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Joan Thormann, Ph.D.
29 Everett St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
Five years ago Lesley University's Technology in Education faculty decided to offer its Technology in Education program online. The program was offered on campus in a traditional format meeting once a week and in an intensive weekend format. The online program was launched in an effort to offer the program to individuals who were unable to attend class in these traditional or weekend formats. The online program serves to support one of the University's missions which is to serve the under-served.
My involvement with the online program began early in the program development. Since I taught Technology and Special Education in the weekend format and was the course mentor, I was recruited to recreate this course for the online format. I adapted the course for the online format and have been teaching Technology and Special Education online every semester for the past four years. The experience has been intense and intriguing. Working in the online environment presents both challenges and rewards, and as with most teaching experiences, I learn a lot from my students.
In this setting I have learned much about the both the content of the course as well as online teaching. The course participants are typically K-12 teachers who are enrolled in the Lesley University Technology in Education master's degree program. Most of the students live and teach in the United States. Five or six different states are usually represented and there is a healthy mix of people from large and small cities and towns. Often one or two students are teachers in foreign countries. The positions these teachers hold vary from pre-school teachers to high school math teachers to media specialists.
Only occasionally one of the students is a teacher of students with special needs. The diversity in locations and positions provide online students with a broad perspective on resources, practices and issues relating to students with special needs and specifically access to adaptive devices.
Since many of the students have minimal training or experience in teaching students with special needs, one of the goals of the course is to build awareness and understanding of how to work with students with special needs as well as to become familiar with special education services in their own area.
With this background in place, students are asked to examine use of technology and adaptive devices that might be used with students with special needs in the hope that students will then share what they have learned with their local school district or beyond. For the culminating assignment students are required to submit an article that might be published in a journal. This assignment is designed to empower students to reach beyond their immediate surroundings. The following is an excerpt of what one student emailed to me after receiving a positive response from a journal:
"I was thrilled to receive a call from the editor last spring and have enjoyed working through the editing process with her.
I am now in awe at the thought of how our efforts have combined to potentially result in someone somewhere - someone whom we will never know or see - receiving some type of assistive technology software or hardware device that will significantly change their life."
Depending on the semester in which it is offered the Technology and Special Needs course lasts between ten and thirteen weeks. Summer is the shortest semester and the Fall semester is the longest. Students are given assignments that are due every week. There are assigned readings for every week from online journals, articles that can be accessed from Lesley's online database and Xeroxes that are sent to students. In addition to Xeroxed articles, students are sent videos at the beginning of the semester.
The course website contains an opening page, the syllabus, web resources and section checklists. The Syllabus page contains course objectives and guidelines, a listing of weekly topics, timelines, and a bibliography. The Web Resource page contains links that help students complete some of their assignments and includes pages dealing with special education organizations, technology and special education, and special education agencies. The section Checklist pages provide students with checklists that indicate if their assignment has been completed successfully.
Currently the site serves to support two sections of Technology and Special Needs per semester, thus there are two Checklist pages. The website URL is http://www.lesley.edu/faculty/thormann/spedonl.htm.
In addition to the course web site, each section has a password protected threaded discussion area. This area has a complete description of all assignments that are posted by the instructors at the beginning of the semester. Students are required to post all their assignments in this threaded discussion area.
Most assignments were developed so students may share information they have gathered, as well as, their own thoughts on various topics. It is important that what students post to the threaded discussion area is not just a paraphrase of the material. The assignments are constructed so that the student must think about the ideas presented and write a thoughtful analysis. To facilitate this goal the assignments are designed so that they cover different aspects of the assigned subject or cover an individual's or group's reflection on a topic. This reflection may be based on readings; discussions among students or experiences in which students were asked to engage.
Assignments are also designed to provide a variety of learning experiences, build an online learning community and an exchange of ideas. To reach these goals some assignments are completed independently, some in pairs and others in small groups. Some assignments require a follow up activity in which students must read other individuals' postings and comment on them publicly. Other exchanges might be via email to the entire class list or to individuals in the class. One student wrote the following in response to my encouraging her to read her classmates assignments.
"I will read the reflections written by the class. I know from working with them, that they have excellent ideas. Thanks for the suggestion."
To illustrate the variety of experiences and community building I will describe two of the assignments that students complete and the purpose of the assignments. The two assignments are 1. Introduction, and 2. Adaptive Equipment.
The first week of class focuses on the course guidelines, background reading, getting to know fellow students and easing them into the online learning environment. The purpose of their postings this first week is to establish an online community and have students become familiar with class participant expertise.
The Introduction assignment involves a three-step process. Students are asked to write about the positions they hold in the schools, their in-school or personal experience with individuals with special needs and any work they have done with technology for students with special needs. After they have posted their Introduction in the threaded area, they must read and ask a question of at least two Introductions of other students. The two they must read are Introductions of students whose last names come alphabetically before and after the reader's last name (the last in the alphabetical list contacts the first etc.). This structure insures that every student will be involved in exchanges with a minimum of two other students. The third part of the assignment is to respond to the questions asked. I encourage students to read all of the Introductions. In addition, without specifying names, I send an email to all the students reporting some highlights of the Introductions and the follow-up correspondence. I hope that in this manner students' curiosity will be piqued and they will read the entire Introduction threaded discussion.
The Adaptive Equipment project is assigned about two thirds of
the way through the course. Placing this project toward the end
gives students time to become more familiar with issues relating
to special education and technology before they focus on
equipment. Students locate some adaptive equipment, such as, a
Braille reader, touch screen, voice synthesizer or adaptive
keyboard, within their school district or community. They are
asked to consult with local community resource personnel for set
up and operation or to learn how to use the technology
independently. For their assignment students must post a report
about their experience using the equipment. The report needs to
include the following:
1. The type of equipment the student used, how to purchase it and its cost.
2. Identify the types of disabilities that would benefit from using this equipment.
3. Indicate the possible uses of the equipment for students with disabilities.
4. State how this equipment could be used with non-disabled students.
5. Relate the readings to the report.
Although there is no formal requirement for students to comment on each other's assignment, I do encourage them to read what their classmates have written.
Teaching an online course is formidable but the real compensation is student comments such as the following:
"Thank you once again for your thoughtful reading and evaluation of my paper. That last assignment was by far the most helpful for me. I really enjoy your reflections on my work."
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