Issues in Distance Education Technology and the Preparation of Professionals to Serve Persons with Disabilities

Belva C. Collins
American Council on Rural Special Education
University of Kentucky

Ronda Menlove
Continuing Education
Utah State University

Charles Salzberg
Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation
Utah State University

Shortages of special education teachers[1] and related service personnel[2] exist across the nation. Although shortages occur in urban areas, they are exacerbated in rural regions of the country[3] due to lack of proximity to institutions that offer coursework in special education and related services.[4] Even when such programs are offered in rural regions[5] students often must travel long distances to educational sites to attend classes, dealing with geographic barriers such as substandard roads and inclement weather.[6] Because rural communities have difficulty attracting personnel trained to work with persons with disabilities, many communities recruit personnel from within the community for unfilled positions.[7] These students, who tend to be older, often have the added challenge of taking the coursework needed to obtain licensure while balancing their responsibilities to families and employers.[8]

Shortages of personnel may be even higher in the area of low incidence disabilities (e.g., deaf-blindness, severe disabilities)[9] due to the paucity of institutions with personnel preparation programs in those areas. Rural personnel employed to work in low incidence disabilities may find that their caseload in scattered across a broad geographic region, creating a challenge in providing services.[10] Families of children with low incidence disabilities who live in isolated regions of the country may find that itinerant services are infrequent and that some services (e.g., occupational therapy) are unavailable within a reasonable traveling distance.[11] Because there are few rural personnel with licensure in low incidence disabilities and because the rural region each serves may be vast, the resignation of such a person can have a devastating effect on entire programs across a number of school districts.

Over the last decade, the use of distance education technology has emerged as a tool for meeting the challenges of providing accessible special education personnel preparation programs and services.[12] The continual improvement in technologies has provided an array of options for delivering distance education.[13] Some institutions and states have invested in expensive technologies, such as satellite systems and interactive video networks, to provide distance education.[14] Web-based technologies, however, are showing promise as being more affordable and more accessible as schools and homes invest in computers, and available systems that utilize interactive audio- and video-components are developed.[15] Even when distance education technology is utilized to deliver coursework, students still may face long commutes to receiving sites or struggle with substandard technology and delivery systems in local sites.[16] In addition, enrollment in distance education programs may be diminished if the delivery technology is not accessible to students with disabilities (e.g., sensory or motor impairment).[17]

With the growth and adoption of distance education technologies, a new group of challenges are presented in preparing personnel to provide services to persons with disabilities.[18] These challenges occur at the national, state, and local levels and have a particular impact on institutions of higher learning that prepare personnel in special education and related services (e.g., adapted physical education, mobility, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech/language pathology; supported employment professionals).[19] The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of those challenges, to identify specific needs, and to present a list of questions that need to be addressed as distance education is embraced as a solution for meeting the national need for professionals skilled in working with persons with disabilities.

NATIONAL ISSUES IN DISTANCE EDUCATION AND SPECIAL EDUCATION

With the growth of distance education, the major need at the national level is to identify resources in a field that changes on almost a daily basis. While much has been published in the field of distance education and special education,[20] program and technology descriptions are often obsolete by the time they reach print. Many institutions that experiment with new technologies learn valuable lessons[21] but may do not have time to disseminate to others in a formal format. Instead, the sharing of information often occurs on an informal basis at conferences[22] and through word of mouth. Most often, technologies are adopted without a systematic data-based approach for matching them to the content or determining the best way to use them.[23] In addition, collaboration between institutions may be discouraged by administrative barriers, although there is evidence that this can be an effective practice.[24]

Statement of Need

To address the issues of distance education and special education at a national level, several needs arise. First, there is a need for a formalized network of experts who can serve as resources both in distance education delivery and in specific categories of disabilities and related content areas. Second, there is a need for a central clearinghouse where resources can be identified and information can be disseminated. Third, there is a need for changes in policies to facilitate collaboration across states and institutions in delivering personnel preparation programs and providing licensure (especially in the area of low incidence disabilities). Finally, there is a need for collaborative research across institutions to validate the effectiveness of various modes of technology and the pedagogy for delivering state-of-the-art instruction and consultation.

Questions to Be Addressed

To meet needs of distance education and special education at a national level, the following questions must be addressed:

How do we identify needed areas of research in distance education delivery in special education?

How do we best disseminate the results of that research in a timely fashion?

How do we identify categories of disabilities in which collaborative programs are needed?

How do we identify course content in which collaboration should occur?

How do we identify persons with expertise in distance education and special education?

How do we identify persons willing to share their expertise through consultations?

How do we make distance education technologies accessible to persons with disabilities?

How do we best provide resources for special education programs adopting distance education technologies?

How do we publicize the availability of a network of resources?

How do we secure funding to support national or collaborative endeavors in distance education in special education?

How do we plan for the future and move forward in a unified manner?

How do we compile an accessible database of the research that has been conducted and models that have been implemented to date?

How do we identify those who could benefit from access to this data base?

LEADERSHIP ISSUES IN DISTANCE EDUCATION AND SPECIAL EDUCATION

In an era where a national shortage of special education faculty already exists,[25] there is an even greater shortage of faculty with expertise in technology. Thus, there is a need for the emergence of persons with the skills to both use the technology to provide personnel preparation[26] and to teach others to use technology in the field.[27] In addition to providing content knowledge in categories of disabilities and research skills, leadership programs that prepare doctoral students as future faculty often address the skills needed for grant writing, engaging in scholarly activities, delivering coursework, and providing fieldwork supervision. While most traditional doctoral programs provide coursework with a focus in high incidence or low incidence disabilities and early childhood, a small number offer advanced coursework in special education technology applications. Depending on the doctoral candidate’s focus and the breadth of the institution’s program, coursework may include the use of assistive and instructional technology with persons with disabilities.[28] Most doctoral programs provide doctoral students with opportunities to teach, and some doctoral programs address the application of technology to enhance or deliver coursework, but few programs provide doctoral students with involvement in distance education delivery coursework.[29] The lack of technology content in doctoral programs is compounded by the low number of students competing doctoral work and seeking faculty positions.[30] Even if an institution with a doctoral program operates a distance education program in special education, the opportunity to engage in that program may be contingent on the involvement of mentoring faculty in distance education delivery.[31] The reluctance of some faculty to be involved in distance education may be due to factors such as the recency of their doctoral training, the belief that distance education is not as effective as face-to-face instruction, limited time for professional development, emphasis for promotion and tenure placed on research activities in their fields of expertise, and heavy teaching loads comprised of traditional, on-campus students. Those who have embraced technology often have been challenged to learn the field through trial and error on their own time rather than through institutional incentives. The lack of technological expertise in special education faculty is compounded by the trend of those with technology skills to take positions outside of academe where salaries are higher.[32]

Statement of Need

To address the issues of leadership in distance education and special education, several needs arise. First, there is a need for more faculty in special education and related services who are skilled in special education technology, who can provide instruction in this area, and who can mentor future faculty. Second, there is a need for more faculty in special education and related services who are skilled in distance education technology, who can provide instruction using those skills, and who can mentor future faculty. Third, there is a need for more special education and related service programs in institutions of higher education that provide beginning and advanced coursework in special education technology. Finally, there is a need for more leadership programs in special education and related services that prepare future faculty with skills in distance education delivery.

Questions to Be Addressed

To meet the needs of leadership in distance education in special education, the following questions must be addressed:

How can we best provide continuing professional development in the use of technology for existing faculty?

How can we fund efforts to provide professional development?

How can we best provide technical support for faculty who want to provide personnel preparation programs using distance education technology?

How can we keep faculty current with the latest developments in technology?

How can we keep the technology available to faculty current?

How can we assist faculty in transitioning as modes of delivery become obsolete or are abandoned, as new systems are developed or old systems are updated, and as institutions and states migrate across operating systems?

How can we provide incentives for faculty to engage in distance education?

How can we prepare future faculty in special education technology skills in their doctoral preparation programs?

How can we prepare future faculty with distance education delivery skills?

PERSONNEL PREPARATION INSERVICE ISSUES IN DISTANCE EDUCATION AND SPECIAL EDUCATION

There is a critical shortage of certified special education teachers[33] and related service personnel[34] across the nation. This shortage is exacerbated in rural regions that have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers.[35] This occurs for a number of reasons[36] that include few opportunities for social interactions, distance from family and friends, inaccessibility to advanced graduate study, isolation from a professional support network, lower salaries, limited availability of housing, lack of employment opportunities for significant others, substandard educational opportunities for children, cultural differences, and large caseloads that must be served over a large geographic region in areas with substandard roads and inclement weather.[37] In addition, wealthier rural districts may have more success in employing certified or experienced teachers than less wealthy rural districts.[38] To meet the need for personnel with the expertise to work with students with disabilities, school districts often turn to a local pool of potential employees.[39] In many cases, districts hire local personnel under emergency or provisional certificates contingent on the completion of the coursework necessary for certification.[40] Even when a rural district is successful in hiring personnel, retention may be low.[41] For example, it is not uncommon for individuals to accept positions in special education when they have no intent of obtaining licensure in the field but plan, instead, to move into positions in their areas of expertise (e.g., elementary education, physical education) when openings become available. In the event that districts are able to attract and hire personnel holding certification in their assigned area of employment, there may be limited opportunities for continuing professional development or graduate coursework leading to advanced degrees based on the distance from institutions that offer such coursework.[42]

One of the areas in which personnel who serve students with disabilities may need continuing education is in the area of special education technology[43] because some personnel may have completed their training programs prior to the emergence of assistive and instructional technology as components of certification programs and because the field of special education technology is changing at a rapid pace with forms of technology becoming obsolete in a short period of time. These factors also contribute to the skills that personnel have to use technology as a tool for personal productivity: accessing coursework,[44] delivering instruction,[45] recommending assistive devices,[46] locating resources, and providing consultative services to students with disabilities and their families who live in geographically isolated regions.[47] Even if coursework in technology is available through distance education programs, teaching technology at a distance can be a challenge.[48] In cases where special education personnel have technology skills, there may be few options for using them within rural school districts with limited funding and little or no infrastructure.[49]

Statement of Need

To address the issues of inservice personnel preparation in distance education and special education, several needs arise. First, there is a national need for special education teachers and related service personnel who have the skills and are certified to work with students with disabilities across categories. Second, there is a need address the factors related to the recruitment and retention of special education personnel in rural regions, in particular. Third, there is a need for personnel, even if they are in temporary positions, who serve students across a broad range of disabilities that may be beyond the scope of their preparation programs (e.g., autism, learning disabilities, medical conditions, mental retardation, physical impairments, sensory impairments, severe behavior disorders) to access information on working with those students.[50] Fourth, there is a need for special education teachers and related service personnel who have the skills to use instructional and assistive technology to serve students with disabilities that is exacerbated in rural regions. Fifth, there is a need for those individuals who are employed under emergency or provisional certifications to have access to coursework that will lead to certification. Sixth, there is a need for certified personnel to have access to continuing professional development across categories of disabilities and in the use of instructional and assistive technology. Seventh, there is a need for institutions with programs in special education to provide coursework through distance education that is accessible to teachers in field, with particular emphasis on serving rural school districts and offering coursework in low incidence disabilities and in technology applications. Finally, there is a need for funding for institutions of higher education to offer distance education certification programs and professional development to rural districts and a need for funding for rural districts to provide the infrastructure necessary to support such programs.

Questions to Be Addressed

To meet the needs of inservice personnel preparation in distance education in special education, the following questions must be addressed:

How do we best provide continuing education coursework using distance education technology?

How do we fund such efforts?

How do we provide districts with the infrastructure to access distance education program delivered through technology?

How do we assist districts in updating technology used in special education?

How do we identify the technology skills special education personnel need to remain current with best practices and meet the needs of their districts?

How do we match distance education technology delivery to the content that is to be delivered and to the skills of the consumers?

How do we link technology skills to certification and advancement?

How do we best teach technology skills at a distance?

PERSONNEL PREPARATION PRESERVICE ISSUES IN DISTANCE EDUCATION AND SPECIAL EDUCATION

As stated earlier, there is a critical shortage of certified special education teachers[51] and related service personnel[52] at the national level that is exacerbated in rural regions for a variety of reasons.[53] While regional institutions of higher education have attempted to address the shortage of rural teachers by providing accessible programs for students within their geographic service, many of these institutions do not provide programs in special education or related services. In the event that they have these programs, the institutions may not offer coursework across all categories of disabilities or advanced coursework.[54] In addition, regional institutions may not have faculty with the expertise to teach technology skills in special education or distance education. As noted in the previous section, special education personnel need the skills to use instructional and assistive technology in their areas of expertise,[55] to use technology for personal productivity, to access coursework,[56] to deliver instruction,[57] to locate resources, and to use technology as a tool for delivering consultative services to students with disabilities and their families who live in geographically isolated areas.[58] Thus, there is a need for institutions with special education programs to provide traditional on-campus preservice students with technology skills that include special education and distance education applications. In addition, there is a need to provide coursework through distance education technology to remote preservice students who do not have access to traditional on-campus programs offering special education certification[59] that includes adequate supervision of field experiences.[60] Again, efforts to provide such programs may be hindered by lack of funding for providers and receiving districts as well as lack of an appropriate infrastructure to support such endeavors.[61]

Statement of Need

To address the issues of preservice personnel preparation in distance education and special education, several needs arise. First, there is a lack of institutions of higher education with preservice programs in special education, especially in rural regions. Second, institutions that offer special education’s preservice programs may not offer programs across all categories of disabilities. Third, many existing preservice programs do not have specific coursework that focus on teaching instructional and assistive technology skills in special education. Fourth, many existing preservice programs do not focus on the application of distance education technology as a tool for special education personnel to provide consultation to students with disabilities and their families in isolated geographic regions. Fifth, many institutions with special education preservice programs do not offer coursework through distance education or do not offer coursework through distance education across categories of disabilities. Finally, even when institutions have funding for distance education delivery, they may find that districts or students do not have the necessary infrastructure to access coursework.

Questions to Be Addressed

To meet the needs of preservice personnel preparation in distance education in special education, the following questions must be addressed:

How do we best employ distance education technology to provide preservice programs for special education personnel?

How do we best employ distance education technology to provide supervision of field experiences?

How do we identify the technology competencies that should be addressed in preservice programs for special education personnel?

How do we teach preservice students the skills to continually evaluate new technologies to match the needs of their students with disabilities?

How do we link special education and distance education technology competencies to certification?

How do we secure funding to provide preservice personnel preparation programs that include coursework in special education technology?

How do we secure funding for provide preservice personnel preparation programs that are delivered through distance education technology?

CONCLUSION

This paper has identified issues involved in distance education in special education, listed needs that must be addressed if technology is to be used in the this field to its full potential, and posed questions to stimulate discussion around the topic. Based on this paper, the next steps are to bring together professionals in the field of special education technology to (a) discuss the questions presented in this paper, (b) generate and discuss additional questions; (c) develop an action plan for creating answers to the questions; (d) develop an evaluation plan to collect data and monitor progress as actions plans are implemented; (e) set timelines for meeting goals and producing outcomes; and (f) provide a structure for accessing support and resources, disseminating information, compiling a data base of related research investigations, and securing funding for future endeavors.

Endnotes

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[31] Collins, B. C., & Hess, J. M. (2000). Teacher education: Associate Editor’s column. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15, 40-42.

[32] Pion, G. M., Smith, D. S., & Tyler, N. C. (2003) Career choices of recent doctorates in special education: Their implications for addressing faculty shortages. Teacher Education and Special Education, 26, 172-181.

[33] Boe, E. E., Cook, L. H., Bobbitt, S. A., & Terhanian, G. (1998). The shortage of fully certified teachers in special and general education. Teacher Education in Special Education.

[34] Dempsey, S.D. (1990). Teacher competencies for rural special educators: Implications for special (adapted) physical education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 10(3), 3-15.

Foster, F., & Harvey, B. (1996). Retention of rural speech pathologists. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 15(3), 10-18.

Longhurst, T. M., & Sorenson, D. N. (1995). Retraining career-shift teachers into speech-language pathologists. The Supervisor’s Forum, 2, 71-76.

Wood, W. M., Miller, K., & Test, D. W. (1998). Using distance learning to prepare supported employment professionals. Journal of Rehabilitation, 48-53.

[35] Bornfield, G., Hall, N., Hall, P., & Hoover, J. H. (1997). Leaving rural special education: It’s a matter of roots. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 16(1), 30-37.

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[36] Cegelka, P. A., & Alvarado, J. L. (2000). A best practices model for preparation of rural special education teachers. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 19, 15-30.

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[37] Collins, B. C. (1992). Identification of the advantages and disadvantages of special education service delivery in rural Kentucky as a basis for generating solutions to problems. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 11(3), 30-34.

Helge, D. (1981). Problems in implementing comprehensive special education programming in rural areas. Exceptional Children, 47, 514-520.

[38] Johnson, G., Elrod, G. F., Davis, D. C., & Smith, J. C. (2000). Services in a rural high wealth and low wealth school. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 19(1), 9-16.

[39] Collins, B. C. (1997). Training Rural Educators in Kentucky through Distance Learning: A model with follow-up data. Teacher Education and Special Education, 20, 234-248.

Longhurst, T. M., & Sorenson, D. N. (1995). Retraining career-shift teachers into speech-language pathologists. The Supervisor’s Forum, 2, 71-76.

Passaro, P. D., Pickett, A. L., Latham, G., & HongBo, W. (1994). The training and support needs of paraprofessionals in rural special education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 13(4), 3-9.

[40] Collins, B. C. (1997). Training Rural Educators in Kentucky through Distance Learning: A model with follow-up data. Teacher Education and Special Education, 20, 234-248.

[41] Westling, D. L., & Whitten, T. M. (1996). Rural special education teachers’ plans to continue or leave their teaching positions. Exceptional Children, 62, 319-335.0

[42] Delany-Barmann, G., Prater, G., & Minner, S. (1997). Preparing Native American special education teachers: Lessons learned from the rural special education project. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 16(4), 10-15.

Miller, C., & Smith, C. (1998). Professional development by distance education: Does distance lend enhancement? Cambridge Journal of Education, 28.

[43] Ludlow, B. L., Foshay, J. D., Brannan, S. A., Duff, C., & Dennison, K. E. (2002). Updating knowledge and skills of practitioners in rural areas: A web-based model. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21, 33-44.

[44] Blackhurst, A. E., & Collins, B. C. (1996). Special Education Doctoral Program in the Delivery of Distance Education. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky; (Bryant & Erin, 1998).

Collins, B. C., Schuster, J. W., & Grisham-Brown, J. (1999). So you’re a distance learner? Tips and suggestions for rural special education involved in distance education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 18 (3/4), 66-71.

[45] Braden, J. (2003). CEC interviews Jeff Braden: The state of the art in distance education. Exceptional Children, 35, 68-73.

[46] Parette, P., & McMahan, G. A. (2002). What should we expect of assistive technology? Being sensitive to family goals. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(1), 56-61.

Ludlow, B. L., Foshay, J. D., Brannan, S. A., Duff, C., & Dennison, K. E. (2002). Updating knowledge and skills of practitioners in rural areas: A web-based model. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21, 33-44.

[47] Carr, S. C. (2000). Preparing rural educators to collaborate with exceptional families. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 19(3/4), 1-10.

Trohanis, P. L. (1994). Planning for successful inservice education for local early childhood programs. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 14.

[48] Ludlow, B. L., Foshay, J. D., Brannan, S. A., Duff, C., & Dennison, K. E. (2002). Updating knowledge and skills of practitioners in rural areas: A web-based model. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21, 33-44.

[49] Daigle, S., & Jarmon, C. (1996). Building the campus infrastructure that really counts. Educom Review, 31(4), 35-38.

Moeck, P. G. (2002). The digital divide and rural community colleges: Problems and prospects. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26, 207-225.

[50] Amato, S. (2002). Standards for competence in Braille literacy skills in teacher preparation programs. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 96, 143-154.

Chapman, J. K. (2000). Traumatic brain injury: A regional study of rural special and general education preparation. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 19(2), 3-15.

Yellin, D., Bull, K. S., & Warner, M. M. (1988). Preparing regular/special education teachers for rural schools: Perceptions of interest and capability. Research in Rural Education, 5(2), 31-35.

[51] Boe, E. E., Cook, L. H., Bobbitt, S. A., & Terhanian, G. (1998). The shortage of fully certified teachers in special and general education. Teacher Education in Special Education.

[52] Dempsey, S.D. (1990). Teacher competencies for rural special educators: Implications for special (adapted) physical education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 10(3), 3-15.

Foster, F., & Harvey, B. (1996). Retention of rural speech pathologists. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 15(3), 10-18.

Wood, W. M., Miller, K., & Test, D. W. (1998). Using distance learning to prepare supported employment professionals. Journal of Rehabilitation, 48-53.

[53] For example: Bornfield, G., Hall, N., Hall, P., & Hoover, J. H. (1997). Leaving rural special education: It’s a matter of roots. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 16(1), 30-37.

Ludlow, B. L. (1998). Preparing special education personnel for rural schools: Current practices. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 14(2), 57-75.

[54] Amato, S. (2002). Standards for competence in Braille literacy skills in teacher preparation programs. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 96, 143-154.

Collins, B. C. (1997). Training Rural Educators in Kentucky through Distance Learning: A model with follow-up data. Teacher Education and Special Education, 20, 234-248.

[55] Ludlow, B. L., Foshay, J. D., Brannan, S. A., Duff, C., & Dennison, K. E. (2002). Updating knowledge and skills of practitioners in rural areas: A web-based model. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21, 33-44.

Parette, P., & McMahan, G. A. (2002). What should we expect of assistive technology? Being sensitive to family goals. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(1), 56-61.

[56] Blackhurst, A. E., & Collins, B. C. (1996). Special Education Doctoral Program in the Delivery of Distance Education. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky; (Bryant & Erin, 1998).

Collins, B. C., Schuster, J. W., Hall, M., & Griffen, A. K. (1999). Ten years of distance learning: Changing to meet geographical, institutional, and student characteristics. 1999 Conference Proceedings of the American Council for rural Special Education. Kansas: ACRES.

[57] Braden, J. (2003). CEC interviews Jeff Braden: The state of the art in distance education. Exceptional Children, 35, 68-73.

[58] Carr, S. C. (2000). Preparing rural educators to collaborate with exceptional families. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 19(3/4), 1-10.

Trohanis, P. L. (1994). Planning for successful inservice education for local early childhood programs. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 14.

[59] Braden, J. (2003). CEC interviews Jeff Braden: The state of the art in distance education. Exceptional Children, 35, 68-73.

Collins, B. C. (1997). Training Rural Educators in Kentucky through Distance Learning: A model with follow-up data. Teacher Education and Special Education, 20, 234-248.

Collins, B. C., & Schuster, J. W. (2001). Some thoughts on the history of rural special education: A first hand account. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21(1/2), 22-29.

Ludlow, B. L. (1998). Preparing special education personnel for rural schools: Current practices. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 14(2), 57-75.

Ludlow, B. L., & Brannon, S. A. (1999). Distance education programs preparing personnel for rural areas: Current practices, emerging trends, and future directions. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 18(3/4), 5-33.

[60] Collins, B. C. (1997). Training Rural Educators in Kentucky through Distance Learning: A model with follow-up data. Teacher Education and Special Education, 20, 234-248.

Gruenhagen, K., McCracken, T., & True, J. (1999). Using distance education technologies for the supervision of student teachers in remote rural schools. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 18(3/4), 58-64.

[61] Daigle, S., & Jarmon, C. (1996). Building the campus infrastructure that really counts. Educom Review, 31(4), 35-38.

Moeck, P. G. (2002). The digital divide and rural community colleges: Problems and prospects. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26, 207-225.