The Orientation and Mobility (O&M) program at Portland State University’s College of Education prepares educators to work with students with visual impairments. It is the only program of its kind in a region that includes six U.S. states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Hawaii, and Alaska. Exploring what works and doesn’t with distance learning was the subject of new research by PSU’s Dr. Amy Parker, and O&M master’s students Matt Bullen, Faith Yeung, Angelica Inman, and Kelsey Ostrander.
The PSU scholars received grant support from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education to pursue their studies at PSU, which made this research possible. “Perceptions on the use of distance learning by families of children with visual impairment and deafblindness,” (Bullen, Inman, Ostrander, Parker, Yeung, 2023) was recently published in the British Journal of Visual Impairment.
Distance consultation and learning became ubiquitous in healthcare and education during the pandemic, but the pros and cons of the practice are of particular interest to families of blind and deafblind children.
“Before the pandemic, PSU had already been working on the need for ethical distance consultation as a way to supplement and extend in-person services for students with visual impairment, deafblindness and their families,” says Dr. Parker. She leads the Orientation and Mobility (O&M) program at Portland State in the Special Education department of the College of Education.
“This is because of the geographic spread of the population in the Pacific Northwest states and the dire need for qualified teachers of the visually impaired and O&M specialists,” she adds.
An ethical remote instruction training module is used to maximize O&M services to visually-impaired students/clients who live in rural and remote areas. The researchers spoke with families of K-12 students from age 5 to 19 to gather data about the effectiveness of distance consulting.
The purpose of our qualitative study was to explore what distance-based teaching and learning practices have been supportive to students with visual impairments and their families. Using purposive sampling, interviews, and qualitative analysis, we found that supportive approaches for distance learning (DL) included parental involvement and participation, as well as tailored instructional approaches and accommodations for the student. In some instances, DL was identified as being more supportive for immune-compromised children. Negative facets of the practice included diminished richness in socializing, and the lack of certain strengths of in-person education. Families’ experiences ranged from finding DL helpful, to considering the practice as unfit for their child’s education, as well as a poor fit for family life. Flags for future research include family preparation for future DL needs, including culturally-diverse families in research opportunities, and evaluating what DL supports lead to improved outcomes for children and families.
In addition to calling for more research, the PSU scholars gained immediately useful insight, as well as some things for O&M professionals to consider when working with families.
· “We want to study how distance learning with all of its permutations can be done safely at home,” says Bullen, who previously worked with and for families at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Who is assigned what role? Is the environment and the technology appropriate? It all comes back to safety. Sometimes distance learning is safer at home or in a controlled environment, in cases of immune-compromised children, for example.”
· Yeung sees the importance of distance learning to fill an unmet need for O&M specialists in the region, especially for services to rural and remote areas such as Eastern Washington and Alaska. As a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI/TSVI) in Washington state, the research led her to a new understanding of families affected by distance consultation.
· “My biggest takeaway is the importance of connecting with parents to discover what their concerns are,” says Yeung. “I’m doing that now to get a better idea of the full picture,” she says.
Technical difficulties and barriers for deafblind students
“I would agree with Faith [Yeung] and say the biggest takeaway we found in our study was the need for better collaboration between parents and service providers,” says Inman. “Parents loved that they were getting a better picture of what their children were doing during their O&M session. However, it also provided strain on some families because parents needed to fill in the role of the O&M as well as being a cameraman, so that the [remote] O&M could watch what was happening.”
· Yeung shares another example in describing that an important part of O&M instruction is cane use. “It is easier in person and very difficult without being next to the person and supporting them in real time,” she explains.
· Some types of distance learning for deafblind children, who learn in a tactile and hands-on way, were simply not very useful or even useless in some cases, the research showed.
· In the real world, time is precious, and technical glitches can eat up the allotted time. Even though parents are interested in a hybrid form of distance and in-person instruction, ultimately, the home setup has to be tailored carefully to each student.
The PSU team presented the research to the Southeastern Orientation and Mobility Association (SOMA) in Tampa, Florida.
By Sherron Lumley