2002 Conference Proceedings

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Brian Hardy
Vision Australia Foundation
Kooyong (Melbourne), Victoria, Australia

Brian Charlson
The Carroll Centre for the Blind
Newton (Boston), MA


This Paper reports on the outcome of trials using different approaches to non-vocational and pre-vocational information technology training for people with vision impairment.

In both the USA and Australia information technology training for people with vision impairment has focussed on the needs of students and of people seeking employment. Consequently the training approaches used are oriented to the particular needs of these trainees.

Across the community, information technology is being widely used for non-vocational purposes, particularly email and browsing the Internet. The basic training needed to access this technology is widely available in community settings (neighborhood centres, community colleges etc.) Usually, the training is focussed on achieving the trainee's immediate goals rather than teaching skills that can be applied across a range of tasks in a variety of settings.

The trials described in this paper use these "community training models" to provide access for people with vision impairment to non-vocational information technology training. These trials were conducted in regional communities in Massachusetts, USA and in Victoria, Australia.

The lessons from these trials are being incorporated in an evolving set of best practice principles.


People with a vision impairment face challenges when they seek to access training in information technology, including:
* The need for assistive technology and training in its use;
* The need for pre-training in keyboard use;
* The need for more intensive assistance to learn computer skills;
* The general emphasis in mainstream curricula (especially for beginners) on use of the mouse rather than keyboard commands; and
* Mainstream trainers' lack of experience in teaching people with a vision impairment and in the use of assistive technologies.

These difficulties are frequently compounded by some more generic problems:
* A low income;
* A lack of confidence in using new technologies; and
* A lack of understanding about the opportunities offered by computer use.

The training opportunities in Australia or the USA for people with a vision impairment to learn to use assistive technologies in conjunction with common are predominantly vocational and only provided in a few specialist settings in the major cities.

The significant training gap is for specialist support for people with a vision impairment to access non-vocational or pre-vocational mainstream information technology training and to access any IT training in regional and rural areas. The trials conducted in Massachusetts, USA and in Victoria, Australia have focused on this gap and the ways in which it might be bridged to enable people with a vision impairment to successfully access available training.

The Australian trials attempted to access widely available, generic, mainstream training. The USA trials used communication technology to make specialist training available in local communities, remote from the specialist training centre.

The Australian Trials

The project developed training and support models that built upon existing mainstream training resources. The model provided:
* for participants to be assessed and trained in assistive technology,
* for community trainers to be trained in vision impairment and introduced to assistive technology,
* for support people to be recruited and trained to accompany participants during training, and
* for the trainer to teach their standard set of learning objectives (using a slightly modified method) to achieve the standard outcome.

The project trialed progressively less intensive and therefore less expensive versions of the training model.

The first phase of training trialed an intensively supported model in a small regional centre. 12 participants, 7 volunteer support people, 2 external trainers and 3 local Vision Australia Foundation staff all undertook preparatory training and the trainers developed specific course materials. Participants were mostly elderly (70 to 94 years old), many with physical and/or hearing impairments in addition to their vision impairment. The ten week course covered word processing, file management, the Internet and e-mail. Community trainers delivered the training program at Vision Australia Foundation premises. This model produced excellent outcomes for all participants, but was very resource intensive and therefore difficult to replicate.

The second phase of training took place in a large regional centre. It trialed several slightly less supported models and involved 14 participants, 7 support people, 4 trainers and 3 local staff. The training was delivered on location at the training institution, or at home using two independent trainers. In addition, 3 participants entered mainstream courses. Participants in this program were aged from 30 to 70 years, with vision impairment but few other impairments.

The outcomes of the training were varied and indicated that for a person with a vision impairment to successfully undertake mainstream information technology training, significant resources need to be in place. These include adequate training and ongoing support for the trainers, skilled and trained support people, appropriate curriculum materials and preparatory training for participants.

More advanced trainees do need to access mainstream training to fulfil their more sophisticated training needs, however this project found that beginning participants achieve better results in environments that are able to meet their particular needs.

The third phase of the project took place in another regional centre. 6 vision impaired and non-vision impaired beginners undertook a simplified beginner's module covering basic word processing and file management. The vision impaired participants were aged from 40 to 60 years. The 2 community-based trainers were provided with an introduction to assistive technology and 2 trained support people assisted the participants. At the completion of the beginners' module, the vision impaired participants were provided with a comprehensive assessment to identify further training goals and specific assistive technology required.

5 vision impaired participants trialed a supported, self-paced learning model. This group used specialist curriculum materials to achieve learning outcomes similar to those of the classroom-based group, assisted by 3 trained support people and choosing their own learning pace and environment.

Summary of Australian Trial Findings

Best Practice Principles
Evaluation of the three phases of the project and of an Australia-wide review of current and past information technology training programs has identified a set of best practice principles for successful information technology training for people with a vision impairment. These principles embrace the structure of the training program, the training provider, curriculum and teaching methods.

These Best Practice principles will be refined to incorporate the outcome of the self-paced learning trial and the outcome of the work being undertaken in Massachusetts.

Conclusion from the Australian Trials

For many people with a vision impairment, a preferred training model is not mainstream but is one that specifically acknowledges and addresses their needs. This is particularly so for beginning participants who appear to achieve better outcomes in specialised settings.

While mainstream training is necessary for experienced computer users who need access to the full range of programs to meet their individual needs, mainstream training is only feasible for trainees who have mastered the basics.

The Massachusetts Trials

In the Massachusetts trial specialist trainers working in Boston from The Carroll Centre for the Blind use communications technology to provide training to trainees in two remote sites in regional Massachusetts. Trainees have a range of support needs as result of vision impairment and often have other disabilities.

A local support person is engaged to set up the assistive technology at the remote sites and provide on-site assistance to trainees as they work through the training program.

The training program being used is adapted from the standard curriculum used at the Carroll Centre for trainees who come for face-to-face training. Trainees have one training session and one practice session each week. The trainer provides instruction via an audio link and relies on the local on-site support person to report on any difficulties that trainees are having.

The Massachusetts trial is intended to develop models to provide training to people who are unable to come into the Carroll Centre and to provide cost effective training models for Carroll Centre graduates who need to upgrade their skills

Findings from the Massachusetts Trial

Evaluation of the Massachusetts trial will be completed by the end of 2001, however there are some initial findings.
* Common software used for off-campus education (WebCT, Blackboard etc.) was not suitable for training people with vision impairment. When the trial began in February/March 2001, none of these products were fully accessible. Recent developments to comply with Regulation 508 may have improved the accessibility of these products.
* Beginning trainees need a very high level of face-to-face support with technology problems and in applying the lessons being given by the trainer. Consequently it is critical to have a skilled and committed person working with the trainees at the remote site.
* Substantial time is needed at the beginning of each session to sort out equipment problems and any unresolved problems that the trainees identified during the intervening practice session
* Initially, remote training is much slower than face-to-face training. This difference may reduce as trainees become more familiar with their technology.
* Trainers find remote training difficult and often far less satisfying because they are cut off from direct trainee feedback.
* Despite these difficulties, trainees at remote sites have been able to gain useful skills.

More detailed findings from the Massachusetts trial will be presented at CSUN.

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