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Using Google Glass, Elementary Students Learn How Blind People Live

Forget Glassholes. A new program using Google Glass helps students develop empathy, set goals, and achieve digital literacy.

Ever since its introduction three years ago, Google Glass has endured more than its share of haters. While many “Glassholes” lamented the announcement earlier this month that Google would end consumer sales of the face-computer-slash-eyewear, others eagerly eulogized the Segway of spectacles.

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But Glass still has plenty of non-consumer applications for its technology. One of Glass’s more unusual and poignant uses was well underway on a recent weekday morning in Julieann Cappuccino’s fifth grade Northwood Academy Charter School classroom in North Philadelphia. There, students clustered around iPads and laptops, completing another lesson in a multi-month curriculum using video and insights from Glass to learn about, of all things, blindness.

“We can see what he doesn’t,” Bryce Stevens, a student said, pointing to a map of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Stevens and his teammates were trying to chart a course using beacons for Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympic silver medalist. “He shows us how he uses his phone, runs on the track, and walks around. It’s like we’re there.”

Lex Gillette

The concept is a bit counterintuitive. Gillette wears Glass, records video, and then sends a feed to roughly 120 students in California, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Louisiana. They then prepare questions for him (“What is your favorite color?” “How do you achieve success?” or “Do you drink coffee?”) and via video chat, and Gillette answers them while offering demonstrations of how he goes about his day.

The larger goal, according to organizers with Classroom Champions, a nonprofit focused on connecting Olympic and Paralympic athletes with students at high-need schools, is to use Glass to increase children’s empathy and goal-setting skills.

“When I first heard about this, I thought ‘How is this going to work?’” Cindy Carey, Northwood’s principal for fifth through eighth grade, said. But since implementing the Glass program at the start of this year, she said she’s been pleased with the results. “It’s fostered such a sense of community with the kids. They really feel connected to him.”

In April, Google put a call out to nonprofits for ways in which they would use Glass to pursue their mission. Five winners would receive a free pair of the glasses, a trip to Google for training and a $25,000 grant.

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Steve Mesler, an Olympic gold medalist bobsledder and chief executive of Classroom Champions, said he heard about the proposal from a board member and Gillette immediately came to mind.

Gillette said he was interested, and realized that the students he would be mentoring were roughly the same age he was when he lost his vision.

“I thought the idea was amazing,” Gillette said. “I wanted to give the insight into my daily life and change their perceptions of how they viewed blind people. But I also wondered if I was going to look like someone on Star Trek.”


Typically, Classroom Champions had relied on Google Hangouts, video lessons, social media, and in-person athlete visits to pair Olympians and classrooms. Last year during the Olympics, 3,925 students in 44 schools engaged in the video chats, alone. Classroom Champions submitted its application along with more than 1,300 nonprofits and 500 developers and was one of five winners announced in July.

“We were impressed by Lex’s ability to mentor and inspire students through his work with Classroom Champions,” Jessica Sapick, a marketing manager with Giving Through Glass, said. “Their proposal to let students see the world from Lex’s perspective worked well with Glass, since it also allows you to share your point of view with the world.”

Mesler said he doesn’t anticipate the cancellation of Glass consumer sales to stall his program. In fact, he’s hoping there may be excess inventory he can snap up.

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“They can see firsthand what Lex can do,” Mesler said. “A blind athlete in California is a hero to inner city, able-bodied kids across the country. That doesn’t happen anywhere. They look at him now and don’t see a disability. They see a friend.”

Gillette, too, thinks the product has yet to do its best work with the blind. The device, much like his iPhone, helps him better take photos, navigate, and someday, he wonders if he could rely on face recognition to identify people he can’t see. “The possibilities are endless,” he said.


He has become something of a celebrity at Northwood, where roughly three-quarters of students qualify for the free lunch program. His photo graces a bulletin board in the back and as they wiggled in plastic seats, students eagerly recounted their past Glass and video chats with Gillette. They have included explainers on how he plays piano, runs on the track with a guide runner, flies a remote-controlled helicopter and uses Siri to text family members. By now, Gillette said he can recognize students by their voices on the video chats.

“He has an app on his phone that can tell him whether it’s a five or twenty dollar bill,” Jasmine Bailey, said.

“Lex can shoot a basketball and make it in,” Jacob Drummond said.

“He’s used to walking around with a friend or on his own,” Scarlet Garcia-Pena said, zooming in on the green and beiges of her iPad screen. “He’s digital,” she added.

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In Cappuccino’s class, students were using Google Maps to examine the Chula Vista training facility and negotiating over where to place beacons to direct Gillette from his dorm there to the track. A file of images taken on the ground were used to complement the bird’s eye view, as well. After creating a path, they planned to compare their proposed route with the other classrooms, then a partner school in San Diego will actually place the beacons at the training center. Students will see Gillette, wearing the Glass, navigate their map.

While teachers and organizers are still compiling data on the Google Glass experiment, preliminary reactions to the project have been strong, teachers, parents, students and educators said. Students who have reported improved empathy skills, even when controlling for factors like teacher quality, and were more likely to say that they felt more personally responsible after participating in the program.


All told, 95% of teachers who participated in Classroom Champions said that the program improved their students’ digital literacy and that students in the program were 58% more likely to use video chat technology in school than students who did not participate in the program. Eighty-five percent of students in the program said that they could find lots of ways around any problem, compared with a national average of 35%, according to the group.

By the end of the morning mapping session, brows furrowed and the student teams had charted out the first half of Gillette’s route with beacons. “If a wall is there, he can’t get through,” Xavier Delvalle pointed out. “It’s harder than it looked.”

“Lex is amazing,” Cappuccino noted. “But he’s not Spiderman.”

One by one, the groups made their way up front and shared their prosed routes with Cappuccino. Satisfied with their progress, the students swapped their laptops for chocolate milk cartons and sandwiches.

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In debriefing the morning’s events, some students connected their tech-heavy Glass and mapping lesson with those from history books. Kiersten Looby said she had read about Helen Keller’s resilience, proficiency with Braille and utilization of “the kind of telephone that hangs on a wall.”

“She was incredible,” Looby said. “But things were really different back then.”

[Photos provided by Craig MacLeod]