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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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Online Instruction in Braille Code Skills for Preservice Teachers

Abstract: This article presents the results of an evaluation of a web-based course in braille code skills for preservice teachers of students with visual impairments. The findings revealed that the online course offered a high-quality, rigorous approach to delivering instruction in braille code skills when students had appropriate technology skills and equipment and were independent, persistent learners.

The first author, JVIB editor in chief, did not participate in any way in the peer review of this article.

Many institutions of higher learning, from prestigious private universities to community colleges, are turning to Internet-based distance education to broaden the services they offer: 'Public-college ventures in distance learning are usually designed to extend education to regions where opportunities are limited, and involve courses that can count toward an associate's or bachelor's as well as a master's degree' (Blumenstyk, 1997, p. A23). Thirteen western states have banded together to create a 'virtual university' that was designed 'to give more students greater access to higher education through technology' (Hansen and Lombardo, 1997, p. 69). Online instruction has a similar potential for delivering specialized courses to those who are preparing to be teachers of students with visual impairments, which is the focus of this article.

Background

Despite the growing popularity of online instruction, relatively little is known about its effectiveness. Only a few studies have investigated the outcomes of online instruction in a way that allows a comparison with traditional classroom instruction. In one study, a sociology professor at California State University at Northridge randomly divided students in an undergraduate statistics class into two groups (McCollum, 1997). One group received traditional classroom instruction, while the other participated in an online version. In the online course, the students completed assignments on a web site, took part in Internet chat- room discussions, and posted comments to an online bulletin board; they took their midterm and final examinations in the professor's office. The scores of the online students averaged 20% higher than those of the students in the traditional class. However, this higher performance may have been influenced by factors other than the Internet delivery. For example, all students in this class were enrolled on-campus, and those in the Internet model 'formed their own study groups to compensate for their lack of face-to-face contact with a professor' (McCollum, 1997, p. A23). Participation in these groups may have enhanced performance.

Navarro and Shoemaker (2000) compared the performance of two groups of undergraduate students in an introductory economics course: 49 who took the class online and 151 who took the class in the traditional format. For the online students, 'class lectures were provided on CD-ROM, an electronic testing center was used to administer weekly online quizzes, a threaded electronic bulletin board was used for asynchronous class discussions, an online discussion room was available for synchronous discussions, and students had twenty-four-hour e-mail access to the instructor' (Navarro and Shoemaker, 2000, p. 21). On the final, 15-question examination, the mean score of the online students (11.3) was significantly higher than that of the students in the traditional course (9.8).

Courses presented over the Internet are not without problems. Students in online Health and Community Studies courses offered by Grant MacEwan Community College (GMCC) in Canada identified the following problems: 'difficulty keeping sections of the course they had printed out in order; frustration with cumbersome navigation through the course structure; frustration with links to Web sites that didn't work; difficulty finding appropriate information due to the large amount of information available on the Web; and needing clarification from the instructor about assignment or activity directions' (White, 2000, pp. 67-68). The GMCC faculty reported generally positive responses to e-mail communication with students, especially noting its usefulness in providing immediate feedback. However, the immediacy of the feedback 'also raised student expectations of instructor availability' (White, 2000, p. 68), suggesting that some students came to expect an immediate response from the instructor at any time.

Rudenstine (1997, p. A48), stated that 'on many campuses [Internet instruction] is having an impact more dynamic and pervasive than that of any previous breakthrough in information technology.' Although many questions about the effectiveness of delivering instruction via the Internet remain unanswered, it is clear that this approach to distance education fills a need for many nontraditional students who cannot attend classes on a university campus. Spooner (1999, p. 99) wrote this cautionary note: 'The promise of using technology is vast; it is also not without its pitfalls. It is up to us to use technology and use it wisely!'

Online instruction has great potential for reducing the severe shortage of specialized personnel in visual impairment. The Council on Exceptional Children (2000) provided ample documentation of this shortage and suggested that problems related to low student enrollments and geographic constraints contributed to it. Online instruction is a means of offering courses to students in any geographic location and of addressing the problem of low on-campus enrollments. Although the technology exists to offer specialized course work online, personnel in higher education need to systematically evaluate online courses and the viability of online instruction for specific elements of course work and make continual improvements in such courses.

An online course in braille code skills was developed through a grant from the Texas Education Agency and with collaboration among Texas Tech University (TTU), Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU), Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and regional educational programs in Texas. The course is being further refined through a grant to SFASU (with a subcontract to TTU) from the Fund for Improvement in Postsecondary Education. This article presents a comprehensive evaluation of the first two online courses that were taught by TTU as part of this project. A description of the online braille course is presented first, followed by the results of telephone interviews with 20 students. The authors were interested in determining the students' reactions to the web-based format and whether they were successful in developing high-quality braille code skills. The findings provided the basis for further improvements in the course.

Design of the course

The goal in designing the course was to yield a distance-delivered option for studying the braille code that would provide high-quality, meaningful learning experiences with efficient, understandable feedback on class work. A decision was made at the outset that the high standards already established for traditional classes would be the same standards used in the online class. Another goal was to design the course for asynchronous delivery, so students could study and complete assignments whenever they chose, rather than being tied to a specific class time. The reader should note that the online course focused only on mastery of the braille code, as does the traditional course. At TTU, the unit on teaching literacy skills in braille is included in an academic methods course that students take after the braille code course.

Web-based delivery

The course was designed for independent study completed primarily online through the World Wide Web with feedback provided through e-mail messages and e-mail attachments. The course homepage contained information on preparing for the course, a course outline and schedule, study guides, reading exercises, chapter quizzes, a bulletin board, and links. The study guide for each of 14 learning units provided details for students to follow in completing required and recommended assignments and in taking the chapter quizzes, along with the specific information to submit to the instructor for each unit. Although the students had the flexibility to work at their own pace, they were encouraged to maintain a regular schedule throughout the course.

Learning activities

The learning activities in the online course paralleled those in the traditional course as closely as possible. Care was taken to ensure high levels of integrity and rigor in both unit assignments and testing procedures. The learning experiences included a variety of writing experiences, as well as reading exercises.

Writing exercises.

The students completed writing assignments from the course textbook, New Programmed Instruction in Braille (NPIB) (Ashcroft, Henderson, Sanford, and Koenig, 1994). These exercises were completed electronically using a software program (available for Macintosh and Windows) called Perky Duck, a freeware program developed by Duxbury Systems as a stripped-down version of its braille translation software that can be downloaded free of charge from the Duxbury Systems web site (www.duxburysystems.com). All input is accomplished by using six keys from a standard keyboard (s, d, f, j, k, l), and text is presented on the computer screen in facsimile braille. Output is generated on an inkprint printer or braille embosser. Perky Duck offers no translation or formatting capabilities (other than insert mode and word-wrap features) and thus closely emulates the Perkins Brailler.

Using Perky Duck, the students completed multiple repetitions of exercises from NPIB as specified in the course web site. These repetitions were required as a way to ensure that the students had practiced sufficiently before taking a chapter quiz. The students submitted their writing assignments by e-mail attachments to the instructor for grading.

Since the transferability of skills from Perky Duck to the Perkins Brailler could not be presumed, the students regularly practiced writing with the Perkins Brailler and completed writing assignments using the brailler throughout the course. They also completed five assignments in hard-copy form and sent them to the instructor by regular mail to be graded. (The same concern may exist for the transferability of Perky Duck skills to electronic note takers. At Texas Tech, students receive exposure to using electronic note-taking devices in the academic methods course.)

One unit and several assignments focused on use of the slate and stylus. The students were given a braille slate and paper and were lent a copy of the videotape Teaching the Braille Slate and Stylus (Mangold, 1994). The videotape provided an overview of the slate and strategies for writing. The students sent their assignments to the instructor via regular mail to be graded.

In addition, the students completed assignments related to the Nemeth Code using Perky Duck. These assignments required them to memorize the basic elements of the code (including basic indicators, numerals, computation formats, fractions and mixed numbers, and abbreviations). This unit also gave the students an opportunity to practice using sections of The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation (American Printing House for the Blind, 1973) to transcribe mathematical expressions to which they had no prior exposure. This exercise was intended to reflect the process typically used by teachers to transcribe mathematics materials with unknown signs.

Finally, the students completed exercises related to basic braille formats, such as inkprint and braille page numbers, headings, poetry, directions, tables, and charts. They used instructional materials and other format references to complete these exercises; that is, they were not required to commit the various formatting techniques to memory. To ensure appropriate mastery of the Perkins Brailler, the instructor required the students to complete the format exercises in hard-copy form and to send them to the instructor via regular mail.

Reading exercises.

For each unit in the textbook, the students completed a reading exercise that encouraged critical reading and proofreading of braille sentences. In these exercises, the students were given a sentence in print and four versions of the sentence in facsimile braille. Of the four braille versions, three had one or more errors and the remaining version was correct. The students were instructed to read the sentences and select the one that was correct. A sample reading exercise is shown in Figure 1.

The reading exercises were placed on the web site. The students were encouraged to print a hard copy of the exercises to allow them to mark errors and to find the correct version. Then they 'marked' their answers on the web-based form by clicking on radial buttons, which are programmed to execute a command or set of commands specified by the designer of the web page. In the online braille course, the answers were sent to the instructor via e-mail when the students pressed the Submit button.

Testing

The students completed a closed-book, cumulative quiz after each unit using Perky Duck and submitted it via an e-mail attachment. All the quizzes were taken on the honor system (that is, the students agreed not to use any references).

Each student completed the midterm and final examinations with a standard Perkins Brailler and slate and stylus under the supervision of a proctor, who was selected in advance by the student and approved by the instructor. This individual had to be someone in a supervisory capacity (such as a special education director or school principal) and could not be a friend, family member, or fellow teacher. The instructor sent the examinations to the proctor via regular mail in advance of the time needed by the student, along with instructions for administration. The proctor agreed to supervise the examinations and to return them to the instructor afterward in a preaddressed, stamped envelope.

The integrity of the testing process is always a concern in online courses. That is, instructors may be unsure of whether students actually completed the activities themselves and under the specified conditions. Assignments, quizzes, and examinations were balanced so that two thirds of the points were generated on assignments and quizzes that were under the direct control of the students and the other third for the midterm and final examinations. With this arrangement, the students had to have mastered the braille code to complete the proctored examinations. In other words, they had to do well on both supervised and unsupervised course activities to receive a high grade in the course.

Feedback

Throughout the course, the goal was to provide the students with timely and helpful feedback. Almost all feedback was given via e-mail messages, although occasionally feedback was provided by phone.

In the first course, all feedback was contained within the body of e-mail messages. A listing of errors, feedback on or clarification of rules, the grade for the exercise, and other comments from the instructor were written in narrative form. This was a cumbersome system, both for the instructor and, undoubtedly, for the student, so various options were considered and implemented before the second course.

In the second course, the Adobe Acrobat software program (the full version) was used to provide feedback on assignments submitted as electronic files. A PDF (portable document format) version of the exercise was created by the instructor. Then the 'notes' and 'highlight' features were used to post electronic messages on a student's original file, as shown in Figure 2. In Adobe Acrobat, the notes feature places a small icon resembling a sticky note anywhere on the page; a window opens, allowing the instructor to write a general message. When a word is highlighted, a text window opens to allow the instructor to comment on a specific word or error. With this approach, the student's original work was preserved and was not altered in any way. The PDF file containing feedback was sent to the student via an e-mail attachment. The student then opened the file in Acrobat Reader, a freeware program from Adobe that allows any PDF file to be opened and read (though not altered). After opening the file, the student double-clicked on the highlighted words or note icon to open the messages from the instructor. This approach allowed the student to have general feedback, as well as feedback on specific words or errors, thereby offering a valuable learning experience.

Comparison with a traditional course

While the overall structure of the online course matches that of the traditional (in-person) course, there are some differences. First, the students in the online course are required to submit multiple repetitions of exercises from the textbook, whereas the students in the traditional course do not. This practice may benefit the online students, since more practice is probably completed prior to the chapter quiz. Second, the online students take a midterm examination, but the traditional students do not. This examination ensures that the online students are able to demonstrate steadily developing braille proficiency skills on the Perkins Brailler without the need for references and while under the supervision of a proctor.

Third, the online students do not have the benefit of round-robin reading from tactile braille, whereas the traditional students do. Although the online students are encouraged to read regularly from the NPIB Companion Reader, the extent to which they do so is not known. The online students complete reading activities in facsimile braille (as described earlier), but one should not assume that this kind of activity generalizes to reading tactile braille. Fourth, traditional students receive immediate feedback as they practice in the classroom, while online students do not have the same advantage. However, feedback on homework assignments that are submitted by e-mail attachments may be given faster for online students than for traditional students who must wait for the next in-class session.

Method

Participants

Potential participants included all 25 students from the first two online braille courses taught by TTU-16 who were initially enrolled in a summer 6-week class and 9 who were initially enrolled in a spring 16-week class. Attempts were made to contact all former students, including those who had completed the course, those who were still taking the course, and those who had dropped the course. All the students had bachelor's degrees and held basic teaching certificates. Most were Texas residents and were employed by the local school systems as general or special educators.

Procedures

Telephone interviews were conducted with 20 of the 25 potential participants. The questions addressed three primary areas:

  • - technological factors (for example, 'When the course began, did you have the appropriate technological equipment to permit you to concentrate on the course content, rather than on technological matters?'),
  • course-design factors (such as, 'What was your reaction to submitting assignments by e-mail attachment?'), and
  • - learner factors (like, 'What personal qualities do you feel contributed to your own success or difficulty in completing a braille class using this format?').

The interviews were conducted by a research assistant who assisted the instructor in both courses. Confidentiality was ensured by the use of a numeric code, rather than participants' names, on the interview protocols, which also helped to ensure honest answers.

Results

Of the 20 students who were interviewed by telephone, 13 were from the first class and 7 were from the second. Fourteen participants had completed the course, and 6 had dropped the course (3 from the first and 3 from the second course). Although 20 students were interviewed, answers were not collected from every student on every question. For example, the 6 students who did not complete the course were not asked about their performance on the state-required braille competence examination. The following are the findings from the interviews.

Technological factors

Online suitability.

Of the 20 participants, 17 thought that the Internet, in general, provided an effective teaching and learning environment for the braille course. The 3 participants who did not think so cited technological problems, the loss of motivation because of the lack of personal contact, and the lack of a demonstration of the use of the Perkins Brailler as reasons for their dissatisfaction. In addition, 19 participants thought that the specific content of this course, braille, was appropriate for online delivery; the student who did not think so cited the 'lack of hands-on, personal contact' as a problem.

Technological equipment.

At the time the course began, 11 participants had the appropriate technological equipment (a computer and method of Internet access), and 9 experienced technological problems of some sort. Three participants (15 percent) had to replace their keyboards to use Perky Duck, 2 suffered general computer failure, 2 had modem failures, 1 had problems with Internet service, and 1 had problems 'getting the Perky Duck software to work.' Of the 6 participants who did not complete the course, 4 were strongly influenced by technological problems. One student commented, 'This was part of the reason I dropped the class. A week into class my modem died. I tried to use other people's computers, but it was way too much trouble.' Another commented, 'My computer failed within the first week.'

Technology skills.

At the time the course began, only 6 of the 20 participants had the necessary technological skills, including naming and saving files, managing e-mail, and sending attachments. Of the 14 who lacked such skills, 8 did not know how to send attachments, and 6 were not specific about the skills that they lacked, saying, for example, 'I had to learn quite a lot.' However, once initial learning was accomplished, 16 participants liked submitting assignments by e-mail. Typical comments included 'Easy,' 'Great,' and 'I liked it because I could submit work as soon as I was done, so it got graded more quickly.' Of the 6 participants who did not complete the course, only 1 reported having significant problems with technological skills. This student commented, 'I learned how to do e-mail. This was the first time I had needed it. I didn't know how to do attachments, and I had trouble installing Perky Duck.'

Course-design factors

Web-site organization.

Sixteen participants had positive reactions to the organization of information on the web site, with comments ranging from 'Easy to follow' to 'Perfect.' Two participants gave mixed responses, such as, 'Good, but I would get lost moving around the web site' and 'It would have been great if the technology had worked for me' (from a participant who had no Internet access at home). One student found the directions confusing.

Communication and feedback.

Only positive responses were given to the accessibility of the instructor. Typical comments included, 'I could always get in touch when I needed to'; 'Excellent. He was really good about being there when he said he would be'; 'When he was gone, he would give his home number'; 'Very prompt replies by e-mail'; and 'Very impressed.'

Of the 20 participants, 15 preferred to communicate with the instructor by e-mail, rather than by telephone, citing the convenience of e-mail and the fact that their schedules did not have to coincide with the instructor's to communicate. Of the remaining 5 participants, 2 preferred using the telephone, 2 liked both methods equally well, and 1 dropped the course before communicating with the instructor enough to form a preference.

The participants were asked to describe their reactions to the method of feedback used in their course. Of the 17 participants who responded to this question, 3 in the spring class described problems with the use of attached files, such as, 'I could never access them all. I could read the note at the top, but I could not open the annotations on the highlighted words' and 'I had trouble opening it. I had to get a decoder, then I was OK. You had some problems opening the files I sent, too.'

Few other participants reacted to the method of feedback, responding instead to the feedback itself. Of the 14 participants who reacted to the content of the feedback, 13 responded positively, saying, 'He was so encouraging!' 'I appreciated his support. He encouraged me to slow down and take my time. It made a world of difference'; 'The best thing about it was it was immediate. He would usually reply the same day I sent it in'; 'I loved the way he explained every single error so I could understand it'; and 'I would print them out so I could refer to them later. It was really helpful.' One student's response was neutral: 'I just knew I had made the errors.'

Most of the participants (18) seemed to appreciate the provision of mailing materials for submitting hard-copy braille for grading, saying, for example, 'You sent everything-very organized' and 'It was great that all the mailing materials were provided,' and 2 participants gave mixed responses, such as, 'I didn't like it as much as using Perky Duck and e-mail, but I had no problem with it.' There were no negative responses.

Bulletin board.

Of the 19 participants who responded to this question, 9 gave positive responses, saying, 'Excellent'; 'It worked well. I liked introducing ourselves. It felt like chatting with some of the people in class'; and 'Extremely helpful. Everyone used it. I benefited from it a lot.' In addition, 9 participants gave neutral replies, such as, 'Only for introductions; after that, I didn't use it,' and 'When you have a question, you want to go to the instructor. The bulletin board was good for ‘misery loves company' kind of stuff.' Only one negative comment was made: 'Unnecessary.'

Braillewriting options.

With regard to using the Perky Duck software, 15 participants gave positive responses, like 'Neat,' 'Much easier than using the Perkins Brailler,' and 'I loved it-I shared a copy with a friend who was about to take the [braille] ExCET [Examination for Certification of Educators in Texas].' Three participants whose responses were mixed seemed to like Perky Duck, but had problems using it. Two of them had difficulty seeing the small dots on their computer monitors or when files were printed, and pressing computer keys simultaneously to produce correct braille configurations. Another reported that Perky Duck would crash at times, causing the loss of completed work. The two participants who gave negative replies (and had dropped the course) had difficulty adjusting to using only six keys of their computer keyboards. Their comments included, 'It took me a while to get used to it. I'm used to typing. My fingers wanted to reach for the keys, not stay on those three' and 'Oh, it was foreign! It added a major foreign situation to an already foreign situation.'

The participants' reactions to their experience with the Perkins Brailler were less positive than their reactions to Perky Duck. Two did not proceed far enough in the course to use the braillewriter and were not included in the analysis. Of the remaining 18, 7 gave positive or near-positive responses, such as, 'Easy'; 'It was a necessary component of the course'; and 'I learned a lot from it. I am a kinesthetic learner, and the braillewriter gives more kinesthetic feedback than the computer.' Four participants gave mixed responses, such as 'Good, but I liked doing it on the computer better. You could correct your mistakes easier on the computer,' and 'Interesting, but I needed directions from a teacher of visually impaired children on how to load the paper.' Negative responses were made by 7 participants, including, 'I had trouble with it because I have back and neck problems' and 'I hated that machine! I'd get all the way to the bottom and make an error and have to do it over.'

Assignments.

Reactions to the required repetitions of writing assignments were varied. Eight participants gave positive reactions, of which 'Fine' and 'It helped me to learn it. I think it was necessary' were typical. Another eight participants had mixed feelings, responding with such statements as, 'I understand we need to do them, but I felt it was just too much' and 'Boring! But it's the only way you're going to learn.' Four participants gave negative responses, including 'Horrible. It is way too much to have to do a paragraph five times.'

Of the 20 participants, 16 reacted positively to the reading exercises completed over the Internet. Comments, such as, 'Oh, I loved those. I aced that part of the ExCET. They were like doing puzzles' and 'Fun and challenging,' were typical. One participant observed, 'I liked that part. I'm dyslexic, and I found out I'm dyslexic in braille, too! It helped me to see the reversals and be able to compare them.' Neutral or mixed responses from 2 participants included, 'It was good but hard for me-the dots all ran together.' Two participants gave negative responses, including 'I wasn't very good at that. I think I didn't pay enough attention to them.'

Eleven of the 14 participants who completed the slate-and-stylus component had positive or 'near positive' responses to it. Typical replies included, 'I liked that! One of my coworkers couldn't believe it, but I liked it'; 'It's not as easy as it looks, but I liked it. It was useful to me'; and 'The [Mangold] video was very helpful. I'm using that approach with my students now. One is multihandicapped, and he can do it this way.' One participant said, 'I've gotten better. I think I'm dyslexic on the slate!' Three participants gave neutral or mixed responses, such as, 'I didn't like it, but the assignments were pertinent to the way we'll use a slate. It wasn't overkill.'

The Nemeth Code exercises found only limited support among the 14 participants who completed this unit. There were two positive responses, including 'I'm a math teacher, so I thought it was great. I would have liked more.' Neutral or mixed responses came from 7 participants, who acknowledged the difficulties of the code but also the necessity of learning it. Typical of these responses were, 'Challenging' and 'You have to be exposed to it. If you have a student who needs it.' Another student commented, 'It was hard, but it was necessary. Maybe even more than some other sections because we don't have computer programs that do Nemeth.' Negative responses came from 5 participants whose replies included, 'That was confusing. It covered too much too fast' and 'Hard! It takes practice and lots of use to learn that!'

Of the 14 participants who had reached the format lesson at the time of the interviews, 6 had positive reactions, including 'I could have spent more time on that. It was fun for me, especially the Spanish,' and 'That was good experience. After all, that's what teachers do. I liked doing the things that were what we would do in the classroom.' Five participants had mixed reactions, such as 'It was hard but necessary. Useful,' and 'By that time, I could have skipped that. But it was interesting. I liked the Spanish, just doing the letters instead of contractions. But my fingers kept writing contractions!' Negative reactions from 3 participants included 'It was a little confusing. It was different from what we'd been doing.'

Examination procedures.

Fourteen participants who had completed both the midterm and final examinations were asked to react to the examination process. Five focused on both positive and negative aspects of the requirement for a proctor, with such observations as these: 'All right. I don't see any other way they could do it. The ‘Honor System,' well '; 'I wonder if the proctor was necessary. You're on your honor anyway'; and 'The only problem was it had to be a specific proctor, not someone as convenient as a family member. I had to travel 30 miles to get to mine.' One participant noted that the setting could be a problem: 'I did not have a quiet setting. Phones were ringing, and we were often interrupted.' This student and one other mentioned time limits, saying, 'I liked the tests not being time limited' and 'I was worried about running out of time. I wish you would just allow as much time as is needed, even all day, but include a break.' (The tests were not timed.) Finally, 7 participants gave more general responses, like 'Fine,' 'It worked out well for me. It was a good plan,' and 'Very convenient.'

Learner factors

Reasons for taking the online course.

The participants' reasons for taking braille over the Internet fell into four basic categories, with several participants mentioning multiple reasons. Nine participants took the online class because family or job responsibilities made it impossible for them to attend class on a university campus. Ten participants took the course because, as far as they knew, no other kind of braille class was available at the time that they needed it. Four participants mentioned the convenience of not having to drive long distances to a university campus to attend class. Three participants preferred the convenience of doing the work on their own schedule rather than having to meet a class schedule. All the participants said that the online presentation met the need or preference that they identified and that they would take another online course.

Continuing use of braille.

Of the 14 participants who completed the course, eight reported that they were using braille regularly. Their comments included, 'My child is visually impaired, and she needs notes in her lunch box, too!' 'I now have two students I am teaching braille to, and they are doing just wonderful'; and 'I'm trying to incorporate braille in my O and M lessons now. We just did a scavenger hunt with braille notes.' Six were not using braille regularly. Their responses included, 'No, I'm still waiting for a braille student' and 'I'm looking at a new job where I would [have one].'

The six participants who completed the course but were not using braille regularly at the time of the interviews and the six who began but did not complete the course were asked whether they had some way to practice braille to maintain their skills. Nine described a method by which they could continue to practice the braille that they had learned, giving such responses as, 'I'm going to practice before the ExCET using Perky Duck' and 'My regional service center has loaned me a brailler so I can practice on it.'

Personal characteristics.

All the participants were asked to describe personal characteristics that influenced their performance in the course. A number of positive characteristics were listed, including the determination to succeed or to 'stay on top' (eight participants); the ability to work independently (three participants); being a perfectionist (three participants); and finding pleasure in exploration and learning, including braille (two participants). Characteristics that hampered success in the class included the lack of self-discipline and the inability to pace oneself through the course (five participants), other demands on their time (three participants), and problems with technology (four participants). One student was influenced by dyslexia, but successfully completed the course and passed the ExCET examination.

Of the six participants who did not complete the course, contributing factors included technological problems (four participants), other demands on their time that made completing course work impossible (two participants), simply 'falling too far behind,' and a family move from Texas. All six participants who completed the online braille course and attempted the state-required braille ExCET examination passed the examination. They all confirmed that 'the course was tailored in such a way as to prepare me for the ExCET exam.' Seven more participants have completed the course and have not taken the ExCET but plan to do so. One participant who completed the course was not a Texas resident and had no need to take the ExCET.

Future directions

On the basis of the evaluation of the first two online braille classes, a number of improvements in the course are being considered:

  1. A preassessment activity is being developed to ensure that each student has an appropriate computer system and basic Internet skills, such as receiving and sending e-mail; sending, receiving, and downloading e-mail attachments; and navigating the web.
  2. A short video, perhaps using streaming video on the web, is being considered to demonstrate the procedures for using the Perkins Brailler, especially inserting paper.
  3. Further investigations will be conducted to determine the specific problems that some students experience with opening PDF files and reading the notes that the instructor has attached. After such problems are identified clearly, changes will be implemented to ensure that all students can open all PDF attachments.
  4. More direct contact will be made with proctors to ensure that the students have a quiet, distraction-free environment in which to take the midterm and final examinations.
  5. Emphasis will be placed on generating more discussion on the bulletin board as a way to increase students' participation in the course.
  6. Additional activities and assignments will be included for using the Perkins Brailler to ensure that the students feel comfortable and competent in and positive about its use.

Discussion

The experiences of and feedback from the participants supported the value and effectiveness of offering a braille code course online via the web. Several key characteristics appeared to be significant in a successful experience in the course: appropriate and readily available technology, existing or readily learned technological and Internet skills, independence, and self-motivation. The participants who had all these characteristics tended to be successful in the course and to acquire high-quality braille skills. However, those who did not have one or more of these characteristics generally experienced increased levels of frustration. These participants tended to focus on technological or self-motivation challenges, rather than on study of the braille code. One may speculate that the participants' initial experiences in learning the braille code help to shape their attitudes toward braille. Future research should explore factors that influence attitudes toward braille and how online instruction affects this process.

Recognizing that an online course is not the most appropriate option for all students, the authors believe that it is advisable for university programs to provide multiple options for gaining essential braille-code skills. For students who are motivated and independent learners but who do not have appropriate technological skills or equipment, perhaps a traditional correspondence course (that is, completing assignments independently and submitting work and tests via regular mail) would be a better option. But universities may also need to consider offering on-campus or traditional classroom courses periodically, perhaps during the summer, as an alternative to online braille courses. Also, offering courses via interactive television would provide an option for other distance-education students who need the structure of regular meeting times with the instructor and classmates.

Those involved with the online braille course thought that it was highly successful. However, university faculty members are cautioned against assuming that similar levels of success are automatically possible with other types of course content. The skill of using braille is one that matches well with online instruction. However, the methods for teaching braille literacy skills may or may not be an appropriate or the best match for online instruction. Universities need to proceed systematically and thoughtfully in moving to online instruction for specialized courses in visual impairment, evaluate courses carefully, and plan and implement revisions on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, those who are involved in online instruction should regularly share their experiences with others, so all may benefit from these early experiences.

Although this article has focused on students' perceptions of the online braille course, there are several important perspectives and issues from the instructors of the course. First, the notion that online courses can have high enrollments, thereby alleviating college administrators' concerns about low-enrollment courses, is largely erroneous. Given the nature of the feedback and the ongoing constraints on the instructor's time, smaller enrollments, especially for the braille course, are needed. A reasonable enrollment for braille online courses is in the range of 7 to 10 students.

Second, the instructional method used in online courses is different from traditional instruction, and instructors need to take the time to learn about effective teaching strategies for online courses. In addition, they will probably miss the regular interactions with students, so they must take time to adjust to a dramatically different kind of teaching.

Third, online instruction is extremely demanding. While traditional instruction is centered on class meeting times and is preceded by planning and grading time, online instruction is an ongoing event throughout the day. When a student's work is received, the online instructor may naturally choose to disrupt whatever he or she is doing to respond to the student, thereby fragmenting his or her efforts throughout the day. Giving online students an idea of when they can expect to receive feedback (such as in the morning or just after lunch) may help an instructor manage his or her time and provide a greater sense of control for the students.

Findings of the evaluation of this online braille course yielded mostly positive reviews from students and identified a number of areas in which the course could be improved. Students who had appropriate technology equipment and existing technology skills and who were independent and self-motivated learners tended to view their online experiences positively and generally developed solid braille skills. Students who lacked one or more of these characteristics had less positive experiences. Online instruction offers a valuable tool for universities in reaching a wide number of students who wish to become specialists in visual impairment in vast geographic areas, but the effectiveness of online instruction varies with the individual student. Some students will need other options for gaining the essential knowledge and skills needed to become teachers of students with visual impairments.

References

American Printing House for the Blind. (1973). The Nemeth braille code for mathematics and science notation, 1972 revision. Louisville, KY: Author.

Ashcroft, S. C., Henderson, F., Sanford, L. D., and Koenig, A. J. (1994). New programmed instruction in braille (2nd ed.). Germantown, TN: SCALARS.

Blumenstyk, G. (1997). Some elite private universities get serious about distance learning: 'Niche-oriented' programs focus on specialized degrees, professional schools, and international links. Chronicle of Higher Education, 44(41), A23-A24.

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

Hansen, C., and Lombardo, N. (1997). Toward the virtual university: Collaborative development of a web-based course. Research Strategies, 15(2), 68-79.

Mangold, S. (1994). Teaching the braille slate and stylus [Videotape]. Castro Valley, CA: Exceptional Teaching Aids.

McCollum, K. (1997). A professor divides his class in two to test value of on-line instruction. Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(24), A23.

Navarro, P., and Shoemaker, J. (2000). Performance and perceptions of distance learners in cyberspace. American Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 15-35.

Rudenstine, N. L. (1997). The Internet and education: A close fit. Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(24), A48.

Spooner, F. (1999). Oh give me a home where technology roams. Teacher Education and Special Education, 22(2), 97-99.

White, C. (2000). Learn online: Students and faculty respond to online distance courses at Grant MacEwan Community College. T.H.E. Journal, 27(9), 66-70.

Alan J. Koenig, Ed.D., professor of special education, College of Education, Texas Tech University, Box 41071, Lubbock, TX 79409-1071; e-mail: alankoenig@ttu.edu. Margaret C. Robinson, M.Ed., assistant professor, College of Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2801 South University, Little Rock, AR 72204; e-mail: mcrobinson@ualr.edu. Address all correspondence to Dr. Koenig.

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