Tech Standards: Why Teach Digital Concepts Early?

Teachers of students with visual impairments or blindness are responsible for teaching so many things. How do you prioritize what to teach when?

It used to be that all students went once a week to "computer class" which was taught be a designated instructor, just like PE, music or art. Elementary classroom teachers might have had access to a "tech cart" that they could check out and students used for special projects. Teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) were responsible for teaching assistive technology, such as special devices (e.g., braille notetakers/braille displays/low vision devices) and special apps (e.g., screen readers). 

In recent years, tech skills have been embedded into every subject, as classrooms moved to digital platforms and digital resources. Students with vision enter kindergarten with tech skills and the ability to independently navigate to, open and interact with age-appropriate educational apps. General education classroom teachers are not 'teaching' basic tech skills as students have already mastered these skills; however, teachers may introduce new apps and help students apply their prior tech skills to interact with these new apps. With the growing need for technology skills, the fact that TVIs have a wide variety of responsibilities, and that TVIs may or may not personally be tech savvy, it became obvious that our students would benefit from highly trained assistive technology specialists for students who are visually impaired. Launched in 2016, the CATIS program (Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialists) are experts in technology used by students and adults with visual impairments; CATIS requires re-certification every 2 years in order to keep up with evolving technology. While a number of teacher-prep programs are turning out skilled CATIS instructors, not every school district has access to these experts. Until then, the local TVI is still responsible for teaching technology to his/her students with visual impairments.

Fast forward to 2021. The pandemic has prioritized technology - after all, students have to have access to tech and students need some level of tech skills in order to independently access online materials and remote instruction. More schools are providing 1:1 tech (typically tablets) to young students - including kindergarten students; although, some districts provide tech to young students only if those students do not have tech available at home. Students with visual impairments need to enter kindergarten with the same tech skill sets as their peers. Are YOUR toddlers and preschoolers learning to use tech independently? Students with visual impairments entering kindergarten should also be independent with the same technology skills in addition to knowing how to use low vision features and/or screen reader skills. Ideally, emerging braille readers should also have prior experience with a braille display paired with a smart phone or tablet for exposure to emerging braille reading and writing, prior to kindergarten. 

In the United States, students are expected to have mastered technology skills by the end of third grade, driven by the need to successfully complete high stakes online assessments. (These high stakes assessments begin in third grade.) After third grade, there are few new tech skills to be taught. Students may learn to apply their tech skills to different devices (e.g. move from a tablet to a computer) and the educational content accessed through technology will become increasingly more complex. 

Digital Literacy and Tech Standards

Digital literacy means having the skills you need to live, learn and work in a society where communication and access to information is increasingly through digital technologies like internet platforms, social media and mobile devices. "Digital literacy plays a vital role in defining a child's ability to succeed both in school and throughout their lives. This is an inherent aspect of 21st century education." (World Academy, 2018). Tech Standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, clearly states expectations for technology use as it applies to different content areas.

Why Teach Digital Concepts Early?

There are digital literacy skills and tech standards for ALL students; in 21st century classrooms these standards are embedded into every subject. What exactly are these skills and tech standards and what do they mean for students who are visually impaired? In order to keep up with their peers, students with visual impairments need to master tech skills at the same pace as their peers starting in preschool/kindergarten - or they will be at risk for a serious gap in skills. Unfortunately, once a student falls behind in tech skills, it will take significant work just to catch back up to his/her peers.

Compare learning tech skills to learning reading/writing: Students LEARN to read until 3rd grade; then they READ to learn. The same is true with technology skills: Students LEARN to access technology until 3rd grade; then they USE TECHNOLOGY to access learning. 

Here is a typical scenario:

Students enter kindergarten with independent tech skills, such as basic gestures, how to find, select and interact with age appropriate apps. In first grade, the technology literacy standards dictate technology skills. One example is that students are learning to create and use simple digital charts, graphs and tables. In third grade, Tech Standards (including Common Core Technology State Standards) require students to be introduced to creating and using spreadsheets including spreadsheet formulas. Note: A spreadsheets is  basically a table on steroids. Spreadsheets have cells in rows and columns; however, spreadsheets are also a calculation and presentation tool where cells can interact. 

There is a small tech gap, if the visually impaired student did not enter kindergarten with independent tech skills. Without basic tech skills, the first grade student will not be ready to be introduced to digital charts and tables. The tech gap for students with visual impairments increases. This student will not have the pre-requisite skills (digital charts and graphs) required in order to create and understand spreadsheets which is a third grade tech standard. The tech gap is now significant as the student is not able to do the spreadsheet assignments. It is not possible to provide a braille version of a dynamic (changing) calculating spreadsheet which uses formulas to automatically update data or that can automatically generation charts and graphs. 

With each year - if your student with visual impairments is not introduced to comparable digital formats - your student will fall farther behind his/her peers. The solution is to prioritize technology skills and begin to systematically teach technology skills to YOUNG students. 

Tactile and Digital Formats

Wait a minute! Students with visual impairments need tactile instruction first!

Image 1 is a teacher-created tactile version of a Math Melody game; 3x3 grid with a tactile horse head in row 2, column B.

Image 2 is the digital Math Melody game; 3x3 grid with a boar in row 1, column C.

Photo of a 3x3 braille grid on a braille paper with rows 1,2 3 and columns A,B,C and a tactile horse head in the square at row two 2 column B.Screenshot of Math Melodies table with an image of a boar in row 1 column C.

Students with visual impairments have MORE things to learn than their sighted peers. Unfortunately, that's a fact. Best practice indicates that students with visual impairments often benefit from pre-teaching a skill. For example, a TVI might pre-teach the skill of how to tactually exploring a table layout before the gen ed teacher introduces table concepts and the table activity. The same is true with technology; TVI's need to pre-teach the accessibility piece (such as a screen reader) before the classroom teacher introduces a new apps/activities that are in a digital format.

Before jumping head first into Tech Standards and teaching specific tech skills, let's take a minute to understand the unique needs of students with visual impairments, pre-requisite skills, and where we are headed to comply with general education digital literacy and tech standards. 

As teachers of the visually impaired, we KNOW that our braille students need to first be introduced to concepts tactually before applying the concept to a digital format. However, our students are held to the same high standards as their sighted peers, which means that the braille student must also learn to transition these concepts from tactile formats to digital formats. It is a fine line to know when and how to pair tactile materials with digital materials. General education classes move quickly! If peers are learning to create and use digital tables, then students with visual impairments need to be learning the same concepts - first tactually, then tactiles paired with accessible digital materials, then in a digital format. Here's the catch - even if the mainstream online materials are currently not accessible. Teachers of the visually impaired must be resourceful and use other materials that are accessible. See resources below!

The good news is that TVIs can easily teach pre-concepts as they introduce technology concepts. These very basic concepts are embedded into activities and are not taught in isolation. Example: A toddler learning to use an iPad, is taught to drag his finger from left to right in a straight line, listening as the screen reader announces what his finger touches. Hmm, that sounds like an emerging braille concept - following a tactile line (or braille line) from left to right. It also sounds like a grid, table or spreadsheet skill - following a row across the page. As a student learns to turn the page by swiping from right to left, the student is also learning to turn a physical page in a braille book by grabbing the edge of the page on the right and moving it left. As the student is introduced to exploring a screen to find interactive buttons in a digital story app, the student is learning how to systematically explore a tactile graphic. See how tactile and digital concepts can be tied together?

Many students learn spatial concepts by initially using a tactile overlay on top of the iPad, to demonstrate the spatial layout of the screen (such as the layout of the Home screen). When moving to more complex digital spatial concepts, use a tactile representation before moving to the digital representation. Example: Introduce a tactile grid before introducing an app that has a grid layout. There are a number of accessible apps geared for young students which can be used to introduce dragging in a straight line, grids, rows and columns, tables, etc. The Counting game in the Math Melodies app has a line of animals - the student drags his finger across the line and each animal makes it's associated sound. (e.g., the dog barks). Ballyland Magic is an app that teaches basic VoiceOver gestures, students drag their finger around the grid (preferably systematically, across each row) and tap on each item. Ballyland Sound Memory is a sound matching game - in a grid layout - where students drag or swipe to a block, double tap to hear the sound, then try to find the matching sound. For many students, these early apps can be introduced by pairing a tactile overlay or exploring an accompanying tactile representation. Some apps provide PIAF ready images for making tactile images, 3D printer files, or brf. files for a braille embosser. TVIs often create their own tactile materials. (See resources below). Note: These apps do not specifically teach grids or tables; it is up to the TVI to teach the concept using these apps. These apps were carefully created to subtly introduce spatial concepts which support those first grade digital literacy skills of creating/using tables. These are just a few accessible apps that can teach not only basic tech skills and gestures but can also be used to lay foundation digital concepts that prepare students with visual impairments to be successful with digital literacy skills and tech standards required by ALL elementary students.

This bears repeating: If you do not introduce digital charts and tables in first grade, how will your student be ready for the third grade tech standards, which includes being introduced to spreadsheets - a more complex version of a digital table? If your student with visual impairments is not introduced to digital formats, your student will fall farther behind - every year. 

Tech Concepts are Linked to Basic Education Concepts

Teaching technology skills is more than teaching simple gestures, commands and knowledge about the device. There are so many digital literacy concepts - especially for students who are visually impaired - that lead right into educational concepts. When taught correctly, tech concepts and basic educational concepts are linked; they can and should be taught simultaneously! 


Activities to Teach Tactile and Digital Grids and Tables Resources

Note: Math is highly visual and high spatial, requiring students to have strong tech concepts. Many of these apps for young students are math related, teaching foundational spatial concepts, rows and columns, grids, tables, etc. Once the visually impaired student understands these foundational spatial concepts, he/she can apply this knowledge to more advanced tech standards, such as spreadsheets.

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