by Matt Hackert
From the Editor: Matt is a nonvisual access technology specialist working in our Blindness Initiatives Program at the Jernigan Institute. He has shown his talent several times before as a contributor, and here is what he has to say:
As an access technology trainer with certification as a rehabilitation teacher of the blind, I understand that technology can help level the playing field, but this is only true when blind people understand how to make use of it. Moreover, I recognize the importance of the NFB’s philosophical approach to blindness skills training and the benefit of integrating our philosophy with access technology training.
NFB’s “Teaching Access Technology Using Structured Discovery Techniques” conference, based on the popular train-the-trainer model, took place September 24-25, 2021, and focused on the NFB’s Structured Discovery method of learning, commonly associated with cane travel instruction but applicable to navigating new environments in technology as well. Approximately 150 attendees learned how to encourage exploration and active learning in their students so that they will be empowered to utilize new technologies and systems without the need for gratuitous re-training on simple updates. The conference targeted technology-training professionals from across the country.
Our program provided insight, guidance, and sharing among access technology trainers on integrating the Structured Discovery methodology into their training. Structured Discovery, an approach using questioning and problem-solving rather than rote memorization, was initially applied to teaching cane travel, but this conference sought to help people expand its application beyond orientation and mobility. During this two-day event, access technology trainers from state-run and privately-run training centers, both in and outside of the NFB, shared their thoughts and experiences of incorporating the Structured Discovery model in teaching blind learners of all ages.
The first session of this conference was “So You Want to be an Access Technology Trainer,” a moderated panel of access technology trainers who work in college/university settings, state-run vocational rehabilitation training centers, private training centers, and our NFB training centers. The panelists shared the challenges they face, the strategies they have learned over the years, and some student success stories. The panelists spent significant time addressing how and when students should transition along a spectrum from more structure to more discovery. The key is to focus on the strengths and needs of each individual student and to challenge all of them to continually move toward self-reliance rather than depending on structured delivery of information. The ultimate goal is to encourage the students’ desire to discover for themselves in order to foster greater independence.
We were thrilled to have Dr. Edward Bell offer comments on the “Foundations of Structured Discovery,” a presentation about teaching access technology through Structured Discovery that offered a contextual history and understanding that defined the value of our training philosophy. Structured Discovery was first applied to the teaching of orientation and mobility (cane travel) in 1984 and was trademarked as Structured Discovery Cane Travel (SDCT®) in 2009. The methods and principles that undergird Structured Discovery come from the lived experiences of blind people who have shared their learnings, attitudes, and techniques with each other through the organized blind movement since 1940.
Structured Discovery training is now a unique instructional service used to teach independence to individuals who are blind in a meaningful, robust, and lifelong manner—a rehabilitation teaching strategy that is substantially and recognizably different from conventional, traditional approaches of teaching individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Structural discovery instructional services consist of nonvisual techniques, problem-solving strategies, experiential learning, and confidence building experiences. It relies heavily on Socratic questioning (i.e., the asking of strategic questions to guide the learner in solving the problem) and the role modeling of nonvisual techniques, which demonstrates their effectiveness while correcting misconceptions about blindness. These teaching strategies are used across all adjustment categories, including cane travel, Braille literacy, home management training, computer/access technology, woodshop, and seminars and other activities which focus on coping with blindness and confronting attitudes about blindness.
As with most trainings, you start with the fundamentals, and a fundamental skill that blind technology users must possess is the ability to use keyboard commands. Quinten Price offered a presentation on “Utilizing Native Keystrokes,” which builds a user’s basic knowledge of how the keyboard can be used to access the features and functions of most software. Many sighted individuals use a mouse to increase their productivity. Blind users must be able to exploit the use of technology in order to remain competitive. Use of the keyboard can be enhanced to allow a blind person to be equally productive using a keyboard. Chancey Fleet took keyboard use to the next level with a presentation on “Customizing Keyboard Commands,” demonstrating that some keyboard commands are more efficient than using a mouse.
An interesting highlight of the conference was the “Structured Discovery Training in Linux” presentation by David Hathaway, a freelance technology trainer who runs a program offering instruction in Linux administration. His students are directed to deliberately damage the virtual machines in order to demonstrate that, even in the worst-case scenario, they have the ability to recover a backup of their system. By realizing they can recover from any problem that may result from their interaction with the technology, they gain confidence by successfully employing the troubleshooting and problem-solving skills they have learned. Moreover, David removes the barrier of fear that might otherwise inhibit his students from taking the risk of learning by doing.
In life we want to find things that will help us in our endeavor to do great things. Technology can help us or hinder us depending on how it is used. As technology continues to advance and integrate into every aspect of our lives, it is important that we learn to maximize its efficiency while still maintaining one’s personal self-efficacy, problem-solving skills, and travel skills. Joanne Gabias presented the session “Integrating Technology with Cane Travel/Mobility Instruction.” This presentation discussed best practices for integrating technology use in cane travel instruction.
Participants learned about the foundational travel skills required to properly use technology in cane travel. Technology that was covered included the Compass app, Moovit app, transit apps, Google Maps, BlindSquare, Google, rideshare apps, note-taking, recordings, and technologies such as Aira. There was a great discussion of real-life examples of how these types of apps and technology can be utilized while traveling. Participants came away with strategies for implementing Structured Discovery training with their students while integrating technology and cane travel.
Another session during the conference that drew the parallels between technology and travel training was “Technology, Travel, and Structured Discovery in a Parallel Universe,” presented by Nancy Coffman. This session took a look at how Structured Discovery applies to learning in the communications and technology classroom. As with travel, the students start by learning the basics, and as discussed earlier, the students need to learn to navigate the keyboard. Students learn the cardinal directions of the computer (up, down, left, and right) as they develop their typing skills. Also, as with travel training, mental mapping is used to build points of reference, and things come up that are extra challenging along the way that may require a slight detour. Technology training should also complement other training. In travel, students may need to run an errand to the grocery store to purchase items for their meal for forty in their home economics class. They could Braille their grocery list but may need to use technology if they have not yet become proficient enough to use Braille for this purpose. Projects and assignments become more complicated as the students become more proficient in the use of all of the alternative skills of blindness, including technology. Eventually, students are encouraged to complete projects that relate directly to their vocational goal. The hope is that Structured Discovery will provide the basic skills and opportunity for students to develop techniques for lifelong learning.
The final agenda item was “Curiosity, Active Listening, and Self-Directed Instruction: Foundational Skills for Lifetime Success” by Jack Mendez. This talk provided instructors with perspectives on self-directed learning and how the Structured Discovery process guides the student into a lifetime of learning. The presentation provided examples of active-listening strategies, guidance to help students ask targeted questions, and methods how the student and the instructor together can learn to adjust learning objectives while learning new technology. In addition, there was an emphasis on helping students appreciate their accomplishments by using a combination of guided discovery and exercising their own judgment and problem-solving. This strategy helps to motivate both students and instructors.The Structured Discovery model has grown and evolved for more than thirty years, but we have only consistently begun using the Structured Discovery nomenclature in the last decade or so to distinguish our consumer-driven approach as compared to the more traditional, top-down, rote instruction. These access technology experts were speaking the same language—the language of Structured Discovery—which provides the foundation for this profession. Although there is not a university-based degree program for training Structured Discovery access technology professionals, there is a clear body of knowledge, group cohesion, local and national associations dedicated to the advancement of this model, and even local training groups dedicated to its teaching—all of the hallmarks of a true profession. The National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB), the professional certification body which holds the responsibility for the credentialing of these professionals, is in the beginning stages of the development of a national certification to be earned by these individuals. This credential, the National Certification in Access Technology for the Blind (NCATB), is poised to set the gold standard for high quality access technology professionals and will help to further distinguish these individuals as consummate professionals.