In April 2002, the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind (RNZFB) with the support of the New Zealand Crippled Children's Society (NZCCS) and funding from the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) began its inaugural adaptive technology training course in Auckland. The goal of this course was to provide each of the 8 students with visual impairments a safe space to learn core computing concepts including: Microsoft Office applications and adaptive technology using keystroke commands only. The course also sought to provide the students with a staircase to employment or higher education.
The course ran 10 weeks with each student attending 4 days per week and 7.5 hours per day. The materials used to teach this course were self-paced tutorials purchased from the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (RVIB) and modified by RNZFB staff to meet requirements of TEC and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). NZQA is a national standards setting body that approves testing materials in a wide range of disciplines including computing. Each student had been pre-screened for this class using an assessment tool originally created by staff from Sensory Access Foundation (Sunnyvale, California) and later modified by RNZFB staff. Since April, three classes have graduated from the courses (24 students) with one class to graduate in early April 2003. Follow-up with students after the courses has found that roughly 50 percent of the students have moved into higher education or gainful employment. Similar courses are planned throughout 2003 in Auckland.
A new classroom capable of supporting up to 8 students at a time has been built in Wellington and will be experimenting with Microsoft Office XP tutorials acquired from Project Assist. Wellington's classroom will employ an alternative approach to the training in that students will not be required to attend 30 hours per week. Students attending Wellington's courses will be given the option of attending 3 hour blocks, 4 days per week in the mornings or afternoon.
Entrance Criteria for the Course
- Vocationally-oriented and registered with government agency as a job seeker or on a benefit for specified period (Note: this condition is being relaxed to accommodate senior citizens)
- Able to travel independently to and from course
- Proficiency with the English language
- Can self-manage any personal health condition with or without accommodation
- Keyboarding of at least 15 words per minute at 95% or above accuracy
- Able to attend course 4 days per week, 7.5 hours per day
5-6 weeks prior to the start of each course, 8 students plus several alternates are pre-screened by a Vocational Advisor and an Adaptive Technology Instructor. Each of the 8 students is assessed over a 2-3 hour evaluation using a pre-screening tool, originally acquired from Sensory Access Foundation and modified by RNZFB AT Instructors, to test prospective students in the following areas:
- keyboarding ability (words per minute, accuracy) and knowledge of the QWERTY keyboard
- proficiency with the English language (some reading comprehension, spelling, writing ability)
- functional vision assessment to determine what AT software they will require to start the course
- existing knowledge of the computer and specific Microsoft Office applications
Course Materials and Structure
The course is taught by 2 full-time AT Instructors and one Tutor Aide. Course materials exist in large print, audiotape, and Braille and are comprised of:
- RVIB tutorials (Basic Computer Operations, Word, Outlook, Internet Explorer, Excel, and Outlook)
- Project Assist tutorials
- RNZFB supplements created by AT Instructors
- Tactile Diagrams from Dr. Sara Morley
- NZQA marking guides from Software Educational Resources and modified by AT Instructors
- APH Talking Typer with RVIB custom lessons
Students begin each day with 30 minutes of typing practice on Talking Typer. Typing practice can be followed by lecture, group exercise, tutorial work, or unit standard assessment. Unit standard assessment is the chief way that students can assess their knowledge against a nationally recognised standard in computing. Oral presentations are also mandatory for each student each week. Also, group feedback sessions are held at the end of each week to assess the progress of each student and to provide Trainers with feedback.
Conclusions of the Auckland Pilot
Students gained significant benefits from attending a 10 week intensive training course. A summary of the benefits gained by the students are described below:
Each student gained a firm understanding of their "functional" vision and the adaptive technology (speech, large print, or a combination) that they required to function effectively on the computer. In many instances, students who were initially assessed as being able to use large print software had switched to a screen reader exclusively. Several students who were allowed to continue using the mouse throughout the course advised us after the course that the mouse was a detriment to their learning. Based on this feedback, we advise the students that the mouse will only be connected through the end of the second week.
The course simulated a 7.5 hour work day and gave the students useful information about their visual stamina over the course of a full work day. This is information they could take with them when considering either full-time work or continuing education.
Students had to arrange for their own transport and obtain the necessary orientation and mobility skills to attend class each day. This requirement encouraged a sense of self-sufficiency and the confidence to travel to other venues.
A noticeable shift was seen in the attitudes of students who had been formerly at home with no focus or life direction. Many began inquiring about attending higher education or entering the workforce after the course. Furthermore, the course often promoted a clarification of each person's vocational goals. Peer support and peer pressure in the classroom and social interaction with students were seen as key factors in creating this shift in attitude.