With the final days of school approaching, many of us are taking a moment to think about our teaching experiences during COVID-19 and how remote instruction has impacted our teaching styles. By nature, most teachers of the visually impaired are creative and flexible - and these traits have been expanded during school closures! As we begin to reflect on the "new norm" of social distancing and remote instruction, we have seen some powerful positive trends for our students with visual impairments.
Reflections from students who were familiar with tech
Most academic students in upper elementary, middle and high school had been introduced to and had some degree of independence with technology and accessibility features prior to school closures. During remote instruction, these tech skills and independence increased by leaps and bounds. Many of these low vision students who previously relied heavily on their residual vision in class, have embraced screen readers to reduce eye strain caused by increased screen time with all the digital assignments. Using a screen reader has significantly increased reading speeds while reducing eye fatigue and headaches. Many students who use screen readers have become more independent, have taken ownership of their school work - without a paraprofessional or educator prompting them - and have had increased opportunities to self-advocate for their needs. Technology skills have increased as students have worked out how to join virtual meetings, collaborate, and share using digital materials.
Reflections from early elementary students who were not independent with Tech
What about those young students who did not have 1:1 devices and who were not independent with tech prior to school closures? We have learned a lot about the importance of technology during school closures. For many general education students, the underlining issue was the lack of 1:1 devices. Remote instruction required that the students have access to technology - whether the technology was provided by the family or by the school - in order for the student to join class meetings and to have 1:1 VI instruction. For students who are visually impaired, access to a device and knowing how to use the accessibility features were both critical components of successful remote instruction. Some younger students had parents or care givers who were actively involved with the student's remote instruction, while other students did not have active support; few parents were familiar with screen readers providing an additional layer of challenges for a young student who was not independent with his/her technology.
Moving forward: when schools reopen
Technology is part of our new normal - and will continue to be important even when schools open. General education teachers changed or modified their teaching styles as they learned how to teach remotely using a wide variety of digital tools. Online resources are increasing while printed educational materials are decreasing. School closures certainly sped up this digital transition for many schools and for many professional jobs. (Yes, even professionals working in offices have had to learn to embrace technology in order to work from home!) While things are beginning to open back up again, contingency plans are being made in case stay-at-home orders reoccur.
The consensus of most general education kindergarten teachers has been that when school resumes next fall, teaching technology to all kindergarten students in class will be one of the highest priority - including how to join a Zoom or Google Teams meeting! Many discussions have focused on the need for faster implementation of 1:1 devices for students into all grades - especially for students in early elementary. 1:1 devices are often not available until 3rd grade (in tech-savvy school districts) and later grades in other districts.
So, when and how should we introduce young students with visual impairments to technology?
Yue-Ting Siu, the amazing and knowledgeable author of APH's Access Technology for Blind and Low Vision textbook, recently shared her insights for scaling up students' digital literacy skills. Sponsored by Future In Sight, NH, this live presentation was part of the 2020 New Hampshire Assistive Technology Fair.
In this video, Dr. Ting shares that learning technology is a three-year plan for young students. Follow Dr. Ting's four steps to help your students scale up their digital literacy skills!
Resources Dr. Ting mentioned
- Introducing technology to students with visual impairements: Toddler, preschool and kindergarten post
- Five reasons why your students should learn to read at a rate of 600 words per minute post
- ABC's of iOS: A VoiceOver Manual for Toddlers and Beyond! (Currently free during COVID-19!)
- Zoom In (Luis Perez), free iBook manual on iOS accessibility features
- Access Technology for Blind and Low Vision Accessibility available from APH