1999 Conference Proceedings

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PREPARING SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS THROUGH DISTANCE LEARNING : LESSONS FROM THE NET

Stephanie Kurtts and Ada Vallecorsa
P.O. Box 26171
School of Education
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27401-6171
alvallec@uncg.edu 
sakurtts@uncg.edu

The critical need for teachers of students with disabilities has presented a significant challenge to programs of teacher preparation, not only at the preservice level but also by including coursework for inservice teachers who seek to increase their own knowledge base and to receive add-on licensure to existing certification. With a projected need for as many as 648,000 special education teachers by the year 2005, there is an increased effort to provide training that can effectively prepare teachers who are able to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities (National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education, 1998). With the goal of reaching and teaching as many teachers as possible to meet the diverse learning needs of students with disabilities, programs of teacher education are offering, in addition to more traditional programs of teacher education, distance learning opportunities. Programs report success with distance learning, with students developing

  1. effective communication techniques,
  2. communication technology skills, and
  3. increased student attention, learning, and sense of achievement (Wachter & Gupta, 1997; Donahoe, 1995). Dallet and Opper (1997) report that the use of distance learning increases students’ access to courses, thus decreasing time to degree.

Even with the promising impact of distance learning on the preparation of teachers of students with disabilities, there are issues facing faculty as they facilitate the student’s adjustment to the instructional design of distance learning. Faculty must develop their own integral role as a support to students who are becoming involved in the learning process presented by distance education opportunities (Everett & Grubb, 1997).

These are some of the issues facing the North Carolina Distance Education Partnership in Special Education as it begins the first of four Internet-based courses designed to give initially licensed teachers the certification needed to teach students with learning disabilities or behaviorally and emotionally disabilities. The purpose of this paper is to discuss initial perceptions of faculty and students as they take part in the distance learning experience with implications for future course planning and student advisement.

The Project

The North Carolina Distance Education Partnership in Special Education is a training project funded by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services of the U.S. Department of Education. Five regional state universities (Elizabeth City State, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington, and Western Carolina University) participate as partners by providing a sequence of distance learning courses in learning disabilities and behavioral disabilities over the Internet. The three Internet courses are followed by a field-based practicum. Courses in each area of certification cover an introduction to the disability, instructional methods and behavioral interventions, and consultation and collaboration. Seventy-three students across the five campuses enrolled in the first courses, the introductory course in learning disabilities and behavioral and emotional disabilities, offered fall semester of 1998. The content of the courses was developed by special education faculty from the partnership schools with technical assistance from support staff from LearnNC, the Internet site that carries the courses thorough its professional development component.

Student evaluation in each course includes (1) quizzes sent to instructors by email, (2) participation in an on-line discussion group (the forum component of the courses), and (3) a portfolio that is developed throughout the courses. The portfolio contains class projects, such as plans for instructional accommodations or modifications and a functional behavioral assessment. A textbook for each course supplements on-line lectures and selected readings. Students attended an organizational meeting at the beginning of the semester to give them information on requirements to participate in the distance learning courses. During this meeting, the course syllabi were reviewed and Internet connections, hardware, software, and email were discussed. The participants were also given a brief introduction on how to navigate through the course. A unique aspect of the project is that all students who complete the courses receive a stipend, the equivalent of their tuition and cost of textbooks.

Lessons Learned

Students’ statements concerning the content of the course and the knowledge gained by taking the course have been very positive. Initial comments such as “I feel that after being part of the course on behavioral and emotional disabilities, I can help my colleagues understand why some children with severe behaviors behave the way they do-I am really looking forward to the interventions course” and “I can fully appreciate now what a student with a learning disability might experience-I can see how the lack of appropriate instructional accommodations can make a real difference in how the child experiences school, and why come children have become so frustrated and discouraged. I have already begun working more in instructional modifications for my included students.” While these comments might also be heard concerning an on-campus course, it is encouraging to know that the initial perception of students is that the Internet course content is as valuable. Several students stated that without the accessibility of the courses through the Internet, they would not have considered seeking certification in learning disabilities or behavioral and emotional disabilities.

This new experience for both faculty and students involved in the NCDEP program has resulted in some changing perceptions about the technicalities involved with distance learning, First, with varying degrees of computer expertise among faculty and students, it is apparent that just a brief face-to-face initiation to the program will not be enough to ensure student success in the courses. Although this is an exercise in independent learning, several of the students were just not “computer literate” enough (their own words) to become fully comfortable with the format of distance learning. They needed and wanted their instructor to be available to them. As one student stated, “I want to talk to a person when I need to, and not just through email.”

Next, some students experienced difficulty with accessibility to the technology needed to complete the courses. If they were using their school’s computer or using a computer at a public library, they discovered time constraints. Several others had difficulty with their own computers when they would send quizzes or assignments as attachments through email. Faculty, by talking students through the process either in person or over the telephone, were able to help students learn how to use the functions of the program. Students were then able to successfully send assignments. These matters arose early in the course, and by the end of the fourth week, all concerns had been addressed and resolved to students’ satisfaction.

Implications for Future Courses

These initial perceptions of students and faculty have led to some rethinking on how to make the distance learning courses of the partnership a more effective add-on licensure program. In addition to the first organizational meeting, there will be a series of “mini-lectures” from which students can choose should they need assistance with specific functions of the course. Faculty have also improved their own use of the forum component by expanding the discussion threads so there is more opportunity for interaction between students. A commitment to more personal one-to-one email communication by faculty to ascertain student utilization of the course functions has also been addressed.

Distance learning can be a powerful tool in teacher training, especially where the need for well-prepared teachers of students with disabilities is critical. If distance learning can provide the knowledge, and faculty are able to support their students through the distance education learning process, then our children will be the recipients of better and more effective teaching.

References

Dallet, P., & Opper, J. H. (1997). Reducing time-to-degree with distance learning: Are we closer now than when we started? New Directions for Community Colleges, 25(3), 43-51.

Donahoe, S.S. (1995). Using distance learning and telecommunications to develop strategies of communication for widely diverse populations. (Clearinghouse No. SP036425). Washington, DC. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 390 862)

Everett, D. R., & Grubb, A.(1997,October). Facilitating learner adjustment to the distance learning environment. Paper presented at the Teaching/Learning Conference, Ashland, KY.

National Clearing House for Professions in Special Education. (1998). Reston, VA.

Wachter, R. M., & Gupta, J. (1997). Distance learning and the use of computers as instructional tools for systems development projects: A case study of the construction of expert systems. Computers and Education, 29(1), 13-23.


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