other status).

I can potentially see a class gathering online for a discussion around a blog post that a teacher has posted as an assignment, or even groups of friends meeting online at a designated time to discuss homework on a class blog. I guess blogs and blogging need to become part of mainstream educational use by teachers and students before tools such as this can be leveraged for collaborative learning.

A neat idea and potentially useful tool nonetheless!

SKID: Dr. Arun Mehta's open source software innovation for children with disabilities

[Cross-posted as a 'spotlight' on]

India, sadly, presents a very hostile environment for disabled people in general, and children in particular – not just for missed opportunities for learning and education, but for participation in several normal activities that most regular children enjoy. Many children with disabilities have serious communication issues, and the disability is compounded by this inability to communicate. Children in India who cannot communicate rarely get access to education, due medical attention or even basic human rights. In the case of autism, for example, the inability to communicate is the primary problem. “If we could find a way for the child to communicate, she could go to regular school, instead of compounding her disability with illiteracy” was the belief that propelled Dr. Arun Mehta of JMIT, Radaur, Haryana to innovate solutions to help such children. “Children with autism – like other kids – love computers. A computer is an excellent communications device: so why don't they communicate through computers?” The need to address the communication needs of the disabled early, and a role for computers to solve the problem has kept Dr. Mehta busy for the last few years.

A few weeks ago Professor Arun Mehta showcased a new software to provide free of cost communication support to children with special needs and all those who have difficulty with the keyboard and mouse. The software is called Skid (short for Special Kid). is home to a large group of software modules that children can use from any PC or mobile phone with access to the web. It is also a unique platform for learning web programming. The first module which has recently been made available online is co-designed by students from JMIT, Radaur, and allows special kids access to Wikipedia. (The more technically inclined would be interested to know that Skid has been developed on the open source web framework Ruby on Rails)

Skid has won Dr. Arun Mehta and his colleague Vickram Crishna, the 2008 Manthan Award for e-Inclusion.

The Skid initiative (documented at is only a modest beginning in affording communication opportunities to large numbers of children with special needs, in that it is a process for developing such software on an ongoing basis, in an inclusive, participatory manner. In developing the words module, for instance, the team has tried to work with the dyslexic, to make a smarter spell checker that allows dyslexic kids to work with sounds and pictures in selecting the right word.

Arun Mehta (standing) and Vickram Crishna (sitting) working with a parent of an autistic child during a workshop in Bangalore. Photo courtesy: Shuchi GroverDr. Arun Mehta and his colleagues have conducted 3 workshops in Dehradun and Bangalore over the last 3 years, involving over 30 children with autism and their care givers, in collaboration with the Autism Society of India, Inspiration, the Spastic Society of Karnataka, the Anil Karanjai Memorial Trust, and Radiophony. (One such workshop in Bangalore has been described in detailed in this article that I authored for These workshops provided feedback on the use of existing open source software in this domain. They also inspired Skid, which has since been tried out with children with autism in the workshop organized in July 2008 in Dehradun. Early versions of the software were taken through their paces by children with cerebral palsy at AADI.

Given diverse kinds of disability, even within autism, cerebral palsy and dyslexia, and the different ways in which children might wish to use computers, there is an ongoing need to keep adding modules, and finding imaginative new ways to combine them. To address this need, the Skid initiative invites college students who know a little programming to undergo free of cost summer training in which they write software that doesn't just gather dust, but is put onto the web. Not only do they have the satisfaction that thousands of kids from around the world are benefiting from what they wrote, they also receive public credit on the page they helped design. ===================================================================
Dr. Arun Mehta has a B.Tech from IIT Delhi (1975), a Masters from SUNY Stonybrook, USA, and a PhD from Ruhr University, Germany. At the request of Professor Stephen Hawking, he wrote eLocutor, free and open source software that allows severely disabled people to write and speak. He volunteers as a programming instructor at the National Association for the Blind. In 2000, he co-founded with IIT batchmate Vickram Crishna. Their current passion is software that might make communication easier for children with autism, cerebral palsy and dyslexia.