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Digital technologies and inclusive schooling


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Author: Ana Isabel Ruiz López
The education of people with visual impairment in Spain hinges on the fact that students are mainstreamed in schools chosen either by the students themselves or their families. The introduction of digital technologies in schools poses a new challenge for visually impaired students.

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Digital technologies and inclusive schooling

  1. 1. Digital technologies and inclusive schooling Ana Isabel Ruiz López ONCE (The Spanish National Organisation of the Blind) Summary The education of people with visual impairment in Spain hinges on the fact that students are mainstreamed in schools chosen either by the students themselves or their families. The introduction of digital technologies in schools poses a new challenge for visually impaired students. The ONCE Access to Educational Content Group (ACCEDO in Spanish) was set up to carry out research, training and assessment in the field of accessibility. The Group works both with ONCE’s own staff in its Educational Services for the Visually Impaired Teams and public and private entities. In this article you will find some useful information about the initial experiences and approach, the tools employed, the cost and impact of the project and the results reached so far. The use of adapted digital technology by youngsters allows them to enjoy better access to information and educational resources; and is a powerful socializing tool, enabling children with disabilities to feel included in their environment. Keywords: accessibility, visual impaired students, digital technologies, digital classrooms, training, inclusive schooling. Introduction The education of people with visual impairment in Spain - following nearly forty years of work to bring about mainstreaming in ordinary schools - hinges on the fact that more than 95% of students are mainstreamed in schools chosen either by the students themselves or their families. This figure holds for all stages of education. The introduction of digital technologies in schools poses a new challenge for visually impaired students. New operating systems, new educational software and tools such as digital notebooks and tablet PCs mean working methods must also evolve. Whilst developments in adapted hardware for persons with disabilities have taken place at the same rate as the development of new technologies, the same cannot be said in the case of software accessibility. Recent studies have shown that the current level of accessibility of educational software is extremely low, if not non-existent. This means that having tools to access recourses is virtually ineffective if the software is inaccessible. Given the present situation, the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind (ONCE in Spanish) has initiated a series of research projects to address these difficulties. To do so, the ONCE Access to Educational Content Group (ACCEDO in Spanish) was set up to carry out research, training and assessment in the field of accessibility. The Group works both with ONCE’s own staff in its Educational Services for the Visually Impaired Teams (composed of specialists from ONCE and public authorities) and public and private entities. The group is made up of teachers, eLearning Papers • • 1 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  2. 2. specialists in adapting material, experts in adapted technologies for the blind, IT specialists and psycho-pedagogues. The purpose of ACCEDO is to work towards a true mainstreaming of students with visual impairment in schools, with the support of the digital technologies which are being introduced in the classroom and ensuring such technologies do not cause exclusion and increase the digital gap in the field of education. We consider educational resources to be accessible when the visually impaired student is able to achieve the aims for which the resource is designed using the devices necessary according to his or her capabilities. All students should utilise identical resources and these should be designed for all. Specific solutions can bring about exclusion in the long term. Initial experiences The first experiences in using digital technologies in the classroom came about spontaneously and voluntarily on the part of teachers. To date and in general, it is the teachers in the classroom who have decided whether to introduce their students to the digital classroom or not. Some of these classes had visually impaired students and the teachers themselves, in liaison with the ONCE itinerant teacher, took the decision to include the visually impaired student. Classroom teachers, teachers from ONCE and specialists from the ACCEDO Group have been working together in different classroom settings with visually impaired pupils in pre-school and primary education over the past few years. The schools in which this process was undertaken vary in nature. Several are rural Schools attended by both pre-school and primary education pupils and with few students. In Huesca in the Aragon region, one school has two pupils who are completely blind, one in pre-schooling and the other in primary education. The school has 12 pupils in total. In one school in Cuenca (in the region of Castilla-La Mancha) there is one primary school pupil out of a total of four students. In the other schools the class size is standard for ordinary schools, that is to say between 22 and 26 pupils. In Zaragosa (Aragón) there are two pupils in two different centres, both of which are mainstream primary schools. One of the pupils is blind while the other is partially sighted. In Badajoz (Extremadura) there is one totally blind pupil in a mainstream school, while in Cadiz (Andalusia) there is one partially sighted student, also in a mainstream school. The work we wished to carry out was with these seven pupils: one totally blind primary student in a rural school, one totally blind female student in a rural school, three partially sighted primary education pupils in mainstream schools and two totally blind primary education pupils in mainstream schools. None of the students had worked with computers prior to the experience, nor had the teachers experience in working with visually impaired pupils and with computers, although all of them had been teaching the pupils for at least two years. Some of them had basic computing skills. Classes and students As mentioned above, the class size varies between the rural schools and the standard state schools. For the pupils in this study the numbers are indicated above. In general terms, all the schools have the necessary classroom resources and support to function normally. What was missing was to equip the visually impaired pupils with the resources and technological tools they require as a result of their disability. eLearning Papers • • 2 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  3. 3. The classroom teaching method with the pupils needed to be modified due to the introduction of digital technologies, so a joint working plan was drawn up by all the experts involved. Initially, experts from the ACCEDO Group assessed the needs of the pupils and decided which devices the pupil needed to be able to work in the same way as his or her classmates. Along with the classroom teacher a study plan for the pupil was developed and the most suitable material in terms of the objectives set was identified. Using this information, training sessions lasting several days and involving the teaching staff in the schools involved were organised. Normally all teachers who are in direct contact with the visually impaired student take part in the training, and participants are taught some basic rules regarding accessibility to enable them either to develop the resources themselves or adapt existing resources. Initial approach The teachers who participated in the study asked the ACCEDO Group for support when they realised that the use of a computer opens up a wide range of possibilities for visually impaired pupils and that their pupils were being left out of something which is vital for their future. Given the situation they raised the issue of their pupils’ needs and the difficulties concerning the lack of training, time and resources. The problems at the beginning are normally common to all cases, and are basically concerned with the lack of accessibility of currently existing resources. Owing to the lack of resources, the issue of lack of time to develop or adapt resources is also raised. All teachers generally agree on the need for training in new technologies for teaching/learning in digital classrooms, for each student to be equipped with suitable tools, for time to be made available and for guidance in preparing and adapting resources. Tools employed Given this approach, the decision was taken to work with those teachers who were very keen to ensure their students were able to work using ICTs. Accordingly, a working method was established based on evaluation, training, guidance and support. Following the evaluation stage and based on the visual impairment of each pupil and the teacher’s planning, the tools to be used by each pupil were identified. For those pupils with residual sight, and depending on the type of residual sight, the following tools can be included in the computer: • Larger screen to facilitate viewing; • Interactive screen if the pupil is young or has underdeveloped psychomotor skills or some type of motor impairment; • in terms of software, a screen magnifier may be installed to improve perception. For these students, to enable them to follow the teacher’s explanations on the blackboard, their computer and any peripheral devices are connected to the classroom computer or the teacher’s computer, assuming the teacher makes use of digital resources and a projector. If not, the pupil has a camera pointing at the blackboard and the information is shown on the student’s computer screen. eLearning Papers • • 3 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  4. 4. Totally blind pupils are equipped with a screen reader to read text on the screen, provided the information is accessible, and a graphics tablet to work with tactile material. These students also require a tactile embosser (fuser) to produce raised tactile graphics. Experts involved in the process; training provided and involvement In the development of this experience all those professionals who are involved either directly or indirectly in the student’s education participated (classroom teacher, teachers for specific subjects - music, English, physical education, etc., the support teacher in the school and the teacher of therapeutic pedagogy). In all cases the support and co-operation of the families was vital. Developing the experience The process took place over a period of various years (between two and four school years). During this period the pupils studied towards the same objectives as their classmates and, above all, using the same resource material. Teachers found web sites with minimum accessibility and prepared and adapted material, mainly using authoring tools such as Jclic and PowerPoint. Throughout the experience each student and his or her school received different types of support. In the first place and as mentioned previously, the ONCE ACCEDO Group performed an evaluation and provided training; next and using the evaluation report, the corresponding regional government (the education authority according to Spanish legislation) and ONCE equipped pupils with the assistive technologies they needed. Finally, the ACCEDO Group and those experts working most closely with the itinerant teacher gave guidance on how to prepare and adapt resource material. Results In general terms the results obtained were very positive, not just from the point of view of educational achievements - which were indeed notable - but also from the point of view of preparing each pupil for the future and how motivated the students become when they feel they are working under the same conditions as their classmates. Pupils’ self-esteem rose as they were able to demonstrate their knowledge and work as part of a group and, just as importantly, they gained self-confidence to face up to the difficulties they have in class. There was a noticeable difference in how the blind pupils handled new technologies in comparison with the and partially sighted students. However, the difference is not due to differing capabilities, but the result of two fundamental factors: the inaccessibility of existing resources mentioned previously, and the need for totally blind pupils to learn in advance certain concepts which are evident to those who can see the screen. Teachers were extremely satisfied with the experience, although they did raise several difficulties and requirements: the lack of accessible resource material, a lack of time to prepare and adapt material, technical problems with some computers and a current shortage of adapted material. Bearing in mind that the experience was based on voluntary work and involved an additional effort on the part of the teachers, it remains to be seen if the pupils will eLearning Papers • • 4 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  5. 5. continue in the programme as they move through the school years and change teachers; not all teachers have or want to have the training needed to use ICTs with visually impaired pupils and, additionally, they may not have time to spend on this. Following these initial pilot projects, we can reach the following key general conclusions: 1. Visually impaired children are just as capable of using a computer for school work as any other pupil, provided they are equipped with suitable assistive technologies and accessible software. 2. It is necessary to do preparatory work with them on handling these tools to ensure they enjoy the same conditions as their sighted peers when it comes to using them in the classroom. 3. In order to ensure each pupil is equipped with the most suitable tools, each student must be assessed individually. 4. Teachers must be offered the training they need to select, create and adapt accessible technological resources. 5. Teachers who sign up for these projects must be given sufficient time to spend on it. 6. Continuity in the work performed with such pupils must be secured in subsequent school years. Impact evaluation Two elements should be underlined in the impact evaluation of this project: On one hand, one of the main objectives of Spanish education policy is to introduce Information and Communication Technologies in schools. However, this policy has failed to take into account accessibility criteria, thus putting at risk achievements reached over the last 70 years in our country in the field of integrated education. On the other hand, the use of accessible digital technology by youngsters allows them to enjoy: • Greater and easier access to information, materials and educational resources; • A greater possibility to increase their training and labour prospects; • And, one of the most important aspects, a great socializing tool. To be able to share information, homework, school tasks, to do teamwork at school and at home, to be able to talk about the same subjects, play the same games, take part in the same discussions, to be able to write and read e-mails, look for music, videos, etc., enabling children with disabilities to feel included in their environment, without any type of social discrimination. In order to avoid setbacks in the achievements gained in educational and labour market integration and achieve the proper mainstreaming of students with visual disabilities into the digital technology environment, ACCEDO was set up. Project cost and reasons why it should be introduced in other countries The project cost is borne totally by ONCE and amounts to an annual budget of eight hundred and five thousand Euros (805 000€), split in two main areas: • Human resources: Salaries of professionals who take part in the ACCEDO Group, on a part-time or full-time basis, with an annual budget estimated to be some five hundred thousand Euros (500 000€). • M aterial resources: The cost of technical equipment (desktop and laptop computers, tablet PCs, TFT-LCD computer screens of different sizes, interactive screen and board, eLearning Papers • • 5 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  6. 6. different screen browsers and magnifiers, braille display, video camera, camera, web cam, scanner, braille and ink printer, projector and various computer programmes, etc.) needed to run the project in all ONCE's Educational Resource Centres, amounting to three hundred and five thousand Euros (305 000€). We consider that it would be very interesting to have other similar working groups in other countries, as the needs of youngsters in the field of Information and Communication Technologies go beyond borders, and it would allow everyone to make the most of synergies in the work carried out. Therefore and in order to encourage other organizations, we have presented this initiative and raised awareness on the strategic importance of accessibility to digital technology in different fora and congresses on accessibility held in Spain, and in July 2009 at the ICEVI Europe conference, a platform that gathers together the main organizations dealing with education of children with visual impairments. Widening the roll out of the experience Given that the cases outlined in this paper are ongoing, visually impaired students are working with computers in class and the results are positive, it is now a question of widening the experience. To this end and through a research project undertaken as part of Plan AVANZA, work will begin during this academic year with 20 pupils studying the third year of primary education. The goal is to make sure they have sufficient technology skills to be able to use computers in class when the time to do so arrives and to find out what skills the pupils need to work properly with assistive devices and what skills teachers need to teach them. At the same time and as has been the case up to now, we will continue to deal with any individual cases which may arise in accordance with the same criteria (evaluation, training and support). Authorities and schools must introduce these solutions properly to allow students to truly benefit from new technologies in the classroom. Formal agreements which ensure the use of ICTs in the classroom will serve to enhance inclusion and not provoke exclusion, as is the case at present, should be entered into with authorities. In addition, it is vital to perform further research in new technologies bringing ICTs to students at the lowest possible cost and as effectively as possible. This is currently ACCEDO’s mission. It is also necessary to establish a training itinerary for those professionals involved in the project. This would enable most of them to gain basic training to allow them to work with the pupil, while others would assist in resource material adaptation, others in designing activities, etc. Last but not least, following isolated experiences with pupils attending special education centres and considering the successes achieved with certain assistive devices and software, we must explore strategies to ensure pupils with additional and associated disabilities are also able to benefit from these technologies. As we said above, we believe it would be very interesting to have other similar working groups in other countries, given that the needs of youngsters in the field of Information and Communication Technologies go beyond borders, and it would allow everyone to make the most of synergies in the work carried out. We have presented our project nationally and internationally (see above) with the aim of encouraging other organisations to initiate similar programmes. eLearning Papers • • 6 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542
  7. 7. Online inform ation for consultation On the ONCE website on education at, in the “RECURSOS / Accesibilidad” section, it is possible to consult the guidelines prepared by ACCEDO, which can be used as a guide and reference for professional involved in designing and developing digital education platforms and environments, to make them accessible and usable for students with any type of visual disability. Author Ana Isabel Ruiz López ONCE Director of Education and Employment ONCE General Directorate, Spain Copyrights The texts published in this journal, unless otherwise indicated, are subject to a Creative Com m ons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivativeW orks 3.0 Unported licence. They may be copied, distributed and broadcast provided that the author and the e-journal that publishes them, eLearning Papers, are cited. Commercial use and derivative works are not permitted. The full licence can be consulted on Edition and production Name of the publication: eLearning Papers ISSN: 1887-1542 Publisher: Edited by: P.A.U. Education, S.L. Postal address: C/ Muntaner 262, 3º, 08021 Barcelona, Spain Telephone: +34 933 670 400 Email: Internet: eLearning Papers • • 7 Nº 19 • April 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542