Issues In Preparing Visually Disabled Instructors To Teach Online: A Case Study
Much has been written about how to deliver online course materials to visually-impaired students. This essay explores the methods by which an online support staff may assist a visually-impaired faculty member to teach online, with special emphasis on identifying which strategies for assisting visually-impaired students are transferable to the process of assisting visually-impaired faculty, as well as identifying areas of concern specific to helping a visually-impaired faculty member to prepare and to teach an online course. This essay follows a narrative of the difficulties encountered when the author was assigned to help a visually-disabled faculty member to develop and to teach an online course.
This case narrative covers the process of training a visually-impaired instructor to create online materials, to learn the course-management software adopted at the faculty member's institution, and to teach a pedagogically-valid, successful online course. The author is the Coordinator for Instructional Technology and Distance Education Support at Westmoreland County Community College, a medium-sized two-year college in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The visually-disabled instructor is a member of the faculty at Westmoreland County Community College who volunteered to teach an online course in Labor Relations during the Fall 2001 academic term. The author would like to express his gratitude to the instructor for allowing the author to relate this narrative and to use potentially identifying information in this essay.
This case narrative will follow the narrative method, primarily because there are few published resources available on the subject of offering support services to visually-disabled faculty who teach online. The conclusions of this narrative are, therefore, specific to the case narrated, and generalization from the conclusions of this case narrative is not recommended until a larger number of cases can be reported. The author invites readers to attempt to reproduce the conditions and results of this case in order to test the validity of its conclusions.
Online support staff can rely on a large body of literature when constructing mechanisms by which to assist visually-disabled online students. Such techniques as providing text-only versions of resources, using alternate-text HTML coding with graphics, creating audio files, and offering training with screen-reader technology are well-established methods by which support staff can decrease the burden on visually-impaired students. However, the underlying assumption of supporting visually-disabled students is that support staff are assisting students to retrieve content that is already there--the content of the course has been created by a sighted professor and is modified or augmented by the support staff to better fit the needs of the visually-impaired student.
In terms of preparing a visually-disabled faculty member to teach online, several questions arise. First, teaching an online course almost always implies the creation of new online course materials, or, at the very least, the transition of traditional-medium materials to electronic formats. This raises the question of how to train a visually-impaired faculty member to be able to make the "jump" in formats, how to assist the faculty member to learn how to use the software involved, and how to help the faculty member to become as independent of the support staff as possible in terms of creating and posting class materials. Secondarily, once the course begins, similar questions to those faced by online students arise: what accommodations must be made by the institution, the students, and the faculty member in order to maintain the accessibility of the materials created and used by all of the members of the class? A third area of inquiry has to do with the manner in which support staff train the faculty member how to handle the online class once it has begun; what are some successful strategies that can alert the students to the fact that their instructor is disabled? Is it even necessary to reveal this information? How ought the faculty member to view his or her relationship with the support staff?
These basic questions give rise to other, more specific issues, but these three areas--preparation of materials, training on the software, and online teaching techniques--appear to be the focus points facing any faculty support staff who wish to work well with visually-disabled faculty members who will be teaching online.
PROPOSITIONS OF THE NARRATIVE
Before this case narrative began, the author had already worked with online students who had a range of disabilities from multiple sclerosis to deafness to visual disabilities; recommending adaptive technologies and partnering with local social-service organizations were effective methods of giving disabled students maximum access to the materials in their online classes. It was found most helpful to inform the instructor and key college personnel (the counseling office, for example) of students' disabilities up front, so that instructors had the opportunity to accommodate their disabled students.
In preparing to offer support to a visually-disabled faculty member, the author predicted that the following propositions would hold true:
- Many of the technologies used to support online visually-disabled students would be useful in serving faculty, as well.
- The most difficult part of supporting visually-disabled online faculty would be the software training.
- The visually-disabled faculty member would require more time and more repetition of instructional concepts in order to master the skills needed to create online resources than able faculty members usually require.
- The course management software our college adopted would be cumbersome for a visually-impaired faculty member to learn and use.
- The online teaching tips and techniques the author advocated in training sessions would need to be modified to be useful for the visually-impaired instructor.
- The most successful method for supporting the visually-impaired faculty member during the term would be as "hands on" as possible.
UNITS OF ANALYSIS
From 1 June to 20 August 2001, the author worked with the visually-disabled instructor to develop online materials and to train in the use of the course-management software. From 23 August to 10 December 2001, the instructor is scheduled to teach Labor Relations online. At the time of this writing, the course is nearly halfway finished. In order to measure the success of the support methods used in this case narrative, the author will use the following criteria, some of which are subjective value judgments and others of which are measurable:
- The number and media of materials created by the instructor prior to the start of class.
- The degree to which the instructor is able to post materials to the course without assistance.
- The identity of elements from the instructor's face-to-face and online versions of the course.
- The number of email and discussion-board postings to and from the instructor in relation to the average in other online courses.
- The responses of students to a mid-term and a final survey of the class.
- The number and nature of student requests for technical help.
- The instructor's responses to an end-of-class survey of the effectiveness of technical support.
Each of these criteria represents a subset of the skills needed in order to develop, post, and maintain online course materials; the effectiveness of the support methods offered by the author can be assessed by soliciting feedback from the instructor and the students in the course, as well as by collecting more objective data.
Beginning in the Fall 1999 term, Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC) began to offer online courses using the Blackboard course-management system. After five semesters of offering online courses, the full- and part-time faculty at WCCC were by and large familiar with the idea of the college offering online courses, if not familiar with the software and the tips and tricks of online pedagogy, per se. By the end of the Spring 2001 term, WCCC had offered more than seventy courses online, and had developed an entirely distance-education AAS degree in Business Management. In order to expand the offerings in this degree program, Dr. Thomas L offered to teach his Labor Relations course online, starting in the Fall 2001 term. Dr. L has been blind since the early 1970s, and teaches classes at WCCC with the aid of two part-time research assistants and a pocket audiotape recorder, on which he takes notes and records lecture materials.
In the Fall 1999 term, the author began training faculty to teach using the Blackboard course-management system, developing over the course of two years a six-module training seminar designed to familiarize faculty members with the software as well as with some tips and strategies for teaching online. The author has worked with the visually impaired before, but only in support of visually-disabled students who needed accommodations for online classes.
The first meeting between the instructor and the author took place near the beginning of June 2001, and the primary purpose was to inform the instructor about the options open to him in creating the materials for his online course. The author attended this meeting less to offer a plan for the process than to listen to the instructor and to suggest ways in which the faculty member's skills could be transferred to the online course, rather than having to learn new skills.
The results of this first meeting were quite surprising, calling into question many of the author's assumptions about the optimal methods for assisting the instructor. For example, the assumption that "the visually-disabled faculty member would require more time and more repetition of instructional concepts in order to master the skills needed to create online resources than able faculty members usually require" seemed to be disproved by the instructor's reliance on a hand-held audiocassette recorder to take notes during our meetings. While it is true that the instructor needed to consult his notes frequently and confessed that he would require more time than sighted faculty to learn the software, the complexity of concepts and depth of instruction achieved during the first session was comparable to what might be reasonably covered during the same time with sighted faculty members.
The "reasonable accommodation" that the college had previously provided to the instructor was in the form of two part-time student assistants, who helped the instructor by reading email, doing photocopying, and taking transcription as needed. One of the instructor's assistants was designated as his "online" assistant for this class, and as the instructor learned the software, his assistant was also trained to use it. This arrangement worked out very satisfactorily, at first.
The instructor made a point that he receive the same training and treatment as other faculty members, with a minimum of "special" treatment, and the author honored that request as far as possible; the instructor and the assistant were able to demonstrate mastery of the basics of the course software in approximately five hours of hands-on one-on-one training, and were expected then to post content into the online course shell in preparation for offering the course during the fall 2001 term.
The instructor developed, with help from his assistant, his course lecture materials, tests, questions for discussion, and other class materials. He and the assistant were active participants in their learning, asking questions for clarification when necessary. However, the work progressed in fits and starts, due to the many other demands on the instructor's time during the summer months. He was teaching a basic faculty load plus overload course, for a total of 21 credits during the summer months. The instructor was also involved in faculty union negotiations with the college administration, which further reduced the time he was able to devote to the development of his online-course materials ahead of time. By the beginning of classes in late August, the faculty member had posted 2 of 15 units into his online course.
Subsequent meetings between the author, the instructor, and the assistant proved that some of the author's original working assumptions had been correct. The largest hurdle in getting the instructor to be skilled in teaching online was not ideological or pedagogical but technological. For instance, one of the author's initial assumptions was that the course management software would be cumbersome for a visually-impaired faculty member to learn and use. This became especially apparent when, during the third week of classes, many students in the instructor's online class contacted the author to complain that they had been unable to enter the online class due to the instructor not sending them the course-specific enrollment access code for the Labor Relations course. These students were largely those who had signed up for the class at the last minute, and thus who did not appear on the instructor's initial roster, so the author initially suspected that miscommunication between the registrar and the instructor was the cause of this problem.
On the next meeting with the instructor, however, the author discovered that the instructor had many email messages waiting for him from his students, some as old as two weeks, to which he had yet to respond. The instructor also had not posted materials in his online class for a week. When asked about this development, the instructor reported that his "online assistant" had taken a job with another college, and he was therefore left literally unable to get into his online class for nearly two weeks. The author inquired as to why the instructor did not call for support and help when the assistant left, and the author reported that he did not wish to give the impression that he was incapable of keeping up, despite the fact that this is exactly what happened.
One of the author's working assumptions gave mixed results: "The online teaching tips and techniques the author advocated in training sessions would need to be modified to be useful for the visually-impaired instructor." Since most of the metaphors for thinking about online courses are visual ones, the author found it sometimes difficult to adapt the terminology to fit the training. However, such common vocabulary as "main areas" and "sub-areas" and "documents" were unproblematic, and the instructor was able to learn the structure of the course software relatively easily, especially since many of the tools in the course-management system were designed to mimic classroom resources.
One assumption about training and supporting visually-handicapped faculty to teach online, however, proved to be correct, so much so that the author needed to step in and change strategies mid-way through the course. "The most successful method for supporting the visually-impaired faculty member during the term would be as 'hands on' as possible." Since the methods used to train the faculty member were dependent initially on the instructor's assistant also knowing how to use the online-course software, the instructor began with a firm conceptual understanding of the structure of the online course tools, the ideological methodology which he wished to use, and very little knowledge of how actually to use the keyboard and mouse to enter and administer the Labor Relations course online.
Because of the unforeseeable failure of the "reasonable accommodations" provided to the instructor, the author set up twice-weekly meetings with the instructor, essentially replacing the assistant temporarily (i.e., for the duration of one semester). This placed the most direct means of support in the hands of the instructor, and ensured regular communication between the instructor and his support personnel, and further complications were avoided during the remainder of the course.
The instructor has now expressed a desire to develop another course online for the spring term, and this brings up several conclusions with regard to the amount of, type of, and reasonable expectations regarding the accommodations made for the instructor's disability, the time-frame for development of materials, the level of involvement of support staff in course-materials development matters, and the level of involvement of support staff in actually running the course with the faculty member.
One of the situations which helped to contribute to the difficulties experienced by the instructor and the author is that WCCC's support staff for online courses is one person: the author. Without either student workers or a staff to be able to devote personal one-on-one training and support, the author's ability to maintain the college's online-courses server, train faculty, offer design advice to instructors, and staff the student help desk is already strained.
In order to avoid the need to re-train a new assistant every time the visually-impaired faculty member's part-time assistants turn over, the author suggested that the instructor learn to use a screen reader, such as JAWS, to help him to navigate and to use the computer independently. Ironically, this option was rejected by the faculty member as too time-consuming when it was suggested toward the beginning of the development process. This brings up two further problems, neither of which currently has a satisfactory solution. Screen-reader software such as JAWS tends to have difficulty in reading from frames-based internet pages, and most online-course software, including that adopted by WCCC, utilizes frames. Secondly, and perhaps more pressing, is the fact that the instructor has had minimal experience with a QWERTY keyboard, and has never actually typed on a computer or used a mouse for navigation. Such skills as typing skills are well outside the range of skills that the author can teach, and there is as yet no simple solution that presents itself, since the accommodations thus far given to the instructor have been surrogate in nature; the instructor is unable currently to operate independent of his assistants in terms of basic computer and keyboarding skills. The difficult conclusion of this narrative is that, given the circumstances present in this case, it is nearly impossible for a one-person distance-learning staff to provide adequate support and accommodation to visually-disabled faculty who wish to teach online.
Further, in order to minimize the impact of problems on students in the course, who were, by and large, confused and frustrated by the time they entered the third week of the Labor Relations course, the author suggests the following measures for training and support of all visually-impaired instructors, which, in hindsight, may help to avoid some of the serious difficulties experienced by the author, the instructor, and his students:
- Require that the entire content of the course be posted online before the course may be offered to students. Ask support staff to role-play the student by sending email, posting discussion messages, and sending files to the instructor using the course-management software.
- If possible, offer one-on-one time with support staff for the duration of the course development process, and for a significant percentage of the semester when the course is taught. This may help to head off issues of mis- or non-communication between the instructor and students.
If possible, rely on training methods and resources that will leave the faculty member able independently to use the computer to gain access to and administer the online course. At a minimum, the instructor should be able to check and respond to email, post a message to an asynchronous discussion, and send and receive files with students electronically. These skills, especially if missing to begin with, may require a significant amount of intensive training and time for the instructor to learn, and may require training outside the purview of the traditional skills of a distance-education support staff; therefore, rely on resources from administrative support staff, other faculty who teach subjects such as typing, and community service organizations to help identify support structures that can work in tandem with distance-ed support staff.