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Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss  

September 2001 • Volume 95 Number 9

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Distance Education in 2001

Abstract: There are significant personnel shortages in education and rehabilitation in the field of blindness and visual impairment. Some university-based programs that prepare teachers, orientation and mobility specialists, rehabilitation teachers and counselors, and low vision specialists to serve individuals with visual impairments strive to increase the number of service providers and assist professionals in maintaining skills and best practices in many ways. This article provides a brief overview of one approach-distance education.

The industrial-age models of learning are no longer viewed as appropriate for the needs and resources of the present biotechnical age. Students and educators are different today, in the information age, than they were in the industrial age, and they will continue to change as new ages emerge. In the past, students were often considered the receptacles of the information that educators provided through lectures and other directed learning experiences. Today, students play a more self-directed role, and educators focus more on the facilitation of learning, emphasizing cooperative and collaborative efforts, self-initiated research, and guided discovery learning.

During the 1910-20s, lantern slides, motion pictures, and the radio, which were considered promising new technologies for correspondence instruction (Pittman, 1991), had a dramatic effect on people's lives. Radio, television, cable networks, and now the Internet and the World Wide Web have had a major effect on and role in the learning process and educational systems of the baby-boomer, yuppie, and X generations. Now the present generation is being referred to as the net generation and the millennials (Strauss and Howe, 1991, 1999), and as television affected the baby-boomer generation, the Internet, World Wide Web, virtual reality experiences, and yet-to-come technologies will affect the current and future generations in ways that cannot even be imagined. Today's students are more comfortable with self-directed learning and using electronic learning tools than are most of their teachers. Educators must not only be aware of a nation without boundaries, but must keep up to date with existing and emerging technologies and be prepared for students who are more divergent thinkers and help to create opportunities for new learning methods and modes of service delivery.

What is distance education?

Reference to correspondence study, an early form of distance education and learning, in higher education can be found as far back as the mid-1800s. In 1873, Ticknor (1891) created a society to encourage women of all social classes to study at home; her Boston-based, mostly volunteer effort provided correspondence instruction to 10,000 members for nearly a quarter of a century. Although the Correspondence University, established by Cornell University in 1883, was unsuccessful, the University of Chicago faculty found in 1933 that correspondence study could be justified on an experimental basis, generating innovations and research data with the hope of leading to improvements in teaching methods (Gerrity, 1976). In 1920, the Hadley School for the Blind offered its first distance education courses to individuals who were visually impaired (that is, were blind or had low vision) and their families (Hadley School for the Blind, 2001).

It was not until nearly a century after the first correspondence study courses that the term distance education was coined in 1972 by the International Council for Correspondence Education (Moore, 1990). In the early 1980s, leadership personnel from the field of blindness, attending a meeting at what is now known as the Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institutes, listened to the first formal presentation by Dr. Larry Marrs, a cofounder of the American Council on Rural Special Education, about a new concept-using distance education strategies for preparing personnel in the field of special education. Today, the majority of universities that prepare practitioners in the field of visual impairment have launched courses and various levels of programs using distance education. These courses and programs show promise in attracting ever more participants and ultimately in producing a greater number of personnel with the qualifications needed to serve individuals who are visually impaired.

There are many definitions of distance education, or distance learning, but perhaps the most comprehensive and applicable to education and rehabilitation in the field of visual impairment is that used by the Instructional Telecommunications Council (ITC, 2001a), an organization that provides 'leadership, information and resources to expand and enhance distance learning through effective use of technology.' The ITC (2001b) defines distance education as 'the process of extending learning, or delivering instructional resource-sharing opportunities, to locations away from a classroom, building or site, to another classroom, building or site by using video, audio, computer, multimedia communications, or some combination of these with other traditional delivery methods.'

Distance learning environments and strategies

Distance learning environments have evolved along with technological advancements in computers, radio and television broadcasting, and audio and video recording. They have moved toward virtual classrooms, where instruction can be provided from a host site to distance sites using a combination of live, two-way interactive audio; asynchronous video; and synchronous-asynchronous computer-based interactions that take advantage of local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), the Internet, and the World Wide Web (Williams, Paprock, and Covington, 1999). The terminology has evolved as the technology has been developed and applied. Some common terms are presented in Sidebar 1.

Distance education strategies vary widely and include traditional materials and strategies, low and high technology, and emerging technologies. For example, printed materials, audio- and videotapes, personal computer teletraining, e-mail, and listservers may be considered passive distance learning, meaning that a student has no opportunity to interact with the instructor (at a different location) in real time. These approaches are asynchronous because the student and instructor transmit messages one way and receive responses after some time has passed (Williams et al., 1999). Approaches that may be considered active include two-way audio, one-way video/two-way audio teletraining, and two-way interactive audio/video transmission. They are synchronous because they all have the ability to transmit messages simultaneously between the sender and the receiver and to receive immediate feedback and interaction among distant sites. In between passive and active approaches lies a middle ground, in which students are required to respond to information through exercises generated by the instruction. These approaches include such media as computer-based training disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and laser disks. Highly interactive environments combine the virtual classroom elements just mentioned with the use of the Internet and World Wide Web.

Shifting from a teaching to a learning paradigm

In recent years, a shift in paradigms has occurred in higher education. The traditional paradigm of the university as an institution that provides instruction is shifting to a new paradigm of the university as an institution that produces learning (Barr and Tagg, 1995). The goal of the new paradigm is to achieve learning through any means that results in the best learning, not just through the traditional series of lectures.

This shift from 'teaching' to 'learning' requires a movement away from the passive lecture-discussion toward new approaches that promote students' discovery. Thus, rather than use a format in which instructors talk and students listen, in the new paradigm students are empowered to take an active role in their own learning. Therefore, a university must identify the knowledge and skills that its graduates will require without imposing a traditional way of teaching the curriculum. The students and instructors become the coproducers of learning, and the instructors become designers of learning methods and environments. The role of the university is no longer simply to transfer knowledge but instead to create environments and experiences that prepare students to discover and build knowledge for themselves. The instructor is no longer exclusively the 'sage on the stage' but becomes the 'guide on the side,' and often switches back and forth between the two roles.

This new paradigm strategically fits the development of distance education. In distance education, the focus is on developing nontraditional ways of producing learning in addition to lecturing. Thus, distance learning can be plotted on a continuum that ranges from providing instruction on-site at distant locations to providing education through the virtual classroom. The virtual classroom can be defined as instruction that is provided wholly or partially using media that permit interaction with students without the need for face-to-face meetings. The most salient characteristic of the virtual classroom is the use of technology to allow interaction between the instructor and students and among individual students, thus creating a virtual environment.

The growth of distance education

In 1998, 44 percent of all higher education institutions offered distance-based courses, an increase of one third from 1994-95 (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, CHEA, 2001; Johnstone, 2001). A 1999 national survey of information technology in higher education (CHEA, 2001) revealed that 47% of the studied institutions offered at least one course entirely over the Internet, 54% were using e-mail, 61% had a strategic plan of information technology, and access to student services via the Internet was increasing significantly. In addition, 39% of the college courses were using Internet resources as part of the syllabus and 28% had a web site. In 1996, participation in web-based higher education courses was estimated to be 1 million students and projected to be 3 million by 2000 (Edelson, 1998).

The effectiveness of distance education

Although distance education is a rapidly growing educational and training strategy and confidence is growing that it will be an important element of future education and training systems, it is not a panacea. Some of the most common obstacles are the inadequate technology infrastructure, planning and program deficiencies, the lack of human capacity and expertise, inadequate economic resources, the lack of recognition of educational equivalence, and the neglect of learning conditions and cultural aspects (Williams et al., 1999).

Nevertheless, there is evidence that distance education is as effective a means for delivering information as the more traditional on-campus approaches (Dohner, Zinser, Cullen, and Schwartz, 1985; Fraser, 1985; Jones and Timpson, 1991; Josendal, Fosse, and Andersen, 1991; Maloy and Perry, 1991; Sullivan and Osburn, 1990). Gunawardena and Boverie (1993) found that the learning styles and satisfaction of on- and off-campus students were not significantly different. Furthermore, in comparing the performance of face-to-face and two-way video conferencing on complex problem-solving tasks requiring a high level of interaction, Rosetti and Surnyt (1984) found that the video conference group actually outperformed the face-to-face group. Haynes and Dillon (1992) compared traditional learning and two-way video conferencing on instructional tasks described by Gagne and Briggs (1979) and found no significant differences in learning gains. Smith, Smith, and Boone (2000) conducted a 2 x 2 repeated-measures analysis of variance to compare online instruction as an alternative to three modes of traditional instruction in special education: lecture, guided instruction, and collaborative discussion. They found that there were no significant differences between learning using the traditional and the online methods of instruction and found more interaction in the online discussions than in the face-to-face discussions.

The development of distance education materials should follow sound principles of instructional design. The decision of what is to be taught and how it should be taught should be governed by the development of an instructional strategy (Jonassen, Grabinger, and Harris, 1990). The overall instructional strategy is like a blueprint that diagrams what must be taught to achieve the desired outcomes. It then becomes a product that can be used as a prescription to develop, evaluate, and revise materials and as a framework from which class lecture materials, interactive group exercises, and homework assignments can be developed (Dick and Carey, 1985).

Instructional design is a multistep process that begins with addressing the needs of the students and ends with an evaluation of the instruction (Foshay, Silber, and Westgard, 1986). Specific course strategies spell out the methods and materials needed, the media to be used, the location for instruction, and how to integrate all these components for each unit within a module. At times, an expositive instructional strategy is used in which the instructor presents information, tests students on their understanding, and presents opportunities for students to practice and to generalize. At other times, a discovery method, in which opportunities are structured so that students are involved in important experiences, are questioned about their reactions, are guided in the development of general principles, and can apply what they have learned, is more appropriate (Romiszowski, 1981).


Considerable research has found that successful distance-learning students tend to be highly motivated, self-disciplined, and generally older (Nadel, 1988; Schlosser and Anderson, 1994). It is not known, however, how effective the application of learning is to the education and rehabilitation of individuals who are visually impaired. In a few isolated situations, researchers have evaluated what students have learned and how they have responded to traditional and distance education models of delivering educational materials, but more research is needed in this area. The field has experimented with distance learning, but researchers have not yet conducted well-controlled studies to determine its effectiveness in comparison to more traditional approaches.

Along with the potential for creating learning without boundaries is the obligation to evaluate the effectiveness of distance learning programs. The field is just beginning to document these efforts and to provide anecdotal examples of effectiveness. As helpful as these efforts are, the next steps must include carefully controlled studies that compare traditional approaches to learning with the evolving interactive distance learning approaches at both the preservice and continuing education levels.

Technology is a driving force that should be used for the benefit of education but not as an end in itself. It should be used to extend opportunities for learning to new groups, to make learning more efficient and flexible, and to enrich the learning process (Williams et al., 1999). Technology has the potential to augment three major goals of educational reform: better access, quality, and productivity (Davis, 2001). It is up to professionals in the field to embrace it, challenge it, help in its development, and use it to enable the fields of education and rehabilitation of individuals who are visually impaired to bring quality, appropriate, and timely services to those they serve.


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Kathleen Mary Huebner, Ph.D., COMS, associate dean and associate professor, Department of Graduate Studies in Vision Impairment, Institute for the Visually Impaired, Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 8360 Old York Road, Elkins Park, PA 19027-1598; e-mail: Kathyh@pco.edu. William R. Wiener, Ph.D., CRC, COMS, senior associate dean and professor, Graduate College, Western Michigan University, 1903 Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5201; e-mail William.wiener@wmich.edu.

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