One Professor's Perspective: Preparing Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments at a Distance
This article describes the components of the courses and gives examples of activities that one professor used in a program to prepare teachers of children with visual impairments using a combination of live and Internet delivery.
In 1993, a student who lived on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona enrolled in the University of Arizona to become a teacher of visually impaired students. Because the university is located in southern Arizona, she had to live in a large city six hours from her home while completing her degree. Now, students in her community and other locations far from the university can become teachers of visually impaired students by attending five weekend courses during the semester or by taking courses that combine direct contact with the instructor with Internet instruction.
As a faculty member appointed under a federal project for distance education, the author developed Internet courses to provide options for students, without specific guidelines about how to reconfigure courses for Internet delivery, how to facilitate communication between the instructor and students, and how to ensure that students received the same quality of education as on-campus students. This article describes her experiences with distance education as a resource for others who are considering similar models in preparing teachers of visually impaired students.
Three delivery models are being implemented in Arizona. Internet courses are available to 10 students who meet at a Las Vegas (Arizona) site funded by a grant from the federal Office of Special Education Programs; 20 teachers take weekend courses in Phoenix through an Arizona Department of Education project; and about 20 students participate in the on-campus program, attending weekly classes in Tucson. For the Phoenix and on-campus groups, the Internet supplements live meetings, whereas in Las Vegas, the Internet is the primary medium of course delivery. Six courses are offered in all three formats: Introduction to Visual Impairment and Deaf-blindness, Low Vision and Visual Functioning, Orientation and Mobility for Classroom Teachers, Braille 1 (literary), Braille 2 (Nemeth code), and Methods of Teaching Students with Visual Impairment.
Developing the first courses
The first course, which began in January 2000 for the students in Las Vegas, required many hours of development during the previous fall. Introduction to Visual Impairment and Deaf-blindness is an introductory course that meets weekly for 15 weeks (45 hours total) on campus. In the Internet/live meeting combination, it included two weekends of direct instruction, with other content delivered via the Internet. In planning the content, the author first determined what information should be delivered 'live' and what information would lend itself to Internet interpretation. For example, orientation and mobility experiences, such as the human guide and trailing techniques, required direct supervision and demonstration. The history of education in visual impairment could be delivered via the Internet.
To make the materials meaningful to online audiences, the author thought about how her on-campus lectures related to each key point and typed this information in a clear and readable format. She used an authoring program, called Microsoft Front Page, to write the lecture content for the web because it does not require the user to know the HTML code. A clinical professor who is employed by the university to assist faculty in developing online courses met with her two to three times a month for tutoring and problem solving. The Faculty Center for Instructional Innovation provided support in learning the software, assigned a graphic artist to prepare complex diagrams, and assigned a student who was enrolled for credit to work with the author five hours a week at no cost to the program. The author illustrated the lecture content with images, both her own and those used by permission, and found sites on the Internet (such as the National Eye Institute's web site) that had images that could be downloaded and used as long as credit was given.
Since the depth of the course would be enhanced by online discussion, the author selected a program called Web Board, on which the user can post a message that others can read and respond to. For each of the 15 weeks of the course, a 'kickoff' activity was presented, several of which were small-group activities conducted in the on-campus class, to start the discussions. Throughout the week, students could respond to the week's activity and to each other. The author tried to stay out of the discussions because sharing her opinion too early in the week might inhibit the students from expressing their views. The aim was for the students to consider how they would respond to similar issues as teachers of students with visual impairments.
The Web Board was also a vehicle for students to ask questions related to the content of the lectures and readings and to share 'cool' web sites and teaching ideas. In addition, a 'guest of the week,' a professional from the local or national community, joined the class via the Internet. Each guest shared information about professional experiences and beliefs and responded to questions. These online guests added a depth to the course that could not have been gained from one instructor.
Getting the students online
Recruitment information for the Las Vegas-based group stated that to enroll, the participants had to have access to the Internet. Before the first day of class, the students were required to access an Internet site the author developed and to complete an online form to verify that they could use the site.
The University of Arizona purchased WebCT, an Internet-based program that is a course-management tool for university instructors. WebCT has an electronic grade book, online quizzes, a discussion board, and so forth. Although learning to use WebCT can be time intensive, the program's versatility is a true asset. As the faculty at the University of Arizona designed subsequent courses, we continued to develop lectures in Front Page and to be housed on a separate server with a link for students to access these lectures from WebCT. As the course developer, the author assumed the role of adviser, investigator, and technical support assistant to the instructors.
The second Las Vegas-based course, Orientation and Mobility for Classroom Teachers, used the synchronous discussion option of Web Board, the grade book of WebCT, and lectures developed in Front Page. The class met with the instructor for two weekends for the practical content, including mobility techniques and activities of daily living.
The third course, Low Vision and Visual Functioning, was designed for students at a distance, but students in the on-campus section also used the site. This course used WebCT for the grade book, discussions, e-mail, and the class calendar. From the WebCT site, the students were linked to lecture notes in Front Page. This course used online forms in the lecture notes. For example, after reviewing information on conducting a functional vision assessment, each student read a report and went to a form where questions about the report were asked. The student typed in responses and submitted the form to the instructor via the Internet. The instructor reviewed the responses and sent the student feedback.
The fourth Internet course, Braille, was piloted with on-campus students who used WebCT for grades, the class calendar, and discussions. The students completed online braille reading activities that were submitted through an online form. Reading activities developed by Alan J. Koenig at Texas Tech University were included. The students could also link to course lectures. In addition to the materials used by the on-campus students, quizzes on the rules of the braille code will be administered and graded through WebCT. In the future, this course will be delivered to the Las Vegas group via the Internet and during on-site weekends.
Advantages of the combined model
The use of a combined live-Internet model has advantages for both instructors and students. The use of the Internet in the Las Vegas-based course allowed the author to use live meetings for hands-on activities and to expand on the content the students had read about on the Internet or in textbooks. Less lecture time was needed, and the students were more engaged during the meetings. Discussion and e-mail options allowed the students and the author to interact more often than in the weekend model, and the author could send students an e-mail or post a message to the discussion group at her convenience.
Developing Internet materials forced the author to update materials and to consider both the information she needed to convey and how she would go about presenting it. The author evaluated lectures more carefully to determine the students' objectives and assessed the materials she developed to ensure that the students were able to meet the objectives.
Most students in distance education programs are employed full time and have family commitments, so they found use of the Internet convenient and flexible. One student commented, 'I feel like there was no time wasted, and I was in charge of when I was learning.'
Another advantage of the Internet is that it makes it necessary for students to gain technological skills. 'I learned a lot from the course as well as got over my computer fears,' one student noted. The Internet appeals to students who are visual learners or prefer to work independently. One student commented, 'As a visual learner, this is an outstanding learning tool.' Furthermore, with so few programs in the country that prepare professionals in visual impairment, gaining access to a university program is not easy. As one student said, 'It [the course] is a great way for us rural educators to expand into other fields of education.'
Disadvantages of the combined model
There are also disadvantages to using the live-Internet model. The amount of time needed to redesign materials and activities in the semester before the course starts is considerable-10-15 hours per week. Coupled with this investment in time is the commitment needed to investigate and learn to use programs. As the 'in-house expert' on designing Internet courses, the author also spent time helping other instructors design, develop, and maintain their course web sites. Technical problems are inherent in the use of the Internet and were frustrating for the instructors and students.
Another drawback of this model is the cost of developing a high-quality course web site. The program's federal project includes no funding for technical assistance, hardware, software, or training. Although the university has some resources, the author believes that her time would be better spent if she could work more closely with students and spend less time in course-development activities.
Many students commented that a disadvantage of the first course was the amount of writing required. Because the students and instructor met for only 20 hours, more assignments were required than for either the on-campus or weekend students, and there were no specific due dates. One student stated, 'I need deadlines and to have them spread out.'
The use of the live chat during the first course was frustrating to all involved because of the slow speed at which the 'chat' occurred. A guest who was blind used a screen-reader program to access the Web Board and found that he could not participate in the chat because every 30 seconds what he was reading would get wiped out when the Web Board refreshed. Although the chat feature and discussion components of the course did provide some interaction among the students, several students thought that it did not provide enough opportunities. One student commented, 'There needs to be a way for students to share the results of research and projects with each other . The networking of individuals and the sharing of ideas was lacking.'
Despite their contact with the instructor and other students via the Internet, distance education students still may feel that they are not an integral part of the program. The lack of face-to-face contact with the instructors can lead to feelings of isolation. One student commented: 'I like the interchange of ideas that a regular class provides . By myself, I don't always think of questions to ask, but questions are stimulated by group interaction.'
Consideration needs to be given to when live meetings are scheduled during a course. The first course began with a live meeting, and the second meeting occurred at midterm. For the second course, the two meetings were held close to the end of course. In the third course, the students met at midterm and at the end of the semester. Although feedback from the students varied, most of the students agreed that both meetings should not be held at the end of the semester and that the meeting weekends should be spread out.
Access to the Internet will continue to increase in the years to come. The Internet allows students at a distance to gain access to courses and decreases the amount of travel for instructors and students. However, the delivery of high-quality distance education requires the investment of considerable time and creativity by instructors who can think 'outside the box' as they design materials and evaluate learning. Resources to support instructors in this endeavor are necessary. Consideration must be given to ensuring that distance education students feel a part of the university program and are comfortable learning and interacting in this medium. The live-Internet model is not for every student. The development of a screening tool to determine for whom it can be an effective model and for whom it would not be effective should be undertaken and used in programs that prepare teachers of students with visual impairments via the Internet.
Although the preparation of teachers of students with visual impairments requires that some instruction be hands on, university programs should consider what content needs to be hands on and how much can be delivered using an alternative format. A mechanism for university programs to share Internet materials would decrease the amount of time and energy that instructors spend in designing materials.
The Internet as an instructional tool has untapped potential. As technology continues to change, new avenues for delivering courses will emerge. This is an exciting time to be involved in distance learning, not only for instructors but for students who would not have access to specialized education without distance learning technologies.
L. Penny Rosenblum, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor, Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology, School of Education, University of Arizona, Box 210069, Tucson, AZ 85721-0069; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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