An increasing number of students with special needs now attend four-year universities, with admissions officers reporting a fivefold increase in their applications over the past 30 years. But with this opportunity also comes additional challenges in ensuring that their needs are met. At Sage Colleges, an online degree platform is filling that gap.
“Most colleges have a disability office that is responsible for supporting students, but [some] special needs .... may go beyond what these offices provide,” says Dana Reinecke, a board-certified behavior analyst and department chair for the Center for Applied Behavior Analysis at The Sage Colleges, a 3,000-student university in New York. Sage, she says, is customizing the learning experience to fit each student’s individual needs.
In fall 2012, Sage launched the Achieve Degree program, an online degree designed for students on the autism spectrum or with other special needs, who generally work from home or their local library. The program is a 120-credit bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies with companion classes in computer science. It also includes a life-skills class. Course design, pacing and length of the academic term are designed to fit the needs of each student. Mentors spend three hours per week in one-on-one meetings with their students, and are also available via email, Skype or phone.
“The Achieve Degree is an excellent example of how universities can gear curriculum toward the specific needs of special needs students,” says Reinecke, who works as an advisor to the program. “It’s fully online, minimizing issues of social anxiety, and it also provides opportunities for social skills training. And we can intervene when [hands-on help] is needed.”
Technology allows special needs students to take more control of their own education and do more for themselves, Reinecke says. This is especially true for students on the autism spectrum who can be overwhelmed by interpersonal interactions in the classroom. Technologies such as smartphones, tablets and social networks allow these students to more comfortably integrate into the university community.
“The near ubiquity of social media technology at universities helps special needs students navigate the complex social dynamics of university life,” says Janet Twyman, president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “There’s tremendous potential in everyday consumer products to make universities more accommodating for students’ special needs.”
Going forward, technologies like augmented and virtual realities will allow universities to further tailor the learning experience to accommodate special needs. Reinecke says she sees particular promise in virtual technology platforms like Second Life—a virtual reality game where the avatars and actions mimic real life—which could host educational role playing.
“[Games like Second Life] could bring assessment to a whole new level, and allow students to demonstrate what they are learning in a virtual reality situation that’s safe and contained,” she says. In the end, both. Reinecke and Twyman urge universities to think carefully about how a particular technological solution measurably improves the learning experience.
“Technology is not a silver bullet for special needs,” says Reinecke. “We have to be careful that the tech solutions are not seen as an end in themselves. A good solution must improve the learning experience for special needs students.”
Reinecke will conduct a workshop at UBTech 2014 entitled “Using Technology to Support Learners with Special Needs in Higher Education.”