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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Are colleges adapting to increasingly diverse students?

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I note that the media has recently been discussing the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/03/20/autism-prevalence-is-now-at-1-in-50-children/

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and read the recognition that this does not mean there are necessarily ‘more’ autistic children – rather, that the medical community is becoming better educated about recognizing autism in it’s many different presentations – which can vary significantly from one person to the next.

I wonder though, about the way education is going to need to continue to change as socially we recognize the degree of difference that is present among a classroom full of children. I would suggest that with so many children experiencing autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, affective disorders, etc. that the education system is past the point of being able to expect the ‘majority’ of children to have significantly similar learning styles, considering that even when they do not have any form of disability, people often have different ways of best learning new things.

 

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My own work and research echos what John Dewey observed at the turn of the last century; if there is one way of best teaching, it is to provide mentored opportunities for a person to learn, hands on, by doing. What it means to ‘do’ will vary – writing requires opportunities to write, discuss, revise (and read others’ writing); science requires experiments; social studies means experiencing other cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking about things…some of this does happen currently yet, hands-on practices still do not make-up the majority of learning opportunities in the education system.

Think particularly of higher education; how often do we still expect people to learn by sitting in a lecture hall and listening? This is particularly true for first year classes – a student’s crucial first year often requires trying to learn in a style that fewer and fewer students are well suited to. If a student survives the entry level classes, there will be increasing opportunity for the student to gain hands-on opportunities with field work, seminars, or work shops. These opportunities are seldom available to freshmen.

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It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that as learners continue to change, the institutions responsible for educating them will also be required to adapt. Many of the students who previously were not diagnosed as autistic, were not diagnosed in part because they functioned well enough to still participate in social functions like seeking an education. As the medical community becomes more adept at recognizing that these high functioning people also live with a disability, more people who attend college will arrive with documentation that they live with a disability. Students who in the past would have had to struggle through on their own, will increasingly have documentation that they live with a disability – and will be at last eligible for the accommodations they require. Those who teach or administer in the higher education realm would be well served to be increasingly prepared as these students arrive on campus.

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Housing, classroom expectations, peer social interactions/support, needs for counseling – these are all areas where planning should be taking place now to facilitate the increasingly diverse student population. Meanwhile, families should be practicing routines with children which will also support their college success: taking medication, following basic social protocols when meeting new people, learning study techniques even if the student is intelligent enough to not need to study for class – these are all skills the child needs to practice at home, to support their eventual college success.

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Preparation is needed on both the home front and in the institutions that educate, if we are going to assist the increasingly diverse student population in becoming educated social citizens. Failure to rise to the challenging but necessary work of adapting to the changing needs of students will have a negative impact on society. Too many bright young people are in danger of being pushed out of the current education system – it is time to reconsider business as usual. Focusing on one ‘fix-all’ answer (like technology) is also not appropriate, as there is too great a range of learning styles to assume that any one answer will be suited to all student needs.Diversity of students requires diversity of methods in teaching.

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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.