2000 Conference Proceedings

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Distance Learning Technologies For Blind And Visually Impaired Students (Kay Alicyn Ferrell & Kay Persichitte)


Kay Alicyn Ferrell, Professor and Division Director
Division of Special Education
University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80639
(970) 351-1653 (office)
(970) 351-1061 (fax)

Kay A. Persichitte, Associate Professor and Department Chair
Department of Educational Technology
University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80639
(970) 351-2913 (office)
(970) 351-1622 (fax)

Nathan Lowell, Doctoral Student and Graduate Assistant
Department of Educational Technology
University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80639

Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and a greater strength for our nation."

---John F. Kennedy

While blind and visually impaired (BVI) persons do not represent a large portion of the disabled in our society, they do represent a group that is uniquely disadvantaged by contemporary distance learning technologies that are quite visually oriented (e.g., video teleconferencing, WWW, CD-ROM). This, coupled with a documented lack of qualified instructors for all special education children (Ingersoll, 1999), was the impetus for the development of a distance learning master's degree program in BVI. In January of 1998, the US Department of Education funded a three year grant project (Federal Grant #H029A70113) for the fourteen states of the Western United States to design and deliver such a graduate degree program.

Project Description

The $1.3 M grant project currently offers courses to 48 students working to complete 47 to 62 semester hours of coursework for their master's degree. These students are geographically distributed across Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, ,New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. The first classes were delivered in the fall of 1998. Ten courses have been converted for distance delivery as part of this project and two remain. In the fall of 1999, six courses are being delivered with a total of 75 students registered in the distance programs.

Four project objectives were stipulated at the outset: First, to provide faculty support (one semester course release) in the conversion of course offerings to formats suitable for the WWW, compressed video, broadcast, and other distance technologies; second, to investigate the program's participation in the Western Governor's University; third, to provide financial support for the costs of transmitting and delivering the courses to Western Governor's states and to allow for field-testing and evaluation; and fourth, to provide financial support to students and professionals from the WGRP states.

The BVI faculty at the University of Northern Colorado have a deeply held philosophy about this severe needs program. It was agreed early on that the distance delivered program would subscribe to the same philosophy and that has influenced many design and implementation decisions. The philosophy statement is: The UNC Severe Needs: Vision program is based on a firm and continuing commitment to the rights of all students with visual and other disabilities to receive equal educational opportunities, including equal access to the curriculum. The faculty believes that each learner should be provided educational opportunities that maximize potential for whatever level of independence is possible in order to be productive in society and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

While it may be more difficult for the non-sighted person to take advantage of today's visual distance environments, this project demonstrates that there are many strategies that can be incorporated within distance learning environments to leverage the communication potential of these delivery technologies. A focus on collaboration, sharing, and contextualized experiences allows not just "teaching-by-telling, but learning-by doing" (Stanard, 1999, p. 49). In addition, this project is one example of Molly Broad's comments about virtual learning, "?fundamental importance of high-quality faculty and effective interaction, both between faculty and students and among students. Faculty rightly believe these are fundamental to good education; however, with the growing array of technology tools, it is possible to achieve those objectives online. In addition, virtual learning can also bring a very rich array of academic resources to the learning process--resources that address the multiple learning styles of students, and resources that greatly enrich the educational materials available to students." (Morrison, 1998, p.3)

The project team consists of

Dr. Kay Alicyn Ferrell, Project Director and Director of SpecialEducation Chuck Wright, Project Coordinator Dr. Kay A. Persichitte, Instructional Design and Distance Delivery Consultant, and Chair of Educational Technology at least five other BVI faculty multiple graduate assistants in educational technology Development Issues Instructional design (ID) issues that have influenced the project cut across a broad range.

alignment of course content with four sets of professional standards special education faculty review of course objectives for overlap and update introduction/implementation of the ID process (generically: ADDIE for analysis, design, development, implementation, evaluation) helping discipline faculty revision traditional instructional strategies delivery system and media selection materials development with attention to the special needs of the BVI discipline faculty preparation to teach in these mediated instructional environments complete revision of student assessment and evaluation to a standards and performance-based model creation of student and faculty support materials Other issues that have surfaced are related to administration and implementation of distance learning programs. o faculty and student access to distance technologies is not yet ubiquitous o importance of strong administrative support from the College of Education Dean o project management requirements were underestimated (timelines, coordination, collaboration); the degree program is complex due to state licensure requirements; the participation of non-special education faculty requires additional time; other campus support systems (Academic Technology Services)

facility design was required (WWW access stations; digital video development station; compressed video classroom) technical considerations at the development level and the end user level (e.g., Website compatibility with screen readers, software versions, Web browsers and their configuration) remote student access to registration, library resources, textbooks, advising, financial aid, and other support services in a university environment unprepared for these requests.

Delivery Systems and Media

The project purposefully employs a wide variety of distance delivery systems and media. In particular instances, materials are developed in more than one medium to allow all students (sighted and non-sighted) access. Though not a stated objective of the project, an unintended consequence has been that the students are increasing their use of and comfort with technology, in general. All members of the project team believe in the power of technology to meet learner needs and in the importance of better preparing teachers to effectively utilize technology with their students. For these students who will teach children who are BVI, Hardman's (1999) comment strikes a loud chord: "A technologically competent work force in the education industry is needed to continue to keep the promise of universal education: to leave behind no child who is willing to try" (p. 4). The project relies on the WWW, compressed video (CV), text (student handbooks and coursepacks), videotape (custom and commercial), CD-ROM (custom), a required campus component during one summer, computer video conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous communication via the Web, audioconferencing, and commercial satellite downlinks.

The discipline faculty felt strongly that the distance delivered program should be as student-centered as the campus program. The design and development process has consistently incorporated Sorg and Truman's (1997) recommendations for creating quality student-centered virtual classes. Their recommendations included personalizing instruction, humanizing the course pages, providing advance organizers, and assuring easy navigation between and among course topics.
Courses delivered to date include:

EDSE 540, Independent Living for Individuals with Visual Impairment
EDSE 543, Braille Codes and Formats (literary)
EDSE 543 II, Braille Codes and Formats (math, music, tactile graphics)
EDSE 544, Technology in Education of Students with Visual Impairments
EDSE 546, Principles of Orientation and Mobility
EDSE 641, Medical and Educational Implications of Visual Impairment
EDSE 642, Advanced Seminar in Education of Students with Visual Impairments
EDSE 643, Psychosocial Needs of Individuals with Visual Impairments

Though multiple media and distance systems are used to deliver this program, the WWW has been chosen as a central learner and instructional resource for the redesign of each course (http://vision.unco.edu/). A standardized navigation shell was custom created so students do not feel "lost" each time they begin a new course in their program. Each course, however, relies to varying degree on the Web for the delivery of instruction. All courses have embedded syllabi, links to the four sets of discipline standards and course standards, course requirements, description of course activities, an asynchronous threaded discussion area, course schedule, and a place for additional resources that may or may not be Web-based. Each course also has a dedicated class listserv. Some of the course Websites include: interactive custom-designed tutorials, synchronous discussion areas, samples of student projects, links to external assistive software, and multimedia authored graphics. The variety of technologies in use has increased as the discipline faculty have become more comfortable with trying new instructional strategies with remote students.

Remote students have access to several support systems:

Student handbook for project participants (available in text and as a PDF file on the Web) Toll-Free phone into the Special Education Division office A Web-master who responds to individual technical problems CD-ROM with Web browser and style sheet options to load on home computers Grant project listserv (subscribers include students, faculty, and the grant team)

Lessons Learned

Facility design for distance education learning environments (DELEs) is expensive, time consuming, and requires substantial technical, pedagogical, and academic expertise related to distance delivery of instruction. ID and FD (facility design) need to evolve simultaneously for DELEs that utilize multiple delivery systems/media. Most of the distance delivery technologies today are visual technologies?consequently there is significant attention required to specialized design and development considerations for this project and for any other distance effort that believes in equal access for disabled learners. Faculty introduction to and training for using these technologies for instructional purposes is particularly important to project success, learner satisfaction, and continued faculty involvement. Meeting individual learner needs, faculty expectations, and content requirements are not mutually exclusive in the creation of a DELE?but the process is extremely complex.


Hardman, R. R. (1999). The Iowa educational technology training. Deosnews, 9(5), 1-7.

Ingersoll, R. M. (1999). The problem of underqualified teachers in American secondary schools. Educational Researcher, 28(2), 26-37.

Morrison, J. L. (1999). The horizon from a system president's perspective: An interview with UNC's Molly Broad. On The Horizon, 6(6), 2-3.

Sorg, S., & Truman, B. (1997, April). Learning about teaching through the Internet: Lessons learned. In J. Willis, J. Price, S. McNeil, B. Robin, & D. Willis (Eds.), Technology and Teacher Education: Proceedings of SITE 97-Eighth International Conference of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (p. 378-385). Orlando, FL.

Stanard, J. (1999). Dr. Chris Dede: Virtual reality & distance learning pioneer. Converge, 2(3), 48-49.

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