Volume V Number 3, September 1998

Mathplus Toolbox, A Fully Accessible Math Teaching Environment

Carolyn Gardner
Linn-Benton Community College
Randy Lundquist
Oregon State University


The MathPlus Toolbox is being developed as a collaborative effort between Dr. Randy Lundquist at the Oregon State University Science Access Project and Carolyn Gardner at Linn-Benton Community College. It is being developed because of the scarcity of mathematical materials available for students with disabilities. Computers often enable these students to have access to information that is otherwise not available. Though this computer application was developed to help students with disabilities, its universal design makes it appeal to all students learning math.

In this paper, some background will be given about the reasons why the MathPlus Toolbox was developed. The tools included in the Toolbox will be described along with some of the reasoning that was behind the design. The development process will be explained along with a look at our plans for the future.


Persons with disabilities have traditionally been underrepresented in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The future needs of the nation's scientific workforce demand that no group be excluded from participation in education and training that lead to productive careers in the sciences. At this current time, it is especially important not to exclude any group of people from the technical work force. There are jobs which pay well in technology related fields. American companies are unable to find enough qualified people to fill their positions. People with disabilities are often shut out of this job market because of their inability to study mathematics.

One of the reasons that students with disabilities have not studied mathematics is the difficulty of preparing materials for them. This has been particularly true for students who are visually impaired and for many students with learning disabilities. For the past several years Mrs. Gardner has been researching the uses of technology to teach mathematics to students with learning disabilities. (Gardner, C., 1996) The Oregon State University Science Access Project is working on providing access to information for students with visual impairments. (Gardner, J., 1997) When the project presented several of its research projects at the international conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles in March 1997, one of these programs, Triangle, attracted many students, parents and educators who were looking for a computer program to do basic mathematics. The MathPlus Toolbox should help fill that need.


At the beginning of this project, it was planned to use the sound capabilities of AsTeR (Raman, 1997) to provide access to science textbooks for students who had learning disabilities. This approach was abandoned because of the technological difficulties of combining AsTeR's speaking capabilities with the visual image of mathematical text on the screen, and because the current mathematical textbooks are too highly dependent on graphical images to explain the concepts. The best approach seemed to be to develop a program which could use the computer capabilities to teach the same concepts that are being presented in textbooks.

Computers have appeal for students of all ages because they are fun. It is a nonthreatening environment where the students can easily check their progress and learn from their mistakes. Computers are particularly important for students with learning disabilities because they often need more practice in order to learn and remember a concept. Sound and speaking the text can be combined with visual images. Record keeping features and flexibility allowing a student to progress at his/her own rate can be built into the program. Educational software for mathematics has unfortunately, up to now, been mostly limited to game type programs or drill programs. Most of the sounds that are used are distracting rather than information giving. When well-designed computer-based and video-based instruction is provided on a daily basis, children with learning problems can develop declarative and procedural knowledge in basic math skill equivalent to that of their nondisabled peers. (Goldman, Mertz & Pellegrino, 1989)

Educators have known for years that understanding of mathematical concepts is crucial to long term mastery and use of mathematics. The new NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) standards reflect this philosophy. There is a need for all students to learn to solve problems, reason, and learn on their own. (Goldman, Hasselbring, & the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). This need for teaching for understanding was one of the crucial ideas behind the development of the MathPlus Toolbox.


4.1 The MathPlus Toolbox uses graphics, sound and captioning so that all students have access to the concepts being taught. There is a variety of tools to help a student learn and practice basic math skills. The Toolbox will run on a Windows 95 machine with a SAPI compliant speech engine.

4.2 The MathPlus Toolbox has a universal design. One of the major problems with commercial math software is that it is inaccessible to many students. Students with visual impairments can't see the screen. Students with hearing impairments miss all the auditory information. Students with learning disabilities often get confused because they need both auditory and visual display without a lot of extraneous and distracting material.

4.3 Audio is used in several ways. The speech engine reads the highlighted text in the script and in the message boxes, the buttons on the screens, and the problems. It also is used to explain actions being taken in the demonstration boxes. Sounds are also used as reinforcement. When the answer is correct, the sound is different from when the answer is incorrect. The amount of auditory feedback can be selected by the user.

4.4 Captioning allows the hearing impaired to have access to all the spoken text.

4.5 The screens are relatively uncluttered, and the format is consistent for easy navigation. The graphics are simple, and the colors used are consistent throughout the various tools. For example, the color green is used for the value of ten's column in the counting tool, and the same color is used for the tens geometric figures in the demonstration of an addition problem.

4.6 The type and difficulty of problems can be controlled by the user. Practice problems and flashcards can be controlled via the option's button. A script can be written to generate problems and control the sequence of a student's progress.

4.7 The scripting capacity is a unique feature not found in other programs. Tools to aid authors in writing scripts are included as part of the Toolbox. From a pull down menu, teachers can insert script commands into the text. The text is easily accessible making changes possible within a short time frame.

4.8 Graphics are used to support the development of mathematical concepts. An example would be the use of the graphical demonstration of an addition problem. In a recent journal, the importance of showing the relationship between fractions and decimals was pointed out. To reach higher level understanding, it is important to include graphics and to have the student accustomed to thinking about understanding. (Stein & Smith, 1998) This concept is the basis for the development of the various tools in the MathPlus Toolbox.


5.1 Counting Tool - The counting tool allows the student to explore the concept of place value and to hear the numbers pronounced.

5.2 Flashcards - By using the flashcards, random problems for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division can be generated. The type and level of problem can be changed within the flashcard tool.

5.3 Math Work Boxes - There are work boxes for harder problems in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. When the student has completed the problem, it can be checked immediately. Students have several options from the Work Boxes. A demonstration can be requested. This allows a student to see a working graphical representation of the problem. The computer will work the problem and show graphically how the solution is reached. Another option is for the computer to work the problem for the student. These options could be turned off in a testing situation.

5.4 Fraction Tools - The fraction tools which will help the student to better understand the concept of fractions and their relationship to decimals are under development.

5.5 Worksheet Generator - Random addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, problems can be generated to be printed.

5.6 Calculator - There is a talking calculator available.

5.7 Scripts - Scripts can be written to teach concepts. The MathPlus Toolbox components can be integrated into the script. Though the boxes are designed to help the student learn the concepts, the scripts allow more detailed explanations to be given when a student is learning a new concepts.


Dr. Lundquist has been responsible for the programing, the design, and the implementation of voice into the Toolbox. Mrs. Gardner defined the educational concepts of the Toolbox and has made design suggestions from an educator's viewpoint. Several of her adult basic education students have used various components of the workbook. Changes to the program have been based on the input and discoveries made during its use. Several scripts have been written to help students with specific needs. Since, at this time, the MathPlus Toolbox is under development, no official testing has yet been done. All students have found using the MathPlus Toolbox to be an interesting way to work on math concepts which previously they found difficult to learn. Using the computer flashcards is less demeaning and more fun than using the old fashion cardboard ones. The graphics and the tools help all students to better understand mathematical concepts. The MathPlus Toolbox seems to appeal to all age and ability groups.


The work on the MathPlus Toolbox has just begun. It will become an even more powerful tool as it evolves. More tools for teaching and working with fractions, and tools for teaching decimals, and percents will be developed. Word problems will be included. Help files will be developed. As the MathPlus Toolbox is being used, feedback from students and teachers will be incorporated into the product. There is a need to integrate a braille display or tactile pad so that demonstrations have more meaning for students who are visually impaired.


This project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation grant HRD - 9554453 (CG) and grant HRD - 9452881 (RL).


Gardner, C. (1996) Assistive technology and learning disabilities. http://www.rit.edu/~easi/easisem/gardnec.html.

Gardner, J. (1997) Overview of the Science Access Project. http://dots.physics.orst.edu/overview.html

Goldman, S.R., Hasselbring, & the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1997) Achieving meaningful mathematics literacy for students with learning disbilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30-2, 198-208.

Goldman, S. R.., Mertz, D. L., & Pellegrino (1989) Individual differences in extended practice functions and solution strategies for basic addition facts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 481-496.

Raman, T.V. (1997) On the internet, no knows you're no a dog either! http://simon.cs.cornell.edu/home/raman

SRI (1997) NSF's study of individuals with disabilities majoring in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. NSF Pamphlet, Menlo Park, CA.

Stein, M. & Smith, M.. (1998) Mathematical tasks as a framework for reflection: from research to practice. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 3-4, 268-275.

Gardner, C. & Lundquist, R. (1998). Mathplus Toolbox, a fully accessible math teaching environment. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 5(3).