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Focus: School Years

Topic: Personnel Preparation

Kathleen M. Huebner, Ph.D., COMS and Laurel E. Leigh, M.S., COMS

Pennsylvania College of Optometry

Graduate Studies in Vision Impairment

8360 Old York Road

Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, 19012



215-780-1357 Fax

kathyh@pco.edu or lleigh@pco.edu


There continues to be a severe shortage of qualified certified O&M specialists (COMS) in the United States (USA). A national study on the status of personnel and personnel preparation programs indicates that there is an immediate need for over 10,000 O&M specialists to serve the infants, toddlers, children and youth in the U.S. (Mason, Davidson & McNerney, 2000), and only 17 University Programs preparing them with an outcome of approximately 50 graduates annually. This estimate does not include those needed to serve adults nor the growing population of older Americans with visual impairments. The US has produced an average of only approximately 80 COMS and 40 dually certified teachers/COMS from 1993-1999.

In 1990, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), O&M division (9), recommended that individuals, with earned degrees in the blindness/visual impairment professions, would qualify for AER O&M certification by completing the core O&M curricula from an AER approved personnel preparation university program. AER no longer provides certifications, but the same qualifications apply to the more recently established Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP).

The Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), a private college, just outside of Philadelphia, confers doctorates in Optometry and Audiology and, several Master of Science degrees, one of which is for Orientation and Mobility Specialists. PCO has implemented a certification program for more than a decade in Pennsylvania, and in 1997 the model was applied to other states.  It has been applied in 8 states and several are repeating the program for another cycle.  The program is designed for those individuals who already have credentials as teachers of blind or visually impaired children and for those who have completed approved rehabilitation teacher personnel preparation programs. 

PCO’s O&M Certificate Program

The program consists of includes 30 quarter hour credits of course work, two fieldwork experiences, and an internships.


PCO O&M Certificate Program Course Sequence with Credit Values





Foundations of Orientation & Mobility I




Low Vision Orientation & Mobility I




Orientation & Mobility Techniques I




Supervised Fieldwork I




Foundations of Orientation & Mobility II




Low Vision Orientation & Mobility II




Orientation & Mobility Techniques II




Supervised Fieldwork II








Required hours for fieldwork and internship are in compliance with AER university standards.  Up until last year, the programs were offered as summers only course work, with the two fieldwork experiences to be completed during the years between the first and second summer and the second fieldwork experience to start immediately following the second summer.  Once students complete the second fieldwork, which includes co-teaching with a mentor COMS, the student can begin the supervised internship.  Most students accomplished this before the third summer.  For those students, that do not have an opportunity to fulfill the internship requirements during the school year, internship placements are arranged for them to complete during the third summer. 

Last year, in response to student and faculty evaluation data, a modified approach was applied in some sites.  The feedback about the summers only program was positive regarding quality of the preparation, but the intensity of the program was of some concern.  The program requires students in the certificate program to achieve the same competencies as do the Masters degree students.  The program is not compromised in quality; the time during which it is presented is compressed.  The result was two summers of highly intense didactic course work in addition to spending long hours in the techniques classes under simulations during the heat of the summer.  In the US, that can mean temperatures close to the 100s with humidity levels just as high.

During the past year, a modification has been made in some states by presenting some of the didactic course work (not the O&M Techniques course in which the student learn the travel techniques while under simulation using blindfolds, and low vision simulators), over the course of the year by way of weekend and extended weekend formats.  In one state, teleconferences were used for parts of the Foundations of O&M courses.  This year strategy this strategy will be used in another state. The benefits are of course that student travel is minimized, courses are spread out over a greater period of time allowing more time for students to absorb the material,  the intensity of the studying is reduced in the summer, and PCO full-time faculty can teach more of the course work lessening the dependency on adjunct faculty.  The O&M techniques course, including the seminars, continues to be taught over 6 to 8 week periods during the summers.


Presently, all the course work is offered in a part of the state that is determined to be the most equitable for all students and adjunct faculty.  Some sites have included schools for the blind and visually impaired, state universities, state departments of education, instructional materials resource centers, and special schools for children with other disabilities. In one state, half of each didactic course was taught in one part of the state and the second part was taught in


Thus far the program has been offered in Oregon, Minnesota, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and of course Pennsylvania.  This year Georgia is starting a program and a rural Pennsylvania program will be offered.   These states represent the east, west, south and central parts of the US. Many of the above mentioned states have completed their first groups of students and have begun a second group.


PCO’s full-time home campus faculty teach courses, as well as adjunct faculty from within the communities for which we are operating the programs.  All adjunct faculty must have a degree in O&M from an AER approved program, a minimum of three (but all have at least five) years direct O&M teaching experience, have current Academy certification, and have applied, been reviewed and recommended for adjunct faculty status by department and college committees, and been approved as adjunct faculty by the President of the college.

Collaboration for Successful Satellite Programs

We refer to the off-campus sites as satellite programs.  This is not a new strategy but how they are funded, administered, and staffed are elements that are replicable.  Underlying each of the distant programs is effective collaboration.  We are convinced that effective collaboration is the key element to the success of the satellite programs.

The collaboration we will be discussing today involves the PCO Graduate Studies Department, other departments within the college, and state departments of education, special schools for the blind administrators, and other leadership in areas such as O&M, teaching children with blindness and visual impairments, and other special education specialists from the state.  We believe that the keys to effective collaboration that are stressed in all of our programs include:

Critical to the success of these programs is the involvement of the state and its willingness to collaborate on all efforts including recruitment, location of facilities, provision of a liaison, and matching funding with federal grant and PCO funds to minimize student financial burden. 

The remainder of our presentation will focus on the steps we have determined are critical for effective collaboration to occur.

Initial Contact With State

Contact is most often initiated by a State Vision Consultant or Superintendent of Special School for Children with Visual Impairments in a state that is experiencing critical personnel shortages and without a personnel preparation program within the state.  PCO has, on occasion, initiated contact.  Two key factors that have consistently surfaced are the reputation of PCO or institutional reputation, and professional relationships between PCO faculty and state leaders.

State Needs Assessment

PCO requires justification of need for COMS as demonstrated by a statewide needs assessment conducted by the state under consideration.    PCO administrators require this justification of need. The state needs assessment includes information regarding geographic distribution of VI children, TVIs and COMS.

On-site Meeting

An on-site meeting in the state under consideration is held to review the needs of the state and to share information about the PCO certification program being requested.  At this meeting all relevant decision makers from the state are invited to participate.  Those typically in attendance include: State Vision Consultant, Head of State Department of Special Education, State Certification Officer, other state-identified key decision makers, potential faculty and liaisons, and PCO Program Director and faculty member.  The purpose of this meeting is information sharing.  The state shares the results of the needs assessment, other perceived needs, strengths, limitations, timelines, information about special education service delivery structures within the state, school districts, regional centers, existing service providers (TVIs or O&Ms) in the state, topographical characteristics, possible instructional sites for the program, potential adjunct faculty, and fiscal capabilities.  PCO administrators and faculty share programmatic requirements, details about the program, competency, structure, accreditation, professional approvals, and areas that are flexible regarding scheduling.  Discussions occur regarding “how” the program would be best presented to meet students’ needs. PCO and the state clearly delineate what each party can supply regarding funds, faculty, instructional material, instructional supports, stipends, and tuition, housing and per diem expenses for the students.

Following the on-site meeting, conversations continue between the state lead person, generally the state vision consultant or superintendent of the special school for the blind and the PCO administration and a decision whether to collaborate, or not, is made. All efforts are made to match needs and capabilities of both entities. Each entity deliberates about the areas of agreement, any modifications in plans that may be required to make the collaboration work, questions concerns and responsibilities are discussed and resolved if collaboration is imminent. Once a decision is made to go forward, state liaisons are identified as well as site coordinators and the process of identifying potential adjunct faculty is begun.


The instructional site within the state is determined through a variety of in-state decision-making factors.  PCO recommends that the site is determined following recruitment and that an effort is made to select a teaching site that is convenient to students and adjunct faculty.  For the O&M program the site must be in proximity to all the community environments required for the teaching of O&M techniques, sensory awareness and sensory integration lessons. Inexpensive and accessible housing may also be a factor.   Many states use special schools such as schools for children who are blind or for gifted children, or state universities.  Other factors include, comfort, access to audiovisual, and computer equipment and the Internet, and others that will ultimately provide optimal learning opportunities.

Contract Development & Approvals

Concurrently, discussions ensure between the state and PCO administrators and officials to determine contractual components, formats that will ease state processing and budgetary specifics. PCO administrators draft a contract and send it to the state for approval or adjustments.  The process continues until the state and PCO authorities sign contracts.  Although most programs run for two to three years, generally annual contracts are signed.  Occasionally, depending on the state, multiple year contracts are negotiated.

Recruitment of Students, Adjunct Faculty & Site Coordinators

PCO ships and downloads various materials to the state.  These materials include recruitment flier outlines, program schedule, program and course descriptions, and admission materials such as application forms, financial aid forms, adjunct faculty requirements and general announcement materials.  Student and potential adjunct faculty applications are sent to PCO for processing and reviewed prior to PCO faculty visiting the site for the purpose of interviewing students, potential adjunct faculty and potential site coordinators. On going communication via phone and e-mail continues between PCO administrators and the state liaison regarding progress of applicants and further recruitment efforts are made if necessary.

Stakeholders Meeting

A stakeholder meeting is held within the target state.  All interested individuals and organization’s representatives are invited to attend.  The agenda is mutually developed and agreed upon by the state liaison and PCO faculty.  The meeting is usually scheduled from Friday though Sunday and includes group meetings where information is shared and discussions are welcomed, and individual student and potential adjunct faculty interviews.  Two faculty members interview each applicant.

Implementation of Program

The appropriate PCO department and college committees review adjunct faculty applications.  The committees’ recommendations are forwarded to the President of the College who informs the adjunct faculty of PCO’s decision.  All adjunct faculty are assigned a full-time PCO faculty member as their mentor.  The mentors are on-campus faculty who have developed and taught the course or course work that the adjunct faculty member has been deemed qualified to teach.  Students may be sent syllabi in advance as well as book lists.  Adjunct faculty are sent everything they need to teach the course, syllabi, book lists, reading lists, quizzes, exams, videos, PowerPoint presentations, etc.  Some faculty use the internet to support courses although this has not been used to a great extent in our O&M certification programs, we are in the process of a department wide curriculum revision, and by this time next year, some of the didactic course work will be presented online reducing the time students will need to travel.  In addition, this year, with the help of the Pennsylvania State Department of Education, more technology will be utilized through video conferencing and the development of some CD ROMs for the development of hybrid courses that will include both technology and face-to-face in class instruction.   Courses are scheduled and taught. 


Evaluations of student and faculty performance are on going. Students complete at least two evaluations for each course, one that focuses on the degree to which students believe each competency identified on the syllabus was met and the other on the quality and effectiveness of each professor involved in teaching the course.  If guest lecturers were used, there is an evaluation completed by students for each one.   Results are shared with course instructors and guest lecturers.   The course coordinator and the associate dean of the Graduate Studies Department review all evaluations.   Exit interviews are conducted and site coordinators and adjunct faculty are also requested to provide feedback for program modification and improvements.  In addition, a survey was recently sent to all those who have participated in the O&M certification program for the past several years and a survey was sent to all adjunct faculty and site coordinators. Site coordinators, who also teach and serve as approved adjunct faculty, were invited to an evaluative focus group meeting.  Representatives from the programs in Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oregon, and Tennessee were present along with all PCO teaching faculty in the O&M program.  Modifications in program delivery are being applied.  The keys to effective collaboration (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory) of involvement of all key players leadership, a mutually held shared vision, ownership at all levels, effective communication and involvement by all in decision making processes, collaborative goals, and shared financial support were reinforced during the focus group meeting.


Mason, C., Davidson, R. and McNerney, C. (2000).  National Plan for Training Personnel to Serve Children with Blindness and Low Vision.  Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Policy Brief www.ncrel.org/sdrs/pbriefs/93/93-3guid.htm

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