May 9, 2023

When we think about vision, the eyes most likely come to mind. But the things in our view are only one part of the larger process of sight. If visual pathways in the brain have trouble processing information from the eyes, a person may be unable to understand what they are seeing.

This condition, called Cortical/Cerebral Visual Impairment (CVI), is the most common type of visual impairment in kids, and it manifests differently for each child. That means strategies to improve vision and literacy can be as unique as the kids themselves and must therefore be meaningful and engaging in many ways.

When the user drags the word BAN over the bubble outline, confetti appears.

Check out the Bubbly demo on App Team Carolina’s website!

This is the challenge that the students in App Team Carolina tackled when they were contacted in 2021 by Anitha Muthukumaran, a teacher of students with visual impairments and a researcher from the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO), and educational accessibility consultant Diane Brauner. As part of Muthukumaran’s externship at UNCO, the two were seeking help to design an app that could give parents and educators a fun, motivating way to help kids with CVI improve their literacy skills.

The collaboration produced Bubbly, a free CVI literacy app that aims to improve reading through Roman word bubbling – an educational practice that uses colorful outlines around words to help children with CVI recognize them by shape. The iPad app turns word bubbling into a matching game, complete with customizable colors, fonts, game options and word lists.

Bubbly literacy app for students with Cortical Visual Impairment

Paula Newman, teacher of students with visual impairments, shares information about Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) and how the Bubbly app was designed to meet the unique literacy needs of emerging and beginner readers with CVI. The Bubbly app was developed by the App Team Carolina in partnership with Anitha Muthukumaran, a teacher of students with visual impairments, and educational accessibility consultant Diane Brauner.

A digital solution to a unique need

Halima Hasan

Halima Hasan

“We looked at the marketplace to see what kind of CVI literacy resources are out there, but there wasn’t much,” said Halima Hasan, App Team Carolina’s chief marketing officer, who is a health policy and management undergraduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and an upcoming graduate. “Most apps to help with visual impairment are more about making pictures accessible than reading itself.”

It was the first client project that App Team Carolina, a student iOS development team at UNC-Chapel Hill, undertook – no small feat for a group that volunteers their time outside of class hours to design professional apps at no cost to clients. Led by computer science sophomore Mackenzie Perry, who continues to serve as Bubbly’s team lead, the project serves as an opportunity to combine real-world design and delivery with public health and education.

“We saw an opportunity to meet this need while bringing in an educational element,” Hasan recalled, “and to do it in cooperation with people from the CVI community.”

Brauner, who mentored Muthukumaran as part of an externship project at UNCO, had previously worked with computer science students at Carolina to design accessible educational tools. Both had an interest in leveraging technology to assist in teaching kids with visual impairments, so connecting with App Team Carolina seemed like a natural fit.

“CVI can improve with interventions – the more you use your eyes, the better you understand what you see,” Muthukumaran explained. “And as teachers, we’re looking for the best way to provide those interventions. One of the ways we are exploring is through this app, which can teach kids the salient features of letters and words through bubbling.”

Collaboration to achieve success

For the developers and designers at App Team Carolina, building a product that could become an effective intervention for kids with CVI meant working in partnership with Muthukumaran, Brauner and other educators, testing features and exploring word bubbling best practices to deliver an app that not only met client parameters but also had the refinement of a professional product.

“Bubbly was a unique app to design because it requires such a different perspective,” said Morgan Roberts, who is a senior at Carolina in interactive media and information science, as well as App Team Carolina’s chief design officer. “CVI is something none of us had heard of. You have to put yourself in the shoes of users with that condition, which is hard when you don’t really understand it.”

Bubbly came about through a full process of design thinking, according to Max Nabokow, App Team Carolina’s co-founder and chief technology officer, who is studying computer science and business administration at Carolina. It’s a holistic process where designers work closely with clients to fine-tune iterations of a prototype, getting constant feedback to ensure that each version comes progressively closer to meeting client needs.

“There are whole classes about design thinking at UNC, but there aren’t many opportunities for designers and developers to work together and actually deliver a product this way,” he explained. “As developers, we usually work in our computer science classes, writing code that just needs to work. But to build something that has real users and a full design process behind it and then deliver it to real clients – it’s incredibly exciting for us.”

Through this process, developers, designers and clients each contributed unique expertise to create a product that was elegant and engaging for kids whose previous experience with word bubbling often came through print materials alone.

“The Bubbly app gamifies letter bubbling and makes it fun,” Muthukumaran said. “Kids see little confetti and get the ‘Yes, you did it’ encouragement, and they have control over it instead of someone holding up a flash card or printed material, which just isn’t as fun.”

A positive response and a path forward

Since its launch in December 2022, Bubbly has been widely used by educators and parents, both in the United States and abroad. According to Hasan, it has seen more than 50,000 unique downloads from the App Store, many of them coming from educational institutions that download the app and then disseminate it to instructors throughout their schools.

“We’ve had a lot of engagement all across the world,” Hasan said. “Mostly in the U.S. and Canada, but also from Europe, Asia Pacific, and a little bit from regions like Central Asia, Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean. It’s been really cool to see its growth and how it’s helping the CVI community.”

The lessons learned from Bubbly’s development have made a lasting impact on the App Team Carolina designers, who are still fine tuning the app even after its launch. They are also undertaking new projects, including an app to help college students manage their finances and an app bring an accessibility focus to UNC-Chapel Hill campus navigation.

“At the UNC computer science department, we’re all about supporting students with shared interests and fostering a sense of community amongst computer science students,” said Erin Lane, UNC Computer Science Student Club liaison. “Our major serves students with a diverse set of interests. Student clubs create a space for students to connect, learn and feel a sense of belonging — while at the same time building their skills, gaining experience on collaborating across disciplines and, in this case, making an impact on the lives of others as well.”

“There is no way I could possibly understand what it’s like to live with a condition like CVI, and to design an app for that is a huge responsibility,” said Roberts. “Moving forward, I want to try and treat all the new apps I design the same way. Maybe I don’t have the right perspective for this, but somebody does, and I need to take on that approach to make an app that suits their needs and does what they need to accomplish.”

Learn more about Bubbly from App Team Carolina and from a post in Paths To Technology.

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