Paths to Technology with Diane Brauner

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Hi and welcome to Perkins eLearning to Go. This is Valerie. On today's podcast, I have the pleasure of speaking with Diane Brauner. Diane is an educational accessibility consultant and she collaborates with various educational app developers and agencies. Also manages our Perkins eLearning website, Paths to Technology.

I am excited that she is here today to discuss Paths to Technology. Thank you so much for joining us, Diane. And let's start it off. What is new in Paths to Technology?

OK. Well, first of all, Paths to technology is the Perkins eLearning website designed to assist educators, families, and students to learn about and stay current on ever-changing technology for students with visual impairments and blindness. So what's new? There are always some-- there's always something new on Paths to Technology. Posts are added daily, covering all types of topics, including new tech, app reviews, lesson plans, activities, and tutorials.

The new Paths to Technology bi-weekly newsletter is a huge hit, with more than 2,500 subscribers, reaching 19 different countries. If you're interested in subscribing, go to the bottom of Path to Technology on the home page and sign up.

So how do you engage bloggers to come and write for Paths to Technology? I noticed there's a variety of people blogging for you.

OK. We have currently about 50 bloggers on Paths to Technology, and bloggers consist mainly of educators, including TVIs, orientation mobility specialists, AT specialists. There are also app developers and other blindness groups who blog along with student bloggers. Paths to Technology is a great resource for students, and we actively encourage students to share their experiences and their knowledge.

So what I found is that educators, especially teachers, who work with visually impaired students tend to be very creative in their activities. Every educator has an innovated idea or has modified a mainstream activity that engages their student and makes learning fun. Paths to technology is a central place to share these activities and to build our community of practice.

Have you found an app that can be used to teach a specific concept or skill, maybe a teaching hint? Have you or your student created an accessible e-book? You can share these ideas with colleagues by blogging on Paths to Technology and you can earn CEU credits or money for qualified blog posts. If you're interested in blogging, contact me. You can email me directly or email technology@perkins.org.

So I did look through some of the blogs. And there's one blogger, her name is "Veroniiiica," with four Is, and she's just amazing. Now, she's, from what I can tell, she's been blogging for a long time, right?

She has. She's been blogging on Paths to Technology, well, since Paths to Technology has been around, about three years.

Wow. And I think it's great for her cause she is a college student now that she can really help out kids because she's at their level and give them tips and guidance on what to expect as they're transitioning.

Veronica writes a lot of blog posts about that transition. What you need to know in K through 12 before you transition to college. And then she gives all kinds of hints and information about what tech she uses in college, how she uses it, how she gets around the campus. She travels to a lot of conferences and talks. So she talks about how she handles airplane rides and hotels and all kinds of bits of information. Veronica is a terrific blogger.

That's great. And she's just one of many that's on there. So it's a really interesting site. So what you see is up and coming in technology?

Well, that's kind of a wide open question. I see so many exciting things coming down the pike with technology and so many improvements in accessibility. Things like full screen Braille displays, artificial intelligence, accessible online assessments and textbooks and mainstream educational apps. These things will have a huge impact in our near future. There are many new devices and software under development. Let's take a quick look at how sonification is being used to make math accessible.

So accessible digital math is always a challenging issue. Sonification using sound to convey information or to perceptualize data is not a new solution. For decades, we've been using talking graphing calculators, which use sonification It uses pitch to represent what's on the vertical axis and it uses sounds, moving from your left ear to both ears, to the right ear to represent the horizontal x-axis.

Recently, sonification has been applied to various types of digital charts and graphs used by professionals and higher math students. The concept of sonification is currently being applied to age-appropriate educational activities for very young students, making things such as digital lines accessible. So imagine being able to follow a digital line by dragging your finger along a sonified line on a tablet.

Think about these young kids and what they do with lines. Something like a number line that they can now follow through the sonification, or taking two columns and match items by drawing a line between two columns. Both of those activities are common in a kindergarten, first grade, early on elementary classroom. And now with sonified lines, our students are able to access these materials.

So it really does open up a whole world to those students that they may not have been able to or had more of a difficult time before.

Absolutely. It's all new technology, and there's just so much progress going on to make apps and tech skills more accessible for our students.

So in regards to that, do you feel that developers are more sensitive now to making sure apps are accessible?

Developers are doing a great job. I think there's two different types of developers. There are the mainstream giants, such as Apple and Microsoft and Google, and they have dedicated accessibility teams who work hard to make their mainstream apps fully accessible. Are these tools perfect? Certainly not. There are accessibility bugs, as well as mainstream bugs. However, these apps continue to improve and developers are open to comments and suggestions. As a community of educators for students with visual impairments, our voice has become stronger as we support and provide feedback for these developers.

Then the other kind of developers, there's this growing handful of passionate app developers who are developing educational apps specifically for students who are visually impaired. These developers not only create accessible educational apps, they're also building apps to teach concepts and tech skills that are unique to students who use screen readers. These developers seek and need feedback from educators and often reach out to the visual impaired community through Paths to Technology.

There are exciting new educational apps currently under development and Paths to Technology will post about opportunities to beta test and to provide feedback, and we'll post about these new apps as they're publicly released. These accessible apps are also paving the way for mainstream educational app developers by solving accessibility issues by providing proof of concept and by providing students with the tech skills required to be successful with mainstream apps.

So Paths to Technology is active. It's a driving force encouraging and supporting many of these new development. Bloggers are writing about current relevant topics, educators are asking questions and sharing their needs, app developers are seeking to understand the needs and are working to develop apps that address those needs.

So it is really great to hear that the developers are reaching out to the vision impaired community because, I mean, how else are you going to know your app is fully accessible unless you have the people who would be benefiting from it actually test it?

Absolutely. We have to provide support and ideas and feedbacks. And we have to have our students have to become even more tech savvy in order to be successful in schools and careers. So combining students and our end users and teachers and developers, we all need to combine and come together in order to make our students successful.

Certainly sounds exciting for the future. It would be interesting to see five years from now what technology looks like.

Oh, it changes so much every day again. I'm excited about what's coming down the pike.

But what are the three current areas that are need-related to technology for students with visual impairment?

OK. I see three current areas that have high need for our students, and those are tech for toddlers, coding-- accessible coding-- and transition. So let me take a minute to talk about these things.

The tech for toddlers, it's actually for preschoolers, toddlers, kindergarten students, but that young age group. So when we look at students with vision, who are sighted, they are learning basic tech skills on smartphones and tablets as toddlers and preschoolers. These sighted children are entering kindergarten which tech skills and have spent hours and hours playing educational games. Visually impaired students who rely on braille and screen readers typically do not have tech experience prior to entering school.

Paths to Technology now has a dedicated early intervention kindergarten page full of apps, tech, teaching ideas, accessible digital books. All of these that are geared for that age group, for the toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarten students. And the Paths to Technology community has been actively working with app developers to create more accessible apps, specifically for this age group, that teach concepts and skills unique to students who are visually impaired.

The second area was coding. So STEM fields, particularly coding, are a hot topic in the mainstream curriculum, and it's been embedded beginning in preschool and in kindergarten. These young kids are exposed to coding logic concepts prior to learning coding languages. Two years ago, we didn't have an accessible coding logic app for young students. Now there are several that are accessible.

The Paths to Technology community has been instrumental and continues to work with several app developers on creating accessible coding logic games and simple coding robotic activities. Paths to Technology supports teachers in learning the basics about coding, teaching coding to students with visual impairments, and provides updates on coding tools that are available.

The third high area of need is transition. So for many students, there continues to be a big gap between the tech skills needed to be successful in high school and the tech skills that are needed for college and career, particularly in math and science. In K-12, math and science materials are often provided in braille and accompanied with tactile graphics.

However, college materials are typically provided in digital format only. Students are struggling with this transition. While there are accessible resources available, such as nap and now a math markup language, students rarely use these resources in K-12 and few TVIs know about them.

What apps and platforms are accessible and being used at the college model? What tech skills do students need to master while in high school? What can successful college students teach us? These are the discussions we're having right now, and together, we can help bridge the gap.

And as you said, the technology changes so quickly. So for these kids to have a base or a small background, even in just coding, would go far for them when they get into either a regular job or go on to college.

Absolutely. There are so many tech jobs open right now and STEM field jobs available that our students can do with some background in some foundation skills.

So is there anything else that you would like to talk about? Like I mentioned, I was going through Paths to Technology, and I know you have done a fantastic job with this site. And really, hats off to you. I know there's been some changes with the visual and the user functionality and it's really paid off. You've done a fantastic job.

Well, thank you. You know we've tried to make the site so that it's easy to find the areas and topics that you're interested in, whether it's the apps or the blogs or what's new, what's the latest software update. There's lots of information on Paths to Technology. There's so much information that sometimes it's challenging to find it. So hopefully the home screen, the home page on Paths to Technology is laid out in such a way that you can find materials that you want. And of course, you can always do a technology search on the page and type in exactly what it is that you're looking to pull it up specifically.

I appreciate your time today. Thank you so much, Diane.

Well, thank you for having me. And please, I do want to encourage everybody to become active in our community on Paths to Technology. So take a look around the website, jump in on the discussions, ask a question, write a blog.

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Thank you again, Diane, for joining us today. I really appreciate your time. And as Diane mentioned, if you're interested in learning more about the Paths to Technology, please visit its website at www.Perkinselearning.org/technology. For those of us at Perkins eLearning to Go, we thank you very much for taking the time to listen to our podcast, and until next time.

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