There is a critical shortage of personnel in the fields of education and rehabilitation of individuals who are visually impaired (that is, are blind or have low vision). In some areas of the country, appropriate services by qualified personnel are not available at all. Teachers, orientation and mobility (O and M) specialists, rehabilitation teachers, and counselors who serve infants, toddlers, children, youths, adults, and elderly individuals who are visually impaired continue to have caseloads that are 2 to 10 times greater than they should be. Parents may search far for appropriate services, and newly visually impaired adults wait for months before they can receive services. Administrators of special schools, public schools, low vision clinics, and rehabilitation agencies search in vain for qualified personnel to fill vacant positions. With such critical shortages, innovative ways must be found to increase the supply of well-prepared professionals.
The critical need for professionals in the field of visual impairment presents significant challenges to professional preparation programs. How can universities reach out to potential students who would not usually consider enrolling or to those who cannot or choose not to leave their home states or communities to study? How can universities provide accessible programs to update or expand the knowledge and skills of practitioners in the field? Distance education programs hold promise for expanding opportunities for and the availability of both preservice and in-service study. Yet, administrators, faculty, and students face issues in the design of distance learning, in the choice and cost of the best technology to achieve desired outcomes. In addition to elements of change inherent in the application of distance education that the field shares with other fields of study, there are also many that are unique to visual impairment, such as required simulation experiences needed for preparation in rehabilitation teaching, teacher education, and O and M.
The call for papers on distance education for this special issue was well received. The journal received far more worthy submissions than it was able to accept; some articles will therefore be published in future issues. It is clear, however, that the field is in the infancy stage of applying distance education to personnel preparation. There has been relatively little research on the effectiveness and outcomes of the applications presented in this issue. The need for more research is critical.
This issue begins with an article by the guest editors, which is meant to serve as a broad-based introduction and to set the stage for the concept of distance education and learning in 2001. Several articles describe overall programs and applications of distance education, and some identify the challenges, struggles, pitfalls, and suggested solutions and strategies. For example, DeMario and Heinze report on a university distance education program survey with statistical support. Lueck's article describes a distance education approach to preparing teachers of children and youth with visual impairments while Koenig and Robinson's article details how a braille course was developed and offered through distance education strategies. Much can be gleaned from these articles that can assist those who are considering applying distance education strategies to their courses or programs.
There are also several Short Reports. Rosenblum, through an introspective approach, presents problems, solutions, and students' perceptions. Cooper and Keefe also present students' views, and Arter, McLinden, and McCall share perspectives from the University of Birmingham. Two of the Short Reports focus on programs targeted for individuals who are visually impaired. Cain and Merrill's article focuses on a rehabilitation counseling program, and Wolffe presents an overview of the Hadley School for the Blind, the field's pioneer in distance education.
Two important issues that are not represented in this issue are the accessibility of distance education to all students and the quality of the outcomes of learning through distance education strategies instead of traditional approaches. Personnel preparation programs in the field of visual impairment have a responsibility to be certain that all program offerings, whether through traditional or distance education strategies, are accessible to all students and that they truly impart the required information. Programs that have achieved success in these areas need to share what they have learned with the less experienced in future issues.
In general, few studies in the broader area of higher education have assessed the impact and effectiveness of distance education strategies on learning. While there is much debate as to which required competencies for the various professions can and should be addressed through distance learning and which ones require face-to-face interaction and demonstration, other factors need to be considered. It must be determined how technology affects the way faculty members teach, the way students learn, the effectiveness of different strategies, and the true cost associated with all methods. The challenges are many, but the possibilities are exciting and powerful. The potential for the application of the technologies of today and the future is in our hands.
Kathleen Mary Huebner, Ph.D.
William R. Wiener, Ph.D.
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