Students with visual impairments and blindness are successfully using technology in the classroom and it is exciting to see how technology has a positive impact on our students! Students with VIB now have options to use mainstream devices and/or devices created specifically for users with visual impairments. General education classrooms are offering elementary students more tech time through technology labs/classes, tech carts in classrooms and/or 1:1 devices.
There are many reasons for incorporating technology into the 21st century. Online assessments is one of the driving forces behind mastering technology for general education elementary students. Beginning in third grade, high-stakes assessments are online; students need solid tech skills in order to take these assessments. With that in mind, many school districts significantly increase technology time beginning in second grade and embed technology into daily classroom use in third grade. This makes sense, if students are expected to take online assessments. These assessments should be testing the student's content knowledge, not their tech skills!
Range of Devices
General Ed Devices
There continues to be a wide range of tech expectations across the U.S., with tech savvy districts providing 1:1 devices in early elementary school, other districts begin to provide 1:1 in high school while some districts, unfortunately, are not yet able to provide 1:1 devices. There are even some districts that encourage students to "bring your own device" to school! Districts have many options of devices including Chromebooks, iPads, Android Tablets, PCs, and/or Macbooks. Districts may choose tablets in early grades transitioning to laptops in upper grades. On the flip side, there are still some a few remote pockets around the country where Internet connections are not yet available, severely limiting what schools in these areas can do with technology.
Devices for Students with VIB
Students with visual impairments or blindness (VIB) should have at least the same tech expectations as their sighted peers. Best practice dictates that students with VIB should be given accessible devices earlier, in order to pre-teach tech skills used in general education classrooms and to learn the unique tech skills required to make their device accessible. These unique skills may include specialized software such as magnification or screen readers. Screen readers have different commands and additional commands that students need to learn outside of their general education class. Students with VIB also need to learn unique tech skills, such as screen reader "earcons" (sounds that convey meaning), sonification, and spatial concepts along with how to navigate visual digital materials that traditionally have been created in a tactile format, such as grids/tables, charts and graphs. These tech-related skills should be pre-taught by a TVI or technology person who is familiar with accessibility features and commands and who understands the unique needs of teaching a student with VIB.
Students with VIB have the same device options as their sighted peers (accessed with built-in or added accessibility features) and they have additional technology options, including braille note takers and refreshable braille displays. The iPad, launched in 2010, was the first touch screen tablet and the iPad was fully accessible from the start. These touch screen devices have been game changers for very young students with VIB - enabling visually impaired preschoolers the ability to play, interact and learn using simple age-appropriate digital games. In recent years, the accessibility of other touch screen devices, including Chromebooks, have improved significantly, enabling more device choices for students with VIB. Ideally, students with VIB should have the same device as their classmates; however, full accessibility of the device itself and the educational applications used on that device can vary. The student should have a tech evaluation to determine what is the best device for that specific student in that specific classroom at that specific time. (Choosing which device should not depend on which device the TVI is most comfortable with!)
Tech evaluations should be done periodically and should always consider what the student will need in the future. Example: Many students with low vision are able to visually read enlarged or magnified letters in kindergarten and early elementary grades but will not be able to handle the high quantity of reading required in high school, college and in the work force; these students should be introduced to listening skills and often to screen readers early on (as they are introduced to tech) and should use auditory for at least a few specific classroom activities. Keep in mind that more than one device may be necessary to complete all the tasks! Also remember that while a tablet is often the best choice in kindergarten, all general education students should be efficient on a computer BEFORE high school.
Who is Responsible for Teaching Tech Skills?
Teaching General Education Tech Skills
Once again, there has been a shift when it comes to what is being taught and who is responsible for teaching these skills. Back-in-the-day, students were taught "typing" (yes, typing on typewriters) in high school often by a business teacher. Now, keyboarding is taught in early elementary, starting with Home Row keys (quite often in first grade) and many gamified keyboarding apps are used to reinforce muscle memory and skills. Keyboarding receives significant attention in second and third grades in most districts and keyboarding mastery is expected by 5th grade.
Who is initially responsible for teaching young students to use technology? Ask any kindergarten teacher around the country and the answer is that general education students enter Kindergarten knowing how to use technology. These students are independent with tech and know the basics of how to turn on a tablet or smart phone, navigate to their desired app, open the app, listen to the story/video/song or play the age-appropriate game. Kindergarten students typically know how to select items, use coloring tools, drag and drop, and more. Kindergarten teachers may introduce a new educational app, but the basic skills are learned before kindergarten.
Technology teachers work in elementary and secondary schools where they conduct lessons in a classroom or laboratory setting. The technology teacher's job description for elementary school includes teaching keyboarding, basic word processing and other office programs - including multimedia presentations and spread sheets - and Internet basics. The technology teacher's job description for older students includes offering more advanced classes in software programming, hardware, web design and programming, data processing, robotics and other more complex applications.
Classroom teachers are responsible for integrating technology into their classrooms. 21st century classrooms have replaced white boards with smart boards. Classroom teachers are given their own tablet and/or laptop to assist with teaching and to use for grading and other required paperwork. Many school districts use Google Classroom or similar platforms to create, distribute and grade assignments in a paperless way. Classroom teachers are responsible for implementing tech within their classroom, helping students to apply their tech skills, supporting/reinforcing skills taught by technology teachers and teaching tech skills as needed to complete classroom tasks. At times, classroom teachers are also responsible for teaching new tech skills or applications.
Teaching Students with VIB Tech Skills
Remember, students with VIB should have the same tech expectations - meaning that students with VIB should enter kindergarten with the ability to independently turn on a tablet or smart phone, navigate to their desired app, open the app, listen to the story/video/song or play the age-appropriate game. Currently the majority of preschoolers who require a screen reader have not been exposed to a screen reader prior to kindergarten.
Who is responsible for teaching these skills - especially to preschoolers who require a screen reader? Preschool TVIs work with birth to 3 (or birth - 5 year olds depending on the program), TVIs through the school system often work with preschoolers (3-5 year olds and beyond), and parents/family members can all work together as a team to introduce preschoolers to very basic tech skills. Additional resources might include CATIS (Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist) and visually impaired mentors.
Note: Technology is NOT intended to be used for babysitting purposes; preschoolers/young children should have limited "screen time" and this screen time should be a bonding time between the child and family member.
Just like TVIs are responsible for teaching "VI-specific" skills (such as the braille code), making materials accessible (producing braille materials and tactile graphics), modifying activities (using manipulatives and additional tools), and pre-teaching skills, the TVI is also responsible for teaching the assistive technology skills. "Assistive Technology Skills" include teaching accessibility features on tech devices, teaching VI-specific tools (braille notetaker or refreshable braille display) teaching screen reader commands (gestures, keyboard and/or refreshable braille display commands), teaching VI-specific digital concepts, and pre-teaching skills prior to applying those skills in the general education classroom activity. As more CATIS instructors are trained and available, some of the tech responsibilities may be shared or taken over by CATIS instructors. TVIs should work closely with technology teachers and classroom teachers - teaching a student with visual impairments requires teamwork!
Note: Once the student knows the required screen reader commands and understands the unique tech concepts, then the classroom teacher/computer teacher can own the responsibility of applying these skills to new tasks.
TVIs who have successful, tech savvy students have stated that their students receive 1:1 accessible technology prior to their school district's 1:1 device policy. Meaning, students with VIB receive their own device and training on that device early (ideally in kindergarten) even though their peers might not have 1:1 devices until second or third grade or later.
Each and every teacher has his/her own strengths and weaknesses - especially when it comes to technology! Some teachers have the "tech gene", some have the determination to become "techie" and some simply struggle with all things tech. With that in mind, the lead tech person for the student with VIB may not be the TVI. The team may determine a better suited alternative person to lead the instruction in assistive technology skills. Virtual technology instruction is becoming more popular for students who have mastered basic tech skills. Virtual instruction is taught by a knowledgeable AT teacher/mentor who is in another location via video conferencing. An emerging tech student can also participate in virtual instruction if the student has a teacher/family member physically with him to set up the video conference call and to model as needed. Students may also have opportunities to attend weekend or summer technology classes which are often offered as Outreach programs through the state's school for the blind or other agencies. These opportunities are NOT a substitute for school-based AT training; but rather in addition to AT training provided at the student's school or home.
Schools across the U.S. are transitioning at their own pace to paperless classrooms, ranging from limited devices in high school to 1:1 tech available in kindergarten. Currently each district has developed or is developing their own "technology expectations" and these expectations continue to change. With the advancement of touch screen devices - available in most homes - general education students with vision are entering kindergarten independently using technology for age-appropriate educational purposes. Students with visual impairments frequently enter kindergarten with no tech exposure and skills behind their sighted peers. Best practice demonstrates that students with VIB should be exposed to technology prior to kindergarten and should receive a 1:1 device in kindergarten - even if their peers do not have 1:1 school devices until later. For students with VIB, a tech plan - including who is responsible for teaching assistive technology skills - needs to be developed and implemented in order for the student to be successful in the 21st century classroom. This tech plan should focus on best practices for students with VIB first, and should pre-teach assistive technology skills prior to applying these skills to accomplish tasks in the general education classroom's skills.