EAGER: Promoting Algebra Learning Through an Accessible Expression System for Students with Visual Impairments and Blindness

PI: Derrick Smith, Erica Slate
University of Alabama in Huntsville
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The long-term goal of the PIs for this project is to transform the enterprise of STEM education for blind students and those with visual impairments by creating a fully accessible teaching platform that acknowledges their special needs. Learning of mathematics for students with visual impairments and blindness, including algebra, is especially difficult, as it requires finding and describing patterns, making generalizations about numbers, and using symbols and models to represent patterns. Rather than relying on visual cues, students with visual impairments must compensate using other senses and cognitive abilities to understand and apply concepts that typical students merely observe. This EAGER project is designed to lay the groundwork for investigating in real-world classroom settings which kinds of auditory and tactile representations will promote conceptual learning in mathematics. The PIs are designing and refining a platform that allows audio and other interactions, both for communicating with the learner and for the learner to use to express him/herself. The platform makes math materials accessible to the visually impaired and gives them ways of expressing their math understanding. The functionality built into the platform also allows interactions between visually-impaired students and remote math teachers who specialize in teaching math to those who are blind and visually impaired. Research explores the impact on the learning of algebra when students are provided output and input of math auditorily via a computer as compared to traditional methods of interaction and explores, as well, the affordances and weaknesses of different input and output modalities. This will provide a baseline of difficulties in grasping math concepts that still remain; the intention is that research on explicitly promoting learning will come after.

Learning of mathematics for students with visual impairments and blindness is especially difficult. For most students with visual impairments, the primary issues with learning mathematics, particularly advanced mathematics, is due to the highly visual nature of the curriculum. Algebra, a gateway course to other STEM disciplines, is particularly visual. Therefore, many capable students with visual impairments are never afforded the opportunity to complete advanced mathematics courses such as algebra, thus impeding their prospects for success in STEM-related fields. This project addresses first steps in ameliorating these problems, putting in place input and output technologies that give visually impaired students better access to the concepts of math and identifying which difficulties in learning the concepts of mathematics remain. This work has potential to inform on ways to help those with visual impairments more easily learn mathematics; its findings may also uncover new ways of helping those without impairments but who find the abstractions of mathematics difficult alternative means of learning mathematics more easily. This project represents work in its early states on an untested but potentially transformative idea and is likely to catalyze rapid and innovative advances in the development of technologies for helping the blind and visually impaired better grasp abstract mathematical concepts.

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