Online and tele-conference courses have become prevalent in secondary and post secondary institutions, especially in rural areas. I have heard more than once that being able to learn in this way is a life skill. My son was diagnosed as high-functioning autistic when he was three-and-a-half years old. Throughout his education, he has had many ups and downs. In general, he achieved at a normal academic level but exhibited significant social disabilities, especially with respect to understanding the expectations of his teachers. He attended a small rural school, which suited him, as he felt comfortable knowing most of the staff and students. However, being a small school, less classroom courses were offered, and so he took precalculus and calculus by tele-conference. These courses created many new challenges for him and for our family. My hope is that this article will help parents and teachers be better prepared to support a student with autism through tele-conference courses.
If a student with significant disabilities is able to succeed in regular academic or advanced courses, they should also be capable of success in the same types of online or tele-conference courses. It is fair to assume they will have similar difficulties as with any in-person course. For example, my son was capable of succeeding in regular classroom settings. However, with the tele-conference course, there was much less interaction between him and the teacher, and he had a lot more difficulty feeling successful. It was important for the teacher to be aware of his special needs in order to support him throughout the course. Before the course begins, it is worthwhile to discuss your concerns as a parent with the school staff who already works with the student and with those who are responsible for the online or tele-conference course. It might be helpful to have a team meeting with those involved, even including the student, in order to discuss any issues and to plan for the new academic situation. The teacher of the online or tele-conference course needs to be made aware of the student’s disabilities and/or concerns. It is very possible that the distance teacher would be happy to make adjustments to his/her teaching methods and get to know a new student with special abilities. It may be a challenge for the teacher, but one that would be rewarding.
Prepare ahead for the course
In the week or so before the course begins, the teacher should publish the syllabus and other course materials on the website. It is helpful to become familiar with this website and to follow along as the course progresses. The student may be able to do this on his/her own, or it may be that a parent will need to do this, or help with it. We found it helpful to follow a course calendar that the teacher updated weekly and also to print out all of the class notes that were uploaded to the website. We created a binder with all of the class notes and assignments in chronological order and with sticky notes to denote the dates (the resource teacher at the school initiated this).
Confirm the course is running smoothly
In the first week of the course, it is important to make sure that things are running smoothly and to make any adjustments. For example, my son had a lot of difficulty with the sound quality of the tele-conference. He has some auditory processing difficulties and the low noise from the system made it impossible for him to listen to the lecture. After talking with him about the sound quality issues, he wrote a respectful email to the teacher to explain the problem. The teacher then tested his sound equipment and installed a new microphone. The new microphone helped, but did not cure the problem, so the school replaced the computer speakers. With these two adjustments, my son was able to follow the class comfortably. Be sure to ask the student how things are going, and make note of any issues. Discuss what might be done to improve the situation. Have the student communicate his/her concerns directly to the course teacher, to the resource teacher, or to the school administration. It is amazing how a few small adjustments can make a significant difference to the quality of learning.
Determine the best workspace for your child
At home, create time and space for the course work. For us, this was the kitchen table as I was making dinner. The table would be clean and the space relatively quiet. I was there to answer questions, if necessary, but I was busy with dinner prep as well so my son didn’t feel I was intruding too much. We have found over time that having a quiet space in his own room with a desk is not the ideal study space because he has trouble staying focused on his task. At the kitchen table, he has none of his recreational distractions and he is motivated to get the task done. Utilizing the kitchen table as family study area has brought us together in my son’s learning. You might create a learning community by bringing your own study materials to the table.
Find people who support your child
I have learned over the past 20 years that it is not always possible to have an expert guide us, but the most important characteristic of an advocate is kindness and the willingness to work with us. My thanks go to those who worked day in and day out with my son, to those who got to know him and wanted to see him content and successful. These are the individuals who truly made a positive difference in our lives, and who maintained a bond with us even when the job was done. In any school, you can find staff members with these qualities who will act as an advocate for your child. Look out for these jewels, let them know how they can help and how much you appreciate them.
Online and tele-conference courses are here to stay. They are an important component of the educational landscape. As parents and as educators, we need to be able to find ways to maximize the benefits of these opportunities for all students while still ensuring the authenticity of the learning experience.
Robbin May is a teacher living in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. She is currently working hard to raise two healthy, happy children, some chickens, a garden, and to complete a Master’s in Education.
This article was featured in Issue 57 – Conquering A New Year