2003 Conference Proceedings

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FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE GRADUATE DEGREE TRAINING IN ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY AT A DISTANCE

Presenter
Beatrice C. Babbitt, Ph. D.
Associate Professor Special Education
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Email: babbitt@unlv.edu

The role of assistive technology in the lives and education of individuals with disabilities is gradually increasing in scope and depth. This is happening because assistive technology provides necessary and useful tools for communication, mobility, access to information, learning, employment and functional activity for many individuals with disabilities. Yet instruction in assistive technology is not readily available in general and is specifically missing from many teacher preparation programs. It can be argued that a research-based approach to training delivery can be an important part of developing quality AT programs that reach the audience of professionals who seek advanced training in assistive technology.

The need for qualified personnel in AT will only increase in the foreseeable future. In the over 17,000 K-12 school districts in the United States, assistive technology must be considered for every student with a disability. It is reasonable to assume that one or more professionals with training in AT will be needed in each of these districts to assess students and deliver AT services. In addition, the need for AT professionals is growing outside educational settings as individuals with disabilities increase in number as the baby boomers age and individuals live to more advanced ages.

Training programs in assistive technology must meet high standards while responding to professional development needs. Duncan (2000) describes the need for competencies in assessment, training, family involvement, organizational policy, and funding. In addition, basic information about available technologies and their use in meeting goals must be incorporated.

Training programs may differ somewhat based on the expected employment outcomes for participants. This paper will describe one program that was developed to fill the gap in professional training for educational professionals at the advanced graduate degree level - a concentration in assistive technology leading to an Educational Specialist degree in Special Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Importantly, this program is available nationally, using a web-based distance education delivery model. It incorporates important AT content, and integrates what we know about adult learners and effective distance instruction.

The UNLV program incorporates a 36 credit emphasis in assistive technology in an advanced degree in Special Education. Candidates come to the program with a master's degree in special education, speech and language, OT, PT or a related field. Content-based coursework, research projects and a professional paper are requirements of the program.

The 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. Major course readings, videos, and interactive computer activities are provided through a multi-media learning kit that replaces a traditional textbook.

Distance learning provides several advantages to the delivery of this program. First, it responds to the national need to train professionals for the numerous public school districts that must consider assistive technology for every student with an IEP. Similarly, it provides access to training for professionals in clinical and community settings that are distant from to quality assistive technology training programs. Furthermore, it provides opportunities for adult learners to be self-directed and actively engaged in their own learning as stressed by researchers in the areas of teacher preparation and adult learning (e.g., Cross, 1981; Moore & Kearlsey, 1996).

A very important benefit of the UNLV program emphasis in AT delivered via distance learning is the expanded opportunity of AT professionals to interact with others with similar interests. Students may be highly experienced professionals who have taken leadership in technology use in their educational settings or beginners in AT who struggle to establish guidelines and procedures. In either case, they may be the only AT specialist in their district or clinical setting. The nearest college or university may have only limited offerings in assistive technology. A distance learning format allows these students to interact with AT professionals, both instructors and other students, from around the country. Effective practices can be shared. Weak practices can be analyzed and improved. A distance learning format gives more people access to expertise and knowledge. Importantly, it can help to eliminate pockets of expertise and uneven AT delivery systems.

Hands-on and practical content is required to meet the needs of practicing professionals who must apply what they learn on a daily basis. The UNLV program incorporates two program features related to this requirement. Students entering the program must establish close links with local educational or community assistive technology centers or schools to ensure the opportunity to work with individuals who may require assistive technology and professionals and systems that deliver assistive technology services. In addition, the multi-media learning materials include many hands-on activities that move the students from theory to practice.

An advanced degree program supplements traditional AT content with a growing body of research in the field. Studying this body of research ensures that the students learn from current and past practice, and advance inquiry about the major questions in the field. Students study qualitative or single-subject research methods that can be applied to many questions raised in assistive technology application and use. Students write a professional paper that will result in the generation of new knowledge, and importantly, the sharing of that knowledge nationwide.

An advanced program must be state-of-the-art but keeping current in technology is quite a challenge. Edyburn (2001) reported that in 2000 there were 197 articles published about special education technology in a total of 31journals. New web sites appear every day. Highly trained faculty expertise is supplemented with a pool of expert consultants from around the country. Those consultants may be involved in content delivery, materials development, distance learning expertise, or AT service delivery. By taking advantage of telecommunications options, a program can employ adjunct faculty with special areas of expertise. Quality is maintained through a thorough review of adjunct faculty vita, references, and performance data. The instructional materials must also reflect the growing research base on assistive technology and adult learning. The materials were developed with national expert input and have been subsequently evaluated by many professionals in the field. They have been field tested with practicing professionals who apply the information and skills on a daily basis.

Creating a community at a distance is important to all distance education instructors (Nixon & Leftwich, 1998). With students from Connecticut to Hawaii, and Indiana to Arizona, the UNLV AT emphasis must use the best techniques available to bridge the distance among its participants. The WebCT classroom was chosen because it incorporates e-mail and discussion boards that enable students and faculty to easily communicate. In addition, web chats can be scheduled for live text-based chats. These are especially useful for answering questions that all students have regarding projects and other assignments. Phone contact is useful for individual advisement or to discuss the progress of a field-based project. Video-streaming is incorporated to add personal emphasis to content or to illustrate complex ideas. E-mail attachments allow instructors and students to share professional paper drafts and word processing features make adding comments and edits a simple process. It is expected that video-conferencing will be used in most instances when students defend their professional papers, while some will choose to defend in person. Some students are even hoping to fly to UNLV to take part in the graduation ceremonies to celebrate their accomplishments.

The concentration in AT at the Educational Specialist level was developed in response to the growing need for trained professionals in AT across the country. Program content, learner characteristics, and effective instruction were taken into consideration in the program design (Kimeldorf, 1995). Content selected is supported by a growing body of research in assistive technology, and aligns with recognized competencies in the field. Importantly, the characteristics of adult learners were taken into consideration in the design of the program (Moore & Kearlsey, 1996); the program builds upon prior and current learner experience, requires active involvement of the learner through field-based assignments, is hands-on and practical, requires critical/reflective thinking through web-based discussions, and helps participants meet individual professional goals. Ongoing evaluation will determine the effectiveness of this design.

References

Cross, P. (1981). Adults as learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duncan, J. (2000). Selected issues concerning the use of assistive technology. Overview of Assistive Technology: Video Guide. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Edyburn, D.L. (2001). 2000 in review: A synthesis of special education technology literature. Journal of Special Education Technology, 16(2), 5-25.

Kimeldorf, M. (1995). Teaching online: Techniques and methods. Learning and Leading with Technology, 23(1), 26-31.

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

Nixon, M.A. & Leftwich, B. R. (1998). Leading the transition from the traditional classroom to a distance learning environment. T H E Journal, 26(1), 54-56.


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