When it comes to services that accommodate all types of learners, many online colleges are ahead of the game. The benefits and services that they offer help to level the playing field and allow all students to learn, especially students with special needs and/or learning disabilities.
Before enrolling in any online college, students should understand what online college services are available and how a school may accommodate them.
The Benefits of Online Education
Online education continues to grow in popularity among students from all walks of life. The College Explorer 2014 report issued by marketing firm re:fuel agency found 57 percent of college students have taken at least one course online.
Here are some of the features that may make online college an attractive option for you:
- Flexible scheduling: Students who struggle to maintain the rigorous minimum semester credit requirements of many on-campus programs will benefit from the personalized study schedule that is a feature at many online colleges.
- Self-paced learning: Asynchronous learning models allow students to read course materials, listen to lectures, and complete class activities at their convenience. As a result, students can easily access and review instructional material as many times as necessary and at their own pace.
- Virtual classes: Many online degree programs are now fully online. This method of learning makes education more accessible to students who would have difficulty traveling to a campus facility or sitting for long periods in a classroom.
- Online communication: Most communication - whether it's with professors or students - is done completely online. For students with hearing difficulties or emotional concerns such as anxiety, this type of communication can break down one more barrier to higher education.
- Student support services: Finally, many online colleges offer support services that benefit the entire student population. These services may include tutoring, financial aid planning and career placement assistance.
While all students can benefit from these online education features, the chart below highlights which areas might be particular helpful to students with specific needs.
Student support services
Emotional issues (i.e., anxiety or phobias)
Americans with Disabilities Act and Online Education
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, most postsecondary institutions must provide reasonable academic adjustments to ensure higher education remains accessible to students with disabilities. For those institutions not covered by the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act typically applies and makes the same requirement.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, reasonable academic adjustments may include the following:
- Reducing course load
- Substituting classes
- Providing materials in an alternative form, such as Braille or audio books
- Facilitating the integration of assistive technology
- Equipping computers with adaptive hardware or software
To receive online college special needs services, students must contact their school and request an accommodation. Under federal law, an institution isn't responsible for identifying disabled students. Instead, it in the responsibility of the student to notify the school of their disability, provide proof and request academic adjustments.
Tips to Succeed in an Online College
Students who have a disability or who believe they need special services may want to contact schools even before registering to determine how classes are administered and what accommodations might be available.
Online colleges can vary significantly, and students should keep the following questions in mind as they explore schools.
- Are classes asynchronous or synchronous? Synchronous classes require all students to be online at the same time for lectures, chats and classroom activities. Students with learning, hearing or vision impairments may find the pace makes it difficult to participate in this environment, and an asynchronous model may be a better fit.
- What is the coursework management system and will it be accessible? Online schools may use programs such as Moodle or Blackboard which can accommodate special needs learners, but other institutions have their own, sometimes less accommodating, systems in place.
- What assistive technologies and alternative materials will the school provide? Will the school provide text-to-talk or voice-to-text software, screen magnifiers or alternative keyboards? Are Braille or audio books readily available?
- Are classroom activities flexible to allow for alternate ways to demonstrate knowledge and competency? Students with learning disabilities may have difficulty with traditional evaluation methods, such as essays, but excel in another format, such as multimedia presentations.
- Who is available to help with accommodations? Typically, schools will have a disability services office or an ADA coordinator to help identify needs and implement academic adjustments.
Online learning is, by many accounts, revolutionizing the way students learn. Those with disabilities shouldn't give up the dream of a higher education but explore the many options provided by online colleges.
However, online college special needs services aren't uniform. Take the time to request information from several schools and explore their programming to discover which one will increase your opportunity for academic success.
1. Devon Haynie, "Students with Disabilities Meet Challenges in Online Courses", U.S. News and World Report, April 4, 2014: http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/04/04/tips-for-online-students-with-disabilities
2. re:fuel agency's 2014 College Explorer Outlines Latest College Market Trends, June 25, 2014: http://refuelagency.com/tech-savvy-college-students-maintain-healthy-spending-continue-to-gather-gadgets-and-prefer-campus-marketing-tactics/
3. Students with Disabilities, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60 (Accessed June 30, 2014)
4. Students with Disabilities Preparing for Post-Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html (Accessed June 30, 2014)
5. UDI Online Project. (2010). "Students with disabilities and online learning" (Technical Brief # 04). Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, http://www.udi.uconn.edu