WMU News

WMU ready to go the distance to produce needed specialists

January 15, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- A shortage of professionals trained to work in schools with children who are visually impaired will be remedied by a new dual degree program that will be available even in some of the most remote areas of the region.

With schools in Michigan and surrounding states struggling to provide services to visually impaired students, Western Michigan University is using a $326,328 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch a program that will produce up to 48 specialists over the next three years. The program will train professionals to meet the educational as well as orientation and mobility needs of children with visual impairments to help prepare them for life as independent adults.

The grant to WMU's Departments of Special Education and Blind Rehabilitation will fund the first year of a three-year project to develop and implement a graduate program in which students will earn two master's degrees and become certified in both fields. Similar grant amounts are expected for the second and third years of the project.

The program, which will begin accepting students in 1998, will be offered in a four-semester format for students taking classes on campus. It also will be available in a seven-semester distance education format that will allow students to complete much of the course work at home.

"Right now, it is very difficult to find qualified personnel in either area," says Dr. Elizabeth Whitten, interim chairperson of the Department of Special Education and co-director of the effort. "We're planning to produce graduates who will be very well trained in both fields."

While several other universities around the nation have begun such dual programs, the distance education format is unusual and will open up opportunities for professionals already working in the field to receive training even if they are not physically located near a university, says Dr. William R. Wiener, chairperson of the Department of Blind Rehabilitation and co-director of the effort with Whitten.

Those distance education students will need to spend two intense, 10-week summer sessions on campus for course work that cannot be delivered through a distance format. But their remaining studies will be accomplished through videotaped classes, self-instructional materials, teleconferencing and Internet interaction with professors and other students.

"We're in the Internet age. Technology has made it easier to offer this program," Wiener says. "Students who are not on campus will still be able to access the library, order research materials and converse with other students and professors. We're going to work very hard to make sure those students have a strong sense of connection with the program."

For distance education students, the summer sessions will be devoted to course work that requires hands-on training and one-on-one instruction, such as orientation and mobility training and independent

living training. Distance education students also will have a professional mentor in their home area and will be able to complete a required practicum and an internship at facilities near their homes.

Whitten says school districts in the region currently often cannot find or cannot afford to hire two separate specialists to provide services needed by children with visual impairments. As a result, she says, such children often simply don't receive the services they need. The new program will prepare specialists who can provide the visual impairment services such as instruction in Braille and training on adaptive technology which children need to pursue educational goals. The same professionals also will be able to provide instruction in the orientation and mobility skills needed for independent living.

Since news of the new WMU program has spread, school districts have been contacting Whitten and Wiener to find out how they can get involved. They also have received queries from people working in some fairly remote areas in the country.

Because of the severe shortage of qualified personnel, part of the federal funding received for the project is intended to address the problems by providing financial support for those enrolled. A stipend of $8,000 per year will cover tuition and some expenses for those enrolled in the on-campus group. Tuition will be covered for those enrolled in the distance education format.

The funding also covers the cost of course development and implementation and the cost of hiring one new faculty member who will hold a dual appointment. A total of five new courses -- three in blind rehabilitation and two in special education -- have been developed for the program. Existing graduate programs in both fields will be enhanced by the new offerings.

Whitten says the changes make the master's program in special education much stronger. Wiener notes that the addition of special course work for working with children is a whole new track for WMU's internationally known blind rehabilitation program. Joining the resources of the two departments, they say, will put the University on the leading edge of education for visually impaired children.

"There is a national movement to improve the quality of teaching and services for visually impaired children," Wiener says. "This program fits in nicely by ensuring quality training for professionals in both areas."

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