2002 Conference Proceedings

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UNIVERSITY TRAINING PROGRAMS IN ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY VIA DISTANCE EDUCATION

Bea Babbitt, Ph. D. Session Leaders
Associate Professor Special Education, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154-3014
Phone 702-895-1106
FAX 702-895-0984
Email: babbitt@unlv.edu 

Colleen Thoma, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor Special Education, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154-3014
Phone 702-895-1112
FAX 702-895-0984
Email: thomac@unlv.edu 

Gary Adamson, Ed. D.
RIATT @ NASDSE
3515 Princeton
Albuquerque, NM 87107-4206
505-875-1414
Email: Garyadamson1@aol.com

As our understanding of the benefits of assistive technology (AT) has increased, so has the need for professionals trained in assistive technology. Professionals seeking training have varied backgrounds including prior training in special education, speech and language, physical or occupational therapy, instructional technology, and related fields. These professionals are at various stages of their professional careers and have differing professional development needs. They have a common desire to increase their knowledge and skills in assistive technology and simultaneously receive professional recognition for their increased expertise. Unfortunately, the training opportunities in assistive technology are few in number and prospective students are often many miles from the source.

Universities have responded to this need by developing a range of distance education programs in assistive technology. By using a variety of distance education formats, universities have responded to the geographic disbursement of the students and the varying levels of technology links available. While each program focuses on a particular audience, the range of degree and non-degree programs is growing so that the needs of professionals with differing professional development goals can be met. Students may seek a masters or educational specialist degree, graduate credits only, or continuing education units. One program will be featured in this paper. Additional programs will be described in the presentation.

Responding to the need for post master's degree training in assistive technology, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has created an emphasis in assistive technology at the educational specialist level. In addition to the content-based coursework, the program includes research projects and a professional paper. The UNLV program combines a web-based distance education format with multi-media learning materials. Course syllabi, calendars, library services, supplementary resources, and instructor and student communication are accessed primarily through Web-CT. Primary course readings, video demonstrations, and interactive computer activities are accessed through a multi-media learning kit.

A graduate degree program must be carefully planned to incorporate principles of adult learning in order to be effective. Adult learning requires a) motivation; b) capacity to learn; c) past and current experience; d) active involvement of the learner; e) establishing a climate of respect; f) some degree of self-direction by learners; g) focused effort on the integration of learning; and h) critical, reflective thinking (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). UNLV has actively worked to incorporate these principles in the design of the program.

A distance learning format has several program delivery advantages. First, it responds to the national need to train professionals for the public school districts that must consider assistive technology for every student with an IEP. Furthermore, it provides access to training for professionals in clinical and community settings that are not in close proximity to quality assistive technology training programs. While the number of individuals interested in an advanced degree with an emphasis in assistive technology in a single geographic area may be small, the number nationally supports the creation of such a program.

Past and current experience are highly valued as AT professionals interact with others with similar interests. Students in the UNLV program are usually highly experienced professionals who are leaders in AT use in their professional settings. However, they may be the only AT specialist in their district or clinical setting. The nearest college may offer only one or two courses in assistive technology. Through the distance learning format, AT professionals expand their own expertise while drawing on the expertise of instructors and other students from around the nation. We see this sharing of knowledge and expertise as an important first step in the elimination of pockets of expertise and the uneven delivery of AT services.

Practicing professionals desire hands-on and practical content that can be applied in their respective settings. Two program features support this need to apply learning on a daily basis. First, students entering the program must establish working relationships with local educational or community assistive technology entities to ensure the opportunity to work with individuals who may need assistive technology devices and services. These working relationships will enable them to work with other professionals and systems that deliver assistive technology services. Second, the multi-media learning materials include many hands-on activities that encourage the movement from theory to practice.

The UNLV program is also designed to ensure that students learn from current and past practice, and to advance inquiry about the major questions in the field. To this end, this advanced degree program supplements traditional AT content with a growing body of research in the field. Study of qualitative and single-subject research methods will prepare students to investigate important questions requiring answers in the field of assistive technology. The professional paper will incorporate this newly generated knowledge, and importantly, be shared nationally with other professionals.

Strategies for delivering state-of-the-art content are important to the UNLV program. Keeping current in technology presents a challenge to all professionals as journal articles on technology in education increase and new web sites proliferate. The UNLV program begins with highly trained faculty but supplements their expertise with a pool of expert consultants from across the nation. Consultants bring expertise in content delivery, materials development, distance learning, AT devices, and AT services. Consultants with special areas of expertise can be utilized to enrich the training experience for our students. Instructional materials must also incorporate the growing research base on assistive technology and adult learning. The materials were developed with national expert input and have been subsequently reviewed by many professionals in the field. They have been field tested with practicing professionals who have successfully transferred their learning in a multitude of settings.

Creating a community of learners is important to any distance education endeavor. With students from Connecticut to Hawaii, bridging the distance among program participants must receive high priority in program planning. A variety of communication strategies are utilized within the UNLV program. WebCT, the web-based classroom, includes e-mail and discussion boards that facilitate instructor-to-student and student-to-student communication. Discussion boards are great for in depth discussions of issues surrounding program content. Thought provoking questions encourage students to reflect on course content and their own practice. Web chats can be scheduled for live text-based chats among groups of students and the instructor. These are especially useful for answering questions common to all students regarding projects and other assignments. Given the variance in time zones, several chats with small groups of students are scheduled. Students can also meet in a WebCT chat room to work on group projects. Phone contact is useful for individual advisement and the discussion of field-based projects. Web-based audio conferencing may also be used to keep costs low. Attachments to e-mail allow instructors and students to share professional paper drafts and word processing features support comments and edits. Video-conferencing will be used by most students as they defend their professional papers, while some will choose to defend in person. It is obvious that a large variety of tools are available to create and support a community of learners at a distance.

We know that distance education is rapidly becoming an alternative course delivery system for colleges and universities as they reach out to students in rural communities and sprawling urban areas throughout the United States (Gallagher & McCormick, 1999; Meyen, Tangen, & Lian, 1999; Spooner, Jordan, Algozzine, & Spooner, 1999). We believe that distance education can be used to effectively train professionals in the high need area of assistive technology if the characteristics of adult learners and the advanced capabilities of distance education systems are taken into account.

REFERENCES

Gallagher, P. A., & McCormick, K. (1999). Student satisfaction with two-way interactive distance learning for delivery of early childhood special education coursework. Journal of Special Education Technology, 14 (1), 32-47.

Meyen, E. L., Tangen, P., & Lian, C. H. T. (1999). Developing online instruction: Partnership between instructors and technical developers. Journal of Special Education Technology, 14(1), 18.31.

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Spooner, F., Jordan, L., Algozzine, B., & Spooner, M. (1999). Student ratings of instruction in distance learning and on-campus classes. Journal of Educational Research, 92(3), 132-40.


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