“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This was a question we all were asked as kids at one time or another and we were given the space to be as creative in our answers as we wanted. We dreamed of being astronauts, dancers, veterinarians, and artists. These aspirations were constantly changing as our hobbies and interests changed or as we got older and were encouraged to dream more realistically.
Ian Oliver, pictured left, is a blind high school student who wants to go into cybersecurity when he grows up. He and his mother, Jennifer, have been watching as he is excused from all inaccessible assignments, which amount to over half of his homework assignments. They are worried that Ian is missing key class materials and he won’t be able to catch up because he is not able to interact in class like his sighted peers can. The more content he misses out on, the more they feel like his goals of going into computer science won’t be attainable.
Over the past 8 weeks we have been participating in the VITAL Prize bootcamp through the National Science Foundation (NSF). As a part of this, we have been challenged to complete 80 interviews with potential customers and stakeholders in the K-12 education space to gain a better understanding of a target market for our product, Kasi. Kasi is our alternative interface for digital learning that fosters inclusion and exploration in the classroom. With it, students are able to interact with tactile manipulatives and a computer vision software system assesses the positions of these plastic pieces. Students’ work is then assessed and real-time audio support is given to create a multi-sensory learning system that can be used independently by all students.
While in the VITAL Prize bootcamp, working toward the goal of completing 80 interviews, we were able to interview 31 Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVIs) and learned about their day-to-day lives. TBVIs are accessibility experts and are the decision-makers when it comes to choosing the best tools and technology for their blind and low-vision students. Whether it’s driving up to 100 miles between schools in rural areas, or managing caseloads of 15-29 students in an average of 15 schools, these TBVIs are at the frontlines in helping students like Ian progress in all of their classes.
After we started our interviews, we quickly learned that there were many different barriers that keep blind students from being able to interact with their peers, teachers, and the learning materials. Over one third of the TBVIs we spoke to told us about the need for accessible and usable storage systems. Where the blind student’s manipulatives are stored can easily become a barrier to using them if the student is unable to access them independently. Another important consideration TBVIs take into account is whether or not the tool is inclusive. One TBVI told us that, “it's harder for the [blind] student to participate in a class when they're using a different tool than everybody else." Not only are blind students singled out when they have different tools, but sometimes these tools require a different set of instructions to use as well. This takes away valuable time from the TBVI and the student which could be used for deeper learning.
We know that the experience of getting excused from assignments and falling behind in classes is not exclusive to the low-incidence population, but has become a reality to a growing number of students since schools went online in the spring of 2020. Our interviews with math teachers let us know that there is a need for interactive math manipulatives that will bridge the gap between tactile and digital learning. As students have fallen behind in math courses, they haven’t been able to build a strong understanding of the foundational concepts in math. Teachers struggle to know whether to teach the standards assigned to that grade level or to teach the material that they missed 3 years ago.
Kasi Math will foster student exploration and engagement with foundational math concepts. If we move forward in the VITAL Prize competition, we are excited to continue our research through testing prototypes of our product. At Alchemie, we are dedicated to making learning accessible for ALL students to help keep them from falling behind. By designing Kasi Math grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and for independent learning and exploration, we can help students grow in confidence in their knowledge and skills, turning their aspirations into reality.