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AFB JOURNAL OVISUAL
IMPAIRMENT& BLINDNESS
  
Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss  
 

September 2001 • Volume 95 Number 9

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Live and Online: A Year-round Training Program for Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments in California

Abstract: This article describes an innovative year-round program for students who live at a distance from San Francisco State University and examines its strengths and weaknesses based on feedback from instructors and students. The goal has been to develop a high-quality program that is sustainable and affordable without the need for substantial outside funding.

Training programs for adults that involve the distributed use of technology must address critical factors that facilitate and motivate adults to learn. Learning is a process by which behavior changes as a result of experience (Maples and Webster, 1980). Although a unifying theory of adult learning does not yet exist, various models and guidelines have been proposed, all of which point to unique configurations of (1) students' characteristics, (2) learning processes, and (3) learning contexts that distinguish adult learning paradigms (Merriam, 1993; Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

With regard to students' characteristics, various theorists have suggested that adults often prefer autonomous learning (or self-directed learning); prefer to choose what they study; learn from relevant experiences that are meaningful to their lives; relate new learning to past experiences; and learn best in nonthreatening, supportive environments (Brookfield, 1986; Knowles, 1980). Learning methods must address ways in which students select, organize, and store information according to their learning styles (Kerka, 1998). For example, some students may require step-by-step assignment guides to use Internet resources effectively, while others may be more productive when given opportunities to explore resources freely in response to instructor-generated inquiries. In addition, a student's depth of understanding can range from the recitation of superficial descriptions of facts to deeper insights in interpretation, application, and self-understanding (Williams and McTighe, 1998). Ideally, instructional approaches should attempt to guide students toward a penetrating understanding of subject matter, taking into account their knowledge and skill entry levels.

A relatively new concept in the literature on adult learning, the context of learning, considers the economic, social, and cultural diversity of students (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999). It also considers interactions between students and their life situations and encourages critical reflection about learning outcomes. Critical reflection can effect major changes in attitudes and belief systems and hence change students' perceived relationships to their life situations (Cranton, 1996; Mezirow, 1990).

Adult training programs must strive to optimize these factors in the learning process to meet the needs and characteristics of mature students in relevant training contexts. The optimization of key factors includes the judicious use of technology.

It is clear that the effectiveness of various technologies requires careful design and planning in the delivery of instructional content (Cooper, 1999; Dodge, 1997; Hall, 1999). Web-based instruction has moved beyond downloading a set of discrete tasks onto a hard drive to having students purposefully interact with their learning environment to create deeper levels of personal change and growth (Imel, 1997). Emphasis is now placed on the student, rather than the technology, and on promoting interactions among students and instructors, using innovative approaches to reduce students' isolation in distance formats (Imel, 1996, 1997).

In addition, designers of web-based instruction are being encouraged to consider learning styles in developing training protocols (Kerka, 1998). Numerous authors have noted that online instruction through the Internet and the World Wide Web has the potential to create an interactive learning community in which participants interact with each other and learn by doing (Buzzard, MacLeod, and DeWitt, 1997; Cyrs, 2000; Garson, 1999; Gillespie, 1999; Khan, 1997; Kuhlenschmidt, 1999; Lieberman, 1998; Palloff and Pratt, 1999; Rubenstein, 1999). Guidelines for making web content accessible to persons with disabilities are now available (see, for example, Chisholm, Vanderheiden, and Jacobs, 1999), and the field of visual impairments has recognized the need for distance education methods to increase the number of trained personnel in the field (Mason, Davidson, and McNerney, 2000).

Rationale for the distance program

San Francisco State University's (SFSU's) Program in Visual Impairments serves all northern California. In an effort to alleviate the severe shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments throughout the state, a year-round program was instituted to reach potential candidates who live far from the campus and cannot travel to the school for weekly classes. Training local residents who want to remain and work in their communities is an effective model for recruiting and retaining teachers, especially in rural school districts (National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 1996). School districts can encourage their staffs, including transcribers, paraprofessionals, and teachers with credentials in other areas, to participate in distance training programs. Distance students are required to live 50 miles or more from either of the two university campuses with programs in visual impairments in California (San Francisco State University and California State University, Los Angeles) so that the distance education programs do not have a negative impact on on-campus enrollments.

The program at SFSU uses a variety of learning approaches to accommodate different learning styles that promote students' autonomy, critical reflection, and relevance to life experiences. A safe, encouraging atmosphere is generated that respects students' economic, social, and cultural diversity. Furthermore, the program uses a blend of various learning approaches that best fit the range of curricular content and the instructional needs of adult students. These approaches include (1) using online discussion groups to promote respectful interchanges among students and the sense of an online community, (2) providing assignments that encourage students to generate projects that are meaningful to their life or work situations, (3) developing a cohort of students who follow the same program schedule for group identity and support, (4) requesting ongoing feedback from students about the content of the program and course delivery methods, and (5) providing sufficient in-class discussion time to acknowledge the students' wealth of experience.

Training methods are accessible to persons with disabilities. Course work is divided into two basic delivery modes: intensive summer courses and interactive video courses, both of which are supported by web-based instruction. This combined approach was selected to provide an avenue for face-to-face experiential learning in a supported group setting for selected courses (the summer intensive component), real-time visual and auditory feedback for distance courses transmitted from SFSU (the interactive video component), access to support materials on the Internet in both delivery modes, and opportunities for interactive feedback via the Internet to establish a classroom community for the interactive video courses. The manner in which these individual components come together varies with each course in the program.

The year-round credential program

The year-round program provides course work leading to a California Educational Specialist Credential in Visual Impairments, which certifies teachers to work with students with visual impairments from birth to age 22. The credential requires 56 semester units of course work, with 39 semester units in courses specific to visual impairments. Only disability-specific courses are included in the special year-round distance program, since students can find equivalents to required general education and generic special education courses in their local areas (see Sidebar 1).

The students attend the program part time. Each fall and spring semester, one disability-specific course is offered via Codec interactive video. To reduce costs, a course in the regular campus program is taught in a special studio at SFSU and broadcast simultaneously to five distance sites. The students at the reception sites can see and talk to the students and instructor at the SFSU broadcast site, and students and the instructor at the broadcast site can see and talk to the students at each reception site. Five courses are offered via interactive video. Internet access and e-mail are required for all interactive video classes. In addition, six courses are offered in three intensive three-week summer sessions at SFSU, two in each summer session, and dormitory space at SFSU is made available at a reasonable cost. The entire program takes approximately 2 1/2 years to complete, with the first cycle to be completed at the end of the fall semester, 2002 (see Sidebar 1).

The university has capped enrollment in the program at 20 students, who are required to move through the program as a single cohort. A full complement of students was reached without any recruitment efforts because of the high demand by students. The 22 students in the program (2 above the university's limit) include 12 teachers of students with visual impairments who are working with emergency permits, 3 paraprofessionals who work with students with visual impairments, 1 certified braille transcriber, 4 orientation and mobility instructors, and 2 people who are not working in the field. Of the 4 students with visual impairments, 2 are primarily braille readers.

Developing a sustainable service delivery model

The goal was to develop a high-quality, cost-effective program that would be sustainable without major outside grants so that it could be continued as long as necessary. Therefore, the program design and development had to address the needs of various interest groups: the university, the instructors, the state certification agency, and the students. To encourage SFSU to support this new program, the program had to use existing resources (and not place undue strain on them), use little or no additional funds, and generate some income for the university through increased enrollment. For the instructors, the courses needed to lend themselves to available technologies and not tax their ability to provide high-quality training to their students. Furthermore, the program had to meet stringent state certification standards, and hence the course content could not vary from that required for campus-based courses. Finally, for credential students, the program had to be of high quality, accessible, affordable, and able to be completed in a reasonable time.

A number of factors converged to make the program possible. Among these factors were an interested and cooperative faculty in SFSU's programs in visual impairments and orientation and mobility, free access to the Codec interactive video system on the SFSU campus, completion of a network of interactive video reception sites throughout California to link the community college system and the California State University system, and free technical support for web-based curricular alternatives via SFSU's Center for Enhancement of Teaching. Other factors included the serendipitous institutionalization of year-round programs at SFSU with the advent of a new summer semester; the availability of dormitory space at SFSU and at the California School for the Blind, where the program's technology course is taught; a new SFSU bookstore service that allows students to order textbooks and readers online; a new SFSU library service that places course readers on electronic reserve online; and unsolicited requests for a distance program in visual impairments from approximately 15 people, which justified the need for the program and ensured sufficient enrollments in it.

Alternative course delivery modes

Interactive video.

Codec interactive video is used for the delivery of five courses in the program. As was mentioned earlier, these courses are delivered in real time from a studio at SFSU and are broadcast to five sites throughout the state, allowing direct visual and verbal interchanges during class time.

Course postings on the web.

Course materials, including handouts, syllabi, and overheads, are posted on the Internet, as are quizzes for some courses. Course readers are posted online through electronic library reserves.

Web-based discussion forums.

The students are required to participate in online discussion groups for certain courses. In one forum, for example, the instructor posted a weekly question that was based on the class discussions and course readings. The students were required to respond to the instructor's question and to one comment by a fellow student and were encouraged to support one another in these discussions. The instructor monitored each week's responses but passed no judgments on them. In this way, students from all over the state formed a tighter and supportive classroom community via the Internet while they integrated ideas from the lectures and readings.

E-mail:

The instructors and students correspond via e-mail during the interactive video courses. Special handouts can be sent through e-mail at the last minute, the students' questions can be answered, and general messages can be relayed quickly and easily. Topics for student projects and papers may be discussed and arranged via e-mail, so that such discussions do not take up the instructor's lecture time.

Braille computer software:

The courses in the braille codes use a modified form of braille translation software, called Perky Duck, that was developed for distance education courses by Duxbury Systems (1999); this software can be downloaded free of charge from the Duxbury Systems' web site. Weekly quizzes are posted online, and the students can complete braille assignments using Perky Duck. (The students are required to bring Perkins Braillewriters to class sessions for braille assignments in class.)

Access to the university's resources.

The students are given full access to the university's resources, including libraries. SFSU has assigned a university librarian to the program's students to provide guidance for online literature searches and to help the students gain access to required reference materials.

Summer intensive courses.

During the three-week summer courses, there are six hours of lectures per day, five days per week. The students live in the dormitories or find other nearby housing arrangements. The course content is the same as for 16-week courses in the regular campus program. For courses with heavy reading loads, required textbooks and course readers, with accompanying study guides, are made available ahead of time. This format meets the needs of students who live at a distance and cannot be away from work or families for long periods. The students seem to enjoy the intensity and the bonding that develop during these intensive sessions. The instructors must be prudent in designing assignments and readings to ensure that they are in-depth and instructive, but not overwhelming.

Effects of technology on instruction

Interactive video

When the interactive video system works well, it is an exciting medium for teaching and learning. The class becomes more like a special event than a lecture. It is possible to show videotapes easily and to move from camera shots of students, the instructor, overheads, and Internet postings at the switch of a button. The students seem to enjoy being able to interact with others throughout the state who have diverse experiences and insights to share. However, it takes a great deal of preparation time to locate and establish the interactive video sites.

Furthermore, although the network setup was free at SFSU, funds for technical support were sometimes required at reception sites during broadcast time-an expense that was not anticipated in the early cooperative agreements. This problem was solved at the administrative level by the time the program was in full operation. In addition, the instructors were initially expected to run the camera controls for the interactive video while they were lecturing. Since this system proved to be too exacting for the instructors, an additional technical support person was required to run the controls at the broadcast site. Finally, some technical problems interfered with the effectiveness and organization of the interactive video classes. Difficulties in getting the interactive video system up and running sometimes cut into class time. Equipment failures at individual reception sites and an occasional system failure have also occurred. As a backup for potential technical difficulties, each lecture is recorded on videotape so that videotaped copies can be distributed as needed (see Sidebar 2).

Online discussion forum and course materials

The initial discussion forum in the first pilot class was extremely well received by the students. It promoted productive and supportive interchanges among members of the class across the state. Many of the students had not participated in this type of endeavor before, and it took a great deal of technical support to get some of them online and running. In addition, the initial discussion forum program was not powerful enough to handle the unexpected high demand throughout the university. It broke down often and affected the flow of class assignments. Therefore, it was necessary to purchase better equipment to eliminate the problem.

Neither the instructors nor the students, including those with visual impairments who could gain access to the materials in their preferred format, had difficulty posting and accessing materials online. Debugging the problems with Perky Duck, however, was time consuming for the students, the instructor, and the technical support person. More problems arose for those with Macintosh platforms than those with PC platforms.

Advantages and disadvantages for instructors and students

Instructors

Using the interactive video format, instructors were able to reach more students: the enrollment increased by about 20 students for each interactive video class. The interactive video system gave the instructors greater flexibility in presenting course materials because they were able to project computer screen displays, Internet materials, photographs, and three-dimensional materials easily to both the broadcast and reception sites.

The instructors reported several concerns about the technological aspects of the new program, however. First, materials have to be prepared ahead of time, and it takes longer to prepare them for online presentation than for regular lectures. Second, more time is needed to help the students solve technology-related problems and to grade assignments, since the courses now have 30 students, rather than 10 in the on-campus course. Third, the instructors have found a dramatic increase in the number of e-mail messages, especially during the first few weeks of each semester. Fourth, the instructors had to develop teaching approaches that encourage interaction among people from the various sites. Finally, in courses related to braille and braille literacy, the instructor was concerned about the inability to walk around the room to inspect each student's braille production during class sessions and hence to provide immediate feedback.

Students

The distance students tended to be content with the interactive video courses, accepting the technological complications, and were grateful for access to the program and thus to obtain instruction that was previously unavailable to them in their local communities. Students at the distance sites repeatedly mentioned that they were able to have meaningful discussions among themselves at the sites.

The instructors were always concerned about the reactions of the on-campus students in the broadcast studio, since these students could take the course on campus without the interactive video format another semester. Since it was critical that the technological components added to their learning experience, the on-campus students were asked to evaluate both the interactive video and regular formats, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest score. The on-campus students rated the noninteractive video version of this class, which was offered on two previous occasions, 1.04 (N = 10) and 1.02 (N = 12) and rated the overall quality of the pilot interactive video class 1.00 (N = 7). Thus, the overall quality of the course was not impaired by the distributed use of technology. (It was not possible to register a significant numerical improvement using this rating system, since the course had such high ratings during previous semesters.) The on-campus students remarked that they were fortunate to be able to interact and share with other students throughout the state who had diverse backgrounds and ideas.

Technological breakdowns seemed to be more accepted by the students than the instructors; the students did not seem to mind them unless they were repeated week after week. Several students were concerned about the lack of spontaneity in the classroom discussions in the interactive video courses created by the lag time of a few seconds as the signal is relayed among the sites. Other students thought that the benefits of the interchanges outweighed the lag time. One student voiced concern that not all students may have ready access to computers for these special classes. This is an issue for a graduate program in which students generally live at home and may travel more than an hour to the campus. In effect, all the students are given access to computers on the SFSU campus, including e-mail and Internet access. For those who commute a long distance and work full time, however, it is not practical to come to the campus to complete assignments. On the other hand, no on-campus or distance student in the program expressed difficulty gaining access to computers.

General considerations in establishing distance programs

A great deal of preparation and flexibility is necessary to establish and run a distance education program. Doing so may entail locating, establishing, and preparing the distance sites; making certain that the distance sites have adequate technical assistance and are up and running each week; having needed technical support at the broadcast site; completing course materials in advance; adapting assignments and lecture styles to fit alternative delivery modes; and providing backup strategies for technological failures. Although the use of existing resources has reduced programmatic expenses substantially, some supplementary money is needed to cover the cost of additional technical support; to compensate instructors for the additional time they must devote to preparing and grading assignments; and to purchase some materials to support instruction, such as videotapes to back up system failures. Because of these caveats, it is necessary to ask several overriding questions when one considers developing such a program:

  • Will the program reach more people who could otherwise not receive instruction?
  • Will the students reap benefits from the classes that overshadow the effects of any technical difficulties or shortcomings in the course-delivery mode?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in using the alternatives selected?

Conclusion

SFSU has implemented a year-round program to train teachers of students with visual impairments that requires little additional funding and serves the needs of students throughout the state to meet the severe shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments in California. To deliver course content effectively, alternative formats are used, including interactive video, web-based instruction, and summer intensive sessions. These methods provide direct support and guidance to the students and maintain the program's high standards.

The use of technology for instruction is in its infancy. Every form of technology has its strengths and weaknesses. With the inclusion of technology, course delivery truly becomes a team process because it takes so many people to make it work. The students must not only accept the often frustrating process, they must reap benefits from it as well. The instructors must make adjustments to the way they prepare for and deliver the courses. Technology experts must be available for troubleshooting and support. Systems administrators must be available to help with computer-assisted components. University administrators must be available to set up service delivery procedures in this new and expanding territory. And first and foremost, to withstand the vicissitudes associated with the emerging applications of the distributed use of technology, course content must be solid, substantial, and clear.

References

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Chisholm, W., Vanderheiden, G., and Jacobs, I. (1999). Web content accessibility guidelines 1.0. W3C Recommendation 5 May 1999 [Online]. Available: http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505

Cooper, G. (1999). University of Oregon teaching effectiveness program: Teaching with technology [Online]. Available: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~tep/technology/index.html

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Mason, C., Davidson, R., and McNerney, C. (2000). National plan for training personnel to serve children with blindness and low vision. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

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Merriam, S. B., and Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Palloff, R. M., and Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rubenstein, I. (1999). The 3Ps of online teaching: Pedagogy, planning, and pointers. CELT Letter, 1(1), 5-7.

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Amanda Hall Lueck, Ph.D., associate professor and coordinator, Program in Visual Impairment, Department of Special Education, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132; e-mail: amandaL@sfsu.edu.

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