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). …