Moving Forward with Accessible Digital Math: Part 1

There are digital tools available that enable students with visual impairments to access digital math and more resources are being developed! As educators, we know that a kindergarten student is not ready for algebra; and, we do not wait to introduce numbers and math facts until 8th grade. We systematically introduce basic math - including simplistic algebra concepts - in early elementary school so that students are ready for "pre-algebra" class in 8th grade and algebra class in 9th grade. As we transition to digital math resources and activities, we must also consciously introduce and teach the tech skills and concepts that are necessary to use these higher math digital tools.

21st century classrooms are no longer limited to traditional educational materials such as print textbooks; and, students have more tools than a lead pencil and paper. Today's classrooms are multimedia classrooms - students are using interactive applications and are creating multimedia materials. Many school districts have first grade tech standards that include using and creating multimedia presentations (PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Keynote), spreadsheets, and other multimedia tools (annotation, videos, book creation, etc.) These powerful educational applications are fully integrated into elementary classrooms and are typically accessible for students with visual impairments. TVIs and general education teachers are working together so that students who rely on a screen reader are successful with these mainstream classroom applications.

Math is certainly a more complex issue; all students use manipulatives and tools to build a solid foundation of math concepts. Counting blocks, number lines, and hundreds charts are a common math tools. Students with vision are often introduced to simple math apps in preschool; these students are learning about numbers, counting, patterns, and other foundational math skills through fun, interactive games and they are learning to tech skills required to successfully play these games. Unfortunately, these early education math apps are typically not yet accessible with a screen reader. Students with visual impairments are often learning early math concepts with manipulatives and tactile materials; but they are often not being exposed to the tech skills that they will need in order to access higher math in a digital format. There are foundational math-related tech skills that can be taught now!

Math Tech Skills for Young Students

  • Spatial concepts and Mental Mapping
  • Earcons
  • Sonification

Spatial Concepts and Mental Mapping

Spatial concepts can be embedded into almost any activity using a touch screen tablet. Dragging the finger around the screen (instead of swiping) encourages the development of spatial concepts. Where is the tool bar? (top of the screen). Where is Back button? (top left corner). Develop a mental map of where your favorite icons are located on the Home screen. What icons are on the second Home screen? How a student is introduced to a device is critical - be sure to embed spatial concepts and mental mapping from the start! Learn more about how to build spatial concepts and mental mapping when introducing a touch screen device in this Getting Started post. (Note: The Getting Started post is specifically focuses on an iPad with VoiceOver; however, the same techniques can be applied to any tablet.) Most apps can be used to teach spatial concepts and mental mapping, if the student if these skills are highlighted and incorporated as the student learns to interact with the app. Here are a few examples of apps for students with different levels of tech skills.

Additional Resources

  • For young students new to VoiceOver, there are numerous simple one tap cause-and-effect apps for preschoolers that can be used to reinforce spatial concepts and mental mapping under the Early Intervention section on Paths to Technology. Fisher Price's Laugh and Learn Animal Sounds App Review post is one example.
  • Young students who have some experience with VoiceOver, can try Ballyland's fun matching game. See Ballyland Sound Memory Game: Matching and Math Grids post.
  • The Coding Concept Unplugged posts teach spatial, mental mapping, and memory concepts without a device. See Coding Post Summary post for a list of these posts. Additionally, the next level of coding concept posts (with robots and/or devices) also reinforce spatial, mental mapping and memory concepts.

Earcons

Earcons are designated sounds that convey a specific event or item. The "whoosh" sound when an email is sent is a common sound recognized by everyone. Screen readers provide a variety of earcons that indicate what is happening on the screen. Understanding and using earcons is a critical tech skill for students who are visually impaired!

Resource

Students who learn to listen for and use subtle earcon sounds are ready to explore more sophisticated sounds (sonification).

Sonification

Sonification is the use of non-speech sound in an intentional, systematic way to represent information. With graphs, sonification typically uses pitch to represent points on the y-axis and stereo sound (left, middle, right) to represent the x-axis. SAS Graphics Accelerator is a free application that enables students with visual impairments to access digital charts and graphs. Sonification is a skill that should be introduced in math applications early so that students are used to using sonification before applying it to complex higher math activities. The Diagram Center (a global literacy initiative develops and promotes international standards and technologies which enable equal access to information and knowledge by all people with print disabilities) has detailed information about the impact of sonification for students who are visually impaired. They stated, ". . . there is a solid base of evidence pointing to the effectiveness for sonification both in real-world science (e.g., even NASA researchers use sonification), as well as in classrooms at all grade levels. Unfortunately, relatively few teachers are using sonification in the classroom. This is likely attributable to the relative newness of the technology and teachers and students being unaware of the benefits of sonification." 

Resources

While sonification tools are available for middle school and high school students who have solid tech skills and math skills, currently, sonification is not being used in applications geared for younger students who are developing tech skills. A university computer science project created a proof-of-concept app called Sonitunes - an app that created simple sonified lines to teach students with visual impairments how to follow a sonified line, how to create their own sonified line, and how to use sonified lines to match items randomly located in two columns. Sonitunes is a shining example of an app created for young students with visual impairments to learn the tech skills required to successfully use sonified lines and to build a foundation for more complex sonification.

Resource

Summary

Now is the time to teach the foundational math-related tech skills required to access higher math in a digital format for students who are visually impaired. There are a number of touch screen tablet apps that can be used creatively to teach and reinforce math-related tech skills for students as early as preschool! The next post in this series will look at specific digital math concepts (grids and tables/bar charts) that can be taught to young students that lead students to future accessible math-related activities and applications.