Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

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Technology and Education in the Twenty-First Century

by Denise M. Robinson, PhD

A little girl reads from a computer monitor at her desk.From the Editor: Dr. Denise Robinson is a teacher of the visually impaired in the state of Washington and an active member of the Professionals in Blindness Education Division of the NFB. In this article she explains how the technological revolution creates academic opportunities for her blind and low-vision students. Her account may sound like a futuristic dream, but in some classrooms it is reality.

Today's advances in access technology and technology in general enable blind children to progress in their learning as quickly as their sighted peers. In the past, worksheets and other class handouts had to be transcribed into Braille by a teacher's aide or a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI). Frequently these materials were not ready by the time the student needed them, and the student had to do his/her work at a later time. The blind student completed assignments using a Perkins Brailler and handed the finished work to an aide or TVI to be transcribed into print for the classroom teacher. Often there was a long delay before the work could be transcribed. Several days might pass before the blind student received the teacher's feedback. By then the class had moved on, and the student had nearly forgotten the long-ago assignment.

Only a few years ago, hardcopy Braille books were the best option for textbooks and recreational reading for blind children. Obtaining and storing dozens of Braille volumes presented an array of difficulties. Often the needed Braille textbooks did not arrive by the beginning of the school year. A student might wait months or even years to read a book he/she wanted.

No longer do blind children have to wait indefinitely for the next title in their favorite series to come out in hardcopy Braille. No longer do they have to listen to what is going on in the front of the classroom without text or visual feedback. No longer must blind students wait for a TVI to transcribe their class assignments into print.

Introducing Access Technology

Access technology allows blind children to input and output assignments as quickly as their peers can, or even faster. Blind children can start tapping keys on a computer keyboard at two or three years of age, just as sighted children do. During the pre-school years, blind children can develop touch typing skills, using a computerized Braille keyboard or a computer keyboard with speech output and a Braille display. With this preparation, blind children can read and write as well as or better than their sighted peers by the time they enter kindergarten.

Instead of transcribing each worksheet by hand, word by word, today's aide or TVI scans it and uses a Braille printer to create a Braille copy. Sometimes it isn't even necessary to scan a printed sheet. The aide can download the work from the Internet, or the classroom teacher can email the work to the aide for embossing. Without a fuss, the blind child can have that last-minute work the teacher came up with for the day.

The child completes the assignment using a computer or Braille device such as a BrailleNote or Pac Mate. If he is in first or second grade, he prints it out and labels the paper in Braille, preferably using a slate and stylus. When the teacher hands the work back, the blind student knows what it is. Later, when his computer skills have improved, he sends his work to the teacher by email. The teacher uses the Track Changes feature to insert comments on the student's work. When the student gets the file back, he can use his screen reader to read the comments exactly where they appear in the document. It is just as if he were reviewing comments the teacher penciled on a page. The blind student can do all of this by himself--no sighted help needed.

Classroom Technology

If the child exclusively uses a BrailleNote or other special device for the blind, she may be at a disadvantage in the classroom. When a child is using a Braille device, I have seen classroom teachers show reluctance to give feedback as they pass her desk. The fear factor may be quite high. Teachers have told me they have a hard enough time using their own technology; the blind child's technology is unknown and mysterious. If the child asks, "How do I do this?" the classroom teacher probably doesn't know the answer--and no one likes to appear ignorant! Teachers are not trying to be cruel, but it is human nature to avoid things that seem frightening.

The teacher's comfort with technology may be a factor in deciding which tools the blind student uses in the classroom. In order for the child to fit in and do everything her peers are doing, a computer with a screen reader and a Braille display may be the best choice. A Braille notetaker can be supplemental until the child is so skilled with the notetaker that no fear prevails around her.

When a young blind child works on a computer in class, the regular education teacher can check her work, give her feedback, and move on--just as she does with her classmates.  If anything goes wrong with the computer while the TVI is away, any technician at the school can resolve the issue and the child can go back to work. When a problem arises with a Braille device, the school technician is powerless to help.

Until recently, Apple products were largely inaccessible to blind users. Blind students were limited to the use of the PC and ran into problems in school districts that had invested in Apple hardware. Apple's VoiceOver technology has now made the Macintosh computer and such products as the iPhone and iPad accessible off the shelf. With speech output and a Braille display, the Mac or iPad are now as versatile as the PC.

Visiting the Library

I will never forget the first time I introduced one of my blind students to the Worldwide Web with its treasure of e-text books and information. Even today, my students are amazed to discover how much the Internet can offer them. When a child realizes he can go to a website such as <www.bookshare.org>, type in the name of a book, and download it to his laptop or notetaker, his face is not big enough to contain his smile.

The Internet is the best place for a student to get his favorite book or find information for a research project. When the class goes to the library, our blind children go to the library's computer and download the books they need. They can begin reading before their peers have checked out print books for themselves. Using screen reading software on a thumb drive, blind students can carry computer access with them.

In general, I have found that blind students prefer to read books from a Braille device such as the BrailleNote. They turn off the speech for a sense of peace, settle in a comfortable chair, and read away happily. I have heard many stories from parents who say, "Time for bed," turn out the lights and shut the door--only to find that their child has continued reading with the BrailleNote until he falls asleep.

Reading e-text on the BrailleNote is wonderful, but there are also advantages to downloading books to a computer. Students often work on class assignments in teams. When the sighted students can read from the blind student's screen, they can work together easily. The blind student's notes for a project can be emailed to the other team members.

Accessible Blackboards

The board at the front of the classroom has now been brought to the fingertips or desktop of the blind or low-vision child. Many teachers today work from document cameras or use a computer that views the front of the room. A blind child can connect to the teacher's computer with the BrailleNote, reading from the display and taking notes on the computer. If the teacher uses a document camera, the blind student hands a tablet such as the DigiMemo to a sighted classmate. The sighted student writes notes on the tablet and hands it back to the blind student. The blind student plugs the tablet into his computer, translates the handwritten notes into text, and saves it in Word for later reference.

With a simple VGA splitter, the teacher's document camera or computer can be hooked to a monitor on the desk of a student with low vision. The image at the front of the room can be seen at close range, right at the student's desk. Like the blind child, the child with low vision also can use the DigiMemo to get notes from a classmate.

Smart boards once presented major barriers for blind and low-vision students, but advances in technology have eliminated most of the problems. Students with low vision can access the smart board with the same techniques described for the document camera. The blind student can be handed the flipchart image documents on a thumb drive as soon as he walks into the classroom. The student opens the flipchart image, saves it as a PDF file, translates it with OpenBook or Kurzweil software, and launches it into Word to create a text document. Then he adds to the flipchart notes along with the rest of his classmates. If the student needs to translate handwritten notes from the board, he puts them through his handwriting software program. The notes can be saved as a text file and utilized with the screen reader or Braille display.

Distance Learning

Text messaging and Skype allow the TVI to stay in contact with blind students who may be scattered over a wide geographic area. During class, the child can text the TVI to ask a question about her access technology. She can receive a quick response and continue with the lesson. For lessons on Braille or other blindness skills, the student calls the TVI on Skype. The TVI, who may be hundreds of miles away, can view the child's computer screen as clearly as if they were sitting at the same table. The teacher's aide can learn from the TVI along with the child.

Virtual teaching offers tremendous possibilities for blind students. In the past, few TVIs were available to serve blind children in rural areas. Now, through virtual instruction, geography is no longer a barrier. An Internet connection is all that is needed to bring the instructional team together.

When a question arises, anyone on a child's team can instantly text for an answer. When I was strictly an itinerant teacher, I had no communication with my students during the long hours I spent on the road. With virtual instruction, I can be in as many places as I need to be. I will teach whatever tool the child needs to learn. Teachers can easily use a combination of face-to-face and virtual instruction for fuller communication and training.

My students, assistants, and I use all of the methods I have described here. There are ways to meet every challenge. Ask the questions, find the answers, and go on to access the world!

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