Seeing a way to online learning

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Acute visual impairment need not be a bar to computer resources, messages and games; you just need the appropriate software. Denyse Presley reports

Building an intranet is a daunting task for any school but for the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh it posed particular challenges. It takes primary and secondary age children, many with complex educational needs, and is spread over two campuses in the south of the city.

The board of trustees raised pound;250,000 and brought in a specialist information technology consultancy, The Blue Group, based in Rosyth. The project was very different from the kind it predominantly undertakes for banks and offices.

"We were introduced for the first time to a lot of specialist applications, such as screen enlargement software called Supernova, made by the British company Dolphin, that can magnify the screen up to 16 times," says Neill Cooper, the company's executive director.

Frequently the incompatability of specialist hardware and software proves a headache for class teachers devising new resources. Now, as assistant principal Alison Thompson points out, The Blue Group is finding the solutions: "So, our teachers can focus on preparing the materials instead of worrying about technical difficulties." The system is now flexible enough to allow the school to integrate any new innovations.

"Typically we would have a help desk with a call-out team," Mr Cooper says, "but the requirements here are so different, with a diverse IT system including notebooks, i-Macs and telephony and a number of specialist applications, that we have based someone here full-time for the first 12 months at least."

Mr Cooper says the company also had to consider the security implications of preparing Internet access for visually impaired children. "We applied the same disciplines as we would to any project but because the children have sensory and physical difficulties, they are vulnerable to attack on the Internet, so we had to place stringent controls on where they can gain access."

Learning to touch type is an essential part of the Royal Blind School's curriculum and the secondary school pupils also learn to use applications such as Excel, WordArt and Clipart.

Before the network was set up, not all the software and hardware was available universally throughout the school, so accessing the Internet could be difficult for some pupils in some classrooms. Now that has changed.

The pupil:computer ratio is now about 2:1, which means the children have more access, and networking has standardised everything, so they are using the same Apple Macs, PCs and Windows XP version regardless of where they are in the school.

"Networking means classes can use the Internet to investigate topics without having to move around the school," says Ms Thompson.

Networking also gives the teachers improved access to web-based resources, whereas previously they would have had to research their ideas in the library. "It makes planning lessons faster and more efficient," says Ms Thompson.

It has been a big learning curve for the teachers, says information and communications technology teacher Margaret Burns, but The Blue Group is providing training.

The range of devices the children use to enable them to read websites depends on the degree of their disability. Some who are only partly visually impaired use a conventional keyboard.

One boy with severe physical difficulties, who is only able to use his fingers, employs a switch to control what he sees on the computer screen.

CloseView, like Supernova, lets the pupils enlarge text and pictures and change the cursor so that they can see more clearly.

The acutely visually impaired children use an audio software package called Jaws. This enables them to carry out a range of activities, from starting a new office document to writing e-mail notes.

"Without the Jaws software," Ms Thompson says, "it would be impossible for visually impaired or totally blind pupils to navigate their way around what are quite complex documents."

A voice prompts them verbally to indicate the presence of drop-down menus and lists the potential commands. It can also be used to teach touch typing by repeating individual letters or, when the pupils get faster, words.

Before the introduction of this software, pupils would have to wait to be corrected by a teacher.

Connect Outloud also allows the acutely visually impaired to access the Internet by reading out what is on a webpage via a speech synthesiser and Braille output.

Business education teacher Rob Jones is critical of text-only pages for visually impaired people because they offer only secondary access. "Our children want flash graphics and audio files. They don't want text only," he says.

Ms Thompson says the pupils find it difficult to access leisure activities, "especially something as normal as a PlayStation game".

Mr Jones demonstrates a games program called Drive, which was designed by two Dutch postgraduates specifically for the visually impaired. "You accelerate your car by using the up arrow key and you hear the noise.

There's a booster pack to make you go faster. Then there's a guy called Bob, who has a go at you if you're not doing well."

The game is not available commercially yet but is an example of the new games being produced for visually impaired people.

Ms Burns is enthusiastic about software called KlickIt. "Most computer games companies provide visual hotspots where you get more information, such as a joke, when you click on an image. KlickIt lets you record your own audio hotspots, which the children can choose, and hear the extra information the games company has given," she says.

The teachers do a lot of individual work to set up programs on an IntelliKeys programmable keyboard. This can be overlaid with different templates for children with specific needs. For example, Ms Burns has been working with a group of pupils with severe communication skills who need to create a curriculum vitae. They would not have been able to formulate a cv on their own, but Ms Burns discusses with them what a cv is and they supply the details. These are loaded into the computer and they choose the information to fill in the template.

"In the end the IntelliKeys software allows them to produce it quite independently of the teacher," says Ms Burns.

"It improves their ability to take responsibility for their own learning and they get a great deal of satisfaction out of it and want to do it almost as a game."

The intranet also means that staff can share resources on the central server, so something like the cv template, which took several months to develop, is available to all. "No one has to invent it, it's there," says Ms Burns.

Many of the staff also have specialised knowledge about visual impairment and have produced publications that they can now pool. "We've two campuses a mile and a half apart," says Ms Thompson. "So communication is made more difficult". But the installation of Phoenix administration software has made things faster and more efficient and e-mail speeds up communication between the two campuses.

"Accessing e-mail and other resources from home," she continues, "means that teachers can also spend less time on campus".

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