Building Competence and Confidence: A Summer Program for Middle and High School Students at Baruch College
In 1977, Baruch College of The City University of New York had the University's only Educational Computer Center. Dr. Dina Bedi, the Director of the Center, and Dr. Sam Ryan, both professors in the Department of Statistics, began to consider the idea of how computing was becoming a universal need for all college students, and it might, therefore, play an even more significant role in the lives of students whose ability to manage printed information was compromised due to vision loss.
With help from Leslie Clark (then a researcher at the American Foundation for the Blind) and grad student Herb Klitzner, Bedi and Ryan found funds to purchase one braille computer terminal and one electronic magnifier (CCTV) and, then, offered an accessible course in FORTRAN programming. The Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP) had its official launch seven months later in March of 1978. Each summer since then, CCVIP has been inviting students to its campus to get a taste of computing and a dose of New York City life.
For its first five years, CCVIP continued to teach programming, but in the early 1980s, as personal computers emerged, the Center changed its mission to embrace all users, concluding that competence with accessible computers was a basic literacy tool. Since 1983, the CCVIP mission has been to increase the freedom, independence, and productivity of people who are blind or visually impaired through the power of digital technology. Curricula changed to include software associated with the use of computers by many individuals rather than the programming of computers by a few.
In the current learning path, new students to the CCVIP begin by participating in an assessment seminar, which is a group lesson allowing instructors to gauge students' existing computer skills and capabilities. All students who successfully complete that seminar then move to a four session class called Understanding Windows Concepts, which provides a foundation for various Windows conventions with specific instruction in the Microsoft Office suite and the Internet.
While the CCVIP is on a college campus, there are no strict age limitations for students. The following account is of one teacher's partnership with this training program to pair its technology emersion with goal-oriented mobility training, creating a fresh, progressive curriculum for his students.
I heard AFB President and CEO, Carl Augusto, give the keynote address at an AER Conference around 17 years ago, and three points that he made in this speech have influenced my teaching tremendously. He stated that computers were the most powerful tools yet developed for use by people with visual impairments. He went on to say that teachers of visually impaired students tend to "reinvent the wheel" and that teachers need to make better use of the work of others in their field. Finally, he noted that people with visual impairments are among the most highly educated of groups with disabilities, yet are among the most under-employed.
Several years before Mr. Augusto's address, I witnessed one of the first screen reader demonstrations at an AER Conference in Baltimore. Within minutes of beginning their demonstration on this new technology, the program froze on the software developers, and they were unsuccessful in their attempts to restart it.
There were several important lessons to be learned from these two separate experiences: while I realized computers were immensely important to my students' future growth and success, I wasn't sure I had the knowledge to systematically and effectively teach all of the underlying concepts necessary for their use. I also felt it was important to challenge and push my students to develop more advanced Orientation and Mobility (O&M) skills at a far earlier age than I had previously attempted. A solution to these two challenges, though, soon became evident.
Within a year or so of hearing Mr. Augusto, I became aware of CCVIP at Baruch College. In 1998, I made arrangements with CCVIP to enroll one of my students, an eleven year old with light perception only, into their summer Windows95/Microsoft Word class. I was this student's O&M instructor at the time. The student was a fluent typist, but her only computer experience had been with a DOS-based operating system. She had no previous exposure to a Windows-based environment.
For six weeks over that summer, we commuted twice a week into the city. The student lived approximately sixty miles from the city, which translated into just over seven hours travel time, round trip. This included transferring to and from train to subway and subway to subway, and street level travel to and from class. Class time was approximately three hours, so each trip took approximately ten hours to complete. I asked the student's local Lion's Club to provide the cost of the tuition. I also asked the student's school district to include 20 hours of summer O&M instruction on her Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) and to reimburse the costs of train and subway travel.
More Than Computer Class
The benefits of combining an advanced O&M program with a meaningful and self-motivating technology-centered educational experience soon became apparent. The repetition of the biweekly trips over a six-week period of time allowed for a long and complicated route to be broken down into small, manageable pieces with many opportunities for practice and review. There were also many chances to experience the real life challenges that are faced by people with visual impairments who use mass transit: delayed or cancelled trains, over-crowded subways, and well-intentioned Samaritans who tried to direct cane placement onto the platform or attempted to assist the student on and off trains by use of physical means, to name just a few.
There was an unanticipated social benefit from this combination of programs. The other students in the class (ages ranging from early twenties to mid-forties) welcomed my student into their midst. They shared their experiences on everything, including using guide dogs, their differing preferences in technologies, various social and cultural events in the city for people with visual impairments, and how to deal with over-anxious parents.
Another benefit of the program was the opportunity to meet a large group of highly successful people with visual impairments. It wasn't until the second or third week of the program that my student realized that the class instructor was herself blind. The competency of this teacher and her position at the college as an instructor had a tremendous influence on my student and helped raise her expectations for what could be achieved through hard work.
Growing the Curriculum
Since 1998, I have enrolled five additional students at the college, and they have taken a total of eight courses through CCVIP. The children's ages were from 10 to 15 years old, and they were enrolled in programs according to their needs and abilities, including Word Level 1 and 2, Using the Internet, and Using PowerPoint. These students were all experienced users of text enlargement software, but to further enrich this experience, all used screen reading software in class.
By the third summer of city travel, the program developed with additional components to better prepare the student. Two separate eight-hour trips are incorporated into the program for the summer before a student is to attend CCVIP, the first of which includes train and subway travel and introduces the student to the Penn Station and Grand Central Station transportation hubs.
To prepare for city travel, the student attends regular O&M lessons in which the student transports to towns on Long Island that offer settings more closely related to city travel. Finding a teachable area on Long Island is a little like the story of Goldilocks: some towns are too small and don't provide sidewalks or a variety of intersection shapes and controls while some are too big with traffic that is too fast, crossings that are too wide, and no adequate controls in place to provide for safe pedestrian crossing opportunities. The three villages that are "just right" for the program are Bellport Village (small but with a variety of intersection shapes and controls), Sayville Village (medium sized), and Patchogue Village (large but with laws prohibiting right turns at red lights similar to those found in New York City).
The final new component is two additional trips added to each student's O&M program for the remaining summers of their school careers following the completion of their course work at CCVIP. These trips build upon sections of now established routes and include travel to transportation hubs, cultural centers, and food and entertainment sites. The O&M portion of the program has continued to evolve and change every year as new trip possibilities present themselves.
The growth of students as they progress through the summer is exciting, and the ever-changing dynamics of city travel are always challenging. Over the past thirteen years, students have experienced a wide variety of occurrences both typical and atypical of commuting and city travel. They have experienced the results of a lightning strike knocking out a signal tower, water over the third rail knocking out service, a "slow train ahead" for the entire 60-mile trip into the city, several delays due to medical emergencies, track fires cancelling service west of Jamaica Station, and, once, a reported sniper delaying a train for several hours.
The Program's Role
Programs such as those offered at CCVIP are now more essential than ever. As an itinerant teacher of students with visual impairments, I've noticed two emerging challenges that affect the ability of my students to compete in the area of technology with their sighted peers. The first is that there is a disparity between school districts in terms of their financial resources. Some more affluent districts are able to focus on computer readiness skills beginning in elementary school, but other districts without the same resources wait to develop these skills until the high school level. While I can introduce computer skills to my students at an early age, they aren't always able to reinforce these skills in their school settings.
The second challenge is that, as districts have placed more emphasis on teaching to standards due to emphasis on standardized tests, there is less time available to classroom teachers to take their students into the school's computer labs to introduce and teach new computer-related concepts. This is particularly true for students in lower grades. These two challenges further highlight the importance of making the most of the opportunity that summer offers by combining an O&M program with a specialized computer center such as CCVIP.
As students go on to college and adulthood, it's important that they know about local resources and have mastery of the O&M skills necessary to access these programs independently. With proper training, this generation of students may meet with greater success in the workplace than those who have gone before them. As the students who have gone through this combination of programs have graduated, they all seem to have two things in common: very strong technology and computer-related skills and an affinity for going to school or living in urban-type environments that offer mass transit and, thus, the possibility of autonomous travel.
What Students Said They Learned
CCVIP recently interviewed four of the six Long Island students who participated in the summer program. Because these students joined the CCVIP's already existing program, they were folded in with graduate students and working-age adults, and all of the students reported that they enjoyed being in a class of older individuals. All reported learning skills in both the use of their particular access technologies and the applications they studied. They each became fluent users of speech technology and showed no discernible resistance as can so often be the case with adults.
One student stated she enjoyed her classmates and that they were very friendly and generous to her in showing her such things as the recorders they used and sharing with her regarding many aspects of their lives as people with significant vision loss. She also enjoyed the smaller group and somewhat less formal atmosphere that existed in the CCVIP classroom and felt free to ask questions as they came up.
Some of the students continued with the program and moved from student to teacher in the process. One student became fluent enough with screen readers that he was able to act as a tutor at a computer camp later that summer. Another student with whom we spoke spent multiple summers at CCVIP studying the Internet, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Following her studies, she returned to tutor in the same summer program. In addition to the technical knowledge she gained, she said several times that the program gave her the confidence that allows her now to explore computers on her own.
One student reported that he had not realized that there was such a thing as a community of strong and independent-minded people who were blind or visually impaired. He said, "I live most of my life in the sighted world, but to have a connection with strong and independent blind people is really important. I don't think I would have developed the same without it." He continued to say about the experience, "I can acknowledge my visual impairment and my needs without needing to use it as a rationale for incompetency."
Teachers of students with visual impairments have reported that the vast majority of their time is spent supporting students in their academic subject work. In many cases where students are mainstreamed, chances to enjoy accelerated work in mobility and assistive technology may be rare. Similarly, chances to be in a community with other people who are blind or visually impaired are often limited.
The Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC), skill areas necessary for students who are blind or visually impaired to fully access and benefit from the standard K-12 curriculum, includes compensatory or access skills, career education skills, independent living skills, O&M skills and concepts, recreational and leisure skills, self-determination skills, social interaction skills, use of access technology, and sensory efficiency skills. CCVIP has seen the values of the ECC come to life in participating students of this program. Summer seems an ideal time in which to create partnerships between teachers, school programs, and specialized programs that may offer students the chance to grow and gain confidence in themselves as learners, as travelers, and as independent young adults.
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