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Tactile Applications in Development of the Multimodal Learning Environment for the Blind Students with and without Learning Disabilities - Landra, Tereza

Terēza Landra
Psychology and Art, Faculty of Education, University of Latvia, Centre for Braille Print and Tactile Graphics, Strazdumuiza Residential School and Training Centre for the Blind and Visually Impaired Children, Riga, Latvia


The development of the framework strategies in making of the multimodal learning environment for visually impaired (mostly, blind) students over the years has been the subject of many doubts and concerns worldwide. The researchers have discussed and developed different strategic, methodological and practical approaches to the possible solution of this problem. Some linked such development to the simultaneous formation of visual and non visual interactivity, the others, in contrary, stated that non visual multimodality have to be built according to different methodology and general principles then visual one. However, the definite, complex solution of the problem is yet to come.

Also the long discussion have taken place regarding the issues of the “balance of modalities” within the development and improvement of the multimodal learning environment for both students with hard visual impairment and those without them. The notion of multimodal learning environment – the integral part of the concept of universal learning design, is frequently considered being universal indeed. Not only in the conceptual and methodological, but also in fairly practical, even technical and technological sense. It means – some scholars presuppose that multimodal learning environment might serve as the methodological, technological and educational lingua franca connecting students except for their physical abilities/ disabilities and stimulate them to use the multimodally received information in productive, beneficial and sustain way.

The author of the current paper offers the reconsideration of framework applications/applicability in making of the multimodal learning environment for the blind as seen from the positions of a complexity discourse, where all the constructive elements (theoretical, methodological, technical, medical and educational) merge together in order to form an “ideal formula” for such emerging framework strategies. Finding this formula is one of the crucial aspects in successful and meaningful transition from the book to the digital tradition in education for the blind, too, where bookish, static perception of multi channel (modalities) information flow is gradually transforming in order to meet the requirements of the emerging digital learning tradition or multimodal learning environment.

Creating the multimodal learning environment for the blind is a very complicated process with various challenges of theoretical and practical background. During this process, it is impossible to use the very ‘backbone’ of the traditional multimodal learning agenda – visual information, which refers to more than 80 % of all the amount of information available in the surrounding world. Only less than 20 % of information refers to other senses or modalities (modality channels) like audial and haptic perception. Therefore, the multimodal learning environment, where all kinds of visual interactivity are excluded, is formed according to other principles and is based on other kinds of modalities than the multimodal learning environment for students without visual impairment.

The definition of the role of the tactile applications (such as Braille print, 2D tactile graphics and 3D models presented in all possible technical ways) in creating the multimodal learning environment for the blind is still under discussion. However, its clear that tactile applications here are playing and will play rather crucial role, even in comparition with use of the auditory information – but still the level of its overall informative improtance and applicability is controversial. At this moment, it is only possible to assert implicitly that the they will gain more significant importance in the formation of a specific non-visual multimodal learning environment. They will constitute a few of the most important theoretical and methodological building blocks of this environment that will manifest the unity and integrity of inter-semiotic translation from the visual to the haptic modality as well.

In the context of the rhetoric of the cross modal (for example, inter-semiotic, intra – semiotic etc.) translation process itself, the tactile applications will embody the holistic methodological nature of the haptic modality, with the same level of integrity as it is characteristic of the visual modality. The visual modality consists of enormous variations of visible objects and their characteristics, but it comes from one modality source – vision. It is similar with the tactually perceptible information and the haptic modality – the sources of all information in this case are tactual senses.

In the practical aspect, however, the the tactile applications will ensure the possibility for blind students to gain a maximal informative outcome from the haptical modality oriented sources of the non-visual multimodal learning environment. At the same time, the practical level of these applications in the field of PC usage will show new paths and possibilities for the improvement of the human computer interaction (HCI), where the communicating human has lack of vision and should be talked to by means of diverse haptic stimulus and informative sources.

It is necessary to point out that development of the multimodal learning environment for the blind students and the role of the tactile application in this pro- cess – both in terms of theoretical and methodological and practical discourses, lead to another form of understanding of the multimodal learning environment
96 Linz, 11–13 July 2012
as universal category, as the truly comprehensive element of the universal learning designs framework. Here the crucial points of convergence between visual and non – visual interactivities as the very base of the multimodal learning environment creation should be found and explored in order to determine whether they can or cannot serve also as the pathways – the cross modal bridges, in valuable communication (informative exchange via cross modal translation) between modalities. And not only between modalities as the sums of the single or small group phenomena, but also as the holistic multidimensional concepts, too.

The multimodal learning environment for the blind (based on non-visual multimodality) generally could be characterized as follows:

  • it is an audially and haptically based multimodality where visual information can be included only in remodalized (cross modally translated) forms;
  • building of this environment should be focused on the maximal informational output of included modalities;
  • the transfer of visual information to the non-visual multimodal environment should be performed via cross modality (inter-semiotic) translation;
  • the cross modality translation is an action where “the human factor” still plays a significant role, and the integration of the translation results into multimodal electronic platforms is frequently problematic;
  • the audial element of the non-visual multimodality is more developed than the haptic one due to its long-time (historical) technological achievements;
  • generally, the non-visual multimodality consists of two dimensions: the non technology based (educative toys, part of sensory room equipment and other applications leading to understanding of the multimodal principle, but not being technical themselves) and the technological ones (all technical and electronic applications/devices);
  • the non-visual multimodality is more case changeable than the visual one – it is not so unified and PC centered yet;
  • it is another form of HCI (human – computer interactions) where all innovative haptic devices/technologies could be incorporated and tested.

But, from the end users’ (students’) viewpoint this complicated structure could be reduced to following aspects of representation:

  • auditory, haptically, kinesthetically and olfactory based,
  • auditory and haptic interactivity fills whole informative field
  • it explores only auditory or haptically perceivable logical or cognitive structures
  • auditory information is the primary source of information.

Needless to say that for the blind students using the multimodal platforms and being involved very deeply into the learning agenda based on multimodal non-visual interactions might be rather challenging and problematic not only because of their major sensory impairment, but also because of the possible additional disabilities – whether they are of sensory or other nature.

Physically determinate incapability to use tactual or auditory senses for widening of the informative field might be named as two most threatening problems. But there are more. For instance, those of the learning disability spectrum, which have rather specific and complicated manifestations in connection with major visual impairments, and, primarily, blindness. For blind students who are having some kind of learning disabilities or complex disabilities to perceive the non-visual manifestations of the visual phenomena, the usage of the multimodal learning applications – particularly, tactile ones, is even more challenging task.

Current paper deals with the theoretical and methodological determinations of the role of tactual application in the making of the multimodal learning environment for the bind students with and without learning disabilities: it outlines the major conjunctive and disjunctive aspects of these determination as well as brings forward the issues of necessity to widen and specify the inner content of the HCI concept in this context.

In more general terms, the paper also deals with interconnections and interactions of the multimodal learning environment and universal learning design agenda, trying to determine their logical and conceptual relations on the base of the one narrow and specific problem – role of the tactual application in the making of the multimodal learning environment for the bind students with and without learning disabilities.

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