What’s Happening with Active Learning?

Authors: Scott Baltisberger and Sara Kitchen, VI Education Specialists, TSBVI Outreach Program

Keywords: Active Learning, international, assessment, Education Service Center, ESC, TSBVI, Penrickton Center, Perkins School for the Blind, Low Incidence Disability, LID, Functional Scheme Assessment, resonance board, Lilli Nielsen, online learning, Continuing Education Unit, CEU

Abstract: Ongoing efforts by TSBVI, Perkins School for the Blind and the Penrickton Center to connect with other advanced practitioners or trainers in Active Learning have resulted in connecting a group of professionals from around the globe. Texas has also been continuing to support Active Learning with support from online learning, regional education service centers (ESCs), and TSBVI’s Outreach Program.

Notes from the International Active Learning Forum

Finding a way to address the educational needs of students functioning at early developmental levels has long been a challenge. Many of us within the VI education community are familiar with the Active Learning approach, originally developed by the late Danish preschool teacher and developmental psychologist, Lilli Nielsen, in the 1970’s, which has had promising results when staff have received proper training.

However, popularizing the approach has been a challenge. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that these students make up a very small part of the student population: they are referred to as having “low incidence disabilities.” Another part is that the professional community serving them is widely dispersed. They have few opportunities to engage with a community of teachers and therapists whose students have similar needs and connect with experienced staff who are available to model and mentor those new to the field.  This creates challenges in conducting research and developing effective techniques for teacher training modules.

To address this issue, an international group has begun to hold regular meetings with the goals of sharing information and coordinating actions. Among the members of this group are representatives from Australia, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and the USA. Of course one challenge in holding meetings of such scope is finding a time that works for everyone. For example, at our most recent meeting, on September 10, participants in Europe attended at the reasonable hour of 4:00 PM while those in the USA had to be there at 7:30 in the morning and those in Australia at 10 PM!

Here are a few of the discussion items/actions that were suggested and/or undertaken at the meeting:

  • Updating and modifying the Functional Scheme Assessment. Ms. Nielsen envisioned the assessment instrument of active learning as a living document that would, of necessity, be updated and modified over time as new information and ideas became available. With nineteen fields and eleven levels of function, this presents quite a daunting undertaking. We discussed the possibility of dividing the task among various participants, with each one taking a field. The group from TSBVI offered to look into updating the communication section, perhaps incorporating information from Dr. Charity Rowland’s Communication Matrix which examines the earliest types of communication in youngsters.
  • The group from Denmark shared that they are in the process of creating an “app” that would incorporate the Functional Scheme Assessment and the FIELA Curriculum, as well as some form of lesson planning and data collection. They have a mock-up available but have encountered difficulties with funding. One solution they offered was to develop the app in English as this would have wider world-wide interest and application than a version in Danish.
  • We also discussed the current state of research into the efficacy of active learning. Having hard data might greatly raise the profile and respectability of the approach. In Texas this past year, Holly Cooper of TSBVI Outreach undertook one such research project, the results of which were submitted to JVIB for possible publication. Unfortunately, the article was not accepted, due in part to design difficulties resulting from the low incidence population and transitory nature of classrooms in public schools. That is, students move away, teacher assignments change, and staff are not trained in a uniform manner. There are too many variables and inconsistencies. One solution suggested was to involve centers such as Narbethong in Australia, Visio in Denmark, and Penrickton in the USA because they have student and teacher populations that are more stable and long-term. Another key is the engagement of university personnel to develop and design the research study. We are excited that two persons affiliated with Stephen F. Austin University (SFASU) in Nacogdoches, TX- Dr. Shannon Darst, professor, and Cheryl Schulik, doctoral student have offered their time and expertise in this area.

The next meeting of the international active learning forum will be on November 8th, and we are all excited to see what additional developments may occur.

Texas Active Learning News:

In more local news, TSBVI Outreach continues to develop online courses which offer a guided way of approaching the information contained on the Active Learning Space (, a collaboration between the Perkins School for the Blind, TSBVI, and the Penrickton Center. The course offers CEU’s and possibly micro-credentialing in this area of study. More information and a link to sign up can be found at and in the News and Views section of this newsletter.

Ongoing multi-layered training and support is being offered for those schools and districts wishing to develop their own capacity in using Active Learning to serve their students. Layers include the online Active Learning courses as they are developed, participating Regional Education Service Centers, and TSBVI Outreach. Areas known to be currently using these resources include Regions 7, 11, 13, 14, and 20.

Region 10 Education Service Center is hosting the annual Active Learning Conference on June 10-11, 2019, in the Dallas area. Details will be coming soon.

A Texas-based supplier, Donkey Kraft, is now producing high-quality “vibration boards” based on the specifications provided by Lilli Nielsen for her resonance boards. Both full-size and folding versions (great for storage and transport) of the boards are available. Contact  for pricing and ordering. Also consider borrowing a vibration board or a resonance board for up to three months to determine if it would benefit your student for long term use. They may be available through your Education Service Center and/or through the TSBVI Technology Loan Program.

Contact Sara Kitchen at   to find out about them and other Active Learning equipment that is available through TSBVI’s Tech Loan program. To make a TSBVI Tech Loan request, please go to Tech Loan Program, download the application, fill it out, and return it as directed along with the requested assessment information.

Student smiles as he plays with a metal ball on a tray.

Photograph of smiling student looking at a silver ball rolling in a shallow bowl. Both his arms extended and his hands are pressing the bowl on both sides of the ball.

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