Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Online learning and equal opportunity for autistic students

As I've noted in an earlier blog post, there are serious problems with online learning programs like the Khan Academy and Carnegie Mellon's Cognitive Tutor. From a software development perspective, as I know from personal experience, it's extremely difficult to automate the subtler aspects of instruction, assessment, feedback: to ensure that the student is paying sufficient attention and focusing on the intended concepts; to determine what he or she needs to work on; and to give him or her appropriate feedback and assistance.

Empirical data questioning the efficacy of online learning environments have had no apparent effect on the exponential growth in online courses, which now include more and more college-level courses and whole institutions (most notably, Stanford and MIT). More and more professors are making their lectures available on line; outfits like Coursera are offering growing numbers of online college courses for which colleges (e.g., the University of Washington) are starting to offer credit.

And, for my part, I'm starting to see this as an unequivocal boon--not for your typical student, but for your student with high functioning autism.

Take my son, J, for example. His greatest weakness is attending to what he's supposed to during class time. He spends much of his school day unfocused, or focused on the wrong things. Even in classes that match his abilities and interests, he finds it difficult to sustain attention for 45-minute intervals. He benefits little from the presence of peers, or from other face-to-face aspects of his classes. Many of his teachers, lacking deep familiarity with autism, simply don't know how to relate to him.

In short, J gets little or nothing out of the in-person, brick and mortar aspects of education. Indeed, many of the features of traditional school actually impede his learning: the 45 minute-long periods; the extended desk time; the often anti-social interactions he has with classmates; the one-size-fits-all instruction. In an online learning environment, none of this would be missed.

For all their downsides, online environments offer special perks to the autistic student. Various studies show autistic students more comfortable, and more successful, learning from computers than from humans. Part of what's conducive are the reduced social demands and the predictability of the format and feedback. Also, ideal for language-impaired, attention-impaired kids like J, lectures can be watched in short installments over and over again, and unknown words looked up--online. Furthermore, the sorts of courses that best lend themselves to online instruction--math, science, engineering, and, first and foremost, computer programming--are those that are most suited to autistic strengths and interests.

Some advocats for autistic students see online learning as a cop out. Colleges and universities, they insist, should be focusing their efforts on making the brick and mortar campus experience as accessible to autistic students as possible rather than relegating such students to "second class" online status. But for those who are as language imparired, attention impaired,  and socially aloof as J is, this isn't really feasible.

Indeed, without the possibility of online learning, my son, for all his analytical and computational skills, would never be able to get a college degree. Now it's starting to look like a real possibility, and I am tremendously thankful for the one educational trend that I actual see as beneficial--at least to particular sorts of left-brained students.


ChemProf said...

One quibble -- online education isn't that well suited to all science courses, at least not those with a significant lab component. When an employer hires a chemist, they expect that person to actually know how to pipet and use standard glassware, not just how to use them in a computer simulation.

That said, I wonder if in 15-20 years my job will really be that of tutor and lab instructor. In which case, those of us at small places may have an advantage over our colleagues at research universities who view lab as beneath them. Or they may not be teaching at all, and research and teaching jobs may totally bifurcate.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks GWP!
ChemProf--Yes, I'm forgetting about the lab component, which would also, of course, apply to engineering classes.

Auntie Ann said...

Another use may be in poor-performing schools that have no hope of anyone in authority actually turning things around.

Instead of learning next-to-nothing in places erroneously called "schools", I can see online classes at least allowing students to get 70-80% of the content. I would think that this would work better for knowledge courses at the high school level than for basic skills classes like early education. I don't see any 6 or 7 year-old learning to read by staring at a screen.

In addition, online courses could be a cost-effective solution to cash-strapped school districts. Instead of spending 20K to not educate students, online learning might be able to devise a much cheaper alternative that could actually teach something.

Is it ever going to be as good as a real teacher who knows a student's strengths and weaknesses, who can switch to a different teaching strategy when it is clear the current one isn't working, and who can give personalized feedback and corrections? Never. But it might be better than what many students are getting now.

ChemProf said...

"I don't see any 6 or 7 year-old learning to read by staring at a screen."

I'm not sure about this, actually. My three year old pretty much learned to write her letters from an ipad phonics game. I got it because she's got a really impressive memory and I was worried she was memorizing word shapes instead of sounds (plus we were going on a trip and I needed something to occupy her on the plane). She spent hours copying the letters in the game, which I had figured was beyond her. She is still wobbly, especially freehand, but not bad at all for three!

Auntie Ann said...

I also think you could easily design a grade-school level online science curriculum that would teach a lot more than most kids get today. I swear our 10 year old knows more science from watching "Magic School Bus" than he will ever learn at his grade school (his sister just graduated, so we've seen the whole curriculum.)

I've looked around, and found a project-based upper-grade-school level science curriculum online that looked promising. It's a series of experiments using household items, or easily purchased items, that walks kids through science basics. It looked like it might work, but I haven't purchased it to really see.

If something like that could work, I can see grade-school science being done well online, even with an experimental component.

I also have a friend whose son is being home-schooled for high school, and has managed to do a full chem course at home, including experiments. It does seem doable. I believe, though, that he actually has a real teacher who can remotely give feedback, does the grading, and who's available for questions.

ChemProf said...

Through high school, online science is probably fine especially given what high schools are actually doing these days (which is a pet peeve of mine -- students come to college without any significant lab work because everything has been made super super safe, i.e. boring). At some point, you actually need to dissolve sodium metal in ammonia or inject your mixture into the GC.

C T said...

I just read an interesting book from the UK called Autism and Flexischooling by Clare Lawrence. She talks about how part-time school attendance blended with part-time home education can be a good solution for kids with autism or Asperger syndrome. I'm a partial-homeschooling mom to a very left-brained child and found her book rang true, even though I'm here in the USA.

ChemProf said...

Katharine, this is a little off topic, but you can probably answer my question. How much would you worry about scripting/echolalia in a three year old? My daughter seems to use it to entertain herself (chatting in the back seat of the car, reciting TV episodes) and when she isn't sure what to say to us. It doesn't interfere with asking for what she wants, normally, although sometimes if I ask her if she had fun doing something she'll reply "Well, it wasn't all fun but it wasn't all bad either" from Big Bird goes to the hospital. She was a late talker, and we had a tentative diagnosis of apraxia when she was two, but I'm not sure whether we should be getting her evaluated at this point.

Katharine Beals said...

I'm actually not sure of the answer to your question, but I've found a link that has a lot of thoughtful and reliable information on this question:

ChemProf said...

Thanks. I may have read that before, but am not sure. My sense is she's borderline -- scripting still makes up a lot of what she says, maybe half?, but she can initiate conversation when she wants to.