Distance Learning | Feature

4 Tips for Teachers Working with Visually Impaired Students Online

A school for the blind and visually impaired in Washington State uses distance learning to accommodate offsite teachers and students.

What if your students could attend live classes every day, whether they can make it to school or not? And what if those sessions were interactive and collaborative in nature, rather than just being based on a teacher presenting content to students via a videoconferencing link?

These are the questions that teachers and administrators at Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver asked themselves as they reassessed classroom setups to better accommodate their blind and visually impaired students, plus one teacher who couldn't be onsite for classroom instruction.

Sherry Hahn, the school's digital research and curriculum coordinator, said the initiative can be traced back to two driving forces: a superintendent who was in favor of expanding the institution's distance learning capabilities and Washington's statewide videoconferencing known as Digital Learning Commons (now called Distance Learning Department).

"Our superintendent felt it was important for blind and visually impaired students to have equal educational opportunities, but it was clear that most online classes weren't going to be accessible to them," said Hahn. "Plus, the classes weren't applicable at all for completely blind children, particularly when it came to using screen readers and being able to access materials."

Then something else happened: One of the institution's high school math teachers retired, leaving behind a void that was difficult to fill. "It's hard enough to find a good math teacher with the shortages, let alone one that specializes in working with visually impaired students," said Hahn. A national search happened to turn up a viable replacement in Robin Lowell, but the Washington State School for the Blind suffered another setback when the candidate moved out of the area for her husband's job.

"We were left floundering," said Hahn, "but we also were a digital school, so we started to look at our options and see how we might be able to make it work." With a videoconferencing setup in place and the backing of the state's distance learning initiative, the school sent a Polycom videoconferencing unit to Lowell's home in Snoqualmie, WA, and installed one large-screen TV and several desktop computers, standard keyboards, and Braille displays in the classroom.

The setup didn't meet Washington State School for the Blind's expectations. "Robin was talking to the kids and they were talking to her, but there was no real interactivity," said Hahn. "We tried several other options, including Skype, but weren't happy with any of them." Lowell's husband, who works for Microsoft, suggested Lync as an alternative. Geared to the corporate world, the communications platform allows users to send instant messages, start or join audio, video, or Web conferences, make phone calls, and keep track of contacts' availability.

"We turned Lync over to our IT department to research and play around with," said Hahn. The IT department determined that the off-the-shelf software would need no adaptations and that its keyboard-driven functions would be easy for blind students to learn and use. "They can't work with a mouse," said Hahn, "and rely solely on the keyboard to select, move, and respond to on-screen components."

The school moved from its previous videoconferencing setup to Lync in 2009. It was able to use its existing classroom equipment plus document cameras for visually impaired students. Blind students use a standard keyboard, Braille display, and Perky Duck, a six-key Braille emulator program that allows them to input questions and answers for their teacher to read and respond to on screen. At her home, which is about three hours away from the school's campus, Lowell has a computer that's equipped with dual monitors and a document camera, all provided by the school.

Tips for Making it Work

Here are four strategies that Robin Lowell uses when teaching virtually.

  1. Combine a whiteboard with a document camera. First she switches her webcam over to her document camera, the latter of which sits on top of a whiteboard. Lowell then handwrites all of her math examples on the whiteboard, "Just like a teacher would on a whiteboard in front of the class," she said.

    The technique is empowering for visually impaired students who have never been able to see a whiteboard in a traditional classroom.

    "Now it's on a screen in front of them in a format that they can use," said Lowell. "The letters and numbers are large and the contrast is high enough for the student to be able to take notes and follow along."

  1. Have students take desktop snapshots of their work. When working with visually impaired students Lowell can request one or more of them to take a snapshot of their work and e-mail it to her through the Lync platform.

    "I can review it on the spot and give the student an instant assessment," said Lowell. "That's been a real help and a great collaboration strategy."

  1. Layer assistive technology on top of the videoconferencing setup. Students who are blind use the JAWS screen reading software to follow along with Lowell's class. They then use Braille displays (small keyboards with just six keys) to share questions and answers with Lowell, who reads Braille.

    Combined, these two pieces of assistive technology allow blind students to participate fully in class.

  1. Don't be a robot. She may be hours from the school's campus and in her jammies, but Lowell still takes the time to get to know every one of her students personally.

    "During the first few minutes of class I ask them about their weekends, what's going on in their lives, and how they're feeling," said Lowell. "I want the students to know that I'm not just a robot and that we can establish the same personal connections that they have with teachers in their physical classrooms."

Lowell, who works with 10 algebra students in two different class periods, uses Lync primarily for videoconferencing, instant messaging, and desktop sharing. She can arrange all student desktops on one of her monitor screens and give quick feedback on their work and progress. All lectures are recorded, uploaded, and shared using SharePoint. When students are absent — not an uncommon occurrence for a residential school where pupils go home every weekend — they can keep up with their schoolwork and lectures and/or participate in class if their computers are equipped with the software.

Collecting makeup work after absences has also become easier for Lowell, who receives the assignments via e-mail rather than waiting for students to root through their backpacks in search of single sheets of paper — an effort that can be challenging for a blind or visually impaired student.

"Being able to connect in this way has been a big advantage for our students," said Lowell. "They all want the program on their computers; it's very empowering for them." For Lowell, the best aspect of the videoconferencing setup is that it is a "two-way street." Rather than just lecturing to a group of silent participants online, she can create an interactive classroom in a virtual environment. "My students are receptive and participatory," said Lowell. "It's a very fluid atmosphere."

Hahn said administrators, teachers, students, and parents have embraced the virtual system. There haven't been any privacy concerns because no personal information or grades are exchanged. All technology issues are either handled by the school's IT department or by Lowell's Microsoft-savvy spouse. "Our IT support staff has made trips to her house but for the most part the software runs itself," said Hahn. "There's literally been no downtime."

That close oversight allows Lowell to catch and correct mistakes quickly, rather than waiting for assessment time for such issues to surface. "I walk virtually around the classroom and see what everyone is doing," she said. "I can really connect with them."

Lowell, who sees similar setups working across most core academic subject areas, said the school's interactive videoconferencing system has not only expanded her own job opportunities as a teacher, but it also gives students a chance to take math classes that they might not otherwise have access to.

"There are very few teachers of the visually impaired and even fewer math teachers of the visually impaired," said Lowell. "As a result, a lot of students don't have access to appropriate math classes. We're able to bridge the gap and expand the opportunities for our student body."

Teaching in Your Jammies

Working from home has its ups and downs. On one hand, you can teach in your jammies, spend more time with your family, and avoid lengthy commutes. On the other hand, you miss out on those morning coffee klatches in the break room, the camaraderie that teachers enjoy, and the face-to-face contact with students.

For Robin Lowell, the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses of working from a spare bedroom in her Snoqualmie, WA, home. She and her husband have three children, the youngest of which is just eight months old. "I'm here when they leave for school and I'm here when they get home," said Lowell. "Sometimes they don't even realize that I'm working."

Having reduced her commute time to the few minutes that it takes to fire up the coffee pot in her kitchen, Lowell said she has more time for work and play. Sometimes separating the two can be a major challenge. "I've had to train myself to get up and walk away from my desk at the end of the workday," said Lowell. "If I didn't do that I would literally work 24/7."

Lowell said setting up a completely separate workspace for her teaching activities has also helped her keep her work life in its place. "The key is to take some time out and give your mind a break from work," said Lowell, who frequently takes time out to participate in "virtual" lunches with fellow teachers. "We sit and chat about school, students, and personal stuff while we have lunch. It's like popping in a classroom to say 'hi.'"