Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Use of an Accessible iPad App and Supplemental Graphics to Build Mathematics Skills: Feasibility Study Results

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Use of an Accessible iPad App and Supplemental Graphics to Build Mathematics Skills: Feasibility Study Results

Article excerpt

Mathematics can be challenging for many students, regardless of whether they have disabilities. Educators and researchers have noted, however, that mathematics is often especially difficult for students with visual impairments (McDonnall, Geison, & Cavenaugh, 2009). In particular, algebra has been identified as a critical "gatekeeper" course (Atanda, 1999; Moses & Cobb, 2001; Silver, 1995). Students who do not pass algebra are not likely to qualify for programs of study that lead to science or engineering careers, and they face limited employment opportunities (Chazan, 2008; Goertz, van Lierop, Houkes, & Nijhuis, 2010; National Science Foundation, 2013; Stein, Kaufman, Sherman, & Hillen, 2011). Often, the problem is that students lack proficiency in key algebra-readiness skills such as division, fractions, decimals, and unit conversion (Tolar, Lederberg, & Fletcher, 2009).

The present project was designed to help visually impaired students build their algebra-readiness skills by making an existing web-based tutoring program accessible. The web-based program, AnimalWatch, had been previously developed by the lead author with support from the U.S. Department of Education. The program was selected for this project for two reasons.

First, prior work indicated that sighted students in classes that used the AnimalWatch program scored higher on a range of learning outcomes, including an end-of-year state mathematics achievement test as well as study-specific measures, than comparable classes that did not use the program (Beal, Arroyo, Cohen, & Woolf, 2010; Schneider et al., 2014). Students who worked with the AnimalWatch program benefited from receiving immediate feedback about the accuracy of their work and from the interactive hints and solutions or "worked examples." In contrast, traditional worksheets and homework assignments need to be graded, and students who work from these traditional methods do not necessarily receive feedback in a timely manner and may not have the opportunity to learn what they did wrong or how to solve problems correctly.

Second, the AnimalWatch program focused primarily on mathematics word problems. The ability to solve such word problems has long been considered to be a key indication of mathematics proficiency (Koedinger & Nathan, 2004). More recently, the influential Common Core Mathematics Standards have placed additional emphasis on students' ability to solve mathematics word problems as an indication of their understanding of key mathematical concepts (www.corestandards.org/math).

In its original form, AnimalWatch was a web-based program that was not readily accessible to visually impaired students. Some components of the web interface involved the Flash Player, which often proved to be challenging when used with screen reading software. Additional supports such as image descriptions were needed. Several teachers of students with visual impairments also pointed out that it would be helpful to include background information about the endangered and invasive species that were the topics of AnimalWatch units.

Product development

The original plan had been to adapt the web-based AnimalWatch program for students with a range of visual abilities to increase its accessibility. At the time of the project launch, however, the rapidly growing interest in the use of handheld electronic devices created by Apple (also known as iDevices) in both general and special education was becoming evident (Zhou, Parker, Smith, & Griffin-Shirley, 2011). These and similar devices are relatively inexpensive and portable, and include many built-in accessibility features. In addition, several teachers of students with visual impairments had mentioned to the project team members that such tablet devices have a "cool factor" that is appreciated by many adolescents with disabilities who want to "fit in" with peers. Thus, the research team began to consider the idea of developing an accessible iPad application or app version of AnimalWatch as an alternative to the web-based software. …

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