by Lynne Tatum
Editor’s note: This is the last in the technology series that VisionAware is running this month. Lynne is a new peer advisor for VisionAware and also a teacher at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, featured on VisionAware as the agency of the month.
Teaching for over eighteen years has propelled me to adjust my teaching techniques and tools to try to maximize student retention and interest. The same methods I use with my students are those that have worked well for me through the years as I do my best to keep up with the latest and greatest technology. Students have always been encouraged to take notes but I offer notes in order that they have every chance for success. So here I offer a brief history of what has worked and what has gone into the figurative recycle bin.
I learned the Microsoft word processor I’m using right now from a cassette tutorial. I’m certain at least a few of you might still own cassette tapes. I certainly do. I often tell my students that I continue using and teaching features from that outstanding 90’s tutorial. Everyone is not suited to listening, though. I recall the time a student requested a cassette tutorial and when I asked what they’d learned, they sheepishly admitted to falling asleep. Cassettes were, however the primary method for distributing notes to students who did not read braille or large print.
Recently, I had the bright idea to use a cassette player to record notes read by a screen reader. The screen reader was slowed to an understandable rate and the student reported that he was able to memorize the commands.
From listening to podcasts, I learned to create digital recordings. This led to preparing audio notes on CD. The process was a bit more time-consuming than making cassette recordings. It required that I find an accessible CD burning application; use a reasonably clear microphone; correctly label the individual audio files and monitor the time in order to stay within the 74-minute time limit for an audio CD. My most popular CD tutorial to date is the one on which my dearly departed cat, Zellie, felt the need to comment on the feature being discussed. Thinking about that still elicits a smile.
Getting notes to the students in braille has been the most challenging of all. It seems I always have a correction to make after I’ve sent the notes to be embossed. I’m very fortunate to have a colleague who proofreads the notes before they’re sent to the embosser. I still struggle with getting them to her on time but I’m working on it.
Large print is by far the most popular format for notes. Often, students will begin using a smaller font size but, when they feel comfortable, they’ll request a larger font. Sympathizing with students experiencing vision loss, my eyebrow still raised on one occasion when it was asked if we could print notes in 60 points. Once I hit the 50-point font size myself, I knew it would be more efficient if I began using alternatives to reading such as audio-based tutorials or using my screen reader to find information on the web instead of struggling with trying to read large print.Vision loss is a life-changing issue and each person must come to acceptance in their own time—if they’re ever able to do so.
For a very brief time I passed around a tactile representation of the Microsoft Excel screen layout. Some students reported gaining a better sense of the application once they had the layout under their fingertips. The tactile graphics were a big hit and I long to have them today for the unique (and crowded) layout of MS Excel 2010.
Ah, the tasks we’ll take on when we’re young and foolish! Learning to hand-code HTML pages meant I was able to create a web page where class materials could be downloaded. I was so proud and the students seemed to find it convenient to navigate. The web page was completely accessible to those using screen readers but a serious challenge to maintain. Using it successfully for several classes, I bid it a fond adieu when the upkeep became overwhelming and I was ready to find a simpler solution.
Does anyone remember 3.5-inch floppy disks? Unbelievably, I still have a few lying around. Copying files to a floppy disk was gloriously simple and should a student require large print, we taught them to change the font and size to their liking and they would gladly pluck the pages from the printer. One student in particular felt she needed notes on audio cassette, braille, and floppy disk. Perplexed, I prepared the packet and placed it near her keyboard. At least we couldn’t be accused of refusing to provide reasonable accommodations. Today’s removable storage is just as convenient and I find it quite stable with regard to wear and tear. Each student is given a USB flash drive when they enter our lab for their first class. They can then use this drive for all subsequent courses. Now, if only they would remember to bring the drives.
A friend recently confided that he doesn’t see the need for blogs. Having prepared a LiveJournal class blog for several years, I can attest to its effectiveness and, yet, I discontinued posting in my teacher blog for approximately a year. Again, It required that I write, edit, and post all entries. The one positive aspect was that students could access the reference materials from anywhere. Uncertain as to why I had stopped posting, I decided to revisit this teaching tool this month, I attempted to post a new blog entry in LiveJournal but found the interface frustratingly incompatible with my screen reader. This time I turned to my webmaster for help and he created a blog using the WordPress platform. The blog has already received good reviews. It is easy to navigate and one student said that he likes it because he doesn’t have to deal with paper. In addition to posting class materials, I’ll be adding all manner of tech tips and tricks. Students are only introduced to the blog once they can efficiently navigate a webpage and successfully copy and paste text. They can then either print the material or create a file to be copied to their removable disk and/or to a number of popular notetaking devices.
How People Learn
It takes an arsenal. We press all tools into service in an effort to help our students learn new concepts, functions, and features. Once they leave our classroom, they move on to either an educational or employment setting. My hope is to help our students be as prepared as possible. Tell us what tools you use.