This study evaluated the effectiveness of flexible learning options at a university serving multiple geographic areas (including remote and rural areas) and age groups by teaching an introduction to special education course to three large groups of pre-teacher education majors using three modes of instruction. The university offered sections as (a) a traditional large lecture class, (b) a fully online asynchronous course, and (c) a hybrid course with lecture and asynchronous online instruction. Data analysis centered on course performance, perceptions of instructional effectiveness, and perceptions of preparedness for future role as teachers of students with special needs. The researchers noted no statistically significant differences in students' perceptions of instructional effectiveness; however, the presumed attractiveness of the flexibility of online instruction did not appear to extend to traditional undergraduates who required more support in developing personal responsibility and organizational strategies. Results also indicated that face-to-face interactions with instructors positively impacted perceptions of preparedness for teaching.
Keywords: teacher preparation, introduction to special education, technology-based instruction, online instruction, web-based instruction
In an effort to meet the needs of pre-service and practicing teachers, course offerings in general and special education continue to expand and diversify, One method of course delivery, in particular, that has grown in popularity and is providing options to traditional face-to-face courses for university students is online coursework (Alien & Seaman, 2007; Department of Education Science and Training [DEST], 2002). In both urban and rural settings, online distance education offerings have become a virtual necessity for an increasingly diverse student body at different points in their educational and life paths. Particularly in rural settings, distance offerings are prioritized for university students requiring continuing educational opportunities but do not have reasonable, physical access to traditional university campuses (Collins & Baird, 2006). Distance education research and university-based evaluation of the viability of online course offerings have been at the forefront of research on teacher education at rural universities in attempting to address substantial challenges of special education teacher shortages and reducing rates of teacher attrition (Ludlow, 2006). According to Ludlow (2006), the most urgent and dramatic shifts toward distance education have occurred at institutions with a need to prepare rural personnel, mostly at the graduate level, who are preparing to teach low-incidence populations of students with special needs. Ludlow reported that the majority of such programs have shifted toward high levels of web-based instruction, often fully online instruction. With advancements in the functionality and usability of distance education technologies offered via the web, colleges and universities have opportunities for more robust online courses in either synchronous or asynchronous formats (Kim & Bonk, 2006; McGreal & Elliott, 2004), but ongoing research at the national and university levels are critical to assure the credibility of online preparation experiences and the potential for such programs to fully mirror or improve upon traditional models (Ludlow, 2006).
Further expanding the flexibility of instructional offerings at universities is the emergence of hybrid or blended learning environments in which instructors can opt to maximize the best of both worlds by reducing lecture time and supplementing instruction with online instruction/assessments and/or learning materials. Although there is no standard format for offering hybrid courses, the most consistent interpretation is a 25-50% reduction in face-to-face meeting times by reducing the time of individual class sessions or reducing the number of class meetings (Dziuban, Moskal, & Hartman, 2005). The flexibility inherent to various implementations of online courses makes these delivery methods viable options for many students currently enrolled in special education teacher preparation programs and is often the delivery model of choice for students and university faculty alike.
Nonetheless, it is important that professionals in teacher preparation programs avoid getting "caught up in the draft" of fast-moving online course development and use to the extent that the effectiveness of the learning experience does not match that of traditional, face-to-face course offerings. This apprehension about parity of quality has been and continues to be a crucial focal point of the design and development of online coursework; it appears that this attention to quality has resulted in efficient and effective online course offerings. For example, there is evidence that students perceive instruction in distance education to be of equal quality to coursework offered in the traditional format (Beattie, Spooner, Jordan, Algozzine, & Spooner, 2002; Petty, Heafner, & Hartshorne, 2009; Spooner, Jordan, Algozzine, & Spooner, 1999). In addition, literature on distance education also recognizes no statistically significant difference in numerous studies that compare student achievement in online courses with achievement in both blended and traditional settings (Beile & Boote, 2002; Caywood & Duckett, 2003; McNamara, Swalm, Stearne, & Covassin, 2008; Scoville & Buskirk, 2007; Steinweg, Davis, & Thomson, 2005).
In a recent study, students enrolled in graduate special education courses reported that they were able to appropriately and satisfactorily acquire course content knowledge when participating in online coursework (Korir Bore, 2008). Steinweg et al. (2005) also reported that students were as successful in acquiring the course content knowledge via online course offerings as they were in traditional class settings. Further, these teachers-in-training believed that their knowledge of students with disabilities would have a positive impact on their work with all students in an inclusive classroom (Steinweg et al.). On the negative side, there is evidence that students sometimes believe that there was a core element of the academic experience missing with online courses and that they did not experience a true sense of connection with the online course instructor (Korir Bore, 2008). Despite a substantial body of evidence supporting the comparability of online coursework, reservations persist among many teacher educators in special education, particularly affecting teacher education institutions in rural communities that must prioritize distance programs and online course supplements.
Purpose of the Study
In consideration of the available information regarding the overall effectiveness of online coursework, the purpose of the current evaluation study was to examine the apparent feasibility of multiple modes of traditional and online instruction in a gateway course that is typically required of all students majoring in education, specifically the course Introduction to Students with Special Needs. Essentially, the gateway special education course in our College of Education emphasizes two areas of importance in introductory-level preparation of undergraduate students:
1. Knowledge of critical foundations of special education and disability-related issues (e.g., the law, I.E. P. documents, disability categories, etc.).
2. Dispositions related to providing academic instruction and supports to students in special education in their future teaching including development of a positive attitude and sense of confidence toward supporting the needs of students with special needs (i.e., Do teachers in general, introductory courses believe it is their role to serve the needs of students with special needs? Are they comfortable with this role? Do they believe their use of effective instruction will effect change in student achievement?).
An assumption of this study is that the development of general educators' dispositions related to the education of children with disabilities is a significant milestone in their preparation. Attitudes toward diversity of needs and ability and the internalized understanding of the impact of effective teaching on outcomes dictates, to some degree, the extent to which preservice educators are open to teaching inclusive classrooms, differentiating instruction, implementing pre-referral interventions, and working within effective systems for prevention of academic failure like Response to Intervention (RtI), Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and others.
Preparing General Education Teachers for Students with Special Needs
Teacher's perception of "preparedness" appears to be an area of significant importance as educators continue to include students with disabilities in the general education classroom. Essentially, there is a sense that preservice teachers believe their preparedness sets a tone for use of effective instruction (Jung, 2007). Essentially, teachers are likely to implement good teaching for children with disabilities when they feel they have been prepared to do so. Jung (2007) suggested that teachers' sense of confidence in teaching students with disabilities stems substantially from their preparation. Research on teacher quality indicates that teacher measures of self-efficacy are related to teacher quality and that core belief systems about the potential to impact student learning are correlated with impact on student achievement (Carlson, Lee, Schroll, & Pei 2004).
Further, Cook (2001) suggested that general education teachers with little preparation or exposure related to teaching children with disabilities tended to have more negative attitudes toward teaching students with disabilities. This is particularly evident in working with students with mild/high-incidence disabilities. The more negative attitude is of particular concern given the tendency for students with "mild" disabilities to participate in inclusive general classrooms. Perceptions and beliefs of teachers with limited preparation in special education resulted in low levels of tolerance for students and consequent lower expectations of student achievement.
The notion of dispositions is fundamental to a teacher's future role in serving students with special needs. Recently, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) suggested that dispositions include a belief that all students can learn, a vision of appropriate, yet challenging standards, or a commitment to a safe and supportive learning environment (LePage, Nielsen, & Fearn, 2008). LePage et al. affirmed the need for consideration of dispositions in teacher preparation, suggesting that appropriate dispositions relate to the attitude preservice educators will have toward their students and how a teacher will respond to a child's needs.
Fitch (2002) described teaching in inclusive classrooms as a practice that involves more than integration and builds upon an inclusive ideology held by the responsible teachers. Qualitative research based on interviews with students in special education supported the idea that teachers' inclusive ideologies have a "profound and positive impact on the lives of the included students" (Fitch, p. 249). Fitch further described included students' tendency to adopt a sense of self in the general classroom based on the views and expectations expressed by the educators in their lives. Essentially, inclusion for children with disabilities works well in a context in which teachers have internalized a positive disposition and inclusive philosophy related to their students with special needs.
This study sought to evaluate the experience of three groups of preservice teachers preparing to teach students with disabilities, particularly in general education classrooms, who were students in traditional lecture, fully web-based, and lecture/web hybrid sections of an Introduction to Special Education course. The research design of this project should be viewed as an evaluation or case study of intact programming at a large state university with all of the research limitations inherent to such an endeavor. Although quasi-experiments, such as this, lack true control of all contributing factors, the researchers made substantial efforts to create a rich description of student experiences, including both quantitative and qualitative evaluation.
Given the established literature in teacher education and special education that suggested the three groups of students would experience no significant differences in content acquisition in the three modes of instruction, the purpose of this study was to evaluate preservice teachers' dispositions and perceptions of preparedness related to teaching students with disabilities in addition to a practical measure of the relative effectiveness of their learning experience in each section. Specifically, the research questions included the following:
1. What are the effects of web-based, hybrid, or traditional modes of instruction on students' confidence and perceptions of preparedness in teaching students with special needs?
2. What are the effects of web-based, hybrid, or traditional modes of instruction on students' dispositions (e.g., attitudes toward students, expectations of achievement) toward teaching students with special needs?
3. What are students' perceptions of their effectiveness as learners in web-based, hybrid or traditional modes of instruction for an introduction to special education course?
4. How do students perform academically in webbased, hybrid, or traditional modes of instruction?
The researchers used a post-only quasiexperimental design with quantitative and qualitative measures to evaluate student perspectives on the three modes of instruction in preparing them for their roles as general educators supporting children with special needs. They measured the effects of the independent variable (mode of instruction) on the following dependent variables: (a) perceptions of preparedness for teaching students with special needs, (b) dispositions toward teaching students with special needs, (c) effectiveness of the learning experience in each group's mode of instruction, and (d) academic performance in the class.
Random selection of students and random assignment to treatment group were not feasible or realistic options, as students self-select the condition in which they participate by registering for a certain section of a course. There is a level of randomization built in to the process of university course registration and availability of classes, times of offerings, etc. The three sections were all titled and listed in the registration offerings in a comparable manner with the exception of instructional mode, suggesting that the only assumed bias would be the students' comfort level with their selected mode of instruction. This is less of a significant confound, as it is only natural for students to select the section in which they anticipate doing well (e.g., techno-phobie students would be unlikely to select the sections that promoted the use of Blackboard). The university registration system includes notes for students indicating that sections will be offered once or twice a week and primarily by lecture or fully web-based. The hybrid course was listed as a lecture course with additional instruction requirements provided via an online learning management system.
Participants and Setting
Participants consisted of undergraduate students preparing for admission to one of several teacher education programs offered in the college. A small number of students majoring in non-education majors (e.g., business, nursing, psychology) also participated. The largest group in the full population was elementary education majors, with other majors including special education, middle grades education, and child and family development. Approximately 80% of students were female. Approximately 25% of students were transfers from local community colleges, including non-traditional students returning to college while balancing work and family responsibilities (often practicing teacher assistants and career changers seeking a first degree in education). The demographics of the classes included an overwhelming preponderance of not only female students, but also students of White European heritage from small, regional communities. Although data are not explicitly collected on race or cultural and linguistic diversity, the courses did not reflect a population of more than 10% non-White students. The setting of the study was a large state university in the southeastern United States situated in a suburban geographic location outside of a major urban center. Despite the semi-urban location of the university, the characteristics of the setting are substantially affected by the remote and rural settings in which a large number of the students live. Many travel from smaller, rural communities in the mountainous and semi-mountainous regions of the state. The large number of students requiring the course as a prerequisite for their major program was a major impetus for consideration of multiple modes of instruction. Given the geographic location of the university, the vast majority of the students attending on campus are commuter students required to travel considerable distances from smaller, rural communities in the larger region served by the university.
There were 159 students in the traditional lecture section of the course, 69 students in the fully webbased section, and 69 students in the hybrid section. The large size of the traditional lecture section reflected the typical offerings of face-to-face lectures at the university for early college students. Throughout the history of this course, this large group, multi-day, afternoon lecture option on campus would have been the only choice for students. Sizes of sections were reflective of the common enrollments in courses at the university at this level of preparation. Although online graduate courses would typically be smaller in size, the university could not justify a smaller section in this instance, as the need to create flexible learning options also reflected a need to serve a growing student population.
The course, SPED 2100: Introduction to Students with Special Needs, serves as a gateway course to admission to the teacher education program. The textbook used across all sections of the course in this study was Exceptional Children by Reward (2006). Typically taken concurrent to EDUC 2100: Introduction to Education, there is an assumption that students must demonstrate basic proficiency with the vast content in each course in order to move on to advanced courses. A minimum grade of "C" is required to pass the course.
The fully web-based section of the course was presented entirely through the Blackboard online instructional management tool. Included in the online presentation were multiple technologies and instructional techniques intended to parallel the learning opportunities provided in a traditional lecturebased environment including (a) weekly comprehension checks in a repeatable quiz format, (b) interactive discussions conducted in the discussions application of Blackboard, (c) learning modules and notes which organize the text material, and (d) archived video of traditional lectures. Each week of online instruction (offered in an asynchronous format within a week-long timeline) offered comparable instructional opportunities. Videos linked in Blackboard were archived lectures with equivalent lecture content to the experience of students in the traditional section. Essentially, online participants could view/hear the same lectures as students in the lecture section. Discussions in Blackboard were also generally equivalent to weekly discussion topics in the lecture classes.
Hybrid, or blended, courses typically combine attributes of both face-to-face and online instructional settings, providing opportunities for the inclusion of both asynchronous and synchronous interactions with various stakeholders in the instructional setting (Dennis, El-Gayar, & Zhou, 2002). In the online components of the hybrid course, there was a consistent use of weekly comprehension checks in a repeatable quiz format, learning modules, and notes which organize the text material. The traditional lecture presentations (hybrid and full-lecture) included presentation of new concepts (aligned with chapters in the text), in-class notes on key points (consistent with the online presentation), PowerPoint presentations, and interactive discussions.
SPED 2100 (Introduction to Students with Special Needs) is an example of a course that typically is presented via traditional large lecture. Often, the course is offered either twice a week during the afternoon or once a week in the evening (for nearly 3 h). The lecture section consistently receives very positive evaluations from students, and this study did not reflect any attempt to eliminate the traditional formats. Given the increasingly diverse group of students, including non-traditional students, seeking to enter the teaching profession, there is a demand for more flexible opportunities to participate in introductory courses. This study examined feasible alternatives and the effectiveness of such alternatives for addressing the need to teach a broad population of future teachers.
Professional preparation for instructors in their roles. Two instructors taught the three sections of the course. The instructor of the large lecture course had over 25 years of experience teaching large sections of SPED 2100 in the format used in this study. The instructor has been awarded multiple university teaching awards for his role in teaching this course, with consistently over 150 students in a section. The instructor of the fully web-based and hybrid webbased/lecture course was a junior faculty member with 4 years of web-based teaching experience and extensive training in the use of distance education technology, including university courses and multiple advanced professional development programs in WebCT, Blackboard Vista, podcasting, web design, and multimedia development.
Both instructors had a record of positive evaluations and were comparably regarded as effective instructors, as evidenced by advisor recommendations, course evaluations, and peer review. Further, the knowledge base of the two instructors can be assumed to be very consistent, as both faculty hold doctoral degrees in special education with advanced expertise in high-incidence disabilities, particularly in learning disabilities and communicative disorders.
During the final week of regular classes, a 12 -item questionnaire (see Table 1) was distributed to students in all sections to evaluate perceptions of preparedness related to teaching students with special needs and overall disposition. The questionnaire also evaluated perceptions of success learning a vast amount of new special education content in their selected course section. The researchers in this study developed questionnaire items to evaluate four main areas: (a) attitudes toward children with special needs, (b) confidence/preparedness regarding teaching students with special needs, (c) professional dispositions regarding effective instruction for children with special needs, and (d) perception of learning in the course (web-based, hybrid, lecture). Each item required preservice teachers to rate their agreement with a statement related to the above areas of evaluation based on a 5-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Undecided, 4 = Agree, 5 = Strongly Agree).
The researchers derived the language of questionnaire items associated with attitudes and confidence toward teaching students with special needs from the College of Education's Conceptual Framework associated with NCATE accreditation and state legislature resolutions to prepare all teachers to meet the needs of students with special needs. They based items associated with perspectives on learning in differing modes of instruction on summaries of findings associated with student perspectives on learning in online, traditional, and blended contexts provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning at the site of the study and the nationally recognized Center for Distributed Learning (www.cdl.ucf.edu) at the University of Central Florida. The researchers piloted the questionnaire with volunteer undergraduate student assistants in the department to ensure clarity of language and construct validity. They based minor enhancements on this feedback. Also, three -peer faculty reviewed the questionnaire to ensure content validity with positive feedback and minor revisions. Ultimately, the researchers developed the questionnaire items in two formats, a hard copy format and an online format using SurveyShare. Students in the sections with face-to-face components completed the hardy copy questionnaire. Students in the online section completed the identical version of the questionnaire presented via SurveyShare. All students participated voluntarily and provided informed consent. Overall response rate for the questionnaire was 82%; 81% for the lecture course, 82% for the hybrid course, and 85% for the online course.
During the week of final exams, the researchers conducted semi-structured interviews across three focus groups; they created one representative group from each course section. Groups were comprised of a targeted sample of students in each section, reflecting the typical composition of students (traditional freshmen, junior-level transfer students, non-traditional students), to further investigate the effectiveness of the three sections overall and for subgroups, in particular. There was an effort to achieve balance in the gender, cultural/linguistic background, and the extremes of the group (students for whom this represented a first experience in college and students who were returning to college and balancing school with work and family). Of the 16 students interviewed, 3 students were male, 3 students were of Latino background, 2 students were African-American, 1 student was Asian-American, 1 student had an identified disability, and the remainder were white female students from southern, small, rural communities. Seven of the students were nontraditional undergraduates balancing work and school as transfer-students from the community college.
The focus group for the traditional lecture course included 5 female students and 1 male student. Four of the students were identified as traditional undergraduates experiencing first or second years of college at typically established ages. Three of these students lived on campus. Two students in the focus group were identified as non-traditional students, including one student majoring in a non-education major who was returning to college later in life and another student attending school part-time while working with the intent of majoring in education. The focus group for the hybrid course included 5 students - 4 female and 1 male. The female students included 1 traditional undergraduate and 3 nontraditional undergraduates all of whom were working part-time, raising families, and returning to school. The traditional undergraduate student was an education major and of typical first-semester college age. She was also a commuter to campus like her nontraditional counterparts. One male student was a traditional undergraduate living near campus. The focus group for the online course included 5 students - 4 female and 1 male. Three of the 4 female students were traditional undergraduates living either on campus or nearby. Another female student was a non-traditional student returning to school later in life while raising a family and running a business from her home. The final male student was also a nontraditional student who worked full-time and attempted to balance a return to school with his work and family responsibilities.
A research assistant who was not associated with student grading or assessment of performance in the course conducted interviews. The researchers selected the research assistant with the assumption that students would be less apprehensive about sharing their perspectives with another student. Student comments were audio recorded only and transcribed by the research assistant for later analysis by the lead researchers. All of the students in the traditional and hybrid sections participated in on-campus focus group interviews. The focus group for the online course was somewhat more complicated as numerous students indicated great hardship associated with travel to campus. Two of the 5 students were interviewed in person, whereas the other 3 responded to questions posed by the interviewer in a telephone conference call.
The researchers completed a series of univariate ANOVAs for survey items to determine if statistically significant differences existed among the three treatment groups. They completed Scheffe post hoc analyses for all significant main effects. The designated level of statistical significance was p < .05 for all statistical analyses.
Each of the researchers read qualitative data from focus group discussions, after transcription, three times. Each researcher highlighted commonalities in the transcripts and then compared these for themes using the constant comparative method of data analysis (Bogden & Biklen, 1982; Corbin & Strauss, 1990). Constant comparative analysis is an iterative process of data reduction and helps to identify a higher order structure in data and organize codes into emergent themes. Members of the research team initially conducted iterations independently in order to allow for comparison and validity checks. After the initial independent iterations, the research team convened several times for comparison of themes. Each time, they read and reread data to affirm researcher agreement on themes and to explore participant meaning. After they identified patterns and sorted data into domains (Huberman & Miles, 2002; LeCompte & Schensul, 1999), they identified and cited exemplary quotes from the narratives to support each of the emergent themes. This process helped to clarify constructs driving the meaning of each theme, as well as to examine the pattern of relationships emerging between themes.
The researchers analyzed final course grades to determine the proportion of students who completed the course satisfactorily (i.e., A, B, or C) and unsatisfactorily (below a C). Grading procedures were held constant across the three sections including equal emphasis on formal, multiple-choice content exams and weekly quizzes/activities appropriate for the instructional design. The researchers compared the percentages of each grade across the three sections to determine if students experienced different levels of success based on mode of instruction. They considered this to be particularly relevant, as there are varied perspectives among students regarding the likelihood that they will achieve at a high level based on course offerings. For example, many students resent large lecture courses, worrying that a lack of personal attention will diminish their performance. Other students would attribute the same limitations to an online course, whereas others perceive that online courses are easier than traditional courses. As the course is a prerequisite for admission into teacher education, students must make a minimum of a "C" grade and take their final grade quite seriously.
Means, standard deviations, and initial statistical outcomes are in Table 1.
Perception of Preparedness and Confidence in Teaching Students with Special Needs
Three survey items (1, 4, and 6) addressed the first research question (i.e., What are the effects of web-based, hybrid, and traditional modes of instruction on students' confidence and perceptions of preparedness in teaching students with special needs?) Across all three items, mean responses were highest for the large lecture course with the lowest response scores for the online section. A statistically significant difference was indicated among the three groups on items 1, F(2, 246) = 3.81, p = .023, K^sup 2^ = .03, and 4 F(2, 238) = 10.19, p = .000, K^sup 2^ = .08. Follow-up analyses for item 1 (I am comfortable . . .) indicated that significance occurred between the lecture class (M= 4.24, SD= .77) and the online class (M= 3.91, SD= .66). Students in the lecture class reported statistically significantly higher levels of comfort working with students with disabilities compared to students in the online class. There were no other statistically significant differences between the other groups. Follow-up analyses for item 4 (I believe I will be successful . . .) indicated that significance occurred between the online class (M= 3.91, SD= .81) and the lecture class (M= 4.41, SD= .66) and between the online class and the hybrid class (M= 4.34, SD= .67). Students in both the lecture and hybrid classes reported significantly greater levels of confidence in their future work with students with disabilities as compared to students in the online class.
Dispositions and Attitude regarding Teaching Students with Special Needs
Based on Research Question 2 (What are the effects of web-based, hybrid, or traditional modes of instruction on students' disposition [e.g., attitudes toward students, expectations of achievement] toward teaching students with special needs?), items 2, 3, 5, and 7 evaluated student attitudes, beliefs, and expectations regarding students with disabilities. Similar to the first set of items, there was an obvious pattern in the mean response scores with scores for the online section being the lowest for all items. Again, the large lecture course scores tended to be highest with the exception of item 5. A statistically significant difference was indicated among the three groups only for item 3, F(2, 243) = 3.80, p = .024, K^sup 2^ = .03. Follow-up analyses for item 3 (As a teacher, I believe it is important . . .) indicated that statistical significance occurred between the lecture class (M= 4.85, SD= .47) and the online class (M= 4.60, SD= .82). Students in the lecture class reported significantly higher perceptions of the importance of understanding differences in child development and identification of disabilities compared to students in the online class. There were no other significant differences between the other groups.
Effectiveness of Mode of Instruction
Items 8-12 evaluated perceptions of the instructional options based on Research Question 3 (What are students' perceptions of their effectiveness as learners in web-based, hybrid and traditional modes of instruction for an introduction to special education course?) Trends in response scores were more varied for this set of questions compared to the first two sets of items. For example, no statistically significant differences were indicated among the three groups for items 8 and 9, which evaluated perceptions of instructional effectiveness and success with their selected mode of instruction. However, the highest scores were for both the lecture and online classes for these two items.
A statistically significant difference was indicated among the three groups for items 10, F(2, 250) = 5.10, p = .007, K^sup 2^ = .04, and 11, F(2, 238)= 3.93, p =.02, K^sup 2^ = .032. Follow-up analyses for item 10 (. . . course was effective for adapting to my schedule and personal life needs) indicated that statistical significance occurred between the online class (M= 4.81, SD= .40) and the lecture class (M= 4.52, SD= .61). Students in the online class reported significantly higher perceptions of flexibility for adapting the course to their personal schedules compared to students in the lecture class. There were no other significant differences between the other groups. Follow-up analyses for item 11 (I can effectively learn new information from web-based resources.), which simply sought to evaluate preference for learning on the web and student choice among the sections, indicated that significance occurred between the lecture class (M= 4.20, SD= .74) and the online class (M= 4.51, SD= .60). Students in the online class confirmed that they had a greater preference for learning new information from web-based resources compared to students in the lecture class.
Item 12 (The workload was reasonable for me to complete throughout the semester.) sought to examine whether there were differences in student perceptions of rigor among the three instructional modes. No statistically significant differences were indicated among the three groups.
Course instructors compiled data on overall student performance in the three sections based on the fourth research question (How do students perform academically in web-based, hybrid, and traditional modes of instruction? ) For the lecture course, there were 159 students: 95 A's, 45 B's, 6 C's, 1 D, and 12 F's. This resulted in 91.8% of students completing the course satisfactorily in order to progress in teacher education. Nearly 60% of the students received A's. For the hybrid course, there were 69 students: 44 A's, 14 B's, 9 C's, 1 D, and 1 F. This resulted in 97.1% of students completing the course satisfactorily in order to progress in teacher education. Just over 60% of the students received A's. Finally, there were 69 students in the online course: 43 A's, 17 B's, 5 C's, 2 F's and 2 late withdrawals. This resulted in 94.2% of students completing the course satisfactorily in order to progress in teacher education. Just over 60% received A's.
Evaluation of open-ended data presented a richer understanding of student feelings and perceptions of each instructional mode (online, face-to-face, hybrid). Analyses of qualitative data revealed emergent themes regarding differences in the instructional modes related to (a) perceptions of preparedness and confidence, (b) perceptions of the instructional modes, and (c) recommended modifications to courses based on instructional modes.
Perceptions of preparedness and confidence. The analysis of the focus-group transcripts revealed four emergent themes (opinions about the general content, identification and awareness, uncertainty, and personalization) regarding the level of preparedness and confidence focus group participants felt after completion of the course. These data present the best description for how each instructional approach influenced the level of preparedness and the confidence for students.
The data revealed that students from focus groups representing each instructional mode reported that the course content provided a general overview of the instructional material but did not provide in depth analysis of course topics. There was a sense that the course provided an introduction to issues that may not have been previously considered by these pre-teacher education students. This was consistent across focus groups for each instructional mode and aligned with the stated course objectives.
Participants in all focus groups indicated that the course provided a general awareness for students with special needs that did not previously exist. Again, this was consistent across each focus group and was consistent with the stated course objectives.
Students in the online version of the course indicated more uncertainty regarding their level of preparedness. While being able to identify students that would need additional assistance and instructional modifications, participants in the online section indicated an uncertainty with knowing how to address these issues ("I don't know that I would really know how to deal with it," "I think it just . . . opened my eyes, but that is pretty much it," "I guess it is more of an awareness than really knowing how to deal with it"). This was a theme that only emerged in the focus group with online students. Additionally, while there was a significant attempt made to establish equality in the learning experiences of students in various instructional modes, students in the online course section seemed to indicate a sense that they were teaching themselves, which led to additional uncertainty regarding their level of preparedness upon completion of the course ("It is not somebody putting it into your head. It is kind of like reading a book, you are not going to remember all the details that you may need, you are just going to remember the overview"). One reason for this might have been the lack of familiarity with online learning, as most students in the online section focus group had no previous experience with online courses.
Notably absent from the commentaries of online class participants were the discussions of personalization among participants in both the lecture and hybrid classes. Students in the lecture and hybrid classes consistently noted the importance of the enthusiasm and passion of their instructor that created a stronger sense of connection with the course content ("He is so passionate, it is easy to pay attention.") The students emphasized the value of relating the course content to personal experiences and passions of the instructor ("I think that he really personalized it, to hear it from him and not just reading a book is one thing, but hearing about somebody's experiences is another.")
Perceptions of instructional modes. Another issue examined in the focus groups included the student perceptions of the instructional modes. Specifically, these data present the best description for the reasons for selecting the instructional modes, as well as the perceptions of the effectiveness of the various learning modes.
Participants enrolled in each of the instructional modes cited differences in reasons for selecting the instructional modes, as well as general perceptions of their experiences with the instructional mode of choice. As would be expected, students that enrolled in the online and hybrid versions cited convenience and flexibility as the rationale for enrolling in the online section. Students who enrolled in the face-to-face course cited that the online version of the course did not align with their learning preferences (or perceptions of learning preferences) and perceived the online course as being more time consuming with regard to workload. For these students, convenience and flexibility were not important.
There was a clear distinction between the perceptions of effectiveness of the online course from the perspectives of traditional and non-traditional students. Traditional students felt that the online course was much harder than expected and took a significant amount of time to acclimate themselves to the learning environment and structure (". . . it took me a while." "I really was surprised by that, . . ."). They found the environment confusing and had a more difficult time with issues that are common with new online learners, such as organization, persistence, scheduling ("I know he has office hours Monday and Friday, but that is optional. Where there are those optional big lecture classes, you know they don't take attendance, I mean I go, but it is an easier way for me not to go. But if it is required to meet at that time to see where everyone is at. I think it is a lot better because it pushes you to have to do it;" "As good as it sounds to be online and not have to go to class, I don't think you retain as much, and I don't think you get as much from it, or give as much to it"). They viewed learning as a more passive process (rather than an active process), which added to their feelings of being overwhelmed by the online learning environment. On the other hand, the non-traditional students enrolled in the online section of the course felt that the learning environment made them more comfortable and had a positive impact on their learning experience. Contrary to the views of the traditional students, the non-traditional students did not feel the online course hindered their learning experience but did cite the need to be organized and self-motivated in order to be successful.
There was no distinction between the views of the traditional and non-traditional students enrolled in the face-to-face and hybrid courses related to perceptions of effectiveness. Those in the face-to-face course believed the environment was effective and facilitated a positive learning experience. They liked the social aspect of seeing other students face-to-face, felt the content was very practical, and enjoyed the instructorled aspect of the course; all stated that they would enroll in the face-to-face section again, if given a choice. Those enrolled in the hybrid section of the course also believed the environment was effective and facilitated a positive learning experience. They believed they were more prepared and that the additional discussion and focus on higher order thinking facilitated by the hybrid environment resulted in more interesting, successful, and interactive in-class discussions and experiences. Some participants did note that the hybrid environment was somewhat confusing at first, but that it "wore off pretty quickly."
Recommended modifications to courses based on instructional modes. There was a consensus among the face-to-face and hybrid students that no modifications needed to be made to the instructional mode or content of the course. This was not the case with the online students, as a number of recommended modifications emerged from the focus group discussions. Because students were somewhat unsure of how to approach the learning environment, students suggested a need for more structure in the layout and approach to the course. While there was a significant attempt to align the structure and layout of the online course with those of the face-to-face and hybrid courses, there was clearly a perception among students that this was not the case. A number of students indicated a desire for a hybrid version of the course or a face-to-face component of the online course.
There were consistent differences in the perceptions of instructional opportunities afforded preteacher education majors included in this study. In some cases, the lack of difference is equally relevant. There were, however, some notable differences observed in perceptions of preparedness or confidence, flexibility of instructional experiences, and overall course performance.
Regarding perceptions of preparedness, student responses suggested that students in the lecture course had a greater perception of their potential to be successful teaching students with special needs in their future careers than students who participated in the online course. Notable in student responses for these items was the idea that students in the online course could objectively recognize the potential for students with special needs to be successful in their classrooms (item 6) based on the content of the course, but this confidence regarding student potential did not translate to viewing themselves as successful teachers of those students (item 4) compared to students in the lecture course. The differences between these two items seem to indicate a greater sense of preparedness among those students who met in person with an instructor in the lecture and hybrid sections. This also was reflected in higher scores related to students' sense of comfort working with students with disabilities. Focus group data reinforced the questionnaire data regarding perceptions of preparedness or confidence, suggesting that students in the online class may have felt more distanced from course content, feeling uncertain of the connection of their new "awareness" of disabilities in schools to their future work. Students in the lecture and hybrid classes, however, noted the personal connections and enthusiasm of their instructors as relevant to their ability to "connect" with course content.
Scores for questionnaire items evaluating attitudes or dispositions associated with teaching students with special needs showed some small preferences for faceto-face components in the courses, but, overall, there were no meaningful differences among the students in the three sections.
Questionnaire data for student perceptions of their instructional mode suggested that students found each of the courses to be equally manageable and equally effective at promoting their learning. Students perceived the online course to be the most flexible and adaptable to their individual needs, but this was hardly surprising, as this is inherent in the design of asynchronous online learning experiences.
The data on academic performance were notable despite the lack of difference in student self-reports of their ability to be successful in the course. Generally speaking, there were high rates of satisfactory completion for students in all three sections. There were, however, small differences among the sections. The large lecture course, although highly rated across the sample of students, showed a greater and rather high rate of attrition of students seeking to enter their selected teacher education program. College-wide data at the institution in which this study was conducted suggest that 8.2% non-satisfactory completion is relatively high for gateway courses of this kind. This rate is typically 5% or less. Further, in this case, the hybrid course had the highest rate of completion (97.1%). These data may suggest that the combined instructional opportunities (web-based and lecture) offered the greatest potential for students to find success. The online course also had very high rates of successful completion (94.1%) but had the only late withdrawals among the three sections. These data suggest that, for those students who found the design to be manageable, the flexibility inherent in the online course may have supported students' ability to meet course expectations (e.g., students do not experience lower course grades due to inconsistent attendance or missing the beginning of a lecture that appears later on a quiz).
Implications for Teacher Education and Special Education
Results from this project have clear relevance for contemporary universities preparing a diverse crosssection of aspiring teachers of students of special needs who range from traditional on-campus students to an increasingly large number of non-traditional students balancing the return to school with work and family responsibilities. Further, the setting of this study is relevant as it was conducted at an institution that cannot be fully defined as rural or urban since it resides near a major city but primarily serves a geographically diffuse population including large numbers of students traveling from remote and rural communities. Even large, urban, and suburban institutions must consider the unique distance education needs of students from rural communities and the special considerations of rural special education teacher preparation, which includes a dramatic need to increase the numbers of qualified personnel in geographic areas with limited access to university campuses (Ludlow, 2006). Contemporary special education teacher preparation is characterized by an increase in online course offerings and a diverse population of pre-service teachers, including non-traditional students who have greater needs for flexible educational opportunities (Beattie et al., 2002; Hagie, Hughes, & Smith, 2005). A key piece in the planning of the current research, that students had options in their course delivery method, has emerged as an element that provided a high level of satisfaction for the participants. Participants from each of the three programs were satisfied with their choice of course delivery in terms of manageability and effectiveness. Moreover, participants in the traditional face-to-face course demonstrated consistently favorable perceptions of the large lecture experience, affirming the value of connecting with an expert in the field who could convey passion and enthusiasm for their discipline in addition to a desire for a structured, scheduled learning environment. The desire for options to match lifestyle and learning preferences is driving a demand for a variety of course delivery methods.
The overall stronger response in the perceptions of preparedness and confidence for students in the classes that included face-to-face lectures echoes Korir Bore's (2008) identification of a core element of the academic experience missing with online courses; these students did not perceive a true sense of connection with the online course instructor. This sense of connection is considered a positive aspect of a course, according to typical course evaluations, although students may prefer varying levels of connection. For teacher educators, recognizing this need for connection can and should lead to creative community building in any learning context, including online environments. A key element of online community building may be in the orientation to the online course, as many students select an introductory course to get started in online learning.
The hybrid course emerged as strong in terms of instructional design, as the data reflected strengths in each area investigated. For the teacher educator, having the choice of offering a hybrid course allows some options in matching content and skills to be taught in the best delivery option; this opportunity may be attractive to the teacher educator.
Ongoing teacher education research is required to assess the outcomes for pre-service teachers, given various web-based and traditional modes of instruction (Scheetz & Gunter, 2004). Specifically, this study sought to determine if distance education models are equally effective in terms of preparing students for the next level of teacher education with sufficient content knowledge and disposition. The results raise questions as to whether distance education research in special education with graduate students translates to the undergraduate population with similar indicators for best practice.
In an era of rapidly growing technology, increased communication options broaden the capabilities for teaching and learning around the globe. The desire for options on the part of students also should create options for teacher educators, both in teaching and research.
The primary limitations of this study relate to evaluation of a regular college semester that does not allow for random selection of students to participate or random assignment of the intact population of preteacher education majors to different course sections. Further, there are limitations to how the results of this study can be generalized to other university settings. The authors sought to create three highly effective models of different instructional options to lend the highest level of credibility to the results; however, the quality and characteristics of lecture and online course sections vary considerably among universities across the nation. For example, not all universities offer lecture courses of this nature with such large numbers, but it is quite common at large state universities. Also, instructor quality and charisma vary greatly. In this study, large numbers were explicitly counteracted with use of a highly engaging and interactive teaching style by an instructor regularly recognized for teaching excellence. Finally, the instructional opportunities afforded by the online section were extensive and exemplified a high-level implementation of web-based instruction; however, the course was offered asynchronously, and it may be difficult to generalize finding to courses that emphasize use of synchronous lectures or chats with the course instructor.
While results of this study provide some relevant insights into the experiences of pre-teacher education majors seeking flexible instructional experiences at a typical, large, state university, findings from this evaluation study can be viewed as preliminary. Future research must, more effectively, address issues of randomization to provide clearer and stronger assertions regarding consistency outcomes. A further challenge to be addressed in future research relates to the notion of a common measure of sufficient knowledge and skills in special education for teachers preparing for general education roles. A future study hopefully would go further to address both random assignment to treatment options and use of a standard, objective measure of knowledge in the foundations of special education.
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