Online learning, real-life success
Perkins eLearning provides the vital information parents and educators need to help children with visual impairment succeed
By Alix Hackett
A young mother in South Dakota, isolated and unsure. A hard-working occupational therapist who spends far too much time in her car. A teacher of the visually impaired who grapples with a surging tide of brain-based blindness.
There’s no one kind of person who turns to Perkins eLearning for answers. But no matter who that person is, chances are Perkins eLearning can help.
Perkins eLearning hosts the world’s largest collection of online resources about visual impairment and blindness education. From web-based classes to helpful articles to on-demand video tutorials, the Perkins School for the Blind website offers something for everyone.
For parents, there are discussion forums where moms and dads can connect with other families raising children who are blind. For teachers seeking inspiration, there are lesson plans and activity banks. For educators, there are online professional development opportunities.
Perkins eLearning launched in 2012 and has grown steadily in size and scope ever since. Today, its resources explore every phase of blindness education, from helping infants get the strongest possible start in life to preparing teens for the transition to independent adulthood.
More than 285,000 people turned to Perkins eLearning for help in 2016 – and here are three of their stories. When two educators and one parent sought answers, they were able to find what they needed to help children who are blind learn and thrive.
Finding time to learn
Amanda Martinage spends a lot of time on the road. As an occupational therapist for the Concord Area Special Education Collaborative (CASE) in Massachusetts, she works in three separate schools with students with developmental delays, helping them develop crucial daily living skills.
There’s not much time left for professional development, but with Perkins eLearning’s online classes, Martinage found a way to fit continuing education into her busy schedule.
“With these classes you do the reading and listen to the lectures when you have the time, which was very appealing to me,” she said. “The fact that I could also get graduate credits was a huge component as well.”
For her second online class, Martinage studied strategies for assessing and working with students with cortical visual impairment (CVI), a form of blindness that occurs when the brain can’t interpret visual information from the eyes. As the course progressed, she found the lessons fit seamlessly into her work at CASE.
“It was an immediate translation,” she said. “When you put some of these strategies in place all of a sudden things click – students are able to access learning materials that they were never able to really utilize.”
Some concepts were already familiar to Martinage, such as the use of movement to draw a student’s attention to an object. But the class gave her new ways to think about them. For example, while Martinage still uses movement to encourage students to focus, she now recognizes that movement in the surrounding environment can present a distraction.
“These are things I always knew were helpful, but now I feel like I’m using them a lot more,” she said. “It gives me food for thought and I can very easily apply it to what I’m doing.”
A supportive community
When she visits the Paths to Literacy website, Sandra Kenrick is instantly connected with other parents of deafblind children across the country.
It’s a comforting feeling for the South Dakota mom, who remembers feeling isolated when her 7 ½-year-old son lost his vision and hearing to meningitis four years ago. She was also unsure about how to help her son learn to read.
“I couldn’t really find anything, where to even start,” she recalled. “I started to make accessible books for him, just kind of making whatever I could think of.”
By the time she discovered Paths to Literacy, a Perkins eLearning micro-site dedicated to reading and writing for children with visual impairment, Kenrick had developed strategies of her own. She’s a teacher, so she knew the basics. But she still had a lot of questions, which she posted on the Paths to Literacy blog. To her delight, responses poured in, and Kenrick realized she’d found the support network she’d been seeking.
“When there’s no one else like you in your area, it’s nice to go somewhere where people get it,” she said.
With Paths to Literacy, Kenrick learned new strategies for teaching braille to her son. She discovered “story boxes,” collections of tactile objects that correspond to items mentioned in a book, and began making them at home. She learned that scribbling, a ubiquitous activity among sighted youngsters, was also an important pre-braille exercise for children without vision.
“I thought that was the craziest thing at first,” she said. “But it turns out absolutely kids with visual impairment can scribble – it just might look a little different.”
As her son progressed, Kenrick posted photos and descriptions of their activities on Paths to Literacy. Recently, her posts have included more advanced braille technology as her son’s literacy skills continue to improve.
“This year especially he’s just soared,” she said. “It’s been fun to have this support all the way through to help keep him improving and going forward.”
The learning never stops
As a teacher of the visually impaired in Connecticut, almost three-quarters of Matt Tietjen’s students have been diagnosed with CVI. It’s inspired him to become a specialist in the condition, which is now the leading cause of visual impairment among children in the United States.
Last year, Tietjen completed the CVI Range Endorsement through Perkins eLearning – a rigorous assessment that measures a teacher’s skills in working with children with CVI. To receive the endorsement, educators must pass a comprehensive test, assess a video case study and complete a recommendation process.
Receiving the endorsement earned Tietjen a spot in the Perkins eLearning directory of CVI specialists, which allows parents and school districts in need of a CVI expert to more easily find him. Previously, many parents looking for answers about CVI just stumbled on him by accident.
“I’d be going to a school district and a teacher might say, ‘Oh, this other family’s been looking for answers, they’re not really sure why their kid doesn’t seem to be processing what they’re seeing,’” he said. “What Perkins is doing now is offering a structured formal way for that to happen. It’s going to make a lot more of those connections possible.”
When he first entered the field, Tietjen had viewed several Perkins eLearning video tutorials to help him address early classroom challenges.
He’s come a long way – even becoming a teaching assistant in CVI-expert Dr. Christine Roman’s online class. But there is always new territory to explore.
“This is the type of field where you have to be always learning and educating yourself in order to stay current and help students,” he said. “Perkins eLearning is the first source I go to when there’s a topic I want to learn more about.”