Preparation of Teachers of Visually Impaired Students via Distance Education: Perceptions of Teachers
This study examined the perceptions of 12 students or graduates of a distance education training program in teaching students with visual impairments. Participants in the study discussed their experiences with courses delivered via interactive video, over the Internet, and by live instructors.
In recent years, distance education delivery systems have been used to prepare teachers in the field of visual impairment (blindness and low vision). The implementation of such programs has stemmed from two factors: the shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments (Head and Bishop, 1992) and the limited accessibility of preparation programs for these teachers. Distance education includes such instructional approaches as outreach or extension courses offered by universities in off-campus settings, videotaped or interactive video lectures, and use of the Internet (Corn and Erin, 1996; Head and Bishop, 1992; Silberman, Corn, and Sowell, 1996; Visually Impaired Preparation Program, 1998).
Although distance education programs have become an important means of training new teachers of students with visual impairments, little research has been conducted to evaluate these programs. The purpose of the study presented here was to examine the perspectives of individuals who were trained in these programs in Texas.
The 12 participants selected for this study had either completed their training program or were still taking courses via a distance education program to obtain certification to teach students with visual impairments. An effort was made to find a sample that was diverse in age, race, teaching background, and experience. The participants ranged from teachers with several years of experience teaching students with visual impairments to those who had completed only six hours of course work. All were certified teachers with experience in another field prior to training.
The data were gathered primarily by telephone because of the widely dispersed geographic locations of the participants and the convenience of telephone conferencing. The interview questions were unstructured and open ended. The data were analyzed using the constant comparative method developed by Glaser (1978) and outlined by Bogdan and Biklen (1998) and an inductive analytic approach (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, and Allen, 1993). The computer software program QSR NvivoData (Richards and Richards, 1999) was used to facilitate the analysis.
The quality of instruction and use of technology emerged as dominant themes of the participants' perceptions. Discussions of the classroom learning experience included participants' reflections on instruction delivered over interactive video lines and the Internet and in classes with live instructors that met at off-campus locations. Specifically, the advantages and disadvantages of using interactive video, courses offered via the Internet, and e-mail were discussed.
Ten of the 12 participants had received some or all their training from the Visually Impaired Preparation Program (VIP Program), a set of courses taught primarily via interactive video. They told of technical problems that interfered with the delivery of course content. They also cited other problems they experienced with the instructional technology: difficulty paying attention in class, distractions of other class members, student presentations that were too distant from the camera and lengthy, and difficulty understanding the instructor's expectations for assignments. In spite of these problems, the participants recognized that interactive video was a viable method of training a large number of new teachers of students with visual impairments for certification statewide. Those who knew of the critical need for additional personnel in their field expressed support for interactive video as an instructional medium.
Internet courses and supporting web sites
Some courses were offered only over the Internet in the VIP Program; others were taught in an interactive video format one time and as an Internet course another time. The participants discussed the following problems with the Internet courses: the lack of contact with the instructor, amount and length of assignments, difficulty maintaining progress in self-paced learning, dislike of working in isolation, and difficulty relating textbook descriptions to classroom experience. Marla's description of her experience with the Internet courses was representative:
We picked our projects and then we wrote a contract with the professor via the Internet on what projects we'd do . But it was really, really difficult because we truly had no contact with the professor.
The participants also cited technical difficulties with the supporting web site and e-mail of supplemental materials. Some information was saved in formats that they could not access, so that they often had to obtain help from spouses or others outside the program. Lyla, who was blind, had considerable difficulty with online readings containing Adobe Acrobat files:
For instance on the things that I had to scan, they were on the computer, but they were not scanned into the computer as text; they were scanned in as pictures . I had to print it out because I didn't know what was on the pages. I had to print the pages out [and] then scan it back in and then let the scanner read whereas if it had been scanned in as text, then I could have just read it off the screen.
The participants who praised the Internet courses typically cited the convenience of self-paced instruction as an advantage. Some participants who took courses over the Internet said they appreciated being able to do the long hours of braille practice at home, not having to sit through class meetings, having instructors who used the medium well, and not having to travel to take a course.
Communication with the instructor
There was considerable discussion by the participants about the difficulty of communicating with the instructor and gaining access to information related to the course. Those who had live instruction cited the ease of communication as an advantage. Barriers to communication that distance learning presented and the instructors' failure to respond to e-mail messages or to give feedback on assignments were cited time and again by the participants as sources of frustration, confusion, and concern. The participants told of such experiences as not knowing when classes would meet, feeling intimidated by the camera, and not having adequate time to ask questions.
Advantages of distance learning
In spite of the challenges, most of the participants said that distance learning was convenient and accessible, and many stated that they would not have been able to earn certification without the distance learning program. Some of the benefits that the participants mentioned were geographic accessibility, convenience, networking with others in the field, the enthusiasm for the new field of visual impairment expressed by their classmates and instructors, and the high quality of instruction as the programs' strengths. Several participants recognized that having access to a variety of instructors from different universities was another significant strength.
Conclusions and recommendations
This study was limited by the number of participants and the use of telephone instead of face-to-face interviews. In addition, although the data represented the participants' perceptions of the distance education program in which they participated, their perceptions may not be an accurate reflection of the components and conditions of the training program.
The findings indicate that the participants had a strong preference for interaction and communication with the instructor and other students. Although the quality of some of the courses was not always satisfactory to some participants, they expressed an overall satisfaction with the program. In most cases, the geographic accessibility of the courses provided by the distance education programs outweighed any negative aspects.
The participants' perceptions of the Internet courses confirmed Kowch and Schwier's (1997) critique of distance education. The participants stated that web-based courses too often imitate print-based correspondence courses and consist of lists of assignments that direct students to read material and extract information, instead of challenging students to construct their own understanding. Their descriptions suggest that the full multimedia, interactive nature of the Internet was not used by the VIP Program.
The participants' critiques of their experiences with distance education indicate there are critical elements that should be included in distance education teacher preparation programs. First, opportunities for communication, interaction, and support between the students and instructors should be provided. For example, the role of the instructor should be redefined as a facilitator, coach, organizer, and manager. Therefore, instructors should organize activities and projects to promote problem solving, critical thinking, human relations, and learning how to learn and build in time to communicate with students.
Second, to achieve better communication and interaction, the program should include a program facilitator who helps the instructors construct interactive learning communities, listens to and addresses complaints, answers questions from the students about the course content, provides assistance with technology problems, and follows the progress of the quality of instruction from course to course. Finally, distance education can be a viable method for preparing teachers; however, it should not be assumed that such programs duplicate the educational experience that traditional preparation programs offer.
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Holly Cooper, Ph.D., assistive technology outreach teacher, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 1100 West 45th Street, Austin, TX 78756-3494; e-mail: email@example.com. Charlotte Hendrick Keefe, Ed.D., professor, Department of Early Childhood and Special Education, Texas Woman's University, P.O. Box 425769, Denton, TX 76204-5769; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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