Dr. Coombs. Hello everyone. This is Norman Coombs from EASI, Equal Access to Software and Information. And we want to thank everyone for tuning into our weekly webcast. We have an interesting topic today and some very special guests. Of course my colleague in crime is here, Dick?
Mr. Banks. Hello Norm, hello everyone.
Dr. Coombs. And we have two friends from the University of Southern Maine. Dale Blanching, why don't you say hello Dale?
Mr. Blanching. Hello everyone.
Dr. Coombs. In a nice little Maine accent. And Walter Kimball, hello Walter.
Mr. Kimball. Hello Norm, hello Dick, it is nice to be here.
Mr. Banks. Glad to have you.
Dr. Coombs. The main thing we want to talk about today is VATU, which always sounds to me like the name of a little man from Mars. But Walter, you are the VATU man, what is VATU.
Mr. Kimball. I think you have been watching too many cartoons. VATU is Virtual Assistive Technology University.
Dr. Coombs. And what does that mean?
Mr. Kimball. This is a grant that was funded out of the Projects of National Significance with the Department of Education in Washington. And VATU is a certificate program that is delivered on-line, primarily for educators, with the purpose of not only disseminating information about assistive technology but also giving people the skills they need to use it in their classrooms or other settings.
Dr. Coombs. By educators I think you mean what, K-12?
Mr. Kimball. Yes. University educators are interested, we have several now. Particularly Web developers at universities who are interested accessibility. But the primary content is focused on K-12.
Dr. Coombs. Okay, so people can get a certificate in assistive technology from VATU? What are some of the topics or courses that you cover?
Mr. Kimball. There are eight courses in the certificate program. Each course lasts about seven weeks, a total of 14 sessions. Two sessions each week. Some of the topics that are addressed, we begin with an introduction to learning technologies course. And this provides a background not only in assistive technology and education, but also in the federal legislation and laws that pertain to assistive technology. For example, according to current special education law, assistive technology has to be considered as an option for every IEP that is written. It may not be included, but it has to at least be considered.
Dr. Coombs. How long has that been law Walter?
Mr. Kimball. A couple of years. When they did the last rewriting of the Special Education and Education of the Handicapped Act, the last reauthorization of that law included this provision. Most people know this as IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Dr. Coombs. I know previously I had heard that sometimes when they were doing the IEP, they like to try to avoid assistive technology. So I am glad that it has now become compulsory.
Mr. Kimball. Yes, that is a good step forward. Some of the other courses in the sequence include universal instruction, which is a commonly used term now for describing the design of a learning environment that is very inclusive in allowing students with a wide range of abilities and talents to participate in the same classroom together. Note that I did not say disabilities, but abilities. Taking advantage of a wide range of abilities of the students. Some of the other courses focus on specific content areas within special education. For example students with low incidence disabilities and augmentative and alternative communication. And the certificate ends up with a course that is dedicated to assistive technology evaluation. This gives teachers and others the skills to examine their learning environment or other classroom and determine what assistive technologies strategies and devices would be most useful. And the capstone course in the certificate sequence is the final seminar which is an opportunity for the folks who have participated in the certificate to that going, to really think about their next steps and synthesize and integrate all their learning about assistive technology up to that point.
Dr. Coombs. I really want to congratulate you for the grant and for the projects and really taking advantage of distance learning as a delivery mechanism so that you can reach a lot of people. I know that from my involvement in it some of the people are not at long distances, but if you are up in northern Maine somewhere it is still pretty difficult to get down to the University of Southern Maine.
Mr. Kimball. One of the other advantages of doing it as a distance learning environment is enabling people in various settings and contexts, or even states, to interact with each other around assistive technology and situations with which they are dealing. Because that variety of experiences enables the participants in the courses to really help each other and give each other information that they may not necessarily have had by taking the course just in one place.
Dr. Coombs. I think when the courses asynchronous, you not only transcend distance but you really overcome the time barrier to. So that it makes it easier for people with all kinds of work schedules. I want to bring Dale in here. And the University of Southern Maine has an organization connected with it called ALTECH, and VATU is connected with ALTECH. Dale, what is ALTECH?
Mr. Blanching. Well ALTECH is a collection of projects all with similar missions in that we are really interested in getting the word out in information and training and consultation in the four areas that Walter has been talking about. The areas of Web accessibility, universal design and education, assistive technology, and the specialized software that opens the door for the students. As you mentioned VATU is one of the projects at ALTECH. We had another program, an in state program, that has been running for quite a while called MECATS, the Maine Educational Center for Assistive Technology and Software. We have been disseminating information and providing a lot of support to educators in Maine, to students and parents of children with special needs. We have been doing workshops and just general support in the areas that we have been working in, Web accessibility, universal design, AT, and specialized software. We are expanding that program because of a real lack of expertise in the state to do AT assessment that we are going to be expanding the MECATS program to include assistive technology assessment. We have another program called Genesis which is a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the initiative called PT3, preparing tomorrow's teachers to use technology. And that involves many hundreds of colleges of education and consortiums throughout the United States all working on preparing new teachers to use and make the most appropriate use of technology that is available for the classroom. And that is available for them today. But as they are using these technologies, we need to make sure that all students are included. So Genesis's focus has been to work with all of these national projects to ensure that the materials that they produce are accessible, that they are considering the needs of individuals with disabilities. We also have a number of summer programs where we bring teachers and students with disabilities together with experts to demonstrate that most the field type sciences and the lab type sciences can be made accessible to all students. The most recent program we have running now is called access earth, which received funding from NASA and other sources.
Dr. Coombs. Well thank you Dale. I think those programs appeal to me for a lot of reasons. One of them is that neither one is particularly focused on just special education teachers. It is important that we get the knowledge of assistive technologies and universal instruction, and those kinds of things out to mainstream educators.
Mr. Blanching. You could not be more right Norm. We work with general educators because that is where the students with special needs should be found. And that is the most appropriate place for all students to be found. It is just a matter of them understanding the approaches and needs of all students and being able to develop the curriculum that is most appropriate. I have read in different sources that oftentimes they do not consider it the students that are disabled, it is the curriculum that is disabled. And that is what we are trying to bring an end to.
Dr. Coombs. I like that. I also like what Walter said about considering peoples abilities. I know speaking personally, some people think if you are blind that your hearing is better. Physically one's hearing does not improve at all. But you do have to listen a lot more and I think eventually you start to listen better. So that I may hear things someone else does not notice. They physically hear it but they screen it out because they are busy looking and other kinds of distractions. So that I to develop abilities of hearing that other people do not. So curriculum that appeals to my strengths and to other people strengths is really useful.
Mr. Blanching. No question Norm. One of the major activities on universal design, one of the major recommendations if you want to have a universally designed curriculum, is to ensure that all of your materials are available in digital format. And let me give you an example of how that helps me. This morning I was reviewing some work that was done on some future workshops that are going to be offered. Now with my particular disability I can easily get distracted. So I requested that the material be sent to me in digital format even though they are in presentation format generally, in paper or done on the computer. So what I do is I have them submit the materials to me in digital format. And I have them written out in front of me in paper format, but then I listen to it as it is being read to me by the computer. So that I am getting it in a number of different ways, but also I am focused on the work that I am doing.
Mr. Banks. I think what you are really saying is what I thought for a long time. And you hear a lot more than you use to. And it is just matching the way you get information to fit different learning styles.
Mr. Blanching. That is true. That is very true. And to allow students to be able to express their knowledge in a number of different ways. So it is not always expressed in a written format. It is not always expressed in terms of some sort of in front of the classroom presentation. That you build in a variety of methods of evaluating and allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge.
Mr. Kimball. I would like to jump in hear real quick with a comment along the same lines. One of the research dimensions of the VATU program is devising and looking at accessible functions and strategies and applications in distance learning. VATU has made a commitment. And I know this is with your support Dick and Norm, you are both instructors in the program. But the project has committed to only using accessible on-line electronic learning applications. So for example this means that we do not use chat in our certificate programs. I just wanted to point this out not as a limitation, but as a real commitment to investigating how do we do on-line learning that is available to everyone. The research part of that which is looking ahead, and I know Dick you are working on some of this, is not just saying we will never use chat forever. But this is our goal, how do we find and devise chat or synchronous strategies or applications that we can use? And it is really by making his commitment to using accessible applications only that promotes this research. Because we need to do that work and find those strategies.
Dr. Coombs. I think that's good. We have real how that and accessible chat will come down the line, hopefully within a few months. But certainly within a year or so. And at that point we will use it.
Mr. Kimball. Yes.
Dr. Coombs. I am sitting outside here and that is a garbage truck, so I will walk indoors where it is not quite so noisy.
Mr. Banks. We told you this is going to be laid-back guys.
Dr. Coombs. One of the other advantages of using accessible media, we are transcribing our chat here for the Internet obviously for people with hearing disabilities. But we have found that oftentimes people without hearing disabilities like the ability to print off what is there and to share it with someone else, or to highlight parts of it. So that having the material in multiple formats has a lot of advantages. One of the places where we sometimes run into arguments with people who think they are multimedia experts, some of them saying never present anything in a redundant format. They would present multimedia where they kind of ricochet from visual to auditory, and back and forward. The feeling is you should always try to present things in redundant format so that no matter if people with disability or ability, or learning style, they can get what works best for them.
Mr. Kimball. I think the consumer side is one part of that. But there is also needs within the design and manufacturing side. And I know one of ALTECH's efforts in conjunction with other partners around the country, and again including EASI and both of you Dick and Norm, is to work with software developers and also hardware manufacturers to try and find strategies and designs that will make software programs and hardware more accessible from production. Not just adapting them after production, but from the very beginning making hardware and software accessible. This is a really exciting effort. I think and one that is really important.
Dr. Coombs. I couldn't agree with you more. The more that we have software that helps us do the job instead of having to patch things together afterwards, the easier it is. And certainly the more that people who haven't thought about it will see the potential and begin to think about doing things a more accessible way.
Mr. Blanching. We have been talking a lot about accessibility in terms of student and teacher and the educational realm. But in todays life we get our information from so many different places. We get information at libraries, from the government, from businesses. We find, and I know that you people will confirm this, there is a great need for training in those areas to. This might be a good time to talk about the cooperative that we have with you people in terms of a certificate program for librarians and educators, the people that you do not usually consider in the direct line of fire in the educational realm.
Dr. Coombs. EASI has a certificate program in conjunction with the University of Southern Maine and ALTECH which we call a certificate in accessible information technology. And a long with VATU we kind of our twins. VATU focuses a little more on on-site and more on K-12. Although as Walter said they are reaching out to some university people to. We tend to focus more on higher education and I support groups such as libraries, disabled student service staff. And we are focusing entirely on information technology and not other kinds of assistive devices. So the two programs overlap and largely supplement each other. When people are finished with the webcast they will find links on the page to VATU, and ALTECH, and to our certificate program. And we hope that they will take a look at them in really consider using them. One of the advantages of on-line certificate programs is you can do them from anywhere, at any time. And that reduces costs. While our tuition costs may be similar to those of other certificates, most of them require you to take time off and go someplace. And by the time you add travel, hotel bills, and all of that to the cost of the certificate you are doubling or tripling it. So that we think there are a lot of advantages to on-line, and if it is done right and we hope we do, you still get a lot of interaction and contact and personal support. In all of our programs, VATU, and EASI, and ALTECH, we are dedicated to trying to be there on a personal basis and give personal support. And Dick and I can personally say that with all of our connections with our good friends in southern Maine, personal, personable, friendly, supportive, and all of that. So we really enjoy working with Dale and Walter, and we want to think them for all of their support. And we are going to give them support to. What do you want to say Dick?
Mr. Banks. We have the joy of going to Maine three of four times a year and I look forward to that every time. We really have a good time together. And it is nice when you have a relationship with people like that. It is not just business, it is personal too. And I just wanted to jump in and say that as far as the training, ALTECH, VATU, and the EASI certificate program, one of the exciting things is the use of multimedia. Because the Web is to the point now that the different types of media that you can use can give people about the closest feeling to being there is you can possibly get. Interactive, and being able to view videos that are captioned with training hints, and all sorts of things. We could not have said that three years ago, or we could not have done that. We were pretty restricted to audio. But with new technologies on the Web is really exciting.
Mr. Blanching. It is an exciting time to be doing the work that we are doing. We are not only delivering material, we are learning about the delivery medium. And the more we know, and the more people get to share in that use of that medium, the greater the opportunities we will have to provide varieties of ways of dealing and delivering information to students. It is really exciting.
Dr. Coombs. Is there anything else you want to say about ALTECH before we wind down Dale?
Mr. Blanching. I think we have pretty well covered the activities of ALTECH. We just really are dedicated to seeing that material, whether it being on the Web or delivery of all kinds of materials, just opened up to all kinds of people.
Dr. Coombs. I also want to say that it has been clear that you get a lot of good support from the rest of the University and that helps a lot. Mr. Blanching. That certainly does. Without that kind of support we would not be able to do what we are doing.
Dr. Coombs. Well Walter, we are going to throw the ball to you last. Why don't you line up and tell people about how to sign into VATU and where you are going next. Mr. Kimball. Just a couple of things. One is you have mentioned is the VATU Web site would be available through this webcast. I appreciate that. Let me just very quickly give the web site address, http://vatu.usm.maine.edu. I guess I dedicate my final word to an audience that is very dear to my heart. And that is preservice teachers. The next generation of teachers. We have talked a lot about practicing teachers and K-12 education here today. But I want to put out a special word that are preparing to be teachers and are interested in being teachers. This material is very important for those folks as well. I think as those folks are exposed to this material and learn about assistive technology in their preparation programs, they will be more familiar with it and more able to use it and advocate for it as they begin their teaching careers. That audience is very important.
Dr. Coombs. Okay. Well I want to thank Dale and Walter for sharing their time and their information with us this morning.
Mr. Kimball. Well thank you. It is always good to talk to you.
Mr. Banks. It was really a pleasure. Thank you very much. Mr. Blanching. Bye.
Dr. Coombs. Goodbye.
Mr. Banks. Goodbye.