Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

An Artificial Intelligence Tutor: A Supplementary Tool for Teaching and Practicing Braille

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

An Artificial Intelligence Tutor: A Supplementary Tool for Teaching and Practicing Braille

Article excerpt

Braille is the primary literacy medium for those who are blind. Braille literacy strongly correlates with better reading habits and involvement in post-secondary education (Ryles, 1996). There is also a strong link between braille literacy and employment: A survey of 1,056 individuals with visual impairments of working age found that the daily use of braille had a positive impact on employment, salary, and self-esteem (Bell & Mino, 2013).

Approaches to teaching beginning braille readers vary; however, a commonality among approaches is that learners need the opportunity to use braille and develop their knowledge of braille contractions (Swenson, 2016). The Alphabetic Braille and Contracted (ABC) Braille Study, the only longitudinal study of beginning braille readers, followed 38 readers from 2002 to 2007. Although it was not clear from the research if beginning braille instruction with contracted or uncontracted braille increased the student's later literacy abilities, the researchers concluded that "all things being equal, the introduction of contractions early in a student's reading process is associated with higher literacy performance later in the student's literacy career" (Wall Emerson, Holbrook, & D'Andrea, 2009, p. 622).

Teachers of students with visual impairments have many job roles, including the responsibility for teaching the expanded core curriculum in the area of compensatory skills, a component of which includes the use of braille for reading and writing. They must also ensure that students have academic support and are provided with materials in their literacy medium (Allman & Lewis, 2014; Griffin-Shirley, Koenig, & Layton, 2004; Wolffe et al., 2002); ensure other teaching responsibilities are met (Griffin-Shirley et al., 2004; Wolffe et al., 2002); and manage large caseloads. Griffin-Shirley and colleagues (2004) reported that, on average, the teachers they surveyed had 22 students on their caseloads, including two students who were blind. These large caseloads often result in inequity in the amount of time students who are blind spend in literacy instruction compared with their sighted peers (Wall Emerson et al., 2009). Thus, a tool that can assist in supporting the literacy skill development of beginning braille readers and allow students to practice braille contractions in the absence of teachers of visually impaired students or other adults who know braille could prove invaluable.

Intelligent tutoring (that is, adaptive computer instruction) may help teachers of visually impaired students provide their students with practice in developing their braille skills at times when teachers are not present to provide reinforcement or answer questions. The third and fourth authors conducted a national survey of teachers of visually impaired students to assess if there was a need for a tutoring program that would provide reinforcement of braille contractions being learned by students. Responses from 68 teachers of students with visual impairments (84% of whom were itinerant teachers) confirmed the potential value of using intelligent tutoring software, with 90% and 88% rating the opportunity for additional one-on-one tutoring in braille as having moderate, high, or very high value to their students working at school and at home, respectively (similar ratings were obtained, interestingly, for potential value to the teachers of visually impaired students themselves).

Despite the major strides achieved in access technologies such as synthesized speech (for example, screen readers), braille remains an important tool for readers with visual impairments. The exclusive use of audio can result in deficiencies in spelling and composition skills, as pointed out by Foulke (1979) more than three decades ago. Others have argued that full reliance on audio is inconsistent with an operational definition of literacy, which includes writing (Tuttle & Hatlen, 1996). Wittenstein and Pardee (1996) reported that 89% of teachers of visually impaired students agreed that speech technology should be used as a supplement to braille, not as a replacement. …

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