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A Distance Education Program for Teachers of Children with Visual Impairments in the United Kingdom

Abstract: Distance education is a well-established medium for training specialist teachers of children with visual impairments at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. This article describes the background and organization of the program, analyzes its outcomes, and considers the challenges the program will face in the future.

The two-year distance education program for teachers of children with visual impairments (those who are blind and those who have low vision) was established at the University of Birmingham in 1981, and more than 850 teachers have since qualified through this method (Arter and Mason, 1996). Distance education has now replaced the original one-year full-time campus-based delivery of courses.

The program


The distance education program consists of four specialist modules on visual impairment; three of these are core modules, and the fourth gives students the opportunity to choose the areas that they want to study in greater depth. In addition, students are required to submit an 8,000-word project or a 10,000-word dissertation related to visual impairment and to complete the additional requirements of two teaching practicums (of 17 and 15 days' duration) and a written examination in braille.

The specialist modules are constructed as follows: Module 1 is an introductory module and includes such areas as provision and legislation, the anatomy and physiology of the eye, the broad implications of visual impairment, and adaptation of the learning environment for children with visual impairments. Module 2 covers topics like residual vision, an introduction to low vision aids, and the different needs of children and adolescents who are visually impaired. Module 3 addresses such areas as specialist information technology, listening skills, independent living skills and mobility, and the teaching of braille. Module 4 allows students to choose 5 out of 24 units, including units on multiple disability, advising and consulting, and the role of the peripatetic (itinerant) teacher. Some of these options require attendance for additional days of training.

All the modules are assessed through written assignments. Students may opt to study at Level 3 (equivalent to a third-year undergraduate degree) or at the master's level (Level M). The modules are delivered through (1) written units, and (2) supplementary materials comprising audio- and videocassettes and additional reading, four residential weekends (two in each academic year) that include lectures and practical workshop sessions, and regional seminars and study days (up to four in each academic year).


University program tutors are responsible for the overall organization and structure of the program on visual impairment and are supported by a national network of tutors and supervisors who are qualified and experienced teachers of students with visual impairments. These tutors and supervisors hold senior posts in schools and services and help guide and monitor small groups of students through their studies. They are paid an annual fee (equivalent to about $700) and all expenses by the university. The support network is made up of regional tutors, teaching placement supervisors, and braille tutors.

Regional tutors.

Regional tutors are responsible for dealing with day-to-day queries from students, and students can contact them by letter, phone, or e-mail. Each tutor manages a regional group of approximately four to six students and organizes, at a minimum, one local tutorial day for each module of the program. The tutorial addresses issues related to the module and students' assignments.

Regional tutors provide academic support for students and are the first markers of their students' assignments. To ensure consistency, each regional tutor is paired with a placement supervisor, who will be the second marker of each assignment. When a grade cannot be agreed upon or a student has been deemed to have failed an assignment, an external examiner (discussed later) acts as the final adjudicator.

Teaching placement supervisors.

Students' teaching placements (practicums) are overseen by local teaching placement supervisors. The supervisors visit the students on several occasions during their practicums to offer support and advice. They observe the students' teaching performance and gather additional information from the teachers who work with the students on their placements. Students are required to maintain a record of their teaching placements in the form of a teaching file that contains both descriptive and evaluative elements. The teaching placement supervisors assess the students' competence to teach children with visual impairments on the basis of their observations of the teaching placements and the content of the teaching files. Each student's teaching is graded using a scale of merit, pass or fail.

Braille supervisors.

The regional braille supervisors monitor students as they work through the Birmingham Braille Course-a comprehensive text-based training program specifically written for distance education. The course develops students' reading and writing skills in Grade 2 braille. Students are required to complete exercises from the course and submit them to their braille supervisors for marking and feedback. On completion of the course, students are required to take a 1 1/2-hour test of Grade 2 braille reading and writing skills held at regional centers.

Training for tutors and supervisors

Regional tutors and supervisors are prepared by the university to fulfill their roles and attend training days held at the university on a regular basis. These training days are structured to support the tutors in their work with students and include sessions on the marking and moderation of assignments and the supervision of teaching placements. The tutors are supplied with resource packs containing books and recent articles relevant to students' studies. They can also register for advanced programs at the university at favorable rates and have access to the university's library facilities, including the postal loan service that is available to students.

The students

Approximately 120 students are registered in the visual impairment distance education program (60 students in each year). The completion rates for the program are above 95%. Although it is a two-year course, there is a degree of flexibility in the completion date of the program, and regulations permit students a maximum of four years from the date of registration to complete their studies. This flexibility allows students who experience unforeseen crises, such as illness or personal difficulties, time to recover and complete their studies.

Studying at a distance: Costs and benefits

The relative advantages and disadvantages of distance education in comparison with campus-based provision have been well described in the literature. However, a major strength of the distance education program that has not been generally highlighted is the involvement of practitioners from the field in the professional development of their less experienced colleagues. By undertaking roles as tutors and supervisors, experienced practitioners can share their expertise with teachers who are inexperienced in working with children with visual impairments. Moreover, through their active involvement with the university and the range of other schools and services in which the students are based, they are able to keep abreast of new literature and practices in the field and maintain professional links with colleagues across the country.

A number of writers have highlighted the challenges posed by distance education. For example, Holmberg (1989), Mason and Miller (1991), and Rowntree (1992) acknowledged that isolation and insecurity can be a major problem for students and concluded that without appropriate support networks, failure rates for students will be high. To ease the pressures on students in the Birmingham program, employers are advised that the students need to be released for a minimum of half a day each week to study. As part of the initial application procedures, employers are required to complete a contract with the university to confirm that the students will be allowed free study time. In addition, the program schedule is designed to allow intervals between modules, so students can have some respite from their studies.

Systems for quality assurance

There are a number of levels through which the quality of the Birmingham distance education program is monitored and developed. Quality assurance systems operate at the course, institutional, and governmental levels.

Course-level systems

At each stage of the program, the students are canvassed about the quality of the training they receive. At the end of each module, they are presented with questionnaires and are asked to assess (anonymously if preferred) the study materials against a number of criteria, including presentation, content, and impact on their practice. This information is fed back into a schedule of revision, and units in each module are revised or rewritten as required.

Regional seminars and study days are similarly assessed, and the results are processed by the university tutors into an implementation plan for improving future face-to-face teaching. Regional tutors and supervisors receive feedback at the tutor training days held at the university and are involved in planning program innovations.

To ensure that the program is meeting the needs of the field, an annual consultation is held with stakeholders-representatives of various interest groups-who are given copies of an annual report written by the university tutors and are invited to the university to discuss the report, make recommendations, and raise issues of concern. Stakeholders typically include the head teacher of a special school, the head teacher of a peripatetic-advisory service, a parent of a child with a visual impairment, a representative of a local education authority, a leader of a national charitable organization, and a current and a former student. Their recommendations are incorporated into the program development plan.

Institutional-level systems

University regulations specify a number of procedures to ensure consistency in the standards of all programs. These procedures specify student entitlements related to the amount of academic support, the resources (such as library facilities) that the university supplies to distance education students, and the institutional mechanisms to promote equality of opportunity and academic excellence. One of these mechanisms is the appointment by the university of an external examiner for each program.

Typically, the external examiner is an academic from another university who is familiar with the field of the program. Given the specialist nature of the distance education program in visual impairment, two external examiners are appointed. Currently, one is an academic with knowledge of visual impairments, and the other is the head teacher of a special school for children with visual impairments. External examiners are paid by the university to visit a sample of students on a teaching practicum, to monitor the marking of assignments to ensure consistency and fairness, and to attend regional seminars and residential weekends. They also act as 'critical friends' to the university tutors and present an annual report to the university about the quality of the program.

National-level systems

A number of initiatives have been introduced during the administration of the current government that have had a significant influence on the continuing professional development of specialist teachers. For example, as of September 2001, all course providers must meet governmental standards related to the knowledge, understanding, and/or skills required by specialist teachers in sensory impairment and will have to reapply for permission to continue running the program every five years. Decisions about the renewal of licenses will be made on the basis of the results of regular inspections by governmental agencies to assess these standards.

Thus, in addition to their current course work, as of September 2001, students in the distance education program will be required to provide evidence of their competence in each standard that they will collect in portfolios of professional development that were designed by the university tutors. These portfolios allow students to track their professional development against the governmental standards. At regular points in the program, the portfolios will be assessed to ensure that by the end of their studies, the students will be able to present evidence of their competence in all the standards.

As part of the continuing development of the program, the university tutors are exploring the further use of the Internet to support the delivery courses in various aspects of the program. For example, the university has received a research grant from the UK National Library for the Blind to investigate the delivery of the Birmingham Braille Course online and is planning to develop additional online resources to facilitate the students' studies.

It is likely that distance education will remain the main vehicle for training specialist teachers in visual impairment in the United Kingdom. The challenge for providers will be to provide high-quality instruction in an increasingly demanding and fast-changing environment.


Arter, C. A., and Mason, H. (1996). The training of teachers at a distance. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 14(2), 62-65.

Holmberg, B. (1990). Theory and practice of distance education. London: Routledge.

Mason, H., and Miller, C. (1991). In G. Upton (Ed.), Staff training and special educational needs. London: David Fulton.

Rowntree, D. (1992). Exploring open and distance learning. London: Kogan Page.

Christine Arter, Ph.B., lecturer in visual impairment, School of Education, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15 2TT, England; e-mail: Mike McLinden, Ph.D., lecturer in visual impairment, School of Education, University of Birmingham; e-mail: Steve McCall, Ph.D., lecturer in visual impairment, School of Education, University of Birmingham; e-mail:

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The Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB)--the international, interdisciplinary journal of record on blindness and visual impairment that publishes research and practice
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