Collaborative Learning Program Addresses Demand for Special Education Teachers


The Collaborative Teacher Education Program (CTEP) at IndianaUniversity was created to address the critical shortage of specialeducation teachers in rural communities. In Indiana over the lastseven years, the number of students categorized as mildly orseriously disabled has more than doubled, and much of the increasehas occurred in rural school districts. Faced with this explosivegrowth, school corporations have been forced to rely heavily onteachers with emergency certificates.

The lack of fully certified teachers in rural communities iscompounded by the difficulty teachers have obtaining universitytraining. In many areas of Indiana, there is a surplus of elementaryand secondary teachers and many of them take positions in specialeducation on emergency licenses. Typically, these teachers move tolarger communities or into other job positions when they are unableto obtain the coursework they need for certification. CTEP wasdesigned so teachers can complete the entire 36-credit hourrequirement for earning special education licenses in their localcommunities.

Basic Principles

Three basic principles have evolved to guide our selection ofdistance education technologies:

The technology must be affordable. To be able to deliver concentrated instruction to relatively small groups, it is important to keep costs low. We have tried to keep our expenses roughly in line with those for traditional on-campus classes by using existing technologies whenever possible and by avoiding cutting-edge solutions that could not justify their high cost.

The technology must be reliable. One of the first things we learned about distance education was the feeling of frustration and powerlessness one gets when the technology breaks down in the middle of class. We quickly learned to focus on technologies that can work in a predictable and consistent manner, valuing reliability over more ambitious tools and applications that may be subject to bugs or breakdowns.

The technology must be simple. The field of distance education has seen many innovative and powerful tools developed in recent years, but we have found time and again that the most useful tools are those that are simple to operate and maintain. Telephones, fax machines and simple e-mail applications have proven to be the most indispensable and versatile technologies we use, and the computer applications and video systems we prefer are those that offer basic capabilities and ease of use rather than broad and complex features. A key advantage of this kind of simplicity is that we can involve students in their own training, as they can easily learn to control the technology themselves.

Following these principles, we have adopted basic, low-costtechnologies that we can count on to operate during a two-hour classsession and that can also handle the array of in-class andout-of-class activities that we plan for teacher preparation. Overthe years we have broadened the technologies we use as the School ofEducation and school corporations in Southern Indiana have acquiredmore sophisticated technologies and as communication technologiesthemselves have become more reliable and easier to use. Thesetechnologies have involved two basic formats for course delivery:audiographics and two-way videoconferencing. 

Delivery Formats

Audiographics refers to a variety of formats featuring two-wayvoice communication supported by computer-based graphics. Althoughaudiographic technology is usually overlooked in the rush to moreup-to-date video options, its low cost and broad deliverycapabilities make it still very viable for programs that emphasizeoutreach or low instructor-to-student ratios. When we started CTEP 10years ago, neither Indiana University nor rural school corporationsin Southern Indiana had resources to commit to broadcast technologiesusing satellite or cable transmissions. Since we used schoollibraries or classrooms as reception sites, our only realistic optionfor delivery was a combination of technologies that would work wellover the existing telephone lines and services. Audiographics was&emdash; and still is &emdash; the best option for suchcircumstances.

We operated our classes over two dedicated phone lines &emdash;one for voice communications and one for computer graphics. Somecurrent audiographics software allows simultaneous voice and graphicscommunication on a single line, but the voice quality is usually toolow to be used for a large class. The most important component inaudiographics is a high quality voice connection. Instead of usingordinary speakerphones, we used an AT&T Quorum system featuringomni-directional tower microphones that gave us a reliable and clearconnection to the class.

While we conducted class over the speakerphone, we used thecomputer graphics link to illustrate key points. The remote site hada computer with an LCD unit, and we sent overhead slides through amodem link from our on-campus location. We have found that the twomost useful features to look for are a slide-show that allows imagesto be downloaded at the remote site before class begins, and awhiteboard that allows you to type or draw on the remote computerscreen. You can then prepare overheads before class and annotate themor make new notes as the class progresses. We set up the entiresystem for about $3,000 per site.

One advantage to audiographics is that the limitations of anon-video format forced us to adopt effective teaching strategiesthat are often overlooked in campus-based courses. Rather thanlecturing over the speakerphone, we learned to encourage the traineesat the remote site to lead discussions, explain key points from thetext and take part in small-group activities. To facilitate thisprocess, we had trainees take turns as on-site coordinators, and wecontacted them in advance to help them prepare to lead the class. Weincluded specific written guidelines for all of our class activities,as there was little opportunity for the kind of free-form directsupervision that takes place in campus-based courses.

One of the main limiting factors to reaching rural settings withtechnology in the past has been the lack of the high-speed phonelines needed for effective two-way video. But new partnershipsbetween phone companies and rural school corporations are beginningto establish high-speed links to local schools. To take advantage ofthis type of cooperative relationship, we have switched our deliveryto a two-way video format. This year we are offering coursework usingAmeritech's Vision Athena, a large-group videoconferencing systemthat uses high-speed telephone lines to transmit quality video andaudio. Ameritech has equipped classrooms in Indiana University'sSchool of Education and in several school buildings in SouthernIndiana with large-screen monitors, speakers and built-in cameras andmicrophones. In addition, both origination and remote sites havecomputers, document cameras and videotape units for displayinggraphics, hard copies or videos.

Videoconferencing equipment offers the obvious advantage oftrainees and instructors being able to see one another and followvisual cues. Seeing the instructors makes the students much morecomfortable, and it is much easier to explain issues and spotproblems. Even so, we have made a deliberate effort to continue usingstudent-centered activities and discussions, and involving thetrainees in running the class. Although our trainees can now see us,they are just as likely as students using audiographics to becomerestless if we do not keep them constantly involved in classactivities. Distance education students are more demanding of goodinstruction than campus-based students, as they quickly lose interestif the instructor d'es not engage them directly in learning.

Support Technologies

Simple technologies such as fax machines and e-mail are among themost powerful tools we have for communicating with distant trainees.Both of these technologies give us continuous access to trainees andprovide for rapid asynchronous communication between universityinstructors and teachers. For example, we have teachers completeassignments after each class session, and they fax their worksheetsto us before the next class meeting. They also send us notes by faxor e-mail if they need clarification or have special difficultieswith course material or projects. The instructors return feedback tothe teachers at their work sites by fax or e-mail, enabling them toquickly find out how they did on the activities so they can put anyadvice or direction into practice with minimal delay.

This year we are requiring for the first time that all studentsobtain e-mail accounts, either through the university or through aprivate provider. We will soon be adding Web conferencing to ourasynchronous communication link with the teachers. But the faxmachine remains indispensable for last-minute tasks and for the quickexchange of documents, such as supplemental course materials,instructions for in-class activities, attendance lists, quizzes andother documents.

Finally, considerations of support would not be complete withoutmentioning two non-technological factors that have a crucial impacton the effectiveness of a distance education program. The first isthe course text. Selecting text materials that are closely adapted tothe needs of the course is particularly necessary in distanceeducation. Without the traditional campus-based lecture to providebackground information, students must have readable materials to formthe basis of their discussions and activities in class. We havewritten most of our course materials ourselves, but one could just aseasily adapt other sources, as long as the texts provide most of theinformation the students will need to make their class timeworthwhile.

The second factor is face-to-face interaction. We visit remotesites at least once or twice each semester to talk with trainees anddiscuss their concerns, visit their work sites and teach class attheir location. Although some programs operate over too great adistance to make this kind of contact possible, we have found it veryrewarding. With audiographics-based courses, it is especiallyimportant to establish a face-to-face connection in the first classbefore going to a voice-only format, but our students invideoconferencing classes have also stressed the value of personalcontact. Meeting with students in person gives them a chance to sharetheir thoughts and feelings about the progress of the course, and itleaves them reassured about the commitment and personal interest oftheir instructors.

Program Overview

CTEP shows teachers how to develop and implement instructionalprograms that prepare students with disabilities to participatesuccessfully in general education settings. CTEP prepares specialeducation teachers to develop instructional programs that helpstudents be successful in general education settings, and to providesupport for general education teachers who work with the students. Italso shows special and general education teachers how to workcollaboratively in developing, implementing and evaluatinginstructional programs in the context of local school facilities andcommunity environments.

CTEP offers coursework to cohort groups of as many as 35 teachersfrom a single school corporation. The use of cohort groups in thisway allows instructors to design course activities and practicumprojects that specifically encourage collaboration among the traineesin the context of their teaching circumstances.

Over the years we have developed an approach to course deliverydesigned to take the fullest advantage of the distance educationformat. Classes are presented using a team teaching arrangement.There are two instructors on campus who take teaching roles roughlyanalogous to the "play-by-play" and "color" announcers in a sportsbroadcast. We have found (as have sports broadcasters) that using twodistinct presenters in this way creates a much more lively and fullerpresentation over a distance education network and encourages a moreactive interchange among the students. In addition, we have one ortwo students serve as on-site coordinators for each class session.They assist with activities, oversee small group discussions andpractice exercises, monitor in-class projects and assignments, andperform other tasks that facilitate the instruction. The coordinatorsrotate each week to maximize ownership of the program andcollaboration among the trainees.

One of the greatest advantages of distance education is theopportunity it offers for direct on-site application of instructionalconcepts in the workplace. The trainees in CTEP carry out a year-longpracticum in which they learn to apply the principles covered inacademic coursework to the demands of their teaching positions. Theycomplete projects in their own classrooms and school buildings, andthey plan and implement instructional lessons and interventionsacross a wide range of learning and behavior problems, and acrossschool, home and community environments. The practica arecollaborative in nature in that special and general class teacherswork together on developing lessons and interventions as school-basedteams.

Between class sessions, teachers prepare progress reports of theirwork and fax or e-mail the reports to us. We review these reports andfax or e-mail our evaluations and suggestions to them within about 48hours. In the future, we will have students post assignments on aWeb-based bulletin board so they can obtain suggestions from othertrainees in addition to the university instructors.

We also make visitations to each training site to obtain firsthandinformation about the circumstances in which the trainees teach andto supplement the weekly practicum reports we give them. By combininge-mail and fax transmissions with site visitations, we can give verydetailed and situation-specific feedback to each student, bringing ahigh level of supervision and advice not just to their understandingof course concepts, but to their actual application of these conceptsin real-life settings.

Critical Issues

Promoting ownership through on-site coordination. One majorchallenge of distance education is handling the logistical andinstructional tasks that arise in any normal class session. We feelthat these tasks are best carried out by the trainees themselves.Adult learners bring a wealth of professional skill and experiencewith them to their classes. Properly structured, distance educationcan capitalize on these experiences in a manner that facilitates themechanics of course delivery, enriches the content and teachinginteractions of the class sessions, and more closely involvesteachers in their professional development.

We use student coordinators to oversee such instructional aspectsof the class sessions as duplicating and passing out papers, workingout grouping arrangements for activities and assisting with theactual course instruction. We contact the week's volunteers ahead oftime and discuss the topics we will cover, the roles they will serveand the methods they might use to perform these duties. This advancedpreparation allows them to oversee class discussions, re-directquestions back to the group, present examples of course concepts, andexplain how procedures and techniques can be used in situations thatall the teachers are familiar with. They personalize class activitiesand encourage a fuller consideration of the concepts and techniquescovered in the course, thus shifting the responsibility and ownershipof the instruction onto the learners themselves.

We also use a second coordinator to oversee the technical set-upof the class, including checking or assembling the equipment,establishing the voice and computer link-up, and operating the cameracontrols. Each trainee learns about the technology and becomescomfortable with its operation, removing the apprehension studentsmay have about participating in a distance education activity andusing the equipment.

Promoting application of instruction to on-the-job situations.Many teacher education programs have no effective way of ensuringthat students learn to apply course concepts to their actual teachingsituations. Students may enroll in a practicum or student teachingexperience after their coursework is complete, and may work inanother teacher's classroom rather than a setting of their own.Learning under these delayed or artificial circumstances is not avery effective approach because teachers typically have considerabledifficulty transferring abstract concepts to their own real-life jobsituations.

CTEP works with teachers for as long as three years, and at eachstage of training they learn how to fully integrate theoreticalconcepts into teaching practices that match their particular jobsituations. We structure the practica and academic coursework as asingle unified instructional activity so teachers practice newmethods as they learn them. They learn to integrate these approacheswith their existing routines, combining their new skills with theskills they already have to form increasingly complex and unifiedteaching practices.

Encouraging collaboration among teachers and promoting schoolchange. Research has shown the value of within-school professionalteam building and collaboration among teachers. However, traditionalmodels of teacher preparation usually do not include strategies forpromoting cooperative learning. Because CTEP is field-based, weattract teachers who work in the same schools or in the same schooldistrict. We take advantage of our trainees' shared circumstances byincorporating collaborative team building techniques into the verystructure of our coursework. Our classes encourage teachers to sharetheir ideas and build closer professional relationships with oneanother. We use a variety of in-class activities in which teachersdescribe their teaching experiences, brainstorm solutions toreal-life problem situations, and help one another apply and adaptthe course concepts to their job circumstances.

We also assign out-of-class projects on a collaborative basis toextend this professional dialogue about course topics. Students meetin school-based groups to discuss the concepts presented in the classsessions and to prepare lessons and interventions for the children intheir classrooms. In these ways trainees access a wealth ofexpertise, resources and information that would otherwise remainuntapped. Furthermore, after coursework is completed, thecollaborative teams often remain intact, thus providing the teacherswith an ongoing peer support structure. This kind of collaboration isessential to achieving the major goals of CTEP, promoting the use ofmethods that move special education students into general educationsettings, and encouraging greater cooperation between specialeducation and general education personnel.

Dennis Knapczyk is Professor of Education and Coordinator of theSpecial Education Program Area at Indiana University, Bloomington,and has been directing the Collaborative Teacher Education Programfor ten years. E-mail: [email protected]

Paul Rodes and Haejin Chung are graduate students at IndianaUniversity and are assisting in CTEP activities. E-mail: [email protected];[email protected]

Companies mentioned:

Ameritech, Chicago, IL,
AT&T, Basking Ridge, NJ,

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.