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How Blind Students Are Learning at the Speed of Math

Braille answer sheet

A graphic that shows "math the old way" and "math the new way," highlighting how students who are blind and visually impaired are now closer than ever before to receiving just-in-time feedback from teachers during math class.

 

A quote from Dr. Abraham Nemeth, Developer of The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation: "I wanted to take math courses. My counselors said it was not a viable option for a blind person. There is not way to write mathematics, there is no way to read mathematics, and you'd better pick a different field."

The Dawn of Teaching Math to Blind Students

In 1952, Abraham Nemeth was instrumental in publishing The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation. It eventually caught on across the country as a standard—and straightforward—method of teaching mathematics to blind and visually impaired students using braille.

For the first time, every mathematical notation—numbers, symbols, operators, functions, modifiers, fractions, and other signs—had a corresponding code, using braille's six fundamental dots.

"The process of translating instructional materials into braille, then translating a student's classwork from braille back to print is an inefficient process that often takes a few days."

"The Nemeth code was a huge breakthrough," says Jan McSorley, who is the Head of Accessibility for the Pearson Assessment Center. "But there was still a challenge: students who are blind or visually impaired were never able to get just-in-time feedback during classroom math lessons."

Sam Dooley, Senior Development Manager for Pearson, explains it this way:

"In a normal math class setting, your teacher writes on the chalkboard or the white board and explains concepts with visual cues and instructions. Students who are blind can't see the content on the board unless it's translated into Nemeth code. Not all teachers are fully fluent in braille. So the process of translating instructional materials into braille, then translating a student's classwork from braille back to print is an inefficient process that often takes a few days."

'Not the Norm'

"To be successful in math as a totally blind student," says Dan Brown, a Senior Quality Assurance Engineer for Blindness Technologies at Pearson, "you must have a phenomenal working memory."

"You'd have to be able to hold large parts of equations in your mind without writing it down," Dan says. "But that's not the norm, not everybody can do complex math without reading and writing it. This reality means that whole groups of students are often excluded from science, technology, engineering, and math courses."

"It's technology that allows students using braille to interact with math on a computer the same way that sighted students interact with math on a computer."For the First Time: Learning at the Speed of Math

Sam Dooley, Dan Brown, and a group of Pearson colleagues are now developing software and hardware that jumps over all these challenges.

It's called the Accessible Equation Editor, and, for now, it's helping make assessment tests more accessible to students who are blind and visually impaired.

Math problems that are presented to students on a computer screen through a web browser are quickly translated into corresponding braille codes on the keys of a "refreshable braille device." This device is a specialized keyboard built with braille pins that are raised and lowered as directed by the system's software. This allows teachers and the other learners in class to work on math problems with students who are blind without the barrier of translating Nemeth code to print math and vice versa—virtually in real time.

Sam Dooley says: "It's technology that allows students using braille to interact with math on a computer the same way that sighted students interact with math on a computer."

 

Solutions for the Blind, from the Blind

User testing of the Accessible Equation Editor was conducted at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Kentucky School for the Blind.

Pearson hired two students who are blind to help with the product's development. High school student Su Park ran the system through hundreds and hundreds of math problems to check the accuracy of the Nemeth code translations. Edgar Lozano, who is studying computer science at Texas State University, served as a JavaScript programmer and was instrumental in working out how computers communicated with the refreshable braille device.

A quote: "We hope to open up STEM fields to whole groups of learners who never had access to these kinds of classes before."

"The devil is in the details for any project like this," says Dan Brown. "We needed a group of people to get this done, all with a variety of expertise and personalities."

"Our hope," Dan says, "is our collective effort can now open up STEM fields to whole groups of learners who never had access to these kinds of classes before."