Today’s students are accessing educational materials online or in a digital format. COVID school closures have sped up the process of transitioning to digital classrooms; states/districts have fully embraced digital classrooms or are working to incorporate technology into every classroom – including math courses. After all, the goal of education is to prepare students for careers and today’s work force relies heavily on technology.
The College Board is also changing with the times and is moving from traditional paper-and-pencil to computer-based testing. According to the College Board, “Students are now doing more of their learning and testing digitally, and the SAT shouldn’t be the exception.”
What does this re-alignment to digital math mean for TSVIs and BLV students? In the past, K-12 students received textbooks, assignments, and tests in braille. Currently, many K-12 students still receive all their math materials in paper braille, and they complete these assignments using paper braille. Other students are successfully completing assignments and tests in a digital format – after learning math concepts tactually. Many students prefer pairing a braille display with their device; this enables the student to hear the math equations read aloud while using their fingers to read the refreshable braille along with using the braille display to input math expressions. The goal is to move to access and complete assignments and tests in digital formats.
One of the biggest challenges for BLV college freshman is accessing and completing math courses, as universities typically do not provide paper braille resources. College students often must learn digital math tools while re-training their brains to make the switch from paper braille to digital formats. . . without the support of a TSVI. College math courses are challenging and move quickly! As always, students should be using the same tools to access and complete assignments in K-12 that they will be using in college and careers. This means that students should be learning to access and complete digital math assignments in K-12 math courses.
It is important to remember that braille displays currently are one line, meaning that the digital math equations can only be viewed as horizontal equations. When using paper braille, students can create, access and complete math problems in horizontal or vertical formats.
While this post, Digital Math Summary, concentrates on digital math tools geared for older students, it is important to understand that young students should be introduced to digital math concepts and tools (paired with tactile materials) early on! The posts in the General section below focus on transitioning to digital math. The Math apps and activities summary page for students K-3rd grade offer a full range of math apps and activities; below are a few of these math transition posts to help jump start your journey into digital math!
Unfortunately, most digital and online math resources are not accessible. The age-old question, “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” applies to accessible digital math. Textbook publishers hesitate to add new math tools to online math assessments because students are not efficient with digital math. However, students cannot become efficient without having access to new math tools.
There are tools currently available that most TSVIs are not aware of and/or have not used yet. Can educators create digital math assignments with math expressions and can students complete these assignments in digital format? You bet! There are several types of options for creating accessible digital math expressions. Markup languages are the most robust and have been around for a while; this is the preferred method for BLV professionals in STEM fields. Math editors are newer and easier to use, but may not have the full list of features required for high level STEM courses or careers. Are these available math tools compatible with screen readers and braille displays? YES, screen readers and braille displays are can read and interact with math content created with both markup languages and math editors.
For decades, college students and professionals with visual impairments have been using math markup languages to access and create digital math expressions. MathML and LaTeX are two popular math languages. Using markup languages is a robust way to access higher math and STEM materials; however, there is a learning curve with these math languages, as they require additional symbols to be added to the math expression. Most TSVIs are not familiar with markup languages and few K-12 students are learning these markup languages prior to entering college.
LaTeX is a high-quality typesetting system designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation. It is available as a free software. (First released in 1984.)
MathML is a mathematical markup language, an application of XML for describing mathematical notations. It aims at integrating mathematical formulae into World Wide Web pages and other documents. (First released in 1998.)
More recent options are math editors, which use editable text boxes to type in the math expression which is then automatically translated – no extra symbols are required, simply enter the math equation like normal using a QWERTY keyboard or braille input using a braille display. Microsoft Word has a robust, built-in math editor; this is a mainstream tool that is also fully accessible that is being used by classroom teachers to create educational worksheets. JAWS released the Braille Math Editor feature and Pearson is working on the Accessible Equation Editor. These two math editors are new and are currently under active development and/or being fine tuned.
Microsoft Word has a built-in math editor (sometimes called Equation Editor); the feature is found in Word’s ribbon. The accessible math editor is used to insert mathematical expressions into a Word document. Mathematical expressions in a Word document are fully accessible with a screen reader and/or a screen reader paired with a braille display. (First released in 2007?)
Note: A TSVI shared that the Microsoft math editor is excellent for educators to create accessible worksheets (without using JAWS) and for students who use a braille display to input answers. However, the onscreen keyboard is not currently accessible with JAWS; a braille display must be used.
MathType is a software application created by Design Science that allows the creation of mathematical notation for inclusion in desktop and web applications. (First released in 1987.)
EquatiO is software from Texthelp that helps people create accessible digital math without complex coding or math languages to learn.
The Braille Math Editor is a new math editor feature in JAWS by Freedom Scientific designed to insert mathematical expressions into a Word document. (Released 2021)
Accessible Equation Editor is a program used in a number of Pearson products that enables users to create math expressions within a web page. (Prototype is currently available.)
Some braille notetakers such as the BrailleNote Touch, BrailleNote Touch Plus, and Braille Sense Polaris have built-in software that enables math output and input.
Automated Translation Team (AMT): AMT is working on developing software that will automatically translate printed mathematics text into Nemeth Braille. The goal is to provide Braille textbooks in a timely manner and at lower costs to universities.
SAS Graphics Accelerator is a free Chrome extension that enables blind and low vision users to access digital charts, graphs and maps. There are numerous posts on SAS Graphics Accelerator; see SAS Graphics Accelerator Summary Page for a full list of posts. Two posts in particular are beneficial for all digital graphing:
Desmos is an advanced graphing calculator implemented as a web application and a mobile application. It is fully accessible with a screen reader and braille display, or simply convert your keyboard to a six key Braille input. Desmos is an embedded tool or is allowed to be used on College Board assessments, NWEA Map Growth test and many state assessments and is backed by Pearson.
BlindMath listserv is a wonderful, in-depth resource for students, BLV professionals and educators. This listserv is a place to ask questions, share knowledge and frequently hosts virtual discussions and trainings. [email protected]
Accessible digital math is rapidly evolving! I’m excited at the new and/or updated options that have been developed in the last couple of years. Please help us keep up-to-date on accessible digital math tools by sharing what tools YOUR students are using and their strategies for success! Contact us: [email protected]
By Diane Brauner, 2/24/23
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