Teaching Visually Impaired Students in a Multimedia-Enriched Environment


In classrooms of the recent past, textual material educated students. The material was presented verbally by the instructor, and then augmented by writing or drawing on a white or blackboard to supply annotative information. Study materials have been books and text-based study guides. Exams were, and most often still are, primarily text based. For the visually impaired student, all of this has meant "readers" must be provided for homework and textbook studying, note-taking assistants for blackboard explanation, and exam readers to take tests. However, an emerging trend is classroom usage of an array of material based primarily on the visual experience to augment spoken and written text, and aid the understanding of rather dry discussion. This presents new challenges for visually impaired students.

This paper is based on a case study of a bright, visually impaired student's progress through a graduate program in an Information and Communication Sciences program, noted for its strong concentration on technical and production aspects of video presentation. We feel it is fruitful ground for discovering general principles of how to teach visually impaired students in what might be considered one of the most difficult environments &emdash; visually augmented with a strong concentration on visual production.

Our thesis is that multimedia should be used to enhance verbal teaching and not replace it. Moreover, to make visual information more understandable for an entire class requires in-depth voice explanation, even for a class of sighted students. Our example of an extreme case of multimedia utilization with a non-sighted student should be a lesson for multimedia usage with all students.

Problems With Multimedia

Multimedia in the classroom means utilizing a mixture of computers, film, video tape and audio equipment. The intent of employing multimedia is to engage more of a student's senses in the learning, association and retention processes, as well as to interest and excite. Multimedia also offers the opportunity for students to develop and present their own material utilizing a variety of tools. This augments, and in some cases replaces, traditional written and spoken reports required for the course.

To visually impaired students, such visual materials present both an inaccessible set of information, and in some cases, a comprehensibly difficult media. Their primary means of capturing information is through sound, augmented by touch &emdash; reading by Braille, physically handling materials or listening to a reader.

At Ball State's graduate Center for Information and Communication Sciences, the curricula offer challenges in abundance. Much of the program is built around a set of audio, data and video laboratories where the student conducts a set of lab experiments.

One example requiring sight is a lab experiment involving PBX wiring. The student must access a wire conduit containing many color-coded wire pairs, separate out the individual color sets, and then splice together the exact right two yellow wires. Additional lab work involves connecting a set of screen-based electrical analyzers to a transmission medium in order to examine transmission protocols and sampling frequencies as they are displayed onscreen.

Even further experimentation is done with a set of tools for the creation and editing of sound and video, whereby the students create professional-quality movies, slides and VCR recordings of experiments; usability studies; and presentations on the results of their individual and team projects.

One of the more delicate experiments was a lab in which teams cut, polished, terminated and tested the dB loss of a fiber optic cable, following a set of written instructions and a video. In this instance the non-sighted student performed all the physical work, while a sighted student recited instructions and tested the results. This particular case emphasized how video and written documents alone should not be used for instruction.

Beyond the special case of this graduate laboratory, Ball State University was one of the trailblazers in setting up a campuswide Video Information System (VIS) for delivering video (film, videodiscs, slides, movies, television) and remote and local computer processing and display to classroom TV monitors.[1,2] The VIS is frequently part of the mixture of material presented in our classrooms. Yet the tendency is to either let the media speak for itself, or to run a tape for its full half-hour. This is ineffective for many sighted students, but is particularly so for the visually impaired.

However, when a visually impaired student participates in a multimedia-enriched classroom, the professor is forced to do more. They have to break the visual segment up into small pieces, explain the whole and then each part before it is delivered, to stop frequently and review what was seen, ask for questions, and only then move on. By addressing the segmentation and verbal requirements needed by the visually impaired student, all students in the class benefit.

Solutions for the Visually Impaired

Technology also offers some assistance to visually impaired students. For instance, scanners can scan textbooks; students can then sequentially listen to the material via a voice-synthesis mechanism. But it takes a considerable time to scan a 400-page textbook. Further, the material is then in linear form and, at least initially, must be read from beginning to end.

Textbooks are designed for visual random and skip search by sighted individuals, selective examination, and directed access for follow-up studying. In order for the visually impaired student to use recorded information as a review source, the order of pieces on the tape must be timed and annotated the first time through, taking care to record at what specific time segment each piece of material exists on the tape, so that only desired pieces can be accessed for future review. Fortunately many visually impaired students purchase special recorders with high-speed playback and have acquired an ability to hear speech at a speed that appears as a "sound blur" to sighted people. Most voice synthesizers also have this option.

Audio tape recorders create a sequential copy of a professor's spoken presentation to serve as lecture notes. Audio tape is also a linear medium, but the aforementioned equipment speeds up recorded speech to minimize the time involved in listening to and searching through recorded lectures.

Exams can be constructed in a variety of ways. Take-home exams can be offered, where a reader verbalizes the exam to the student, who then writes out answers. For on-campus test taking, special areas can be provided since exam verbalization may disturb other students and impair their results. Special templates can be created so that the space where an answer is to be written can be physically felt, before and during, the writing. Further, exams can be created and delivered to the student on floppy diskette. The student can then use specialized software and hardware that speaks the exam questions through a voice synthesizer. The student can then type the answers back onto the diskette.

Oral examination, particularly effective in graduate work, works very well with visually impaired students.

Experience has shown us that visually impaired students may deliver oral exam answers in a slightly different way than sighted students. Sighted students tend to immediately begin responding, possibly due to the multitude of storage locations where the information has been stored in their brain. The visually impaired student primarily stores words, sentences and the physical sensations of feelings experienced during lab work. To access this linear material seems to take an extra moment and this "search delay" sometimes can confuse the examiner. One should expect a pause while the student searches out the mentally stored information, sorts it into an appropriate order, and then begins presenting it in an organized and comprehensive fashion. The delay seems only to be associated with the differing memory methods employed, and may actually provide the student with a more clearly presented answer.

Solutions for Teachers

Visually impaired students are actually a wonderful gift to the teacher. Such an intently listening student offers the professor an opportunity to use the best techniques suggested for all presentations.

First, when employing slides, viewgraphs or a video, the instructor should explain the complete structure of the material as well as the structure of each individual slide or visual before it is presented. Professors are already familiar with the material, while students are seeing it for the first time.

For the blind student, the professor should verbally describe the structure of all slides or viewgraphs, and then each one as it is presented. First the slide's purpose, then its components, and then how the components are distributed over a slide should be described. This goal is to help the student create a mental model of the material to which he or she can then attach the instructor's verbal explanation. This is analogous to the visual picture a sighted student stores, to which he or she then associates facts.

With this orderly approach, not only do visually impaired students gain greater understanding, but sighted students also have time to better comprehend the information and associate facts with the mental images. Both types of students need to create a memory frame for storing new information.

For lab work, one or more sighted students should perform their lab work with the visually impaired student. As they do their work they should verbally describe their actions and the equipment's responses. As the visually impaired student d'es his or her work, the accompanying verbalization helps all the students in the group. Assistants can help the locating and handling of materials, tools and equipment, and the reading of display devices. The visually impaired student still performs the work, learns the equipment and processes, and completes the lab exercise.

Some Conclusions

One of the things we are learning from using multimedia in the classroom is that memory is best engaged if a student employs a variety of senses to comprehend, examine and reflect upon the information in the process of storing it.

Assisting a visually impaired student offers sighted students the advantage of verbalizing what has been read or is being seen, and in that process, they are using an additional sense and storing the information in additional locations. Physically manipulating lab tools and verbalizing that manipulation also assists sighted students in creating additional forms of memory and in understanding the physical exercises in another dimension.

Using video media for reports and class presentation has a risk of style and color being emphasized at the expense of content. With a visually impaired student involved in creation, the team is constantly brought back to content, since that is his or her primary contribution.

Visually impaired students also allow sighted students to really get into material, rather than skimming it. They cause all students to engage the information with a wider set of senses. The consequence is better learning, understanding and memory retention for all, resulting in an improved ability to synthesize the material with other material covered or experienced.

As we visually enhance the learning environment in our schools and workplaces, the tendency is an over-dependence on the instant recognition of visuals. This is only appropriate for some students; we should not assume that all students take to visuals with the same level of usefulness and effect.

The visually impaired student allows both the teacher and other students to benefit from requiring the professor to think more clearly about how the material should be created and described, how long it should be presented to be absorbed, and what effects are expected from each component of the presentation. What one d'es to address the needs of the visually impaired student fundamentally contributes to the quality of learning for the entire class.

Gary Lee, the blind student upon which this article is based, is currently enrolled in the Info & Comm. Sciences Masters program. He also is Senior Microcomputer Consultant supporting internal Ball State users.

Caitlin Groom, a recent graduate of the Info & Comm. Sciences Masters program, was the sighted student who worked with Gary Lee.

Frank Groom is an Associate Professor in the graduate Information and Communication Sciences program at Ball State University. He was a former Senior Director of Ameritech. E-mail: [email protected]

1. Beatty, T.R. & Fissell, M.C., (Oct. 1993), "Teaching With a Fiber-Optic Network: How Faculty Adapt to New Technology," T.H.E. Journal, 21(3), pp. 82-84.
2. Fissell, Mark C., (Dec. 1990), The Video Information System: Is It the 'Best Educational Tool Around'," T.H.E. Journal, 18(5), pp. 59-61.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.