With diverse and often huge caseloads, Teachers of Students who are Visually Impaired are expected to be experts in all subjects, ages, abilities and visual conditions. While general education teachers specialize in one area and/or age group, TVIs cover it all! The 21st century K12 classrooms have now incorporated additional STEM related topics, including computer science/coding, increased technology skills (including ALL virtual classes during the pandemic!) and of course, higher level math skills. Asking one teacher - a TVI - to be an expert in all areas of education is no longer realistic!
What if . . .
What if there were experts in teaching BLV students and assistive technology?
What if there were experts in teaching BLV students and digital math?
What if there were experts in teaching BLV students and computer science?
What if these content experts were available to teach BLV students, supporting TVIs and enabling the TVI to focus on the plethora of other skills and educational subjects?
There is a recognized need for experts in teaching BLV students, assistive technology and the first step in solving this issue is in place. The popular CATIS program (Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist for individuals who are blind or low vision) is designed to create highly trained experts in assistive technology for BLV users. CATIS was created to support students in becoming strong, efficient users of technology so that they can successfully access digital materials in the classroom and in careers. As more CATIS instructors are certified and as more students have access to these instructors, TVIs can focus on what they do best!
What if college and career-bound students were taught digital math skills before transitioning to college? Learning math in braille format is crucial! But keep in mind that few universities provide math in braille format. College students must know how to use the digital math applications in order to access and complete math assignments, which means that students should be doing digital math in K12. While there are digital math tools, only a limited number of TVIs and K12 students are aware of and using these tools. Many TVIs are not experts in higher level math and general education math teachers are not familiar with the braille code. When the student uses digital math applications the completed math equations are in normal print format for the math teacher, accessible with a screen reader and can be displayed on a braille display. There is a need for experts who can teach BLV students digital math applications.
More and more companies are requiring computer science-related knowledge and the demand for employees in STEM fields continues to rise. BLV students also need direct instruction on accessible computer science languages in order to enter the competitive job market. Many mainstream computer science programs taught in general education classes are not accessible. There is a need for experts who can teach BLV students computer science skills and accessible programming languages.
Virtual Instruction Solutions
The good news is that the CATIS programs are turning out terrific experts in assistive technology! These experts are integrating into agencies/school systems and are working directly with students. Do all school systems have access to CATIS instructors? Not yet; typically, agencies - who oversee a larger number of BLV students - and a few very large school districts are hiring CATIS instructors. Students who live in areas that do not fall under a larger umbrella, rarely have access to a CATIS instructor. Taught by experts in their field, virtual instruction is an innovative and successful way to teach assistive technology, digital math and computer science.
One thing that was driven home during pandemic school closures, is that students can be taught virtually. A number of popular virtual opportunities for students popped up, such as APH's ExCEL Academy (webinars for students), Compass (a virtual program by Perkins' College Success), a creative group of O&Ms in Alaska who offered virtual O&M classes, and 9 More than Core (Robbin Clark with Utah School for the Deaf/Blind) continues to offers virtual technology and/or ECC courses for students. Project Inspire offers student courses such as Nemeth in Box and Mission INSPIRE, in which all materials and lessons are created by Project Inspire and mailed to the TVI/student; students attend virtual classes and complete work outside of class. Virtual classes erase district lines and even state lines. The instructor does not have to be physically travel to the student, eliminating many issues.
Many rural areas are challenged to attract a TVI, not alone the limited number of CATIS instructors. Some rural areas have been utilizing virtual technology and math classes long before the pandemic and even before CATIS programs were established! There are a handful of virtual models of private groups who are contracted to teach digital skills, such as technology, digital math, and computer science virtually. Even now that school buildings are open again, there continue to be opportunities for students to sign up for virtual classes. Virtual classes are a modern alternative to the traditional classroom and virtual classes are here to stay!
What if more agencies/school systems chose to collaborate virtually with VI-experts in technology, digital math and computer science?
Things to consider with virtual STEM classes:
- Pre-requisites, if any, should be clearly identified.
- Goal of the virtual class: to teach a specific tech skill/application or to teach gen ed content? (Example: Is the goal to teach the Braille Math Editor application or teach algebra I?)
- The length of the virtual class: Is it a one-time class, several sessions, or a daily semester long course? (This may be dependent on the goal of the class!)
- Virtual courses should provide class credit accepted by the student's home school district.
- Will the class require homework/outside assignments and/or will the student receive a grade?
- Does the TVI or other teacher/para-professional need to be beside the student during the class?
- Will the virtual class meet during school hours?
- Is the virtual class 1:1 or small group?
- If tactile materials or manipulatives are needed, can these items be sent to the student?
What do students with strong tech skills have in common?
These students are more independent in general education classrooms. They are able to be in direct contact with their general education teacher and are responsible for sending completed assignments directly to their gen ed teacher. When a TVI is not needed to produce materials in braille or to transcribe braille into print, the lag time for accessible materials is eliminated. Since students no longer need the TVI to be the intermediary, the student learns how to advocate for his/her needs. With strong tech skills, the student is easily accessing educational materials and the student's focus is on the content to be learned. (Student is not slowed down by navigating the technology.) Students with strong tech skills often are better problem-solvers. (Who hasn't needed to learn problem-solving when using tech?). These students are practicing skills required for accessing, advocating, and problem-solving needed to be successful in college and careers. Students who are efficient with tech are often faster to complete assignments, especially reading assignments when using a screen reader set to a fast speaking rate.
Virtual instruction for technology, digital math and computer science for students who are blind and low vision is on the upswing. Virtual instruction can provide instructors who are experts in a specific area, creating successful students in STEM areas while freeing up the TVI to teach other VI-related skills that they are more comfortable and experienced with. Virtual instruction by experts in STEM areas can equalize the playing field; students in rural, suburban and urban areas across the country can all receive similar advanced instruction. Students will be better prepared for the transition to college and careers. There are proven models of virtual instruction, paving the way for more agencies and groups to offer and accept virtual instruction for BLV.