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When Geography Impedes Access: Meeting the Professional Development Needs of a Niche Population

Mary Zatta (Perkins School for the Blind, USA)
Robin Sitten (Perkins School for the Blind, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 10:15am
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Areas of Special Interest: 
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere E3
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 6

How do you meet the learning needs of learners working in isolation? This presentation will describe a program constructed to meet these needs.

Extended Abstract

What is the Challenge?
How do you meet the online learning needs of learners working in isolation from their peers and mentors? When the instructional material is of a limited and specialized nature, the learning community can be small and scattered. How does Distance Learning go beyond simple "virtual community" to create true community, and meet students' need for collegiality, mentoring, and hands-on practice?

Perkins eLearning faced this challenge providing professional development for teachers working with low incidence disabilities. Often these teachers are working in isolation or may be one of only a couple of professionals in a district or an entire state. Other educators, who have not been trained in the unique needs of students with visual impairments, may find themselves with limited resources and experience when preparing to welcome such students to their classrooms. Districts provide professional development to meet the needs of their general teaching population, which typically does not provide adequate training for teachers working with students with visual impairments.

This presentation will describe an online professional development program constructed to meet these needs, and suggest ways to apply this model to other types of niche populations. We will demonstrate how online learning can foster the development of a professional community for niche populations and describe how different models of online learning can meet the needs of various learning styles and preferences.

Learning Objectives:
Participants will:
- Explain how geographical, cultural, language, and accessibility barriers isolate members of an online community
- Identify niches within a student population who are not fully included in your online community
- Examine methods for increasing collegiality, mentoring, and hands-on practice within online courses

Takeaways and Interaction:
We will share a range of documents that have been developed to assist online instructors in constructing a course that encourages participation, addresses accessibility, and is inclusive.

Participants will be asked to create an action plan. The action plan will require participants to identify the following: What is the niche community? What are the needs that are not being met? What are some suggested short and long term solutions? Prior to the actual writing of the action plan, participants will engage in small group discussions about their specific situation and brainstorm solutions.

What is the Solution?

1. Multiple Avenues to Online Learning
The "anytime/anyplace" aspect of distance learning seemed a natural solution to the geographical isolation of TVIs and others who work with students who are visually impaired. However, simply putting content into an online format was not enough to remove all the barriers to professional development that our learners had identified. Perkins eLearning acknowledges that stated:

"Édistance education must move beyond a traditional one-size-fits-all approach and offer multimodal learning opportunities that address multiple learning styles and abilities and that are differentiated according to needs. "(Burns, p. 150)

By providing multiple avenues to online learning, we are able to meet our learners' needs for highly specialized content in a range of formats and levels of interaction. Perkins eLearning balances structured instructor-led classes (fully online or blended with face-to-face meetings) with self-service/self-paced offerings, including online communities of practice.

2. The Formation of a Community
A teacher is seen as both an expert and a learner who contributes teaching strategies while exploring others' contributions within the online communities. Discussion forums allow her to connect with her peers and share ideas, problems, and solutions. Additionally, community engagement can be experienced via blog posts, question and answer forums and opportunities to watch and learn.

3. Portability
For itinerant professionals, access to expertise while they move between teaching sites fills a critical need for the resources needed to be effective practitioners.

4. Accessibility
Accessibility is "Job One" at Perkins. This has been an important aspect of our online eLearning portal as many of our online learners and instructors are visually impaired themselves. Community members with disabilities are included through captions, descriptions, and alternate formats, and are empowered by having accessibility controls built in to the learning platform.

5. Global Reach
The closed captioning and audio description that serves participants with disabilities also provides an inclusive community for those whose mother tongue is not English. Professionals around the world have always been welcome in Perkins' Professional Development offerings. Our eLearning topics are no exception; our global colleagues are more successful when principles of Universal Design are incorporated into the online community.

In addition, participants are encouraged to apply learning to their specific situation(s). For our international colleagues, it provides an additional opportunity for them apply the to share their cultural perspective with their online colleagues.

6. Novice to Expert
Many parents and professionals turn to Perkins eLearning as the leading provider of information related to the education of children with visual impairments including those with additional disabilities. Our program includes content and resources to meet the needs of those who are just learning about visual impairment as well as those who have substantial expertise in the field.

7. Mentorship
Mentorship is provided through the dedication of instructors and contributors who are leading practitioners in the field. Perkins eLearners have direct contact with these accomplished professionals. The potential of being mentored by leading practitioners is a unique and significant opportunity.

8. Practical Application
Through video lectures, our instructors model effective practice, and encourage their students to demonstrate understanding of the material by recording their own work for assignments. We have sample video clips of this practice that illustrate how instructors bring their personalities to the material and remind participants there is a living community at work with them.

At all times, coursework is directed at the working professional, who has daily responsibility for the growth and development of students with visual impairments. Every component of the Perkins eLearning professional development program brings that professional into a community that supports them wherever they are, with timely information and advice immediately applicable to their practice.

Lead Presenter

Mary C. Zatta, Ph.D. is currently the Educational Resources Manager at Perkins School for the Blind. As such, Mary is responsible for developing online professional development activities that are accessible for all learners. Mary has recenly been working with Mark Sadecki,Director of IT at the Carroll Center for the Blind in designing a Moodle LMS system that is accessible. Mark has provided the technical expertise in developing the accessibility features. The first online course was piloted in the fall of 2012 and will be open for registration in January 2013.