Bridging the Theoretical and Practical: Maximizing the Online Experience

I have been teaching online for the School of Education for a few years and I really enjoy the experience and the challenge. I teach a course called “Individuals with Disabilities in Society” and it provides general information about disabilities as well as social and academic implications of disability. Throughout and at the end of each semester, students provide excellent feedback and criticism of the course, and, over time, I have made changes to enhance the experience.

By nature, I look for practical application to coursework and although the material presented in this course provides useful information for students regardless of their intended field, something felt missing. I tinkered each semester by adding new components, technologies, conversations and materials, but the “missing” feeling persisted.

The feeling of “missing” became all too clear when a student came in and told me that she loved the idea of working with children with disabilities but she did not want to be a classroom teacher. She explained that she is an art major and took this class to fulfill an elective requirement but, over the course of the semester decided that she’d like to work with people with disabilities through the use of art. Ultimately, she wanted to talk about professional pathways that would allow her to combine her strengths and interests. I was at a loss and knew that I needed to add a component to my course to address what I realized was missing.

Jobs in the Field

Out of this conversation a new module was born: Jobs in the Field. Over the summer, 16 people from the community who in one way or another work with individuals with disabilities came to campus to record a short video discussing their work and the impact of their efforts on individuals, their families and the community. They addressed the education and/or qualifications required for their positions within their organization, salary, and how to apply for a job in their field. These short testimonies were added to the course with a corresponding writing task which asked students to consider which jobs would and would not be of interest and why.

When the module opened for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of student response. I knew that some students were already on the path to become teachers, nurses, and other professionals while some were more like me in my senior year of college; undecided or hadn’t even thought about life after CSUCI. As the responses rolled into Canvas for me to grade, I was skeptical but hopeful.

Students wrote passionately and thoughtfully about their connection to disability, to work and to their own future as a result of this assignment.   One student who was self-proclaimed “lost” in terms of career direction, wrote about viewing the camp director who started a summer camp inclusion program. She loved the camp environment but couldn’t envision a career in the camp world working with children with special needs. This video, she wrote, made it a reality and gave her a way to combine her experiences with her interests. A handful of students with interests in early childhood development and special education wrote about the director of a local program that provides services for infants, babies, and toddlers with disabilities. Of course, my student who provided the spark for this module wrote about the art therapist who runs an art collective for people with disabilities.

It would be untrue to write that everyone found a job that intrigued them, but I can say that as they reflected on why they were uninterested in the jobs presented, most expressed appreciation for organizations and services that help members of our society.

As far as the professionals who came to campus to speak for this task, many of them left fliers or their contact information for interested students. A new link in Canvas for all the job postings was created. I could not have imagined it at the time, but while some students were struggling to find their path in life, these organizations were struggling to find interested and capable employees. Everybody wins.

Looking Forward

As the new semester looms on the horizon and I prepare for three new online sections of this class, I know there is still work to be done, improvements and connections that need to be made and students who need to be reached. I have learned that teaching online has the power to break the fourth wall of the traditional classroom and bridge the theoretical to the practical by bringing the community to my students in ways that have immediate implications. To maximize the potential and prepare students for the online experience I constructed, I sit behind my computer and type welcome emails, post videos of myself talking through the syllabus and cross my fingers that students will connect with me, with each other and with the community as a result of this online course. It is a lot to ask, but why not ask it.


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