Preparing Rural Distance Education Preservice Special Educators to Succeed

Article excerpt


A growing number of students living in rural communities access special education teacher preparation and professional development courses via technology-delivered distance education. Success in these courses depends on the effective use of technology to access information and course materials, complete and submit assignments, and communicate with instructors and classmates. To increase the likelihood that distance education students would have the needed technology skills to succeed as distance learners, program supports were implemented. Supports included a precourse distance learning workshop, on-line technology help files, and access to a technology assistant. Results indicated that student confidence improved in the use of technology skills addressed in the precourse workshop and practiced during the following semester.

Special education teacher shortages in the United States are critical, include all categories of special educators, and are not limited to any specific geographic region (Billingsley, 1993; Boe, Cook, Bobbitt & Terhanian, 1998; Brownell & Smith, 1992; Smith, McLeskey & Taylor, 2002). Shortages of certified special education teachers are most critical in rural areas of the country (Koury, Ludlow, & Wienke, 1991). The lack of even one special education teacher can put an entire small district in jeopardy (Thurston & Sebastian, 1996). Although the total number of special education teachers needed in rural areas is not as large as the number in urban areas, filling these open teaching positions may be more problematic (Thurston & Sebastian, 1996). Rural special education teachers may be difficult to recruit and may not stay as long in their positions thus creating higher levels of attrition and greater continual demand for teachers in rural areas. In a survey of 158 rural special education teachers, Westling and Whitten (1996) found that only 57% of the special education teachers surveyed reported that they were likely to be in their current positions in 5 years.

One solution to address the critical need for rural special education teachers is to train local community members to become special educators via distance education technologies (Collins, 1997; Menlove & Lignugaris-Kraft, 2001). One technology option utilized by a number of higher education special education teacher preparation programs is live, interactive televised distance education. Televised distance education courses are available in a variety of formats including slow scan, satellite delivery, interactive television, compressed video, video streaming, and internet-based audio video conferencing. A critical factor in the success of programs employing these technologies for course delivery relates to how skilled faculty and students are in using the program technology.

A variety and combination of technologies are often used to deliver rural distance education teacher preparation courses. Technology includes delivery hardware (e.g., codex, computers, LCD projectors, DVD or video systems, and audio hardware) and course and class management software used to support the delivery system. Distance education faculty also need email, chat, listserv, word-processing, and translation software to communicate with students in remote locations. Distance faculty must develop a working understanding of the delivery technology and course management and communication software while focusing on effectively teaching course content (Willis, 1995; Meyen, Tangen, & Lian, 1999). In addition, faculty need to organize and track incoming papers electronically and develop systems for acknowledging receipt of papers and exams. Finally, faculty need to learn new techniques for communicating with distant students such as posting FAQ's (frequently asked questions) for student access, distributing information via bulletin boards or a listserv, and holding virtual office hours (e.g., chat rooms through instant messenger or course management software) (Spooner, 1999). …


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