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Online degrees can level the playing field for college students with disabilities

Article Highlights:
  • Online degrees are rapidly growing in popularity, not only among traditional college students but also among working mothers, members of the military, older learners and people with disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities laud the advantages of online learning, like flexibility, convenience, accessibility and "leveling the playing field."
  • Online resources like eLearner.com help students avoid scams and ensure they're working with accredited institutions.
by Tara Wood on April 1, 2010 - 4:05pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 2

When Julia Greenstine was working on her master’s degree at Appalachian State University, she would routinely travel across campus, go to the library and hang out in common areas to chat with other students. But she’d do it without ever leaving home.

In fact, “heading to class” meant Greenstine, 41, would log in to a unique 3-D world called the Applied Education Technology Zone (nicknamed “the Zone”) where she appeared as an avatar — a digital representation of herself.  

Using Appalachian State's online AET Zone, Julia Greenstine was able to spend more time at home with her kids, Emma-Kate, 8, and Nate, 13, who also has CMT.

In the Zone, her avatar would navigate the virtual world to attend classes and events, join discussions or visit common areas where students would gather and converse.

She would interact with other students through chat, instant messages, video threads or audio features where classes or small groups could meet for discussions. She also would find help from instructors who were readily available in the Zone, especially in the evenings.

“It was a great experience,” says Greenstine, a working mom who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT). She completed her master’s in instructional technology in December 2008 through a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes at the ASU campus in Boone, N.C.

Her experience — while especially innovative — demonstrates how technology can now almost completely remove barriers for many who otherwise face steep challenges when pursuing higher education.

Since her CMT causes issues with balance and fatigue, Greenstine says online learning offered the flexibility she needed and meant she could reduce or avoid the hassle of having to trek around campus.

“If I was exhausted and didn’t feel up to concentrating on coursework, I could take the night off. The information was still going to be there in the morning — unlike missing a traditional class,” Greenstine says. “If there was a more formal gathering happening in AET Zone, the notes and conversation could be recorded if a student couldn’t be there.”

Some of her online classes used programs like WebCT and Blackboard, where information was posted, students completed assignments and then posted their results. Instructors could be reached by e-mail, and video was sometimes incorporated, but didn’t include real-time interaction like in the Zone, Greenstine says.

A popular option

Greenstine is one of approximately 4.6 million students who took at least one course online in 2008 (the most recent year for which figures were available), according to the 2009 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. The survey of more than 2,500 colleges and universities saw enrollment levels rise by nearly 17 percent from a year earlier.

Popularity has spread beyond the traditional college student, attracting working mothers, members of the military and older learners, says Terrence Thomas, executive vice president of marketing for eLearners.com, a Web portal that provides resources to online learners and connects them with online learning providers.

People with disabilities laud the advantages of online learning, like flexibility and convenience, and reducing or eliminating the hassles of getting around a campus, Thomas says.

“Those barriers are removed, so it’s opened up a whole new world to people who still want to learn or engage,” he says. “The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.”

This screenshot shows Greenstine (the avatar in black, to the right) in a real-time interaction inside the AET Zone's Net Basics Building with two other students. Says Greenstine, "The Zone's features support a very collaborative environment with lots of group work. Your group can sit down at a table and have an audio chat or you can discuss topics in real time through the dialog feature." She adds, "I also like how having an avatar takes years off my appearance, and I never have a bad hair day!"

Beyond mobility issues, Thomas says, typing one’s thoughts and ideas in an online learning environment also creates a friendlier setting for those with learning challenges like dyslexia and “people who are introverted or shy — in a classroom setting they don’t really participate.”

Learning in a La-Z-Boy

Jeff Lester, who received a diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in 1993, calls online education “a Godsend.”

“I actually believe an online education levels the playing field for a disabled student, since we are viewed like any other student,” says Lester, 44. “Typically, most of us who are disabled are technologically savvy out of necessity, so the online experience is natural for us.”

Despite living with advanced ALS, Lester, of Lebanon, Mo., is a full-time graduate student in his third year at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is pursuing three master’s degrees: an MBA with a concentration in supply chain management, an MS in finance and an MS in information systems.

“Given my particular level of disability and commitment as a parent of three daughters, it would have been a virtual impossibility for me to pursue a traditional educational path,” he says. Lester is almost completely paralyzed and uses a vent full time.

He says his courses consist of “learning modules” of lecture notes, interactive displays, a mix of PowerPoint, video and audio presentations, extra reading assignments and links to additional material on the Internet.

His assistive technology includes an Origin HeadMouse (which he has used for the past 10 years), electronic books and materials, plus “a rolling computer desk so I can use my computer in my La-Z-Boy, which allows me to work comfortably and without fatigue issues,” Lester says. He is planning to get a Nook e-reader so he can study in bed when needed.  

Some downsides

Even with innovative gadgets and advanced technology, online learning still depends on the student and self-motivation is a must, experts say. Features like self-paced classes, flexibility and lots of writing can be advantageous for some, but a drawback for others.

“It does take a lot of time, even though it is flexible,” says Thomas. “There’s a lot of writing. If you’re not adept at organizing your thoughts and communicating your thoughts deftly on paper, a lot of folks will find it challenging.”

Flexibility enabled Greenstine to work around times of excessive fatigue caused by her CMT, and to avoid lots of walking and potential falls on campus. Yet she acknowledges that online learning isn’t for everyone. She recommends trying a single class to see if it meshes with your learning style, and to ask others about their experiences.

“It takes a great deal of self-discipline and self-motivation. While the scheduling tends to be very flexible, sometimes it is difficult to motivate yourself to take care of business when you don’t actually see an instructor who will hold you accountable in a face-to-face situation,” she says.

Thomas says eLearners.com includes an online community of about 20,000 users, where a prospective student can find out about the realities of seeking a degree online.

“Ask a question and you’ll get an unbiased answer,” Thomas says, adding that the site has user profiles, so you can find someone who best resembles you and your lifestyle — military veteran, teacher with family, etc.

Lack of face-to-face interaction is another drawback for some students.

Lester says he misses the social interaction with professors and fellow students and recommends a combination of class types for undergraduate students with disabilities.

“I believe a university that offers a significant mix of both would be ideal, since that way you could take some classes online to reduce the physical load of going to all your classes, yet you could live on campus to experience a full university life,” he says.

Another challenge Lester has grappled with: lack of textbook material in electronic format. That — and finding a quiet place for studying at home with three noisy daughters, he says.

Where to start

The rapid growth of online education has also spawned a world of resources for accessing it: referral sites, directories and limitless articles, blogs and resource lists.

The eLearners.com site helps prospective students evaluate and do side-by-side comparisons of learning programs. Its database of courses and programs from more than 200 schools is searchable by category, subject, degree level, school and locations. And yes, a student who lives in Florida can easily find and attend an online school in Oregon without ever going there, Thomas says.

Another site listing accredited online degree programs is AccreditedOnlineColleges.org. Also, Affordable Colleges Online is a site dedicated to providing free higher education tools and information for current and future college students and their families. The site offers a directory of the most affordable colleges in each state, as well as an in-depth financial aid section with articles, guides and videos. 

As with any booming business, watch out for scams and make sure your school is accredited. Some cyberspace “degree mills” sell what seem like real diplomas to students who put in little or no effort at “schools” that sound like they’ve been accredited by very impressive organizations.

Accreditation is an important safeguard for ensuring your online degree will be valued and respected by employers. But don’t stop there. You need to make sure your school’s accreditor is actually accredited.

Thomas, who says that eLearners.com only lists accredited schools and programs, explains that some dubious online schools have fabricated lofty sounding accreditation.

Fortunately, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation was founded to combat the problem, and is a trustworthy clearinghouse of accrediting bodies, with searchable databases at www.chea.org.

What’s it cost?

Is it cheaper to attend school online? It depends, Thomas says, on a variety of factors.

Online classes may be less expensive because of their delivery method and because you don’t have to pay for room and board, some campus fees and commuting costs.

“If you have a Ph.D. program at a well-known university that’s in high demand, they can charge what the market will bear,” Thomas says, but there are some emerging private, online-only schools that are on par in price with public universities.

Don’t forget equipment and connection costs. You’ll need a computer, of course, and a broadband connection will enhance your experience and enable you to run some of the video and interactive chat applications.

It’s clear that online learning is becoming a standard part of education that’s here to stay — and it won’t be limited to higher education.
That’s fine with Greenstine, who is excited about the potential for her kids, particularly son Nate, who also has CMT. When he starts high school in a few years, there are special programs where he can begin taking online courses for college credit.

“I’ll never forget a special education teacher once said that technology in the classroom is the great equalizer for students with disabilities,” Greenstine says. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Do you love to learn, but aren’t seeking a degree? See “Free E-Courses Make for Lifelong Learners,” which lists a treasure trove of free online course materials from prestigious schools like MIT and Yale.

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