Published: 05th June 2019
These youngsters just made audio textbooks for highschool and +2 students in Kannada to help visually impaired students
Rakesh Tiwari, is the founding volunteer of Kannada Pustaka. He tells us about what went in converting the text into an audio format to facilitate academics for visually impaired children
Most of the time, it is teachers who inspire their students to work for a cause and change the world. Rakesh Tiwari is squarely among that number. Inspired by his teacher, S Ranganathaiah, to produce audio textbooks in Kannada for visually impaired children, Rakesh's audio textbooks for students in grades 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 have been a revelation.
Whenever Rakesh visited his hometown Shimoga, he would see his teacher using new methods to teach these special kids. He also observed his friends, who worked as volunteers for blind schools, read textbooks and record the audio as MP3 tracks. But the recordings weren't always clear, not everyone had access and it took ages. That's when he hit upon the idea of creating a digitised library for textbooks.
He walks us through the process, "In September 2015, when I was working at the Indian Institute of Science, I approached Dr A G Ramakrishnan and H R Shivakumar at the MILE lab. They were working on Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology for Kannada language. The duo have developed a text-to-speech engine for Kannada. A software that could provide a voice to digitised Unicode textbooks. Using these two technology solutions together, the Kannada Pustaka team soon grew as an online volunteering initiative over the past three years. The team uses an online free ASCII to Unicode Kannada converter developed by Aravinda VK to convert published textbooks into Unicode text format. The textbook is organised as chapters on Google Documents. The text in this document goes through several stages of proofreading by the volunteers across the globe. After the text is clean, the content is audio annotated for headings, subheads and page numbers, he says before adding," After the final check, they ensure that the text is error-free. In the next step, the team uses a software called Madhuravachaka to synthesise the text into audiobooks. This method of audiobook creation takes seconds whereas manual recording of the same content could take hours. The speech output is not prosodic and well-spaced but it is a clear and anyone who listens to it can understand the topic very easily."
Game Changers: Rakesh along with Lavanya Hebbalmath who is a proofreading coordinator at Kannada Pustaka
Initially, these audio files were saved in CDs and couriered to various blind schools across Karnataka. While some of the CDs reached schools, some of them did not. The team realised that it was not a sustainable method, and so, they started uploading all the digitised textbooks on their website. It is optimised in such a way that one can listen to these audio textbooks on their website kannadapustaka.org. It is optimised in such a way that audiobooks can be accessed on Android smartphones for free and can be downloaded for offline playback. One can also listen to these audio textbooks by using voice commands on Google Assistant or smart speakers such as Google Home.
Why not Braille?
According to Rakesh, there are around 1.5 lakh visually impaired children and about 50 schools for visually challenged across Karnataka that can use their books. Through the ages, these children have been provided with braille textbooks to read. But most of the kids simply lack the skills to read braille textbooks. His interactions with school teachers and parents showed that some kids take several months or even years to learn Braille code and that most of them depend on and prefer audio format as a learning method. Rakesh says, "If a normal textbook has a chapter that runs for 10 pages then it becomes about 70 pages in braille. Also, he adds, there are separate Braille codes for different languages Kannada, English and Hindi and even more, there is a Braille code for mathematics that is not even taught in rural schools. That's why a simple audiobook can be very powerful for the education of visually challenged students. Initially, we thought of recording textbooks but it requires a lot of resources like a recording studio, money and time. Instead of this, we went one step ahead to digitise textbooks and use text-to-speech technology to synthesise audio."
Follow them: Kannada Pustaka has over 3,000 subscribers now and the team is working hard to give their best
Pitching in to help
Rakesh's initiative has found fandom among many celebrities, such as playback singer M D Pallavi. She gave a call for volunteers on Facebook that fetched the team a huge number of dedicated volunteers who silently continue to proofread and add new audiobooks to their growing library. Rakesh says, "I think this was the first time that we got a large number of volunteers for proofreading the textbooks and work became quicker. Similarly, musician Raghu Dixit provided us with his studio to record the audio by volunteers. Last year, during this recording, his studio crew worked 24/7 and recorded most of the textbooks. People like them have not only supported the cause but recognise the need as a Kannada society to create a comprehensive base for learning resources – to begin with textbooks."
They have over 3,000 subscribers at the moment. Rakesh says, "We have not kept a tab on how many schools are using Kannada Pustaka digitised audio textbooks to teach visually impaired students. But with the number of subscribers, I am sure it is reaching many people." He plans to convert all the textbooks into audio, right from class I to XII. Apart from textbooks, he wants to include reference books, Kannada literature, novels and so on.
Celebrity helps: Rakesh Tiwari along with playback singer M D Pallavi and other people from his team
Till the funding continues
Rakesh and his team believe that their online library is an open repository to provide audiobooks and are strictly against any endorsement or advertisements. Till date, Rakesh and his team have spent money from their pockets on the website and improvisation. Rakesh who is pursuing his PhD at the University of Leeds in the UK says, "My volunteers are my asset. They spend their weekends and weekdays proofreading the Kannada text. We never force anyone but I think it is our duty to make society an inclusive one by empowering special kids through education and create mainstream job opportunities for them. At present, There are 25 active volunteers and 300 registered volunteers working with us."