How MOOCs can assist disabled students.

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There is increasing buzz about the potential of MOOCs (massive open online courses) to making education available to everyone. As MOOCs are offered by schools like Harvard and MIT, some people have proposed that this is the future of education. Students need to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground however, and remember:  no one is yet offering, 1) MOOC degrees or 2) jobs to people educated through MOOCs.

MOOCs do offer university level instruction to people who due to distance, cost, or interest in only very specialized topics are not able/willing to enroll in full time study at a university. MOOCs have another potential value, which I am not seeing people discussing. Invisibly disabled students could potentially use MOOCs as study tools before enrolling in and paying for a class for credit.

Consider for example a student who needs one math class for their degree, but who struggles with math. Taking a MOOC class like college algebra would allow the student to prepare. There are also pre-college algebra classes offered, if a student needs more foundational work before taking their for-credit university class. The MOOC class will not count for degree purposes, however, the practice the MOOC class would give in learning and working with concepts might be the precursor to success that a student could use. MOOC classes can also be repeated without cost, so that a student could repeat a class until they are comfortable enough with the content matter to take the class for credit.

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This is an area of educational preparation where MOOCs may prove to have something valuable to offer to invisibly disabled students who are seeking degrees. Enrollment in the MOOC classroom is unlimited, just as there is no limit to how many times a student reviews an open source class. In other words, a student can repeat the same class if needed to prepare for content matter they struggle with. This obviously is not a way to prepare for an entire degree, however, it can be useful when a student struggles with a specific class.

If you are a student who struggles with certain types of learning, then consider looking into the availability of MOOC classes which would allow you to work with concepts before you take a similar class for credit. And for families who have a student who desires a college education but who still needs to practice social skills before leaving home, MOOC classes provide access to educational practices that can be used at home, before the student relocates to a university or college away from home. MOOCs real value is in continuing education and in educational preparation. Once we recognize their value for what it is, we can see how MOOCs can be another tool in preparing invisibly disabled students for college success.

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Summer Classes – New topics, re-do poor grades, or not-at-all?

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Depending on one’s school, summer semester may be the same length as all other semesters, or it may be a compacted semester. For example, some schools offer concentrated classes that do not meet over as many weeks but that do meet for a longer time period during each class session. If one is taking this kind of concentrated summer class there are some decided things to be aware of, particularly if one lives with a disability that impacts his or her learning.

The best strategy for summer classes may be to focus on repeating classes that were nearly passed the previous semester, or that one passed with a very low grade. Improving the grade in these classes will improve a student’s overall grade point average (GPA) which helps a student maintain good academic standing – academic standing impacts a student’s eligibility for financial aid, as well as whether or not a student will end up on academic probation or suspension.

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This also makes financial sense if one considers that it is more cost effective to privately borrow money during a shorter summer semester, should they have temporarily lost their financial aid due to grades. While tuition costs may stay the same, housing/food costs will be lower for the shorter summer semester. By re-taking classes that one failed earlier, during the summer, a student may be able to re-qualify for financial aid by the beginning of the fall semester.

When is retaking a previously failed class during a shorter semester not a good idea? When a student struggles with the material, or the way the material is taught. In these cases a student may benefit from retaking the class during a standard length semester so that they have more time to work with the information, tutors/learning centers, and their memories. Many disabilities impact memory and limit how much a student can memorize in a short period of time. In these cases, taking an abbreviated class in a subject area a student struggles with is often not a good idea.

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Memory, availability of tutors and sometimes limited summer hours in learning centers are also reasons why it is often not a good idea for a student  to take challenging-to-them new classes during the summer. Professors are still required to cover the same basic information, homework assignments, and assigned readings during the shortened semester as they do during a regular semester.

I do sometimes meet students who mistakenly believe that because a summer class might only last half as long during a summer semester as it does during the ‘regular’ school year, that the professor will assign only half as much work. This simply isn’t so. Students need to have the same preparation at the end of the semester for the classes that will follow, regardless of what time of year they took a class. Whether a semester is seven or fourteen weeks long, students need to know the same material and obviously that puts more pressure on a student, their memory, and their anxiety level.

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Summer is often a good time for a change of pace. Students should consider developing their work experience during the summer; this may include apply for an internship with a company. Even if a job is outside a student’s area however, the experience gained through working is valuable for a resume – work with the Career Services office on campus if unsure how to ‘fit’ work experience onto a resume. And remember – “work” does not have to be paid to belong on a resume. If a student has no luck finding a paying job, then the student should find an organization they can volunteer for that will help them build up their work experience.

Summer may also be a good time to take a class through a local community college that is not the student’s primary school. Students can check with their primary school’s registrar’s office to make sure any class(es) they take will transfer. Summer may also be the best time to get some a student’s physical education requirements taken care of with a swimming, rowing, sailing, or golfing class.

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I failed a class/the semester – what can I do?

Have you reached the end of the semester and found you failed one or more – even all of your classes? What can you do?

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First, ask yourself some questions:

  • Did I go to class regularly (even if it was boring, pointless, repetitive, put you to sleep)
  • Did I arrive in class on time (was I late on more than one occasion)
  • Did I hand in all assigned homework on time
  • Did I take notes
  • Did I review the notes
  • Did I participate if the class allowed for participation
  • Did I use the learning centers on campus (do I know where the campus learning centers are? Do I know if there are any?)
  • If projects/presentations were part of the class did I do my best on all of them, show up for all group work and meetings on time
  • Did I keep up with the reading for the class during the semester and review my notes after class so that I was studying all semester – or did I wait and try and cram for tests in the few days/hours before a test
  • Did I seek out the professor and/or Teaching Assistant during their office hours and ask questions about homework or classwork that I did not understand

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If you have done all of these things, consider the following:

  • Do I need to talk to the professor to find out if there is a mistake in my grade? – Grade entry is often computer automated these days, and professors can occasionally make a data entry error that needs to be corrected. This is something to bring to a professor’s attention as soon as you discover the incorrect grade.
  • Do I need to file a grade appeal? If you have handed in all your homework and been given passing grades, if you have passed all your tests and gone to class and still did not pass the class, yet you were still given a failing grade, then again, you need to immediately bring this to the professor’s attention. If the professor states that the failing grade is accurate, you can file an appeal with the department the professor teaches for – but I would recommend FIRST making an appointment to sit down with the professor and explain why you thought you were passing and listen to the professor’s explanation for why you were given the failing grade.

Now let us suppose that you failed but it was neither an error nor a misunderstanding between what the professor expected and what you thought the professor expected.

If you did all of the above – went to class, studied throughout the semester (not relying on cramming just before an exam), used the appropriate learning centers, talked to the professor when you didn’t understand something – yet you received a failing grade – it may be that the information was presented in a way that is not suited to your learning style. You may need to repeat the class to learn the information.

Some classes are very complex, plus the information is not presented in a way that suits a wide range of learners. In a case like this, it may be necessary to take a class a second time — sometimes repetition of ideas and greater familiarity with a topic will assist in learning the information. Also, some professors may be able to teach a subject in a way that engages an individual student in a way that another professor does not. Professors and students are all human; with a complex topic, sometimes the professor teaching does make a difference. Not everyone teaches or learns the exact same way and different combinations of student and teacher can impact learning.

If, you failed more than one class though, you need to consider the following:

  • You are trying to do too much at once – you’re either taking more credit hours and/or working, or have too many social activities, or are otherwise trying to fit too much activity into the time you have.
  • You are in the wrong field of study.

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It is important to consider which of these apply to your situation and comparing yourself to others will not help.

It doesn’t matter if someone else is doing the same amount of activity that you are yet not failing – we are each individuals and we each have to discover the pace we can work at, and how much we can do at once. Our brains are not all built the same way, and our brains do not all process information or stimuli the same way. Just as we all have things we can do without effort, we all have at least one thing we have to work harder than others at. Are you trying to do too much at once? Did you find yourself always running out of time, always needing to be in two places at once? Then you may need to cut down on activities and maybe cut down on the number of classes you take, in order to be successful. Talking to an academic advisor can be helpful in working out what changes you can make to be more successful.

It may be even harder to figure out if you are in the wrong field of study. Just because you really want to follow a certain career path does not mean you will be able to successfully obtain a degree in a given field. Have you ever watched a talent contest? (There are more and more of them televised these days). Have you noticed that while some people are very talented at singing or dancing or playing an instrument or at physical activities, others do not have the same talents? Everyone has talents, strengths, and things they do well – but sometimes what we want most and our strengths do not match up. If you are struggling to pass classes in a certain field of study, then you might be like the person who desperately wants to be a singer but cannot stay on key. You may need to separate your hobbies and interests from your potential to be employed.

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Look for the Career Services office on your campus, or talk to your Academic Advisor. Find out about the possible jobs that would allow you to use your strengths without requiring so much of what you struggle with. If for example, you have trouble with math it is one thing to have to survive/pass one math class as part of a degree requirement and another to try and become a mathematician…or any other career where math would be both foundational and regularly required.

And if you are a student who is struggling but who has not studied throughout the semester, has not used learning centers, has not talked to the professor, has not gone to class regularly or does not arrive on time – it may be that what you need is to consider if you really want a college education. These are the practices necessary for most people to be successful in college. If you don’t want to do these things, then you may be pursuing a job/career in the wrong way. Have you considered certification in a field that allows you to learn hands on? Journey-person training in trades can lead to very well paid jobs which remain in demand – in fact, predictions are that countries around the globe are not training enough trades people and that demand is going to continue to increase.

Consider if you are in the right field of study. Consider if you need to try a different school, different field, or different path to employment. Talk to a Career Counselor and Academic Advisor about your options. Remember, education is supposed to be challenging, not painful. If your current course of study is making you suffer, you need to reexamine either your goals or your approach to your goals.

Improving a grade in a problematic class.

 

 

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Students moving from high school to college sometimes believe that because professors appear to pay less attention to who is in class – they may not take attendance, they may not learn names, they may even say, “I don’t care if you come to class” – that going to class is not necessary, or that it is a waste of their time. “The professor just lectures from the book” or “I don’t learn anything in class” are two reasons I’ve heard students say they do not go to class. What students often do not realize is that going to class can still make a difference in what they learn.

Very few people are able to remember everything they hear during a lecture or discussion. We all tend to pick up some words, ideas, or points though. If a student does the assigned reading for a day, goes to class and even half-listens to what is said, they are likely to pick up a few key terms that are repeated by the professor that were mentioned in the textbook. This is a good indicator of a foundational idea that the student will need to learn in order to be successful in the class – these are also clues to the concepts the teacher will use when writing test questions.

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If a student is having trouble grasping the key concepts, then being present in class can provide opportunities to ask the professor questions. If the professor doesn’t have time to answer the questions during class, then a student who has a face the professor recognizes from class will find they have a warmer welcome going to the professor’s office and asking their question(s).

If a student needs more support than asking the professor questions, or if the professor provides answers which don’t clarify enough for the student, then a tutor or learning center appointment(s) are a useful strategy to make use of. Many learning centers allow students to sign up for reoccurring appointments or offer study sessions so that a student can have support while working on homework.

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If a student isn’t sure what to try next, then it is time to make an appointment with their academic adviser, or disability support person. The longer a student struggles in a class without support, the less likely the student is to be able to catch up on the foundational ideas they need to pass the class. There are few things more frustrating than working hard on a class only to fail it or achieve a low grade because the information was not adequately understood. Schools are attempting to provide academic support for students – students have to be willing to make use of that academic support when they are struggling in a class. Do not suffer in silence, seek out the support that is available.

 

 

Parents supporting students at college: Part Two – Housing and Independence

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Where will a student live when they go to college?

If they stay in their local area, then they may be able to stay at home. Depending on a student’s disability and how they are managing their transition, medication, and independence, a year at home that further supports the transition to independence might be a good idea.

Sometimes though, dorm life is a good idea for supporting independence, even if the student is close enough to live at home. Moving to a dorm allows a student to be responsible for getting themself up and to class on time, taking their own medication without reminders, being responsible for their own laundry etc. Even if a student remains living at home during their first year at college, families should be encouraging the kind of independence that includes these same specific skills.

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This may mean parents clenching teeth when a student is sleeping through class however, students need to learn the consequences of missing class including failing grades.

Families are not helping students in the long run if the only thing that ever gets a student out of bed is a parent. Students have to learn to be responsible for such things themselves if the final goal is for the student to live independently. Ideally, a student will have practiced getting up, doing laundry, taking medication while still in high school but life isn’t always ideal.

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When it is time for students to apply for housing at a university, some parents choose to take on the responsibility of filling out the housing application for their student. I would suggest that it is better to work with the student then to fill out the application for the student. Again, this is a step towards independence and if the student isn’t ready to fill out the application by him or herself, then they probably aren’t ready to live away from home either.

Some families tell me their student is too busy to fill out the application. A student’s life is not going to be less busy once they are a full time college student and learning to manage multiple demands on their time is something families can help students with by helping them make the time to fill out their housing application. Think about it this way – students have to learn to prioritize the most important events over lesser events – having a place to live is a priority over most other activities, including sporting events and extra curricular social events.

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While in college a student may choose to live off-campus at some point. Parents may provide emotional support and advice during this process, they may even accompany their student on visits to potential apartments. Remember however, that this is another step in gaining independence; the final decision is the student’s decision as are the final consequences. If the student chooses a building that has a great social life and as a result their grades start to suffer, the student has to learn how to re-balance their social/academic life and parents will not be able to oversee this process.

The other main thing families can remember is that with university dormitories, students are still in a supported environment – the housing staff is specifically trained to work with young people making the transition to independent living. Rather than stepping in to “fix” problems with the housing staff, families can encourage their student’s independence by discussing issues the student may run into, (perhaps a problem with a roommate) but then encourage the student to follow through on the steps that are necessary to resolve their issue without the parents becoming directly involved.

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For example, if a student has a roommate issue, they can discuss this with the housing staff person responsible for their living unit (floor, hall, building) – there are levels of such staff, whose purpose is to help students resolve conflicts: Resident Advisers, Community Advisers, Professional Staff etc. When families would like more information about such staff and related processes they can now find this information on web sties; go to the university’s web site, find the link for Housing, and then read over the related housing web pages to find out what processes your student does have available to them. You can then advise the student about the process, without having to step in and implement the process yourself.

On or off-campus, a student who is in college needs to start putting into practice the independent living skills that are part of becoming a self-sufficient adult. Families need to remind themselves that it is generally better for students to live through a few bumpy moments at college, sorting out their problems without parents jumping in to ‘fix’ things, if students are going to be well prepared to adjust to the next step of their life – living independently as a working professional.

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Parents supporting students at the college level: Part One – Transition and Classes

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Raising a disabled child is challenging. Just ask my parents (they don’t complain but they could tell you a lot about the challenges.) How children are raised has changed a lot since I was growing up but one thing hasn’t really changed – when parents have a child who faces a unique set of challenges, the level of support the parents provide in advocating for and providing auxiliary support for their child has a huge impact on how much of the child’s potential the child will realize. Parents who work outside of the classroom with their child have children who tend to do better in the classroom.

Given this, I understand it is particularly difficult for parents who are used to assisting their children achieve success when the now young adult moves to college. How much support should parents continue to provide? Parents recognize that the geographical move alone hasn’t changed who their son or daughter is, so how does a family reconcile what the student may still need with what the parents can provide from a distance?

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Transitioning to college is challenging for every student – don’t let the recruiting brouchers for colleges, with their pictures of happy students, deceive you. Everyone faces challenges when they first transition to college life; disabled students are going to encounter unique problems as well as some of the same changes their non-disabled peers face such as  new food, new smells, new rooms, new people, new schedules, new ways of doing things….

For some students – disabled or not – a move which places them at a significant distance from home is not a good first move. More students should be making a several step transition to the college they plan to eventually graduate from. At least one year, and often two, can be spent at either a community college or a regional university that is not the university the student intends to take their final degree from. What students sometimes loose sight of is that no matter where they start their college education, their diploma will still have the name of the school they eventually graduate from, not the names of the schools they studied at along the way.

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Parents, your role may be in helping students recognize when they are not yet ready to jump straight to a school that is a significant distance from home. Similarly, if your student is only comfortable in a smaller school, going directly to a very large school may not be a healthy transition for him/her – each student has an individual limit to the number of new stresses they can successfully deal with at any one time. Parents, you may be the best equipped to advise your student about their personal tipping point for too much stress.

Parents can also be helpful in making sure their students know where to access the major life essentials in a new environment. Does the student know how to catch a bus/train/subway in their new town? Are they aware of where the closest grocery store and laundry mat are?  Have they found the dining hall and laundry in their dorm housing? Does their school have a health clinic or do they know where the nearest doctor’s office is? And where and how will they be getting any needed prescriptions refilled?

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At the college level perhaps the most significant change in the parent-child relationship that is taking place comes to the parent’s involvement in their student’s study/homework/grades and teacher interactions. It is no longer appropriate – or legal – for parents to receive information directly from the professors of their sons/daughters classes. Legally, once a person becomes a full time college student, they are considered an adult and their right to privacy regarding their grades and school progress is protected.

Grades are not going to be updated daily.

Teachers are not going to respond to demands for information.

Students are not going to always have quickly updated grading information either. At the college level professors may provide very little grading feedback during the course of the semester. Combine this with the potential that a student may choose not to share grades they know a parent will not approve of and it is very possible that a family will not know until the end of a semester that their student has failed some or all of their classes. This is the adult reality of college.

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This is a further reason why some families are best served by taking a stepped transition from living at home to living away at school; community and regional schools may be less expensive than the final-destination university that a student intends to graduate from. If a student needs practice being independent then the stress of expensive classes with little room for failure may not be a good first transition step on the way to obtaining a professional degree.

In the next part of this series we will look at another area where students need to be working towards independence: their ability to make housing arrangements.Both on and off-campus housing have specific steps which parents can help with, and points at which parents will need to let their students manage on their own.