Distance Education for Master's Students with Visual Impairments: Technology and Support
Master's degree students with visual impairments preferred alternative teleconferencing to the use of real-time Internet for the delivery of distance education courses, although most did not have to learn new assistive technologies to participate in the program. They thought that the program's faculty and staff were more accessible than other university personnel using e-mail and phone and that the program's web site was a good source of general information.
Since 1990, the Rehabilitation Counselor Education (RCE) program, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University, has used a variety of media to offer master's level distance education courses to students in the United States and internationally. During that time, the enrollment of students with visual impairments (those who are blind or have low vision) has grown to almost 10%. Since 1998, RCE has delivered real-time classes over the Internet using chat rooms and media streaming. As an alternative delivery method, teleconferencing is available. RCE students with visual impairments who are enrolled or recently graduated from the program were surveyed. This article describes the results with regard to delivery technologies, the students' use of technologies, students' previous experiences with various technologies, and the types of support used to participate in the program.
Participants and procedures
The participants were six current students and one graduate of the RCE distance program with visual impairments who replied to a general e-mail request for volunteers, identified themselves as being visually impaired, and returned a consent form. They were not compensated for their participation.
The questionnaire that was developed for the survey contained 23 questions that were divided into five categories: demographics, technologies, availability of training, personnel access/support, and information access. (In the Results section, the last two categories are combined.)
Telephone interviews using the questionnaire were conducted by the second author after appointments for 20- to 30-minute interviews were scheduled with the students via e-mail. The interviewer called each student as scheduled and introduced the questionnaire using a semiscripted statement asking if the student was still willing to participate, if this was still a good time to be interviewed, and if the student had any questions about the survey before the interview started. The interviewer then read each question and recorded responses on a questionnaire form and ended by asking if the student had any questions or additional comments. All the data were coded sequentially in the order in which the students were interviewed, without names to protect the students' confidentiality.
Responses were compiled in terms of the percentages of affirmative responses. Comparisons of these percentages with demographic data and the narrative responses to the questions were analyzed. Because of the small number of participants, no statistical analysis was done. The data were treated as group data in which similarities were compared within individual survey questions across respondents and sets of data between survey categories.
The seven students (four men and three women) ranged in age from 27 to 57, with an average age of 45. Three were totally blind, two had optic nerve atrophy (with some vision), and two had retinitis pigmentosa (with shrinking fields of vision and light perception). Subjects reporting 'total blindness' did not indicate a level of light perception, except for one subject who indicated 'no light perception.' The other two subjects indicated the cause of their total blindness: glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa. Two students started the program in spring 1998, one in fall 1999, one in spring 2000, and three in fall 2000. Three students did not matriculate and took limited courses.
The participants had used a variety of devices and technologies when they were undergraduates, including audio recordings of classes, books on tape or recorded texts, braille embossers, braille, large print, magnifying devices, personal readers, screen readers, screen magnifiers, and text readers-scanners. The most frequently used assistive technologies were taped or recorded texts (n = 5) and personal readers (n = 4). Only two students used screen readers and magnifiers.
With regard to access to RCE classes, RCE has used three technologies to deliver distance classes since the students in the survey started the program: teleconferencing, chat rooms with RealAudio, and Rotor (which combines chat room and media streaming over the Internet). Of these technologies, teleconferencing and Rotor were split as the students' current means of accessing the program (three students used teleconferencing only, three used Rotor only, and one used both Rotor and teleconferencing). One student used Rotor at home and teleconferencing when traveling. Four students rated teleconferencing as their preferred means of course delivery, and three chose Rotor.
Five of seven participants had formal training in assistive technologies that were applicable to education. In addition, all seven students stated that they had taught themselves the programs and technologies that they used specifically to participate in RCE classes. All RCE distance students must learn at least one new technology (Rotor) to participate in the real-time Internet classes. Participants varied in their training preferences: formal training (n = 2), or self-teaching (n = 2), or both modalities (n = 3).
Access to and support from personnel
Besides classes, access to other areas of the RCE program was investigated. These areas included access to general information about the RCE program, the RCE faculty and support staff, and other university personnel and offices.
Four participants found the RCE web site to be the most useful source of information about the RCE program, and two thought that faculty-staff communications (such as group e-mails and announcements in class) were useful. All but one student rated access to and the availability of RCE faculty as 'very available'; the other student rated them as 'mostly available.' The most useful means of communicating with faculty, ranked first by four participants and second by three participants, was e-mail. Telephone communication was ranked next by three participants. Ratings and means of communicating with RCE staff were identical to those for communicating with the faculty.
Access to and communication with other university personnel and offices (such as the disability resource center, graduate office, bookstore, financial aid, and libraries) were rated 'very available' by three participants, 'mostly available' by two participants, and 'somewhat available' by two participants. The most useful means of communicating was by telephone-ranked first by five participants and second by two participants. E-mail was ranked first by two participants and second by two participants.
The survey addressed two primary concerns: accessible course technology and the accessibility of RCE faculty, staff, and other university personnel. It appears that the students with visual impairments were not using or may have had difficulty using the most sophisticated course-delivery technology available (Rotor) for real-time class access. Three of the four students with low vision preferred Rotor, and all three students who were blind preferred teleconferencing. One reason for the lack of utilization of Rotor is that it is not accessible using screen-reading software, including the chat rooms. Most of the participants who used Rotor made individual adaptations on their computers, some of which were difficult or expensive. For example, one student used Windows to increase the font size and improve contrast, another used a large (21-inch) monitor, and one who was blind used two computers-one to take notes and one to participate in class using Rotor.
Teleconferencing appears to make students with visual impairments feel more included in the classroom. One participant stated, 'The telephone was [the] best [means of delivering courses]. It leveled the playing field. Everybody was blind on the phone.' Because students' needs vary and all adaptations cannot be anticipated, distance education programs using real-time Internet delivery systems should consider providing an audio-only option to accommodate students who are visually impaired.
Although undergraduate experience with distance education was not specifically addressed in this survey, it appears that most of the participants did not have such experience. The technologies they had used as undergraduates had limited application for gaining access to any distance education program, regardless of the delivery method. Those technologies primarily dealt with out-of-classroom course accessibility (such as recorded texts and personal readers). Only two participants used screen readers and magnifiers, which do have utility for distance education classes. Because the participants were in undergraduate programs at various times, it is likely that distance education was not available or that the technologies now used for distance education did not exist at that time. For example, one participant had to learn basic computer skills, such as the use of Windows and word processing, to participate in the RCE program. This participant probably attended an undergraduate program before the use of computers became widespread. Another reason the participants had to learn new assistive technologies may have been their degenerating vision.
A graduate program, distance education or otherwise, does not simply involve the delivery of courses. Access to program information, faculty, staff, and other university departments and personnel is important. The participants thought that the RCE web site was a useful source of program information, perhaps because of the staff's efforts to make it accessible and usable with screen readers. They also found the RCE personnel to be very accessible primarily through e-mail and secondarily by phone. In contrast, the participants said that other university offices and personnel were not as accessible and that their preferred contact method with these offices was by telephone. It is possible that the participants were not as comfortable with the other offices because they had only occasional contact with them. However, this contrast between perceived availability and mode of communication may be due to the efforts of the RCE program to emphasize faculty-staff accessibility. E-mail may have been a more difficult means of communication for the participants, depending on their degree of vision loss and the computer equipment and e-mail software they used.
An obvious limitation of this survey was the small number of participants. Also, because the survey focused on a specific master's program with a unique system of delivering distance education courses, generalizations about the accessibility of distance education cannot be made. Therefore, information in this report should be viewed as a case example.
Hal M. Cain, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University, 2865 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322-2865; e-mail: email@example.com. Zandria Merrill, M.Ed., project manager, Rehabilitation Counselor Education Program, Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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