2004 Conference Proceedings

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ASSIST ONLINE: DISTANCE LEARNING COMPUTER TRAINING FOR BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED INDIVIDUALS

Presenters
Laurie Merryman
Assistive Technology Documentation Specialist
Iowa Department for the Blind
524 Fourth Street
Des Moines, IA 50309
Phone: 515-281-1333
Email: merryman.laurie@blind.state.ia.us

Michael Barber
Assistive Technology Analyst
Iowa Department for the Blind
524 Fourth Street
Des Moines, IA 50309
Phone: 515-281-1305
Email: Barber.Michael@blind.state.ia.us

Background

The Iowa Department for the Blind's Project ASSIST Online offers in depth computer training on Microsoft Office XP software to blind and visually impaired individuals. Our online courses are designed to prepare students for the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification exams. In the fall of 2002, Project ASSIST Online began conducting distance learning courses with a pilot team of students. Full implementation of the program began in the fall of 2003.

We offer the following courses: Windows XP, Internet Fundamentals, Word - Core, Excel - Core, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Word - Expert, and Excel - Expert. Training uses a keyboard and screen reader specific approach and offers interactive support from an instructor. The program is open to blind and visually impaired individuals nationwide.

Project ASSIST Online is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

Presentation Proposal

Our presentation has two aims. First, we will discuss our project's training goals, courses, and materials and how attendees can make use of our project. Second, we will discuss how other trainers and agencies can implement a similar training program. Specifically, we will cover technology available, methods to assess and recruit students for a distance learning course, and items to consider when developing a distance learning course.

Part I: About Project ASSIST Online

Project ASSIST Online Goals

The overall goal of ASSIST Online is to improve the computer skills of individuals who are blind, visually impaired, or deaf-blind. Specifically, we:

_ Provide in-depth computer training to blind and visually impaired individuals who are employed in or are seeking employment in the information technology field.

_ Offer high-quality training that adequately prepares students for the MOS certification exams.

_ Offer tutorials and course materials to individuals for self-study and to Vocational Rehabilitation professionals and trainers for use in their training programs.

_ Serve as a resource for providing computer training via distance learning technologies.

Participating in ASSIST Online

ASSIST Online courses are open to blind and visually impaired individuals nationwide. All persons interested in enrolling in the program must complete an application and assessment form. Only those applicants who are employed in or seeking employment in the Information Technology field AND intend to take MOS certification exams will be considered for acceptance.

We will have application packets available for attendees. In addition, all application materials will be made available on our web site during open enrollment periods (http://www.blind.state.ia.us/assist).

We also make the tutorials, course materials, and tip sheets available to those individuals who prefer self-study or are not able to participate in the online course due to course limitations or acceptance parameters.

During this portion of the presentation we will focus on how attendees can make best use of our project materials, whether that is through participating in the online courses, obtaining our tutorials and course materials, or using our materials and strategies for creating their own distance learning program.

Lessons Learned

We will discuss lessons we have learned in the year and a half since the program's initial implementation. We will highlight changes made in our teaching methodology, steps taken to prepare students for the certification exams, changes in our acceptance guidelines, and more.

We will also present statistics on the certification rate of individual participants and individual assessments of the ASSIST Online courses. Finally, we will discuss the accessibility of the MOS Certification exams and our work with Certiport, Inc. to improve the accessibility of the exams.

Future Courses: Train the Trainer

Next year Project ASSIST will offer train-the-trainer courses. These courses will be open to professionals who provide computer training to blind, visually-impaired, and deaf-blind individuals. The courses will serve as a forum for learning and sharing training strategies. We will introduce proposed courses and review applicant qualifications.

Part II: Implementing a Distance Learning Computer Training Program

Time and travel are constant challenges for trainers and clients. Providing training using distance learning strategies can be an effective solution in meeting training needs.

You will be better prepared to implement a distance learning course if you take the time to consider what you want to achieve with it. Further, starting with a good design can save you time and effort in the future. We will discuss issues to consider when designing an online course, including technology, costs, and student recruitment and assessment. We will also present issues to consider when developing a distance learning course.

Technology

A full-scale distance learning program, complete with an expensive learning management system, may not be feasible for state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies or other budget conscious organizations. We will share ideas for using low cost technological solutions, such as e-mail and teleconference, in a distance learning course. We will also present mid-range cost options. Student Recruitment and Assessment

We will share our methods for recruiting and assessing participants. Issues to consider are:

_ Skills Assessment. (What is the potential student's current skill level? What skill level do you require? What does the student hope to achieve by taking the course? Can the student meet the demands of distance learning?)

_ Type and Version of Computer and Software Student Owns. (What version of software will you be covering? Will the student need new or upgraded software? Who will be responsible for purchasing necessary equipment?)

Distance Learning Course Development

Preparing and implementing a new training course can be quite time consuming. We will share ideas and issues a trainer should consider in creating a distance learning course. Here are the aspects of course development that we will cover:

_ Training Materials. Use organized and detailed training materials that provide thorough instruction & exercises for practice and review.

_ Interaction Methods. Incorporate effective methods for providing constant interaction and communication between the trainer and the students.

_ Assessment Tools. Develop comprehensive assignments and quizzes that offer practice and review. Offer opportunities to assess course materials and the trainer.

_ Course Schedule. Develop a week by week schedule of information to be covered and assignments & quizzes to complete.

_ Material Dissemination. Devise methods to get training materials to the students and to create materials in their preferred format.

_ Information Organization. Build a grade book that can be used to track assignment and quiz results. Use your e-mail program's rules feature to organize incoming messages from students.

For each category listed above, we will provide participants with samples that we developed for our courses. We hope that by sharing our information, other trainers can use their time effectively and reduce redundancy of training efforts.

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