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Using innovative methods to train teachers of blind children: what we learned

A teacher at Nyasare Primary School in Migori, Kenya, engaging with a visually impaired learner using the Orbit Reader 20 device.
A teacher at Nyasare Primary School in Migori, Kenya, engaging with a visually impaired learner using the Orbit Reader 20 device.
Photo credit: eKitabu

Governments all over the world have closed learning institutions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, including in Kenya. This has exacerbated the global learning crisis and made it more difficult for teachers, parents, and caregivers to include children with disabilities in quality education.

To ensure learners with disabilities were not left behind during Covid-19 school closures, eKitabu partnered with EdTech Hub and Leonard Chesire to increase the quality of education delivered to blind and low-vision learners in Kenya’s Nyanza region. eKitabu developed a teacher training programme to support teachers of blind and low-vision learners to develop braille reading and writing skills using low-cost Orbit Reader 20 refreshable braille devices. 

The innovative training approach delivered a set of instructional prompts adapted for virtual training to teachers via WhatsApp, with coaching taking place by phone. Devices were provided by eKitabu and the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People. 

Teachers taking a group photo in Kisumu
eKitabu instructors with Leonard Cheshire teachers in Kisumu before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Photo credit: eKitabu

The four lessons we learned while delivering the programme were:

1. A kick-off training session and support package helped motivate teachers to gain new skills

The programme’s opening training session emphasised the importance of the initiative and the potential impact on students. This proved a catalyst to motivate teachers to really engage with the training. 

The teachers were excited to increase their knowledge to help them transfer their new skills to blind and low-vision learners. Course instructors also provided teachers with: 

  • a braille primer and an Orbit Reader 20 device that the teachers could practice with at home; 
  • data bundles to enable regular training and support; 
  • and teaching and learning materials shared in audio (MP3) format via WhatsApp. This meant teachers could download the files directly onto their phones and use the files to practice throughout the week.

Several teachers were unable to attend the in-person training launch, and course instructors had to hold a virtual kickoff with them. These teachers struggled to grasp basic concepts of the Orbit Reader early in the programme. This implies that if possible, holding an in-person kickoff is key to starting off on the right foot and ensuring sustained engagement. If teachers are unable to attend, a make-up, in-person training session should be held at a later date.

Although the team provided teachers with data bundles for training and support via WhatsApp, in some situations course instructors could not effectively communicate with teachers due to connectivity issues. This demonstrates how important it is to understand whether all elements required for project success function properly before roll-out. 

Additionally, having a contingency plan is also important. In this case, teachers were provided with airtime as a backup to data bundles to support timely and consistent communication.

Teachers using the braille device
Teachers at the training launch engaging with the Orbit Reader 20 refreshable braille devices.
Photo credit: eKitabu
2. Teacher learning styles were different, with some teachers picking up concepts faster than others

The majority of teachers were able to quickly understand how to read and write in braille and use the Orbit Reader device. Others had difficulty grasping concepts. To help address this, instructors repeated tutorials as necessary until all teachers were at the same level. 

Teachers who quickly grasped concepts were paired with those who had not to encourage collaborative learning. As a result of these mitigation strategies, 78% of teachers scored an “A” or “B” (the two highest scores) in the final assessment of skills. 

In addition, 90% of teachers said they felt they were better able to teach blind and low-vision learners as a result of the programme.

In future roll-outs of this programme, we will have participating teachers complete a formative assessment at the start of the course to gauge their knowledge of the braille alphabet, braille reading and writing skills, and comfort level using devices. 

Based on the assessment results, course instructors will organise sessions based on individual teacher needs. In addition, pairing up teachers at the start, on the basis of their assessment results can accelerate progress as the more advanced could help those who have more to learn from the outset.

3. Regular contact is critical to keep teachers motivated and engaged

Weekly follow-up calls with teachers to address their progress and identify challenges kept them engaged throughout the programme. Using WhatsApp also helped keep teachers engaged. 

Course instructors set up a WhatsApp group where they shared learning materials as audio files and all official communications with the teachers. Whenever teachers needed support, e.g. understanding certain file manager command concepts on the Orbit Reader 20, they would post their issue in the group, allowing course instructors and fellow teachers to give help. 

The team noticed that not all teachers showed the same level of engagement, and some did not answer calls regularly. Furthermore, one teacher consistently scored the lowest score in each part of the final assessment while most teachers scored at the upper end. The course instructors tried multiple ways to engage this teacher, none of which were successful. 

To address these issues in future programmes, incentives could be provided to motivate teachers to put in the effort required to increase their skills. Incentives could include publicly recognising teachers for their participation and leadership in these kinds of programmes.

4. Assessments need to be used strategically, and their purpose clearly communicated to teachers to further learning outcomes.

The course instructors noticed that the majority of teachers were afraid of completing the final course assessment. They viewed it as a test with the potential of failure instead of as a tool to help course instructors identify areas where the teachers needed additional support.

To help the teachers overcome their fears, course instructors explained the objective of the assessment in advance, strove to make teachers feel comfortable by making the assessment more of a conversation, and tried to create a friendly and supportive environment during the assessment calls.

In conclusion

The support from EdTech Hub and Leonard Cheshire has helped eKitabu successfully pilot an innovative approach to teacher training and professional development. 

This pilot helped us to understand the importance of equipping teachers with the appropriate skills and technology to allow them to build more inclusive classrooms and improve learning outcomes for learners with disabilities. Implementing the recommendations from these learnings in future teacher professional development programmes will help.

Upon completing the training programme, teachers were able to start engaging with their learners. The learners have demonstrated an interest in using the Orbit Reader 20 since this is the first time they’ve interacted with the device. 

This response has encouraged and motivated the teachers to put more of an effort into incorporating assistive technologies in their classrooms. 

The next step for this initiative is to conduct a qualitative study to evaluate the impact on learning outcomes from utilisation of low-cost assistive devices with blind and low-vision learners in Western Kenya whose teachers participated in the programme.

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