October 2012 - November 2012 - Distance Mentoring: An Effective Model for Low-Incidence Populations
The idea that expertise can be shared across distance is not a new one. In the 1800’s Louis Braille shared his knowledge of communication systems for the blind with teachers of blind students on other continents. Likewise a Spanish Benedictine monk in the 16th century shared his techniques for educating deaf students with sympathetic teachers in other countries. Their means of sharing expertise, however, involved correspondence that traveled by horse and ship and thus took months or even years, and so the benefits to individual children were small.
Advance to the 1990’s, when emerging telecommunications and multimedia technologies made possible, in theory, the near-immediate assessment and diagnosis of individuals with medical issues by specialists located hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. The field of telemedicine was born and has expanded slowly since, with the greatest potential impact on low-incidence conditions and disorders, including deaf-blindness.
Initially, says Jay Gense, director of the National Consortium on Deaf Blindness (NCDB) (http://www.nationaldb.org/), the use of technology to connect expert service providers with remotely located children and their families, teachers, and therapists, was not needed. In the past, students with deaf-blindness were typically placed and educated in specialized residential schools or facilities with the professionals who worked with them.
Today, however, most of the approximately 10,000 infants, children and youth who are deaf-blind in the U.S. live at home and attend local public schools. This change, Mr. Gense says, is incredibly positive and profound for children and families. However, it presents a growing challenge to serve an increasing number of widely dispersed children with complex disabilities, like deaf-blindness, in settings that often lack access to trained personnel on-site.
“Almost without exception these children are the only kids who are deaf-blind at their school,” Mr. Gense points out. Quality services for these children are significantly enhanced, he states, through the implementation of distance mentoring programs in which “teams of educators and service providers are connected to each other and to the children and families they serve by information-age technology, including web and video conferencing and wikis. These technologies can be inordinately effective when properly deployed and supported at a local level.”
In addition to connecting team members and families, Mr. Gense says, technology can help foster collaborative relationships among team members, which, in turn, can generate innovative approaches to a student’s care and education. The key to effective implementation of a distance mentoring program, he emphasizes, is robust technical assistance which not only ensures that the technology provides optimum benefits but also supplies the knowledge and expertise to interact with school IT teams and administrators.
According to NCDB technical specialist Jon Harding, a distance mentoring model – called the Distance Mentoring Project (DMP) -- is being introduced by NCDB in several states, with Kansas serving as a prototype. In Kansas, he notes, 131 deaf blind students are dispersed throughout a state comprised of 293 school districts across nearly 82 million square miles. Collaborating with the Kansas Deaf Blind Project (http://web.ku.edu/~kansasdeafblind/products/) and the Kansas Schools for the Deaf and Blind, NCDB uses distance technologies to offer ongoing, responsive, relationship-based technical assistance to build the capacity of local teams working with children who are Deaf-Blind.
Nationally, NCDB is expanding the DMP model to other projects and is building an online community where U.S. Office of Special Education-funded deaf-blind projects in 52 states and localities can share information about technology applications to enhance their technical assistance activities.
D. Jay Gense, Ed. S. and Jon Harding, M.S. Special Education Speak
Jon Harding’s mother and both his grandmothers were teachers. “I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska. A young man named Rodney lived down the street from me. I recognized that he was different, but I didn’t know what ‘different’ meant. The entire town knew Rodney and accepted him as a part of the community.” Mr. Harding majored in education as an undergraduate with the intention of becoming a history teacher. “I was attending an interview fair and one of the interviewers asked, ‘You’re looking a little down; what’s troubling you?’ I replied, ‘It’s a tough market for history teachers.’ The interviewer said, ‘There’s a big need for special education teachers. It’s not for everyone, but if you want to know more we’ll talk.’ It didn’t take long before I was hooked. This was a field in which I could make a difference.” An interest in deaf- blindness soon followed.
Humility, Mr. Harding says, is a hallmark daily sensation for those who work in the deaf- blind field. “We experience humility when interacting with families that cope daily with a family member who has this disability. We are humbled by the magnitude of their experience. On the flip side are individuals who have spent a professional lifetime dedicated to helping. For me as an outsider that’s the overriding sentiment – humility, and being humbled in a way that’s beneficial to me…and using that humility to find a way to contribute.”
The Distance Mentoring Model: A New Method for a New Age
An Interview with D. Jay Gense, Ed. S., Director,
“There are more school districts in this country than there are children who are deaf-blind,” declares Jay Gense, director of the National Consortium on Deaf Blindness (NCDB). Gense points out that the wide dispersal of these children creates challenges for the professionals and educators who serve them, as well as for the children and their families. Services for children with complex low-incidence disabilities like deaf-blindness, he adds, are significantly enhanced via a team-oriented distance mentoring model that takes advantages of widely-available technology underpinned by a strong technical assistance effort.
The distance mentoring model employed by the NCDB team and State Deaf-Blind Project partners uses video clips, web conferencing, and a wiki which enables its users – consultants, local teams of professional service providers, teachers, and families -- to build the capacity of the local team via deaf-blind-related content and instructional strategies. The model relies on and facilitates relationship-building among team members and families. That, in turn, contributes to the model’s mentorship capability, ultimately strengthening the support provided to families through the remote delivery of professional expertise.
This model, which supports service delivery to children at local sites throughout a state, is a far cry from what Mr. Gense recalls from his earliest days in the deaf-blind field. “I began my career in 1978 when institutionalization was the norm,” he remembers. “Families with children who were deaf-blind often saw their child placed at a residential school for the blind or the deaf. There were generally no other options. The result was that small pockets of deaf-blind expertise emerged in these centrally located facilities.” Today, the vast majority of children who are deaf-blind are living and home and attending school in his/her local community. However, these very positive changes that have transpired since the late 70’s, he notes, “do not negate the needs for teachers’ access to deaf-blind expertise and the individualized services and supports required for children, wherever they are attending school.”
The technology-based model for providing technical assistance maximizes use of limited resources of time, money and personnel, and helps address the logistical challenges of providing on-site technical assistance.
With the support of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), NCDB is partnering with several state deaf-blind projects and other organizations to develop and apply technical assistance tools based on this model that can be shared with state deaf-blind projects throughout the country, thereby avoiding duplication of effort. OSEP supports consistency of approach for delivery of technical assistance by the state projects. “Access to the same materials, resources, information and knowledge is being encouraged. Technology makes such consistency possible.”
The Distance Mentoring Project
NCDB is attempting to scale, on a national level, the Distance Mentorship Project, which was created and initially implemented in collaboration with by the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project (KDBP) and the Kansas State School for the Blind (KSSB). DMP benefits include the following:
The DMP, according to NCDB technical specialist Jon Harding, who provides technical assistance and advocacy for technology-based solutions, is a non-funded, organic model offering technical assistance to select local teams serving children who have complex, multiple disabilities, including vision loss and/or deaf-blindness. Such technical assistance, Mr. Harding explains, can include offering local teams access to NCDB’s collection of information resources and personnel expertise. It can also document and disseminate innovations such as the use of mobile technologies and determine the capacity of the DMP model to effectively serve an optimum number of teams. The DMP model in Kansas currently serves seven teams simultaneously.
The DMP: How It Works; Technology Connects Research to Practice
Four years ago the DMP model called for the use of a “flip” video hand-held pocket camcorder. Manufactured by Cisco, the device was already ubiquitous in most schools. Today, the vital DMP video component continues to include the following steps and technology:
Mr. Harding was introduced to the potential advantages of wikis by Robert Taylor, an education consultant/distance mentoring specialist at the Kansas School for the Blind. “Bob had been utilizing wikis independently with teams to try to build team communication.” In the DMP model, the wiki serves as a permanent home for video, interactive data resources, data collection and team conversation. Its use eliminates emailing and the possibility of lost files. Consultants utilize the wiki to post suggestions and best practices, while team members who are not part of the routine are able to keep tabs on progress. Family members can participate according to their individual comfort levels. As a secure site with controls for sharing, the wiki promotes a means of ongoing dialogue and a setting for opportunities that can result in teacher and student change, Mr. Harding notes. “We decided to combine video with wikis, in combination with web conferencing as that technology emerged.”
Recent technology innovations have nudged DMP capabilities forward and currently involve taking video with smart phones, tablets, and ultrathin computers, Mr. Harding explains. “The deaf-blind project coordinator in Idaho, for example, uses a tablet to consolidate all the functions. The tablet has a 4G connection that allows a teacher, for instance, to access a wiki, [participate in] web conferencing, capture and upload short video clips – all with a single device. To me, that’s an innovation that demonstrates simplicity through technology.”
Four years into the DMP, he notes, “the technology we use is not revolutionary. Yet we’re always open to new technology, including social media. The technology innovation is applied where it’s needed in a way for which the users are prepared, thanks to technical assistance. Some families are proficient in the use of smartphones and tablet technology. In other cases, a teacher may not have an Internet connection in her classroom. That’s a challenge that demands adaptation.” In the DMP, he says, flexibility and adaptability trump specific technology. “Having stated that, however, there is no question that smartphones and tablets will have an impact on the model.”
DMP Web Conferencing: Tearing Down the Wall
On occasion, Mr. Harding points out, DMP web conferencing enables local teams to puncture the natural wall that can exist between school and home. “I was a teacher. I saw and experienced the effects of that wall. Communication rarely dents it. I’m also a parent and I don’t have much awareness of what occurs at my child’s high school because when I ask him his response is identical to that of every American teenager: ‘Nothing’. The information window is very small. Parent-teacher conferences are often the extent of the information flow. Parents of deaf-blind students, especially, want and need information. They are very curious – and they want that wall torn down.”
Web Conferencing Presents Synchronous and Asynchronous Opportunities
Web conferencing, Mr. Harding adds, “presents us with synchronous opportunities – opportunities that occur simultaneously. These opportunities emerge because we can see each other, which helps build relationships, whereas the wiki, which underlies our web conferencing, facilitates asynchronous opportunities, i.e. opportunities that do not occur at regular intervals.” For instance, he explains, “a team can use the wiki to report in on what transpired during a specific day or can post a new video, or we can urge team members to fill out a survey or complete an assessment form, or deliver just-in-time information. Thanks to the wiki we are not limited to communicating just once month. Instead, we talk continuously.”
In such a setting, he continues, when communication flows at several levels, “I view the consultant’s role as that of an umpire: the less we’re seen, the better. We want the interaction to occur between team members. We (consultant) might interject when necessary but our goal is to remain backstage.”
Despite technology’s pivotal role in connecting DMP consultants and local teams with teachers and families, continued on-site visits are a reminder that technology is a complement to the on-site visits, not a substitute. “Never have we proposed that technology replace all forms of on-site support for state deaf-blind projects,” Mr. Harding declares. In fact, he points out, “The DMP process begins with an on-site visit to a child’s school, where the team members convene to establish expectations, ensure the appropriate technology and skills exist and to gather signatures.” Obtained from team members and parents, the signatures grant permission to capture video clips of interactions between a child with deaf-blindness and a provider such as a teacher, para-professional or related service provider. Individual team members, Mr. Harding says, “sign a form to demonstrate their commitment to the project.” Teams then agree to collect video of the child in the child’s customary environments and to share the video with the team‘s consultants. Outcomes are selected in advance and measured over time.
Addressing Local Realities
Another reality was the increasing demand for services in small rural communities in western Kansas while the needed professional expertise resided in the eastern part of the state. “The result was that much time was expended driving very long distances to resolve flaring problems. This created an inability to build capacity. It resulted in a lack of communication between team members, home and providers, the absence of a ‘compass’ for teams and team members to follow. Especially for teachers in small rural communities who lack training in coping with the complexities of deaf-blind students or the implications of their disabilities, the work can be lonely.”
Jon Harding and Jay Gense agree that even the most capable teachers are sometimes unprepared to instruct children with multiple complex disabilities such as deaf-blindness. The DMP, they explain, provides teachers with access to practitioners with solid experience in educating these children. This access, expedited by technology, skirts the traditional waiting periods teachers may have experienced with more traditional modes of consultation.
With the new model, children may also be served at home by local teams whose members’ expertise is tailored to a child’s age and capabilities. For instance, Mr. Harding says, an early childhood setting might include a team consisting of an early intervention provider, an occupational therapist (OT) and/or a physical therapist (PT) who provide service in the home. “Parents are always on the team, a requirement for this process if the process is to be effective. We give control of the team to the family. We tell families, ‘You own whatever emerges from this process.’”
Teams working with school-age children are required to include a child’s primary teacher, parent or guardian, a paraprofessional and/or intervener and an administrator. Each local team appoints a contact person to maintain communication and consistency between the local team and consultants, Mr. Harding explains.
“We’re Trained to Fix Things”: Humility in Listening
Consultant diversity of expertise is a plus, Mr. Harding remarks, “because having consultants with various perspectives encourages us to set aside our respective professional prejudices in order to formulate a process that is truly collaborative. As consultants we’re trained to fix things. In our collaborative process that penchant has to be approached delicately. The best practice is to voice one’s own opinion and then ask a consulting colleague, ‘What do you think?’ ‘What do you see?’ ‘What shall we recommend or suggest?’ We need different perspectives in caring for these complex kids.”
Among the most desirable of consultant skill sets, Mr. Harding insists, is humility in listening. “We try to honor what the local team members – especially the parents – are telling us, what the teachers are saying to us, even if the teachers have had no experience with deaf-blind children. We honor what teachers, and the other team members, are trying to achieve. We believe from the outset that teachers are striving desperately to provide effective support to the deaf-blind children in their charge –sometimes without much help. As Jay says often, ‘Even the best teachers need support.’”
Typically, he asserts, local teams supporting these teachers display plentiful individual, specific expertise. “What’s often lacking, however, is the capability to integrate that expertise. What’s needed, and what the DMP model provides, is an opportunity to set the team’s tone and then announce to team members, ‘Each of you has something to contribute but we may need to step back a little first.’”
The DMP approach, Mr. Harding points out, supports a team’s abilities to implement a quality IEP, and minimizes the pressures and animosities that often arise in situations that can prove to be adversarial among team members. There’s no contentiousness in our process, no ‘us versus them’, only us. We establish trust. Mistakes are encouraged here. We want team members to make mistakes because we view those mistakes as learning opportunities. We will make those mistakes together.” Team members, he says, also foster an ingredient that is never present in more contentious settings: a sense of humor. “Oddly, a little humor in this very serious field is essential in building a collaborative environment. We are directed and action oriented, but humor can sometimes be the glue.”
DMP’s Role in Rural Communities: Broadband Is Universal
Even remote rural settings, he says, are benefiting from nearly universal access to broadband technology. “I’m not sure anymore that ‘rural’ is synonymous with ‘out-of-date’ in terms of technology. In Kansas, some of our most rural school districts are well-wired and geared due to state initiatives or local funding.”
When he does a presentation about the role of the DMP in Kansas, he says, “I display a map of Kansas in which I draw a line from the northeast part of the state where most of the expertise is located to Elkhart in southwest Kansas. Making that journey requires at least a full day’s drive. When time, fuel, cost and other variables are factored in, it quickly becomes clear that the excessive travel time required in the pre-DMP model not only flunks a cost-benefit measurement but also limits local team contact with a child, his family and his teacher.
“Our model is designed to solve that problem by enhancing contact through connectivity. The state deaf-blind project or the state school for the blind often has a relationship with local teams. Because of this existing relationship, either the state project or the school proposes local teams as candidates to transition to a distance mentorship model.” Sometimes this approach works, sometimes it fails to be effective, he says. But there is no question that the DMP concept helps solve the rural issue. It’s easy to sell distance mentoring to a teacher in Beloit, KS when she learns that for nine months she’ll have the benefit of multiple contacts, suggestions and resources that she lacked before.”
Adds Jay Gense, “Jon and I have a rural perspective because we each grew up in very rural communities. But any discussion about serving children with low-incidence disabilities like deaf-blindness transcends typical rural issues. The fact is that despite where they live, children with deaf-blindness, their families and their teachers can feel isolated. The result is that rural issues per se have less of an impact on very low-incidence disabilities than on some other disabilities. Deaf-blind children, their families and teachers can feel as isolated in the borough of Manhattan in New York City as well as in Manhattan, KS or Holton, KS. In all of our considerations ‘isolation’ is a key word.”
What Makes a DMP Candidate?
Instead, he continues, “we need teachers who are secure in themselves and in their own professional skills.” Teacher experience is not a factor, he insists. “We’ve encountered new teachers who are very comfortable and confident in their own abilities and are not threatened by the prospect of being on camera or by having a video made of them interacting with a child.” Teaching, he observes, “has traditionally been an isolating profession in which teachers close their classroom doors and teach; no one watches unless the principal visits a class.”
DMP utilization, he says, presents teachers with a new situation that causes their classroom doors to be opened. “Are teachers quickly adaptable to new situations? Are they flexible enough to make adjustments on the fly? This is a lot to ask of some teachers. We certainly understand the pressures teachers are under, especially regarding accountability.”
Administrative buy-in for the DMP concept and its implementation is necessary, he adds. “Administrators need to be on board and understand what we do and how we do it.” Parental support is also a must. “Generally, parents like this concept, but we want them to feel empowered by it,” he says. For teachers and others on local teams, technology competence is a factor. “Are the individuals on the team competent with technology? Do they have basic skills? Have they ever been in a web conference before, for example? Are they comfortable browsing the Internet? Have they ever uploaded a file? If they have not, it adds complexity to the process.”
District IT Departments and the DMP: “We Try to Make It Easy for the Districts”
His basic message to administrators regarding the DMP process and technology imperatives is, “We will import a structure. We won’t need the IT department. We can deliver the connection with Internet technology. We don’t circumvent or hide. But we do often say that what we offer makes it easier for the district and we will help facilitate according to the district’s requirements. Our bottom line: We try to make it easy for the districts.”
Overcoming Barriers to Implementation
Resistance to the use of the program’s cloud-based services, Mr. Harding says, is not entirely unusual. Such resistance arises, he explains, because of the belief that such services are inherently less secure and less private. “I don’t subscribe to that theory,” he declares. I’m seeing more alignment – more synergies – between what we are doing and what the broader educational systems are doing. The safeguards we build into the DMP should accelerate that alignment and enhance synergies.”
Professional ethics, he adds, play a role in this approach. “We assume that individuals who are hired as professionals at a local district understand what is ethical and what is not and will be bound by that understanding. We don’t want participants to share passwords. We do have to be cautious. Never do I seek to diminish potential security dangers or dismiss concerns. We advise the use of reasonable precaution, but we don’t permit the fear of the danger to stymie our work.
“Our responsibility as consultants is to make the process work whenever possible regardless of these obstacles,” Mr. Harding states. In fact, he adds, coping with obstacles brings to the surface a key – perhaps the key – characteristic for participants in a distance mentoring program: persistence. “For us, a hurdle is just an opportunity to devise another approach. All of us here possess that trait because we believe that this program can be effective. Often when we have attempted to scale the program, participants have become frustrated. For instance, they say, ‘I’m having problems uploading video.’ The question then is, ‘What’s not working? Tell us specifically.’ Then we’ll try to come up with a solution. We don’t have the perfect recipe, unfortunately. What we are trying to say is, ‘Buy your ingredients and then tell us what the correct proportions are, the right titration of these ingredients, and then we can learn how to mix them properly.’ That’s an effective way to induce collaboration.”
For the nine states that are currently scaling the DMP, he explains, “we have created a community of practice. We have our own wiki and meet as a group to review progress and issues and what has been learned to date. I’ve been impressed by what we are hearing. The program runs until the end of the 2013 school year, at which point we hope to draw some conclusions regarding what we as a group – not just individually -- have learned from this process.”
Unintended Synergies: Using the DMP for AT Assessment
Focusing on the stages in the literacy continuum, each website page provides a list of related skills, examples, video clips and articles describing evidence-based strategies to help children develop essential literacy skills and progress along the continuum.
Students with Significant Disabilities: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Issues
Design to Learn
The AIM Navigator
KNOWLEDGE NETWORK MEMBERS
Dual Sensory Services, Inc.
For more information, contact:
American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults (AAF)
National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development (NCIPP)
For more information, contact NCIPP at:
Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults (HKNC)
Connections beyond Sight and Sound (CBSS)
For more information, contact:
For a state-by-state list of each of the Deaf-Blind projects, please see the NCDB website at: http://www.nationaldb.org/. Click on the easy-to-use map to get contact information for the state project in which you are interested. The listing includes the number of children with deaf-blindness in the state.
Funding provided by the US Department of Education under grant number H327F110002-11A
Project Officer: Jo Ann McCann