1998 Conference Proceedings

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Distance Learning Takes on New Dimensions

Caren Sax
San Diego State University Interwork Institute

Distance learning has taken on new dimensions as technology advances to support more accessible avenues for student learning. Utilizing a range of instructional technologies, creative instructors can deliver learner-centered curricula and meaningful activities that relate to the students' daily experiences (Berge, 1996). While many remain skeptical of the quality of learning in a "virtual" classroom, those who have experienced this medium are finding it more interactive and motivating than they expected. San Diego State University is joining the ranks of higher education institutions in offering degree programs via distance communication methods. Two of the programs offer students the opportunity to earn degrees in rehabilitation counseling. Within each of these programs, I teach a course on the use of Assistive or Rehabilitative Technologies. Each course uses a different format, designed specifically for the group of students involved. The California Class

The first program targeted a cohort of rehabilitation counseling graduate students. Thirty-four California Department of Rehabilitation counselors enrolled in a 30-month masters degree program, including an eight-week course on rehabilitation technology. Students are learning via web-based instruction, desktop conferencing, videotapes, audiotapes, and more. They are enjoying the flexibility that their classes offer, and are becoming more comfortable communicating through their computers. In addition, they discovered that their own experiences and frustrations with mastering instructional technology provided valuable insights on how they are approaching the use of assistive technology in their work as rehabilitation counselors.

Designing an assistive technology class for 34 California Department of Rehabilitation counselors who lived all across the state presented many challenges. Students who take a similar course on the SDSU campus have the advantage of meeting people who use assistive technology to access school, work, and community activities. The students on campus represent a number of disciplines (e.g., rehabilitation, special education, communication, engineering, physical and occupation therapy) who work as Tech Teams to design and construct assistive technology devices. The two-unit, one-semester course lasts for 16 weeks. The distance course compressed learning into eight weeks while covering the same range of topics: legislative foundations, assessment, accessing resources, workplace modifications and ergonomics, communication devices and strategies, universal design, and advocacy. The activities and assignments in the distance class relied on students accessing local resources related directly to their job responsibilities. They turned in assignments as files attached to email messages, and their class participation was determined by the quality of their on-line submissions. Guest lecturers interacted with the students on-line rather than in person. The introduction for each week's class was posted by Tuesday evening, and students logged on at their convenience from Wednesday morning to Saturday afternoon. Overall, the expectations for graduate level participation remained the same.

The introductory session for the Rehabilitation Technology course was conducted via desktop computer conferencing. The students met at four locations across the state, each group gathering around a computer that was equipped with a camera and connections to the other sites. While the visual images were a bit time-delayed by a second or two, all the students at least saw each other, and met me, their "virtual" professor. I discussed the syllabus, expectations, and assignments and guided everyone through the website together, sharing software across sites. All the materials had been sent in advance, including textbooks, supplemental articles, case study examples, and videotapes.

Each week's "weblecture" highlighted the readings and/or video for a specific topic area. A number of questions were then presented for the class on the website discussion board. Discussions were "threaded," that is, organized according to questions. Chat rooms and listservs were also set up for group work, so that students could work at the same time (synchronous) or at their convenience (asynchronous). The groups were responsible for compiling questions for the two guest lecturers. The guests were sent the list of questions in advance, in order to design their weblecture. Students were also provided information on accessing local resources and contacting local rehabilitation technology experts.

In addition to participating in class discussions, students were required to complete two assignments. The first assignment was to create a "webliography," an annotated listing of websites describing a certain area of assistive technology, e.g., transportation, recreation, adaptations for daily living. The second assignment was to complete a case study of an individual who might benefit from the use of assistive technology. Each student identified an individual with disabilities, completed a person centered assessment, and at least initiated the process of matching the person's needs with the appropriate technology (Scherer, 1996). Completed case studies included recommendations for specific technology devices, funding strategies, and follow-up plans once the technology was delivered to the individual. This assignment required the student/counselor to focus on one of their consumers who needed assistive technology. The Guam Class

The second cohort includes 50 people enrolled in a program designed jointly by SDSU and the University of Guam. Students represent the Department of Rehabilitation, Community Rehabilitation Programs, and Special Education programs. The students meet in one location, and have two instructors for the eight-week course, myself at SDSU and the coordinator of the Assistive Technology Center in Guam. The design for this course differs in a number of ways. The students meet every other week with the local instructor to discuss content and questions. Full-class discussions on-line will be limited to every other week due to the size of the class. As the virtual professor in this class, I will be offering input via weblectures and Power Point presentations on the website to enhance the discussion that the Guam instructor will lead with the group. This class also received videos, reading packet, books, and other materials before the class began.

Although the Applications of Assistive Technology course is being used as one of the required courses for those students seeking a graduate degree, a number of Guam students are taking this course to complete requirements for an academic certificate or an undergraduate degree. In order to meet the needs of each student, the assignments have been "tiered" accordingly. For example, students enrolled in the certificate program are required to volunteer time at the Guam Systems for Assistive Technology (GSAT) in order to gain experience using assistive technology devices and equipment. Students enrolled in an undergraduate program will complete an accessibility survey of a local business or facility. Although all students will participate on a Tech Team which will work with an individual with disabilities to identify their assistive technology needs, the graduate students will be responsible for completing a case study of the entire process, including making recommendations for the focus individual. All students will complete the Webliography assignment, although the required number of entries differ according to which outcome the student has targeted. A distance guest lecturer will also "meet" this class for a final discussion. These students have already completed two courses and the response, like that of the California group, has been very positive. Summary

Distance learning can emphasize the best or the worst that education has to offer. Many years of impersonal correspondence courses and "talking heads" on television lecture classes demonstrated a good idea executed poorly. Providing interactive learning via computers takes planning and coordination, and instructors who are willing to spend the time creating a learning community. In these courses, students are developing personal and professional relationships and enhancing their abilities to perform their jobs more effectively. The key to success seems to be the same whether the course is face-to-face or on-line: ensuring that content level is interesting, challenging, and applicable, and that delivery is accessible, and responsive to student needs.


Berge, Z. (1996). The role of the online instuctor/facilitator. [On-line]. Available: http://star.ucc.nau.edu/~mauri/moderate/teach_online.html

Scherer, M. (1996). Living in the state of stuck. Cambridge: Brookline.

Activities supported in part by SDSU/California Department of Rehabilitation US DOE Grant #H129E40006

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