The iPad Study: How are Students with Vision Impairments using iPads in Schools?

Introduction

The More Support for Students with Disabilities National Partnership of 2012-3 provided the Statewide Vision Resource Centre with targeted funding for the purchase of specialised assistive technology and the provision of teacher training for Victorian students with vision impairments in government schools – and an opportunity for the Statewide Vision Resource Centre to research the use of iPads within this cohort.

Through the MSSD NP funding, the Statewide Vision Resource Centre was able to provide over 1,500 items of equipment on loan to students with vision impairments, including iPads, electronic magnifiers, laptops with magnification and/or talking software, braille notetakers, tactile drawing kits etc. Training and support materials including hands-on workshops, online tutorials, cheat sheets and phone/email consultancy was made available for Visiting Teachers, school staff, students and family members.

At the time, little research had been conducted on the use of iPads in schools and many educators were initially cautious about recommending the iPad for students with vision impairments. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggested that the small number of students who had iPads were beginning to use them with some success. Further, it was thought that the inbuilt accessibility features offered by the iPad could be used to advantage by students who had low vision or were blind.

Investigation prior to the rollout of over 100 iPads to students with vision impairments across Victoria indicated that students were already using a range of technology options to improve access to information and the school learning environment. Many students with vision impairments relied on having their books provided in accessible formats such as braille, large print, audio and/or electronic text. Older students reported using laptops with enlarging or talking software; students also used electronic magnifiers, hand-held optical magnifiers, monoculars and braille notetakers. Whilst these technologies improved access to the learning environment, students identified difficulties such as keeping equipment charged, connecting leads within the classroom environment, and having to carry bulky equipment and resources from one class to the next.

The iPad Study

Principal researcher, Lyn Robinson, noted in an interview with Media Access Australia in March 2015, “The classroom is full of educational materials that rely on vision. From print in textbooks to information on the whiteboard, vision is the primary sensory channel used in learning. If you have a vision impairment, much of what takes place in a classroom may be difficult for you to access and your ability to participate in class may be compromised.”

Robinson was keen to lead an investigation to assess the use of access technology by students with vision impairments to determine, in particular, whether the use of the iPad improved access to the learning environment and participation in school life.

Over 100 iPads were made available on loan from the Statewide Vision Resource Centre to students with vision impairments enrolled in government schools.

Students who had been using their iPad for at least 6 months were invited to complete an online survey with the assistance of their Visiting Teacher if required. Sixty-one completed surveys were received:

  • students ranged in age from 5 to 19 years
  • students’ visual acuity ranged from mild-moderate impairment (6/24-6/60), through severe impairment (worse than 6/60) to total blindness
  • students in primary, secondary and specialist settings were represented
  • approximately 30% had additional impairments, primarily learning disability, physical and intellectual impairments and autism

Summary of Findings

Responses to the survey questions indicated that 92% of students were using their iPad 2-3 times or more per week; 55% used their iPad daily.

The most popular feature was the inbuilt camera with 80% of students using this feature for taking pictures of print and diagrams in textbooks, to view the class whiteboard and to take pictures of family and friends. The students were then able to enlarge the pictures on the iPad screen to view the images in more detail.

Students identified the apps as the next most useful feature, 61% indicating that they used their iPad for audio recording, audio games, talking calculator, talking clock, maps, timetables, email, internet, reminders and the calendar.

One young student reported to her Visiting Teacher that she had taught herself to read using her iPad, adding, “It was easy! I listen to the book first on my iPad and then I turn the sound off and read it. If I don’t know a word, I just turn the sound on and listen to it.”

Listening to audio books was popular with 49% of the students using this feature, a higher percentage within those who are totally blind and those who identified as having a learning disability.

Students used a range of techniques to interact with their iPad:

  • 75% used their Bluetooth keyboard
  • 55% used the onscreen keyboard
  • over half used gestures for navigation
  • 33% used Siri; though students also reported that the lack of internet access in their school limited their use of Siri
  • of the students who had a learning disability in addition to their vision impairment, 57% used their iPad as a voice recorder e.g. to take notes or to record answers

Many students valued the ability to personalise their iPad, employing a range of the inbuilt accessibility features such as:

  • Larger Text – 78%
  • Zoom – 67%
  • Invert Colours – 40%
  • VoiceOver – 23%

As noted by Robinson, “Once you have acquired the skills to work with a particular accessibility feature such as Zoom or VoiceOver, you can navigate easily and do much of your school work on the iPad. It has become second nature for students with vision impairments to dip in and out of an accessibility feature. Students can have Zoom running in the background, double tap when they want to enlarge something on the screen and then double tap again to turn it off. They can customise the iPad to their own preferences and it is very empowering for them. They are in control.”

When asked about the features that they most valued about the iPad, students identified portability, the camera app, inbuilt accessibility and ease of navigation.

A secondary student described the improved access offered by the iPad, saying, “I don’t have to rely on the teacher to tell me what to do because now I can just use the camera to zoom in on the whiteboard.”

When asked about motivation, 90% reported being highly motivated or somewhat motivated to use their iPad. None of the students reported avoiding using the iPad.

With respect to independence and autonomy as a result of their use of the iPad, students reported significant increases in:

  • independence in the classroom
  • use of technology in the classroom
  • access to curriculum
  • social connectedness

The following reflection from a Visiting Teacher of her upper primary-aged totally blind student offers some insight into the positive impact of the iPad for this student.

“The power and potential of this device for her has been extraordinary – her social and tech skills have expanded exponentially since the day she got her iPad. It goes everywhere with her and she is now contacting app developers and she reviews apps with ViA (Visually Impaired Apps) to apprise them of inaccessibility issues with apps, etc. She teaches her sighted friends new apps and is developing a high level of skill with internet access and in the blogging/vlogging world.”

Conclusion

This research was conducted in 2013-4 and provides a snapshot of the use of the iPad at that time by 61 students with vision impairments attending Victorian government schools.

This study revealed that that students who had been given access to an iPad through the Statewide Vision Resource Centre’s loans program were commonly using their iPads to access information and to participate more fully in the learning environment. Social connectedness and inclusion in school life increased for all students with vision impairments who participated in the study including students of all ages, with or without additional impairments, and attending regular or specialist settings.

As some of the limitations identified by students, such as access to the internet in schools, have changed since the study, it would be worthwhile to conduct further research to determine the current use of iPad in schools:

  • Did this snapshot reflect a “honeymoon period” following the introduction of an accessible and comparatively cheap device to Victorian students with vision impairments?
  • Are students continuing to use iPads in schools or are they now using a range of tablets and other mainstream or specialist technologies?
  • Has the use of peripherals such as the Sony camera and/or pairing the ipad with other technologies (e.g. BrailleNote) increased and, if so, what impact has this had on access to the curriculum?

Principal researcher Lyn Robinson concludes, “I think the future is bright for improved access to the curriculum. There is a lot of assistive technology available these days and students with vision impairments have many options. It would be a mistake to believe that iPads are the only option for students with vision impairments but at the moment the iPad is very popular and well received.”

References

Media Access Australia. (2015). iPads, and improved access to education. Downloaded from http://mediaaccess.org.au/.

Robinson, L. (2015). iPad Study: How are students with vision impairments using iPads in schools to access the curriculum? Unpublished article.

Report by Deb Lewis, Manager, Statewide Vision Resource Centre

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