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With the help of a federal grant, NIU is revolutionizing the way braille is taught

January 6, 2020

More than 5,000 teachers of students with visual impairments from across the country have completed an online course developed and hosted at NIU with support from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The course, known as UEBOT-1 (Unified English Braille Online Training), was designed to train teachers already familiar with the braille code formerly used in the U.S. (English Braille American Edition) in the new braille code, Unified English Braille (UEB), which is now used in English-speaking countries throughout the world.

While UEBOT-1 has largely completed its mission, the online braille curriculum and unique online braille grading tool that the team designed are continuing to revolutionize braille teaching here at NIU and potentially throughout the U.S. and the globe.

“UEBOT-1, the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) to retrain existing professionals in the field of visual impairments on the new braille code has been running for five years now,” says Stacy Kelly, an associate professor of special education at NIU and the lead on the project. “We’ve trained well over 5,000 people in the new code, and we really have reached a lot of people across the United States with this immediate training and the immediate feedback provided by the new technology of the automated braille grading tool, which is the flagship of the project.”

Six years ago, Kelly and Sean Tikkun, then a graduate student in the Department of Special and Early Education, saw the need to quickly and effectively train teachers in the new braille code. To envision what this change in the braille code entailed, imagine that 30% of the symbols and rules of printed English suddenly changed. As Kelly notes, “If about 30% of the print code changed suddenly, all of us using print would need a lot of support and instruction. We’d need continuing education in the new code. So we did that for braille, across the country.”

Kelly and Tikkun partnered with NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab, part of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, on a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services to create the UEBOT-1 online course.

“Stacy and Sean came to us with this project in mind, and they said that one of the problems was grading the assignments,” says Digital Convergence Lab Director Aline Click. “When the students took print text and typed it in braille, grading that was a very manual process before this, and it took a very long time (about an hour to grade just 20 sentences). So I asked, ‘What if we found a way to auto-grade it?’

“Just about everyone in the DCL came together to help at some point on this project,” says Click, “but team members who provided major contributions to the project include programmer Rosarin Adulseranee, instructional designer Diane Alberts, and video producer Jennifer Howard.”

Adulseranee took the lead on programming the grading tool, working closely with Tikkun on the technical aspects to automatically grading students’ assignments.

“The collaboration to make this grading tool happen is what really drove this project and made it possible,” says Kelly.

“It’s huge,” she continues, “because if you had to grade assignments by hand for thousands of people, it’s not possible for one or two people to do so. There isn’t enough time, and we just don’t have that infrastructure in this field in the U.S., so we had to automate it. That really helped to make it possible for the U.S. to get on board with the new braille code in a timely fashion.”

Also central to the development of UEBOT-1 was expertise in online course development provided by the Digital Convergence Lab (DCL).

“I knew the content that needed to be shared as a result of the new braille code,” Kelly says, “but when it came to how to best present that in an online training format, we looked to experts on the DCL team again.”

The DCL team created two- to five-minute professional-quality videos for each lesson, which students can watch in order or search by topic. The entire course is accessible to students with disabilities, and Kelly says many people who are blind or visually impaired have taken the UEBOT training. Each lesson is followed by an assignment, which is graded instantly by the automated braille grading tool. Students receive immediate feedback letting them know exactly where and what types of mistakes they made, and they have a chance to rewatch the videos and resubmit assignments to continue improving.

“We have this supportive environment so they can submit an assignment as many times as they’d like and learn from the feedback,” Kelly says. “And because you get your feedback instantly, it’s all possible.”

The new automatedbraille grading tool is so revolutionary, in fact, that the team has been working on a patent for it. They’ve also used the grading tool as the centerpiece to build UEBOT-2, an online course designed to teach braille to preservice professionals with no previous braille knowledge. UEBOT-2 is currently offered as a for-credit course through the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, and the team is working to make it available to other universities for a fee. Kelly also plans to apply for additional grant funding to cover the cost of this unique resource for other universities.

“There’s a severe national shortage of expertise in teaching people who are blind or visually impaired, and it includes the skill set of braille, which is the focus of this project,” Kelly says. “We’re excited to prepare to share UEBOT-2 to help to address that shortage.

“There’s so much more that can be done,” Kelly continues. “There are a lot of possibilities with future funding to continue to grow on the strong foundation we’ve built.”

For more information, contact Stacy Kelly at [email protected] or Aline Click at [email protected].