The genesis of the idea of a platform Platmat
Mathematics is the basis of many other disciplines: science, technology – and even social sciences often rely on statistics. Exclusion from mathematics can be a serious handicap in education and work. Communication of mathematics is usually visual – formulas, diagrams, graphs etc. That makes it very difficult for blind and partially sighted people to do mathematics and effectively bars them from many work and educational opportunities.
The following equation illustrates many of the problems:
(x equals the fraction with numerator negative b plus or minus the square root of the quantity b squared minus 4ac, and denominator 2a).
It is complex, two-dimensional and very concise – to delete any one symbol would completely change the meaning of the equation.
Written mathematical notations are important not only as a means of one person communicating with another, but also as a memory aid to assist someone doing mathematics (writing down intermediate results, for instance). Thus blind and partially sighted students require a means of writing and accessing mathematical content and a substitute for pencils and paper. Also, teachers and tutors need immediate, effective tools of communication with visually impaired students whether during math lessons, home tutoring of student, or remotely via the Internet. Communication in mathematics is particularly difficult with blind people who use only or primarily Braille. Since Braille is a system of sequential coding, the process of editing or modifying formulas takes longer. The problem increases with the observed in Poland trend to send visually impaired children to ordinary schools where teachers do not know Braille, and not to specialised educational centres. The reasons behind this trend are, on the one hand, parents’ desire not to separate a disabled child from the family and siblings, and on the other hand, the level of development of information and communication technologies and their rapid absorption by children and young people make the blind or visually impaired child able to cope in an ordinary school thanks to an easier access to information and communication technologies (ICT). Examples of such assistive technologies are, for example, screen readers, widely used by blind such as Jaws, NVDA, Windows Eyes, Narrator, that with a synthetic speech read the screened texts. However, they do not read the formulas, written graphically or in notations unknown to readers. The trend of not using specialized centres does not occur only in Poland. Observation that students with an impaired sight manage to cope in mainstream schools does not, however, apply to the subject of mathematics. In a situation where in Poland for a number of years mathematics was not a matriculation subject, the visually disabled secondary-school leavers avoided mathematics on matriculation exams and the maths learning problems in this social group was virtually non-existent. This situation is reflected in the reduced popularity of higher education courses in mathematics and physics related studies among the blind and partially-sighted secondary-school leavers , which in turn reduces their chances of gaining more lucrative professions (eg. programmer, data analyst). Now that the baccalaureate (secondary-school leaving exam) in mathematics is mandatory, the interest in efficient assistive technologies for teaching maths to visually impaired pupils has rapidly grown. Both math teachers and students in mainstream schools and schools with integration classes are interested in efficient, effective assistive technology used in teaching and learning of mathematics. This was confirmed by a survey of more than 100 respondents conducted in the first half of 2014 by the Institute of Mathematical Machines in Warsaw in cooperation with the Foundation of the Polish Blind and Visually Impaired ‘TRAKT’. The research focused on the level of computerization of the process of teaching mathematics in specialised centres, schools with integration divisions and in mainstream schools, and on declared needs for assistive technologies. The research was conducted within the framework of a research project co-financed by PFRON (State Fund Rehabilitation of the Disabled )- “Towards professional activation of blind people: PlatMat platform increasing effectiveness of inclusive education in the area of mathematics and physics”.