Remote instruction can be challenging for all teachers, including teachers of students with visual impairments. Video meetings (e.g., Zoom meetings) tend to be visually based with content presented visually and with video interactions between classmates and the teacher.
Outside of schools for the blind, our students with vision impairments are often the only blind or low vision student in their class and possibly the one blind or low vision student in their school. During the pandemic, one thing has become clear – virtual classes have blasted through geography barriers! Students with visual impairments are participating in virtual classes with other visually impaired students – uniting students in different districts, across the state and across the nation. TVIs and COMS are joining forces to teach virtual group lessons – open to students outside of their normal geographic area – many of these lessons are focusing on unique needs facing students with visual impairments. Without geographic limitations, each TVI can focus on his/her particular skill and interest level – teaching the subjects that he/she excels in! In peer groups, students are learning about assistive technology, orientation and mobility skills, and a variety of educational concepts using teaching strategies and best practices that support students with visual impairments.
Remote Instruction Virtual Class
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first session of Robbin Clark’s virtual Digital Literacy Academy. Robbin designed the course to mirror a general education digital literacy curriculum. For many years, Robbin has been teaching virtual classes through the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind. She is a dynamite ECC instructor and an expert in teaching virtually. This particular course has students from multiple states, including Utah, California, Colorado and Wisconsin.
Set Students for Success
Prior to Session One Virtual Call
Prior to the first student session, Robbin had a Zoom session for the parents of the ten students in this class. Remember, this is a Digital Literacy Academy - students are learning about technology. Students in Robbin’s course have a range of tech skills and have not yet mastered all areas of tech. Parents/guardians are to remain available but off camera, can assist only if needed, and are not to join in on the discussions. If a student is stuck and needs guidance, parents are to provide support – not the solution. Students must do the work! If needed, students can request for the parent to read aloud information on the screen or read aloud homework documents. Parents are to keep a clear record of any student obstacles and how they solved it. Often, the parent is learning about assistive technology along with the student.
Robbin created a Google Classroom and encouraged students to view the course materials prior to class. In the Session One folder, she included her Welcome (clear outline for Session One, including goals and homework) PowerPoint lesson, documents and homework assignments.
Robbin confirmed that each student had access to the required tools such as a computer, Internet, basic knowledge about using Zoom and Google Classroom.
During Virtual Call
The call started with a quick review of Zoom Etiquette, including mute unless speaking, press the space bar to unmute, look at the camera, etc. The session was very interactive with the students actively participating. Students were asked to introduce themselves, say where they are from and answer a simple ice-breaker question: “Are you a Mac or PC person?” Cameras were on with the exception of one student. If a student needed to center the camera, turn a light on, or face the laptop camera (instead of facing a monitor), Robbin gently gave prompts. Robbin confirmed who was able/not able to see the screen (so that she would know who might need modifications) and checked that a student with a hearing impairment was able to follow each speaker. Robbin also gave a brief explanation that all students should speak clearly and face the camera when speaking.
Students were muted during the call due to noisy backgrounds (and sometimes chatty students!) until it was their time to talk. Some students initially needed the verbal prompt, “press the space bar to unmute” before speaking. One fun method of keeping students engaged without interrupting the flow of the lesson is to use the “thumbs up/down” gesture. Students were encouraged to make a physical “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to answer yes/no questions and to confirm that they were following what was being said. Students could also use the “thumbs up/down” symbols in the chat. Robbin would quickly announce the results of the visual thumbs up/down, to ensure that all the students knew the results.
Every student was expected to share and answer questions. The lesson was very interactive, and all students were called on. Bouncing with energy, Robbin kept the discusses upbeat and moving. Students who had lots of comments, where redirected to write their comments in the chat box. (This is a great strategy and was very beneficial for keeping the discussions on topic!) Robbin kept an eye on the chat box, as some students preferred to type their responses there rather than to speak. The chat box also enabled students to respond without interrupting the current speaker! Robbin periodically would read out the chat box responses before moving on.
Robbin also typed/pasted critical vocabulary words or questions in the chat box as she talked about it. This was particularly beneficial for students with hearing impairments. The chat box can also be a way for teachers to bring attention to important items as well as a way for students to practice their tech skills to access information in the chat.
FYI: The same rules of behavior that apply in a school classroom also apply during a virtual meeting. Students should not be eating and drinking, spinning in their chair, walking away and coming back, talking to people in the background, wearing PJs, etc. Students with visual impairments may not realize that when they move or they make noise during a Zoom meeting, their image may be "pasted" to the forefront on the screen - making them center of attention! They also may not realize that their movements or noises can be distracting to others, especially to peers with vision. If the student must talk to someone in the background or get up, what is the proper etiquette? That might depend on your class structure or class rules. Should the student turn off his camera? Should he type something in the chat, and if so, should that chat go just to the teacher or meeting host? In a business virtual meeting, the etiquette rules might depend on how formal/informal the meeting is, how many people are in the meeting, and who the meeting is with. A meeting with the big boss may have different rules than a informal chat with a colleague.
Post Virtual Call
Robbin set up a small group call a few days later for two students who needed extra technology help. This is a wonderful way to support these students without calling attention to their tech needs; the students are motivated, as they want to keep up with their classmates! With specific instruction, these students will improve their ability to use the virtual meeting platform and to access the materials for the class assignments. Independence is key to remote learning and virtual classes!
With a little initial support, any student – including students with visual impairments - can fully participate in virtually meetings.
Zoom Etiquette Lesson
Set up a Zoom meeting, ideally with multiple students who are visually impaired. Remember, students do not necessarily have to be geographically close to one another! Have a fun purpose for the virtual meeting, such as discussing ideas for an age-appropriate TikTok challenge, have a Book Club or Movie Review (choose a fictional book or popular movie that the students have read and can discuss), create lyrics for a braille-related, cane-related song, or humorous song/poem about the remote instruction/pandemic, plan a holiday-themed activity (virtual activity), do an Escape Room activity, etc. The virtual meeting should have a purpose which is motivating for students. "Here's how you participate in a virtual meeting" is not fun!
If the goal is to build digital literacy skills too, then follow Robbin's example and create a shared folder (use the platform that YOUR school uses, such as Google Classroom) and create a document with the discussion topic, assignment, etc. Remember to set your student up for success! If your student needs tech assistance to participate in a virtual meeting, include a family member (if the meeting is remote) or with a teacher/staff member (if physically in school).
Escape Room Resources
- Virtual Escape Rooms!
- Escape Rooms: How Do I Get Out of Here? Part 1
- Escape Rooms: How Do I Get Out of Here? Part 2 (O&M)