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3 digital developments for visually impaired students

BY DIANE BRAUNER

New K-12 curricular options are helping to make digital tools more accessible for visually impaired students

As someone with years of experience working with visually impaired students, I am thrilled by the transition from traditional to digital classrooms–and I am particularly excited by the opportunities that new technology is bringing with it.

Although there has long been a shortage of accessible educational apps for this population of students, especially at the preschool and elementary levels, fresh innovations in educational game design are coming to the rescue. Let’s take a quick look at three positive developments in this arena.

Visually impaired students are gaining new learning opportunities

Tablets are now employed in many classrooms–and as a result, most apps geared to young children are visual. Unfortunately for visually impaired students, these apps have traditionally not been accessible with a screen reader. At the same time, a number of textbook companies have been transitioning their offerings from print to online, which brings with it a similar opportunity: how can these digital materials, which are often interactive in nature, be made fully accessible for the blind?

Positive moves are rapidly being made to ensure that visually impaired students can participate as fully as their peers in the lessons they need to learn. For example, educators and developers are working together to create innovative ways to convey math concepts in an accessible digital format and there is growing recognition that standards need to be put in place regarding how to make math accessible for the visually impaired.

In addition to accessibility in app design, it is also inspiring to see more attention being paid to continuity. A lot of existing accessible apps for visually impaired students are only focused on one specific educational goal, without necessarily building on each other. As a result, there has been no real way for apps for the visually impaired to form a sequence to take students to increasingly higher levels of a curriculum. As the number of accessible apps is increased, attention can be transferred to how these apps can fit together to systematically build skills.

But this scenario is happily now evolving, with fresh attention being paid to the need to mirror the standard third-grade assessments that require various tech skills such as drag-and-drop, which students with visual impairments had not had prior opportunities to learn and practice.

Teachers of visually impaired students are harnessing more powerful methods

At the same time that visually impaired students are benefiting from these advances, their teachers are as well, thanks to the growing number of resources at their disposal. Trained and experienced in using tactile materials ranging from traditional braille to tactile graphs, these mentors are enthusiastically adopting a wide range of innovations, such as refreshable braille displays paired with touchscreens in order to impart reading and writing skills.

Teachers are also becoming adept on various types of assistive technology, embodied by the dizzying array of commercially available devices that span everything from braille notetakers to magnifying software. Teachers are currently faced with the absence of a standard curriculum and would be more effective with the support of such a curriculum.

Among the many evolving tech skills that teachers of the visually impaired are increasingly imparting to their students, there are a wide range of screen reader gestures, braille display commands and Bluetooth keyboard commands. There are also other specific tech skills that are unique to students with visual impairments, such as the use of earcons (i.e., traditionally visual information that is translated to and conveyed through designated sounds). Naturally, teachers are constantly eager to familiarize themselves with novel types of assistive tech training.

Educational app developers are increasingly working with educators

One of the most exciting frontiers in the visually impaired educational arena today involves bold startup software companies, such as Objective Ed, that are responding to the need for accessible, age-appropriate educational apps and materials. Developers at these companies have recognized that the core features of mainstream apps–such as curriculums with built-in progress monitoring and adaptive assessments–should be echoed in what is available for the visually impaired community.

The ambitions expand even further than this. App companies are seeking to create educational apps that are carefully devised in tandem with teacher guides to help educators better understand and teach accessible tech skills. These include, for example, the ability to teach students how to use bar charts by starting with tactile objects and moving to digital charts. Other apps teach visually impaired students how to navigate by headings in order to teach skimming and organizational skills, and to utilize the ever-useful “drag and drop” gesture.

A wide variety of accessible games allow teachers of the visually impaired to pick skills based on their students’ Individualized Educational Plans; some of the games are designed to adjust during play to focus on building those skills, so the student learns while being entertained. Games are designed evaluate students’ progress as well. Teachers and parents can monitor students’ progress on a web dashboard.

By applying the motivational power of gamification, more effective learning can take place. One way to do this is by applying rewards to the learning process. Incentives like good grades, virtual rewards (titles, badges, points) and leveling up encourage students to participate more often and keep them coming back for more.

The benefits of these games to schools are many: Students learn faster and discover intrinsic motivation; they practice and master skills by themselves; teachers’ time is used for new material instead of repeating lessons; and students achieve self-sufficiency quicker.

All these exciting developments add up to great news for the visually impaired educational community: Richer learning experiences for students, more empowered teachers and a vast array of fun, educational games to teach the necessary skills for a 21st-century life.

About the Author:
Diane Brauner is manager of the Paths to Technology website at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and has 30 years of experience working with students who are visually impaired.