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Access Technology: Building academic confidence and independence

Assess students’ technology skills to build the tech access and confidence they’ll need to be successful in college and beyond.

By: Perkins School for the Blind

In today’s world, technology is everywhere, touching all elements of our daily life. With access to technology, one can tap into the internet, access news and information about virtually anything, produce and collaborate on shared documents and assignments, build networks through communication, and so much more. With regards to the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) that our students with visual impairments follow, technology can and should play a role in each area, to foster compensatory access, executive functioning skill development, independent living needs, and orientation and mobility.

Technology in each of these core areas is designed to improve and streamline our student’s interactions with academic materials in the classroom, facilitate engagement in their community, and foster access and connections to the larger world. It’s our job, then, as teachers, parents, members of the student’s educational team, and students striving toward college readiness, to find ways to build fluency and confidence in a technology-driven world, and have some fun in the process! 

Where we’ve been vs. where we’re going 

Kate Katulak, Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), co-author of Perkins’ Technology Competencies Checklist, has her finger on the pulse of where we are and where we need to go regarding technology instruction and competency in students with visual impairments. 

As Kate notes, “Consideration and instruction should begin before elementary school. We need to be immersing young children who are blind and visually impaired in technology, just like we do with typically sighted children.” We see that toddlers are learning to navigate and utilize tablets and cell phones and electronic toys, but, as many of these screen devices are either inaccessible to students with visual impairments or would require training, our young children and students with visual impairments are falling behind before they even reach kindergarten. 

We need to do a better job creating these ‘tech natives’ and we do this by finding ways to present devices in an equitable way. From there, when they get to elementary school they won’t be beginning with a gap, they’ll be right there with their peers and ready to continue moving forward.

The term, “tech native” refers to an individual that is exposed to technology at a very early age in order to become well-versed and fluent in using technology and assistive technology. The challenge, however, in creating tech natives is that our teachers responsible for assistive technology instruction are often flooded with crowded caseloads, insufficient training, and ever-changing, updated devices.

Challenges in teaching tech skills

Kate mentions, “Technology skills are so integral for our students who aspire to go to college and for career readiness, and yet, TVIs are often expected to provide the technology instruction without the in-depth training on the wide variety of tools that are available… I think that has a big impact on the state of students’ readiness to learn new equipment and even to use the tools that they’ve had for a long time.” 

Despite the challenges educators face when teaching technology skills to students with visual impairments, there are several key skills that, when addressed over time, can support the growth of a tech native.  These tools may be able to support parents as they advocate for services for their students in the IEP process, so students can be learning alongside their typically sighted peers. Tools like the Technology Competencies Checklist can help our students build skills over time, as they work toward competency and fluency with technology. 

Assessment drives instruction and motivation  

Perkins’ Technology Competencies Checklist is a tool for TVIs, general education teachers, parents, and the student’s entire team of educators, counselors and therapists; it is designed to be used with high school students, but can certainly be used with students of any age. With five sections – General, Access, Independent Living Skills, Advocacy, Orientation and Mobility – the checklist allows a student’s team to assess the student’s present skills in using technology, assess the student’s goals for their academic and future career, and then backwards plan to design instruction, including bringing in external, virtual, technology instruction to best meet the unique needs of each student. The checklist is user-friendly and accessible in all formats – digital, print, and accessible files for embossing for braille readers.

The Technology Competencies Checklist is designed to be used as a tool to inform, motivate and mobilize students to strive toward tech fluency. 

It’s also a great conversation starter.  And, once teachers and parents have a baseline, they can set goals and start the gradual accumulation of skills, just as their peers are doing, starting early – in elementary school. From there, students can come face to face with technology, using it to learn and explore with growing confidence and independence, just as their peers are.

Proof of progress

As Kate mentions, “When the right variables are in place and students can experience the success and benefits that the use of technology brings, they’re going to be able to be faster, and finish their school work more quickly. I’ll often ask the question, ‘Would you rather be working on your homework for two hours, or just a half hour and then going on to hang out with your friends?’” 

They’re going to be really hungry for that efficiency.

Meeting milestones and seeing proof of progress is like fuel. Kate continues, “Let’s bring those immediate celebrations and benefits to the forefront of these conversations and actually demonstrate for them, through their own use of a tool or through observing someone else, the benefits of tech.”

Technology competencies for all ages 

Because every student’s needs, goals, strengths and limitations will vary, there is no one set approach, or process for accumulating skills. This will depend on the student, their needs, their learning media, their IEP goals, and most importantly, their aspirations for the future.

So, once the checklist is administered, a student’s educational team can develop a plan. The plan takes a student’s present levels, and sequences intensive training (and expectations in the general education classroom), placing these into the student’s IEP goals. This provides general education teachers, parents and other team members, such as paraprofessionals, with guidance on the student’s devices. They become familiar with potential challenges and demands, and how to respond to promote growth and use of new skills, so that they, too, can support the student appropriately throughout the day, to move to “tech native” status. 

Starting early: early learning and pre-teaching 

At the pre-school and early elementary level, keep the focus on exposure and pre-teaching. For example, a toddler or early learner who is blind or visually impaired should be exposed to devices so they may explore and learn the parts of that device, learn the cause and effect of its parts (knobs, keys, carriage of a brailler, and the screen and home button of an iPad). 

As students with visual impairments move through their elementary school curriculum, however, and are expected to use their devices and assistive technology skills to access and produce materials, students need to begin to build fluency and confidence. This is where “backwards planning” is critical. Kate notes, “I would start by asking teachers to look ahead 3-5 years, as well as to what the student’s goals are even longer term. If there’s any possibility at all that they may pursue higher education and enter the workforce, we should be thinking about equipping them not only with the physical tools they’ll need, but also the ability to switch between devices and learn new ways of accessing information.” 

As technology is updated and revised so frequently, the ability to switch between devices is critical. It helps reduce the learning curve and reduce the chance of falling behind, or feeling comfortable with one device only. 

Looking at an example

Take a student in second grade who is using a tablet and comfortable using voiceover and zoom magnification to complete all of their schoolwork. In a few years they’re going to transition to a middle school where academic demands increase, and they’ll be required to use a laptop or desktop computer throughout the day and for homework. 

After reviewing our Technology Competencies, an educator can begin with some thoughtful first steps. 

  1. The student will need to be introduced to keyboarding skills and practice and regular use, early enough to gain speed and accuracy with keystrokes. 
  2. Then, the student will need to learn the key commands on the keyboard, combined with navigation of  a PC or Mac, in order to access the range of documents and resources (such as websites) that their peers are accessing, with ease and efficacy. This is an important step towards literacy, and independence in learning.  

“Our Checklist tells us where we’re going so we can start to introduce these skills early, and ensure that it’s already checked off by the time they need it for their more advanced schoolwork.. It’s a lot of pre-teaching, really,” Kate confirms.  

High school to college transition

When working with high school students, start with what you know.  Consider their present levels, then continue both the forward thinking and the backwards planning. Ask the same types of questions: 

In her previous work as a coach for Compass, a virtual college readiness program for high school students, their families and educators, offered by Perkins School for the Blind, Kate helped to identify these skills, as well as skill gaps, with students and their educational team. She suggests that “the earlier that we can prepare students to troubleshoot and problem solve, the better. By the time a student reaches college, if they already have experience using their tools successfully and if they have experience problem solving and trouble-shooting – like access and locating resources – those barriers become so much less significant. Why? Because students are going to be more ready and able to know what to ask to find what they’re looking for.” 

While the Technology Competencies Checklist is a useful tool from the time students with visual impairments are very young, it should definitely be used by the TVI and/or family by the time that student reaches high school, to establish appropriate IEP goals and to plan appropriate training, so the student can meet in-class expectations of the use of these skills in the general education classroom, just like their peers. By ensuring that a student is not only fluent and confident with their device, but capable of switching across devices to access, produce and communicate as needed, students learning and living with blindness and visual impairment will be exploring their future with the same skills as their typically sighted peers, increasing opportunities for success in their future plans, including college, work and community engagement.  

Ongoing support:  Not just the TVI

Perkins’ Technology Competencies Checklist is a living, breathing document and can be used by any professional or family member on a student’s educational team. It can be used by a consultant, demonstrating the use of a new refreshable braille device for a student. It can be used by a vocational rehabilitation counselor at a regional Lighthouse for the Blind, as they can work with a student during weekend and summer programs that provide tech training, hands-on practice, and exposure to different devices. 

Beyond these opportunities, the team may need to expand to provide appropriate, intensive technology training to empower a student to be as independent a learner on technology as they can be.  That may involve bringing in technology teachers virtually, to provide expert lessons that will allow a student to understand the benefits of gaining these additional skills, instead of having an adult do all of the work for them.  

This transition can be hard!  Kate observes, “I think we can start to recognize that if and when it’s necessary, it’s okay for technology instruction to come from someone non-traditional, like a technology teacher/consultant who’s hired virtually, or a CATIS certified teacher who may not be the student’s TVI.

It is really hard, as a TVI, to admit or to even come to the realization that we may not have everything we need for our students, but I think that should be normalized – because the ECC is so multifaceted and the students with whom we work are complex – and that’s okay.”

Peer-to-peer support 

Peers who have worked to build similar technology skills are also a great resource, adds Kate. “I always encourage students to connect with other peers who have visual impairments to find out what devices they’re using and how they’re getting training…” Our students can also contact product companies directly to see if they are providing training. A lot of local programs have lending libraries, so individuals can use a Mac with voiceover for four weeks, then spend another four weeks trialing a PC with JAWS, and Zoom or NVDA, or a digital braille display. “We need to encourage our students to seek out these resources through networking and research and a little bit of trial and error.” 

Reassessing needs along the way 

As students’ growing maturity and evolving goals emerge throughout high school, their technology needs may need to become more robust and reflect increased independence.  Students must begin to understand the significant differences between high school demands and college, and have both assignments and assessments begin to reflect expectations that they will encounter after high school graduation. 

Building up a range of skills, with increasing independence and efficiency, will also pay off in high school, as a student builds stamina, experience and an increasing range of academic skills and knowledge to meet the demands of college and work. Working with all members of a student’s educational team is critical. Making sure that general education teachers have the same expectations and demands of an aspiring college student will help the student gain insight about needed skills and about the reality of what “college demands” really mean.  

As Kate puts it, we can do better:  “From the coding and manufacturing side of things, we need to make things more accessible; from the parent perspective, we need to help our students find their voices as they advocate for accessibility; from a teaching standpoint, we need to equip them with the problem solving skills, the tech skills and the competencies that we know they need – not only to engage with learning, but also to evaluate themselves whether something is accessible, and if not, to see if there is something they can do about it.”

Other Approaches

Yet, if technology skills are not developed by the end of high school there are other options. Students can delay the beginning of college level classes to sharpen tech skills. Katulak notes that “taking a break from one’s studies is so valuable, because the worst case scenario is that their technology deficits are impacting their ability to learn (in college) which can have implications for grades and self esteem. If a student needs to take a semester off, that’s plenty of time to learn technology.”  

By starting early, and using a tool such as Perkins’ Technology Competencies Checklist, students can gain the “tech native” skills that their peers have, creating increased opportunities for gaining literacy skills across the curriculum from an early age, and increasing the range of options after high school graduation. Demands in the world include and assume fluency and independence on a range of access technologies. Our students, with intentional training and expectations, can meet these challenges, and increase their success on their journeys to meeting their personal and professional goals.

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