Choosing Technology: Laptop


Welcome to my new series on choosing technology, where I will be sharing my tips on purchasing devices, with a special concentration on students with low vision. I am studying information technology in college right now, but don’t worry, I won’t be using any fancy technology terms. Today, I will be talking about purchasing a laptop.

My laptop was the first device that I ever used in the classroom. I use it to take notes, complete assignments, and even take entire classes in the form of virtual education. I decided to write out what features to look for when purchasing a laptop for the educational environment, with a special concentration for people with low vision. Currently, I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (more information can be found on my technology roundup here), but have also used computers from Acer, Toshiba, and Lenovo without many problems.

Screen size

Even if the user is visually impaired, they don’t necessarily need the largest screen on the market. My first laptop had a 17″ screen and was nearly impossible to carry around, and it didn’t fit on most desks either. For a portable laptop, I would suggest getting a screen that measures between 13 and 15 inches, which is very easy to find.

Weight

One of the main things I look for in a laptop is how heavy it is, since I have back issues. While a rolling backpack is an option, it’s important to choose a laptop that is easy to transport. Look for a laptop that weighs four pounds or less.

Keyboard

Since the laptop will likely be used frequently for writing, pay attention to the feel of the keyboard. Are the keys spaced out, or close together? Is it easy to make errors? Will you need to add large print or Braille stickers to the tops of the keys? Does it look like the keys will fall off easily? I prefer my keys more spaced out to avoid errors and do not add large print stickers.

USB ports

My current laptop has one USB port, which is why I carry around a USB hub so my computer can have up to four USB connected devices. I have found that three USB ports is normally more than enough. I can connect a flash drive for an assignment, hook up an assistive technology device, and have my wireless headset all at once.

Touch screen

Most laptops on the market now have a touch screen built in, which can be disabled if needed. Some touch screens provide tactile feedback in the form of vibrations, but I prefer to turn this off. I like having touch screens because I can easily use familiar gesture controls, like zoom and pan, and I feel comfortable typing on an onscreen keyboard.

Battery life

Laptop battery life can greatly vary depending on settings such as brightness and the applications being used. That said, I would look for a laptop with at least a six hour battery life, though my laptops are often in the 9-10 hour range for battery life. I always recommend bringing the laptop charger to class, just in case it suddenly dies.

Accessibility features

Check to make sure that all necessary accessibility features can be enabled on the computer. How does the large text look? Is screen magnifier easy to use? What about screen readers? For more on Windows 10 accessibility settings, check out this post here.

Software compatibility

Make sure that the laptop can run any accessibility apps or other softwares easily. For the most part, laptops are built to support all kinds of apps, but it never hurts to check between the application’s website and the laptop specifications.

Budget

My laptop, purchased for a little over $1000, is still running like it’s brand new, even three years after I purchased it. It made sense for me to invest that much, because I use it for all of my classes and take a large number of virtual classes. However, users can still find a great laptop with all of the features they need for $700 or less, especially if they hit the sales. Ask about student discounts, as well as discounts for people registered with the state department for blindness and visual impairments.

Should I buy insurance?

I chose not to buy insurance for my laptop, since I don’t have a history of dropping my devices (minus one phone that shattered) or causing large amounts of damage to my devices. When it isn’t in use, my laptop lives in its heavily padded case and I never leave it unattended. However, insurance might make sense if the user has a history of dropping devices or is likely to damage a computer. If a credit card is used to purchase it, check to see if there is automatic purchase protection or a similar feature.

Having a laptop has been extremely helpful for me, especially in college, since so many of my classes rely on the use of technology. If you have any more questions, leave them in the comments below!

Virtual Classes in High School


At both high schools I attended, teachers often took a pencil-and-paper approach to learning. It was common for teachers to have students complete paper worksheets, take handwritten notes, and read out of textbooks. Any sighting of technology in the classroom was rare, minus the occasional graphing calculator or once a year iPad assignment. Assistive technology was an even rarer sight. Because of this, teachers were not provided the necessary resources to have a student like me, who could not read standard print materials or write clearly, and who frequently used technology. It was easy to see their frustration, and while some teachers did manage to include me in their classes, it was too difficult for others to integrate assistive technology into the classroom. So what is a student to do?

Enter, virtual classes.

Virtual classes in high school are offered through many different platforms, and can be taken full-time or part-time, for short or long term periods. These classes allow students to use their school’s or their personal technology to learn material and complete alternative, digital assignments. There are still class assessments, AP exams, and state standardized tests for classes, and students still receive the same amount of credit on their transcript. Here are ten of the reasons I am glad I took virtual classes. I took a total of sixteen virtual classes across all core subjects using the platforms Moodle, Desire2Learn, Rocket Learning, and Brigham Young University Independent Study, and graduated in 2015.  Permission to take virtual classes was not written in as an accommodation in my IEP.

Using my own technology

Often times, it was difficult to enable accessibility settings on school computers because of the restrictions set in place for students. Since virtual classes can be accessed on any internet-enabled device, I can use my own computer or iPad with settings exactly how I like them, and the school doesn’t have to worry about it.

Ability to get ahead in class

With chronic illness, there are weeks where I feel like I can get everything done and be on top of everything, and other weeks where I am spending a lot of time asleep. My teachers would post assignments early and encourage students to work ahead, which I would do when I was feeling great. As a result, it was uncommon for me to fall behind.

Practicing technology skills

It always surprises me how many students aren’t proficient in using technology. By taking virtual classes, I was able to practice researching topics on the internet with different tools, use Microsoft Office applications easily, and create my own accessible materials. This really helps me in college, as I have had professors that require all assignments be completed and submitted digitally, and have also taken virtual classes in college (more on that here).

Access class anytime

My senior year of high school, over half of my classes were virtual, and scheduled for the beginning and end of the day. Because of my chronic migraines, I was sleeping a lot more, since sleep is the only cure for my migraines, and would often do my assignments outside of traditional school hours. As long as the assignments were submitted on time, my teachers never minded this, and encouraged students to complete assignments whenever was most convenient for them.

My IEP was always followed

While I did have many teachers who followed my IEP in the classroom, there were teachers like I mentioned that had very few resources and couldn’t integrate a student with low vision into their classroom. In my virtual classes, my IEP was always followed, since I learned to self-advocate and make things accessible myself.

All materials can be enlarged

Sometimes, there would be a classroom assignment that was impossible to be made accessible. Since virtual class assignments are created with technology in mind, it is easy to change a font size or background color, zoom in on an image, or use a high contrast display.  Why I prefer digital materials here.

Take any class

There were times I was strongly encouraged not to take certain classes, as the teacher was skeptical about having a student with an IEP. For one of these classes, I took it virtually through a state program and had a teacher who was experienced not only with IEPs, but also with having students with low vision. I know I wouldn’t have had such a great experience if I had taken the class in the classroom, and I was thankful that I was able to take it virtually.

Another example is that I completed my PE and health requirements online, since being included in traditional PE classes would be near impossible- and being included in Driver’s Ed would have definitely been impossible! For more on my experience in taking PE virtually, click here.

Summer classes

I took a virtual class every summer in high school, but this setting was especially helpful when I had to repeat Algebra 2, due to my IEP accommodations not being met the first time I took the class. I found accessible graphing applications and a large print calculator, and was able to get an A when I retook the class. Best of all, I didn’t have to worry about being in the classroom environment again, where it would be more difficult for me to integrate technology.

Quiet testing environment

I remember for one of my classes, the testing environment was always very noisy, and it was difficult to concentrate. While I could take some tests at home, I also took tests at my school, traveling to quiet testing locations so I could concentrate.

Improved grades

Because I was able to access all of the materials and had my accommodations followed, I often received higher grades in my virtual classes than in my traditional classes. My senior year, when I had four virtual classes, I was able to get straight As!

Because I still attended school for electives, I never had to worry about missing out on the social aspect of being in the classroom. My virtual teachers were also just an email away, if I needed them, and there were also virtual education specialists based at my school. The virtual high school setup was perfect for me, and allowed me to eventually take virtual classes in college. I would not have graduated unless I had the opportunities I was given in virtual classes.

Why I Brought A Desktop Computer to College


As a student with low vision and chronic illness, my college experience has been very unique. I have learned to rely a lot on technology for my success, and having a desktop computer in my apartment has helped me be able to balance everything. Here are ten of the reasons I bought a desktop computer for college, and how it has helped me often. Please note that my computer runs Windows 10 with these accessibility settings enabled.

Virtual classes

A little less than half of the classes I have taken in college have been virtual. This is due to several factors- my chronic illness, low vision, and some classes being exclusively offered online. It helps to have a dedicated place where I can work on my courses. Read more about why I take virtual classes here.

Typing

For the most part, I do not handwrite assignments, as I have dysgraphia, which is the inability to write coherently as a result of an organic condition, such as low vision or a brain issue. I also run this blog, and frequently spend hours at the computer typing up posts. It feels much more natural to type for long periods of time on my desktop keyboard.

Synchronizes with laptop

One of the awesome things about having two computers is that all of the data synchronizes, meaning my class notes, photos, and other information is easily accessible on each of my devices. I find it helpful to switch between the two computers, especially since I have neck issues that can be aggravated by hunching over for a laptop screen. My laptop is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10, and I cannot imagine using any other laptop in class as it easily fits on any sized desk and the battery life is awesome.

Large screen

While a large screen does not necessarily mean a computer is accessible for low vision, my computer’s 22″ screen enlarges text very efficiently and can easily display large navigation tools, windows, and images. Windows 10 is fantastic for this, as I am able to use large, bold print.

Running software

While my Surface can do many things well, running multiple intricate software applications at once is not one of them. Luckily, my desktop computer can run all of the applications and then some, making it easy to be productive.

Easy to print items

In addition to bringing my desktop computer, I also purchased an inexpensive Brother laser printer with wireless capabilities. I can quickly print out an assignment for class, scan in pages, and make copies. Because I got the printer and toner on super sale (start checking advertisements now!), it’s cheaper than having to go print out items at the library.  To register a wireless printer, follow the same instructions listed here for registering an Amazon Echo.

Two screens

Why have one screen when you can have two? I hooked up a 26″ TV monitor on an adjacent table to use as a second monitor for my desktop computer. I commonly use this when running multiple applications, or when taking notes on a video.  I also can stream tabs on my Google Chrome browser to my TV monitor using a Chromecast.

Make materials accessible

I developed a macro on my computer to make documents accessible nearly instantly in Microsoft Word (more on how I did coming soon), something that I had trouble running on other computers. I love that I can turn almost any document into a format that I can read quickly and easily. I also can read materials from Bookshare, Nook, and Kindle.

Utilize library resources

Libraries have resources that go beyond print materials, such as databases, remote desktop applications, and even digital materials. I can access all sorts of library tools from the comfort of my desk. Read more about campus libraries here.

I don’t need the space on my desk

Having low vision means that I don’t have to worry about lots of papers, heavy textbooks, writing, or other similar tasks. My computer does everything for me, so I don’t need anything else on my desk.  I live in a room by myself, and always lock the door when I leave, so I have never had to worry about anyone else messing with my computer.

I have been extremely fortunate to have both a desktop and laptop computer at college.  I have been able to do everything from homework to take entire courses without having to leave my apartment.  This is especially helpful with my chronic migraines, as I can create a study environment that’s free of triggers, and all of my computer settings are exactly as I like them.

Why To Take Virtual Classes in College

Living with chronic illness, it can be very difficult to get out of bed, let alone get to class. While I am able to push myself to get to a majority of my classes, sometimes I just want to be able to do school work without having to move too much. Because of this, I have chosen to incorporate virtual classes into my college schedule, and it has helped me a lot in managing my time and improving my grades. Here are some of the reasons I appreciate virtual classes, and my tips for success. As of spring 2017, I have taken 13 virtual classes in four semesters of college.

Better scheduling

I’ve found that there were a few classes that either were held extremely early in the morning or late at night. Since my vision fluctuates throughout the day, these class times are not a good fit for me. With virtual classes, I can work on assignments while my vision is doing well.

Get ahead easily

Many of my professors post several weeks of class work in advance, so if I am feeling well, I will complete the assignments early,  in case I wind up feeling not-so-well later on. Professors also seem to be more flexible about students turning in late work if an emergency comes up- I was able to easily get extensions on assignments when needed.

Take classes from anywhere

The only reason I got credits my first semester was because of virtual classes. I had two separate medical emergencies happen in the span of November 2015 and spent over six weeks at home (several hours from school) recovering. Basically, I disappeared right after midterms and only came back to school because I had to take a final exam. While I was recovering at home, I was able to continue with my virtual classes and stay on track, and I didn’t even tell my virtual teachers how sick I was until after the class had ended. With the flexibility to take classes anywhere, I was able to do very well that semester.

Use your own assistive technologies

With virtual classes, I can use all of my own technology which is fine-tuned to my preferences. I also can learn which devices, applications, and extensions work best for certain classes and how to create accessible documents. Bonus- I don’t have to balance five devices on a small desk.

Less “fluff” work

One of my friends was often complaining about having to do group projects and other frustrating assignments in one of their classes. I took the same class virtually and only had to worry about reading material, answering three questions a week, and writing a total of two essays. That was it! I didn’t have to worry about investing a ton of energy into a general education class, and I could spend more time on my other classes.

Get used to working independently

One of the common complaints about virtual classes is that there is no one to reinforce deadlines and other materials. This is actually a good thing, as no one is going to be around to remind you of every little thing in the real world. Learning to budget time and research topics online are important skills to have.

You won’t be seen as a disability

While it is important to share your disability services file with your professor, you don’t have to worry about sticking out in class discussions because of your disability, if you are worried about that. In one of my classes (that I dropped immediately), lots of students and even the professor were staring at my blindness cane like it was some type of foreign object and asking a lot of strange questions. In virtual classes, no one can see you.

Take tests in your own environment

Not all virtual classes are like this, but being able to take tests and quizzes in your own testing environment is an awesome advantage to taking these types of classes. I always appreciate being able to take a quiz from the comfort of my own desk, or to take a test with one of my pain relief wraps on.

Adjunct professors

Professors can teach from anywhere in the world, and this is often beneficial as the student is able to learn information from someone in the field, or get a global perspective on a topic. For my global understanding requirement, I had a professor who had travelled to many different countries and was able to educate the class on many different topics related to global health and policy. Another one of my professors was popular at another university from halfway across the country, and we got to take a class with them. I’ve even had professors living in other countries.

Learn more about yourself

This may seem weird, but I have learned a lot about how I access materials and learn through taking virtual classes, probably because I rely on technology a lot. With the ability to take a variety of different classes, I have been able to learn how I process information best, and which technologies are most helpful. I know that virtual classes will help me a lot in the future as well, especially since I want to work with accessibility.

Virtual classes have been an amazing resource for me. I am grateful that my college has really embraced virtual education and that I have been able to take almost any class that I want.