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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 3 (2014 Deadline)

Mwangaza project on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and computing education for students in Kenya with vision loss

PI: Marguerite Miheso O'Connor, Kenyatta University
U.S. Partner: Bruce N. Walker, Georgia Institute of Technology
Project Dates: September 2014 to August 2016

Every day we are bombarded with numbers and values, often presented via charts and graphs. We need to comprehend the data and make choices in our lives as a result. For people with vision loss, graphical presentations of data may be difficult or impossible to access. This makes education and employment especially difficult in STEM fields, and it makes the dream of attending university very distant for students who are blind. For more than ten years, Prof. Bruce Walker’s Sonification Lab at Georgia Tech has been grappling with how to make data, and thereby STEM, more accessible to blind students and workers. For many practical and scientific reasons, the main focus in this line of research has been the study of auditory graphs and the development of software tools to support the use of multimodal data displays in classrooms. Currently, Dr. Walker has a field study at the Georgia Academy for the Blind (GAB) in Macon, GA, in which Sonification Lab software, hardware, and methods are being deployed and studied in middle-school math classes. The Sonification Lab has been collaborating with the U.S./Kenyan non-profit organization inABLE to establish and equip computer labs at schools for the blind in Kenya and train teachers and students in computer skills so they can take full advantage of the technology. With support from this PEER grant, Kenyatta University faculty members are joining the team as local research partners to conduct focus groups, stakeholder meetings, baseline surveys, fieldwork and iterative evaluations. The partnership between GT, Kenyatta, and inABLE is a great opportunity to conduct wide-scale research with large numbers of participants (students), and also to have a dramatic impact on education by deploying computers, training, and STEM teaching tools (including our software) across an entire school system in a developing country. Additional partners include Safaricom, Microsoft, and Uwezo, among others.

In Kenya, the GT+inABLE+Kenyatta collaboration to enhance STEM education for blind students has grown into the Mwangaza Project (mwangaza means “light” in Kiswahili), with participation from schools, universities, government, and companies. The project will enhance the education of the target students, but will also lead to better employment prospects for these students, as well, since they will now have computing skills and an education that includes math and science. The companies involved (e.g., Safaricom) see these students as a potential pool for hiring. This leads to a virtuous cycle, improving the lives of people with disabilities in rapid and dramatic fashion, as independence is enhanced in a sustainable way through training and employment. This project will also include collaboration with the Kenyan government. Once it has been demonstrated that computing and STEM topics can be taught to students with disabilities, the plan is to modify the educational curriculum to require such computing and STEM instruction. It is hoped that this will lead to additional resources to deliver on this requirement. Also, as the technology and STEM skills of students with partial vision loss are increased, those students may be mainstreamed into the regular public schools more successfully. The goal of mainstreaming is for blind students to learn alongside their sighted peers. However, until the implementation of this project, the methods and tools they need to learn and use graphs, especially for data interpretation in STEM subjects, have not been the same as (and not even equivalent to) those being used by sighted students. This project will begin to close the achievement gap between sighted and low-vision students.

Summary of Recent Activities

This project, which ended August 31, 2016, was a shared effort involving the Sonification Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, Kenyatta University (KU), and inABLE, a non-profit organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. STEM education for blind and low-vision students worldwide, including in Kenya, has been held hostage to a combination of fear, doubt, and lack of knowledge, teacher training skills, and resources. These views over time have become institutionalized in education systems. This in turn has had significant impacts on the lives and career choices of blind and low-vision persons, as evidenced by their minimal participation in these courses, particularly at the university level. This PEER project aimed to make positive strides towards changing that situation. Dr. O’Connor and her project team report that their results are just the beginning. There remains so much more to do, once they move forward from the solid foundations of research and evidence-based design laid thus far.

The two-phase project completed by the research team included (1) a nationwide survey of the interests, needs, skills, and opinions of blind students and their teachers regarding information and communications technology and (2) initial development, deployment, and evaluation of some novel assistive technologies that offer potential new approaches to STEM education for students with vision loss. The visually impaired cohort of learners are spread in 11 schools of the more 9,000 schools in Kenya. However, very little data on this group of learners is available. Dr. O’Connor reports that their baseline survey for both teachers and students was the first of its kind. It now provides a database for future research and decision making by other stakeholders.

This project is timely, as Kenya is preparing to roll out digital education in all primary and secondary schools in the country. The information gathered on the status of learners and their affinity to technology was very critical and informed the Ministry of Education of the possibilities students with vision loss can have. It is in these schools where one also finds blind teachers. An extended research component carried out by the team regarding teachers in these schools provided important information on the readiness of teachers to use technology. In addition to the questionnaire, the PEER team also held a focus group discussion with the teachers. The researchers also gathered data at the university that enrolls students with vision loss. These learners provided great feedback on the usability and accessibility of the project initiative.

The project also created an accessible weather app and other accessible websites that provided students with vision loss experiences in analytic cognition that can be used in the STEM discourse. In addition, when the students get used to technology, they are able to make sense of mathematical concepts when taught. Once teachers get sufficient exposure to the experiences in which their students are engaged, they can restructure their lessons to incorporate the results of weather reading in their lessons to compute and make sense of STEM concepts.

The Mwangaza Project represents a blend of education research, technology, training, and accessibility, rolled together with the deployment of both computer labs and training, and with the support of major research universities, corporations, and the government’s education department. This effort is intended to be a truly transformative project, on an international scale. The project addressed individual needs for learners with vision loss while at the same time increasing learning opportunities in STEM education. The large data set they collected is instructive in and of itself, in relation to the needs and preferences of this educational cohort in Kenya. There are many additional analyses that could be conducted, and research questions addressed, using the current data set. More importantly, the data serves as a baseline against which to evaluate any future programs, in terms of program goals and effectiveness. The project team is already seeing evidence that computer skills training (i.e., at Thika) is having an important impact not only on skills and computer confidence but also in terms of the psychosocial well-being of the students who have received training. The teachers have made it clear how much they also value computing skills, but additionally expressed their opinions regarding training, support, and careful deployment. Deploying software tools that already exist, and developing (and evaluating) new software tools to supplement, is the next step in leveraging technology. The PI and her team look forward to continuing the process of deploying such tools, and working closely with teachers (and education officials in the Kenyan government) to develop teaching modules and strategies to make effective use of the tools in their classes.

PEER Cycle 3 Grant Recipients