Louis Braille Celebration
Challenges and Solutions in Teaching Braille in an Online-Education Model
Print edition page number(s) 78-80
The guest editor of the JVIB Louis Braille Bicentenninal Celebration is Susan Jay Spungin, Ed.D., consultant and retired vice president for International Programs and Special Projects, American Foundation for the Blind.
During my graduate school years, I was fortunate to take a class with a professor who started each class session by describing a rhetorical problem and requiring us to form small groups and devise six creative ways in which to resolve the challenge. This early work in solving problems has served me well, since those of us who work in the area of teacher preparation are not strangers to challenges. A crisis exists in the United States because of the shortage of competent teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired. One solution to the lack of access to teacher-training programs has been online education.
After gaining much experience as a classroom teacher for several teacher-preparation programs throughout the country, I became an online braille instructor in 2001. I had never taken an online course prior to teaching one, and I quickly learned that online environments require the acquisition of a different set of teaching skills, as well as acceptance of a unique teaching environment.
Create an online classroom
Not knowing what else to do, I tried to replicate my on-campus course by furiously creating documents with the content I would have presented to my students during lectures. I laboriously uploaded these documents to Blackboard, the online-education web site to which the college subscribed. I don't think my students enjoyed this learning experience very much. I know I didn't.
In search of solutions, I enrolled in Teaching Teachers to Teach Online, an online course taught by Nate Lowell and offered by Phaedrus Academy of the University of Northern Colorado. My participation in this course was my introduction to the wonderful world of "online." I learned about the importance of building community, social presence, and providing timely round-the-clock feedback to students. I learned not to present only content, but to present learning opportunities. I experienced the freedom one gains when one realizes that the world is the true classroom, and that learning is not bound by four walls and one instructor. As a result, I expanded my personal and professional network of expertise and support and learned how to create an online world for my students. Although I am armed with the tools to create an online classroom, challenges in the online-education model persist.
Communicate course requirements
A benefit of the online model is that it allows educators to reach students in diverse geographic areas without the requirement of travel. One drawback to opening a course to a broad range of students is that some may have no clue as to the amount of work and hours of study that are required for successful participation. Some students registered for my course because they were already working for a school or program for blind people and their continued employment depended on their achievement of professional certification. If recruitment is the key to the survival of the field of visual impairment and blindness, teacher-training programs need to clearly communicate the vigorous academic requirements of such programs before future teachers of students with visual impairments enroll.
Build knowledge and networks
An advantage of online learning is providing access to quality higher education programs to students in diverse geographic regions. However, some students who live in rural communities may lack access to the kind of high-speed Internet access required to function in the online learning environment. For a student taking his or her first online course, learning to navigate the Blackboard (or WebCt, or Moodle, or ecampus) environment while also trying to learn the course content can be a source of frustration or stress. University support, including technical support, would be helpful in allowing such students to gain the skills required for online navigation, as well as accessing the university's servers prior to actual course enrollment.
Another, nontechnical, aspect of networking is important for students learning online. As the world becomes their classroom, students need to add valuable members of the field to their personal and professional networks. Guest speakers can be integral parts of online courses, and they help "build community" as they share their expertise and experiences via discussion boards. My students have the benefit of learning from, and then being able to contact, Abraham Nemeth, creator of the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics, to ask questions--and he is always delighted to speak with them about his life's work.
Make time for teaching and learning
The ability to access and participate in a course online at all hours of the day can fit into busy lifestyles; however, online courses are not for all instructors' or students' varied learning styles. Teaching online takes more time than it does to teach a course held once or twice a week on campus. The online model requires that instructors and students "come to class" daily. For example, immediate feedback is a critical component of learning the sequential aspects of braille. Instructors teaching braille online need to be willing and able to be virtually immediately accessible to their students by e-mail, instant messaging, and texting. Another challenge is that course facilitators need to build community by social presence on their online platform. I often wonder what the relationship is between the amount of time instructors spend online supporting their students and the final outcomes for the students.
Although the online model is designed to allow flexibility and eliminate the cost and time required to travel to a classroom, many students still juggle jobs, families, and other courses. Time management skills, organization, and self-discipline are prerequisites of studying braille online. I have on several occasions said to a student, "Perhaps this is not the best time in your life to be taking this challenging course."
Another question of time is the duration of the course. Is the 14- to 15-week time frame of a university semester too short to gain true competence in learning braille? Instead of positive attitudes and love of braille, some of my students leave with frustration and distaste due to the speed in which they have had to proceed through their lessons. Will these future teachers advocate that their students use braille if they have not had a personally rewarding experience while learning braille?
Find substitutions for face-to-face interaction
Personality and teaching methods are integral parts of being a teacher of students with visual impairments. How can an instructor portray such intangibles as enthusiasm, passion, or body language across cyberspace when the instructor and students cannot "see" each other as we would be able to do in a traditional classroom environment? The online method of instruction poses challenges in demonstrating or observing mechanics such as the skill of proper hand position on a Perkins Brailler. One of my students commented, "My husband thought it was funny that I was learning braille online. He joked that the computer screen was full of fingerprints." In the same way that technology cannot replace braille, online braille simulation software cannot replace the experience of pressing keys while learning to use a braillewriter. How do online braille instructors provide opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate their proficiency with braille software and the Perkins Brailler without face-to-face interaction? Online resources like YouTube.com offer possibilities for teachers to create and upload videos that demonstrate these mechanics.
Ensure students' accessibility needs are met
Full and independent access for students who are blind or visually impaired is not yet assured in the online braille course I teach, due to limitations of computer hardware and software--although accommodations need to be made in accordance with the law for students with learning or other disabilities whether a course is offered online or in a traditional classroom setting. Because providing accommodations does not mean lowering requirements so that students with disabilities can earn passing grades in their courses, all students must be able to achieve to the same high standards set by the university and the field. In a course such as braille, competence is often defined by the production of a specific set of skills and knowledge. If a student is unable to separate his or her disability from poor study habits or time-management skills, the student often places blame for his or her lack of success on the online course model.
Look to the future
Two hundred years after the birth of Louis Braille, I am teaching a new generation of students who have grown up to view technological gadgets as extensions of their bodies. They are captivated by multitasking: they talk, listen, and text in a synchronized and natural manner. They have instant access to communication, and have come to expect that the world will join them in philosophy and practice. The educational model so familiar to most instructors preparing teachers in the field of visual impairment has changed, and these shifting paradigms in education have led educators to continually identify new challenges in search of solutions. As I celebrate the accomplishments of Louis Braille, I can't help wonder what he would think of all the ways in which braille instruction has changed since his lifetime, and I look ahead to future challenges with the confidence that I will be able to develop creative solutions needed to meet the educational goals.
Sheila Amato, Ed.D., university instructor, Dominican College, New Mexico State University, Salus University, and West Virginia University; e-mail: <email@example.com>.
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