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Teaching Math to the Blind – with Lync & Skype

It isn’t easy for schools to find qualified math teachers. And for schools like The Washington State School for the Blind, it is even harder to hire math instructors who have experience with visually impaired students or teach Nemeth Braille Code for blind students.

Sherry Hahn, the Digital Research and Development Coordinator for The Washington State School for the Blind, says, “I was ecstatic when we hired Robin [Lowell] in ‘09. She was a rare find who had everything we were looking for, including Nemeth teaching experience.” But prior to starting work at the school in Vancouver, Washington, Robin’s husband landed a dream job in Seattle. The Lowells decided to move.

Sherry says, “I wasn’t about to let Robin slip through my fingers.” The two devised a plan for Robin to remotely teach Algebra I and II to 9th-12th graders at the school.

Robin says, “At first we tried to use basic teleconferencing but it didn’t work out. Teaching math to the visually impaired and blind is a massive challenge. The teacher must use very detailed speech patterns, but verbal description alone is never enough.”

Then, on a recommendation, they tried Lync. Sherry points out, “Lync is totally keyboard controlled and is therefore better for blind students. With the addition of ‘screen reader’ devices, students can work with their teacher on math problems in real time. And the low vision students can use ‘screen enhancement’ to see the ‘whiteboard’ function in Lync.”

WA state school for the blind

The majority of the students sit in a traditional arrangement in the classroom, facing the front of the room. Robin is projected in front of the class and the students who can’t be in attendance join in remotely to Lync.

“Lync is straightforward and is a one-stop-shop,” Robin explains. “There’s no need to log in to a bunch of different apps. The IM function is very useful too so everyone can communicate directly with me. All of the students get what they need, when they need it.”

Also, Robin and many of the students use Skype to collaborate. Robin says, “The students use Skype with each other to do home work and communicate both in and out of class.” Skype’s broad popularity has helped the school to connect with students who are not part of the school and may not have access to Lync.

Robin tutors additional students over Skype and often uses her document camera for the Skype video call so she can generate a real time white board for low vision students. Moreover, Sherry says, “We’ve also taught a computer programming class over Skype with students as far away as Texas. And, on top of it all, our students are getting a great education in technology skills.”

The Washington State School for the Blind is a public school that hosts some 69 to 72 students on campus per year. But the school’s mandate is to serve the whole state and it is now working with a total of 2000 students per year throughout Washington, including far-flung towns like Tonasket (pop. 1000) that could never maintain their own school for visually impaired or blind students. The math program is also expanding into Idaho, Montana, and Oregon.

Sherry says, “We’re creating a model that can really help visually impaired and blind students to learn math skills no matter where they live. And we believe it can be used throughout the country.”

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