Log Into a World of Education

This article originally appeared at deafprofessional.net

Maybe you’re on the road for your job, at a hotel that looks just like the last seven hotels you stayed at. Or maybe you have two young children and a full-time job. You want to earn a degree, but simply don’t have the time or energy to go to classes, having to watch an interpreter for three hours, and then take care of your family and/or job. You sigh as you see your education slipping away.

Online education may just be the answer. Taking courses over the Internet has been making its way to the forefront of education, and is proving popular with nontraditional students. A March 5 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that more than 2.3 million people took at least one online college course in 2004. The article also notes that Congress recently passed an act that no longer requires colleges to provide at least half of their classes at a physical campus to qualify for federal student financial aid, which comes as a relief to many working people who may also be paying for their children’s educations.

“The online students of today consist primarily of working people who are trying to better their opportunities,” writes Illinois Online Network. “The traditional school will never go away, but the virtual classroom is a significant player in today’s educational community.” Take, for example, Gallaudet University. “We offer an average of 13 online courses per semester,” says Earl Parks, e-Learning Manager, “but with an increasing number of courses that begin on campus for one week during the summer and then completed online in subsequent time periods.” Most of Gallaudet’s online courses focus on deaf-related topics such as Deaf Literature, or interpreting topics, although there are other courses such as certification courses.

“Just recently at a board of trustees meeting, the board approved the creation of a new graduate field, a master’s program in international development,” Parks said. “What is so remarkable is that the first year of this program has all of its courses online, which is a major step forward in online education.” Gallaudet’s online students vary from undergraduate students on campus in Washington, D.C. to professional students from everywhere in the world.

The biggest benefit to taking courses online is the convenience. National Association of the Deaf and Gallaudet University Alumni Association president Andy Lange earned his master’s degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix in 1995. An accredited university with 300,000 students, University of Phoenix offers courses both online and at local campuses throughout the nation. “When I worked at AT&T, they suggested that I take a course, and I took several online. I was traveling approximately 85% of the time, so this was a terrific solution to my needs. Having to earn a master’s degree at a nearby college would have been impossible.”

Convenience was also a plus for Kat Brockway-Aiple of Bowie, Md., although she was initially skeptical. After finding that the University of Phoenix was an accredited university and that her vocational rehabilitation services would cover the costs, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business management in February. “I wanted to finish up my long-time goal of earning a degree at my own pace, and I thought this was a good way to do it while working full-time and caring for my two daughters. That way I wouldn’t be stressed out by having to drive to classes, working with interpreters, and going at a faster pace.”

Another reason cited for taking online classes is barrier-free communication access. “Online classes give me a level of equality that I wouldn’t probably experience in a hearing class because of the interpreters and lag in communication,” says Jesse Bailey, athletic director at the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe who is pursuing his license in administration. “You see, we don’t and never will receive full communication access even when we use interpreters. Oftentimes, interpreters may miss some words or details while hearing classmates receive direct communication from the teacher. But online, I’m directly communicating with them in one language. So it puts me on a far more equal, if not whole, level with them.”

Lange agrees. “I did not tell anyone that I had a hearing loss. It was great, because I wasn’t treated any differently and it was amazing to see how level the playing field was because of this. The information shared was the same for all of us with no third party like an interpreter to deal with. But if I were in a classroom setting, the sight of an interpreter instantly would change the dynamics, with people reacting differently to the idea of a deaf person in their midst.”

He laughs as he remembers showing up for graduation with an interpreter. “My classmates were shocked! I had nine classmates from all over the world, with six showing up at graduation in San Francisco. They were stunned that I was deaf. I wanted to keep it that way because I wanted to show that I was just like them.” Lange intends to pursue his doctorate through an online program as well.

With such positive benefits, online education seems to be the best educational solution for deaf professionals. Not so, cautions Lange. “Although there are a lot of benefits, one does need to be very disciplined to pursue an online degree. I had to ‘attend’ online five days out of seven, and I had to work around that. And there’s a lot of homework and coursework in between. The discipline is the biggest factor, and one must be committed to seeing this through.”

“Another con to this is that there are no American Sign Language (ASL) versions for most online courses,” adds Brockway-Aiple, who agrees that discipline is key. “It’s all done online, which means everything is done in written communication.” This may prove problematic for people whose first language isn’t English. Aiple sought the use of a tutor, and other students also often work with writing centers or professional writing services.

Gallaudet tries to alleviate this language barrier by providing lectures in ASL. “Our grant writing course was the first to utilize video technology during the entire course. The instructor teaches from a log cabin in Minnesota, where the students view her pre-taped lectures in ASL each week,” Parks says. “It’s a technology we’re using with our other courses, which will bring ASL-accessible lectures to students around the world.”

In addition to ASL-accessible lectures, Gallaudet works with an online tutoring service that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Parks points out, “Our students’ writing skills are enhanced by a variety of services and resources. One could also argue that with an emphasis on writing in distance or online education, writing skills should, in theory, improve.”

Yet another struggle is the lack of face-to-face interaction, something that is essential for deaf professionals. “However, this is being remedied at Gallaudet by the use of videoconferencing technologies, and some teachers choose to have weekly interaction through online class chats and/or videophone chats with each student,” Parks explains.

Still, the advantages seem to outweigh the drawbacks. Katie Hoheusle is earning a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado at Denver. “I’d recommend online classes for people not just for the equal footing, but also for the scheduled convenience and not having to deal with the stress of interpreters, having to show up in class, and having to worry about communication. It’s just so much easier.”

“Online education is excellent for professionals who have no time to go to class and need to work full-time,” said Brockway-Aiple. “It turned out to be an enjoyable experience for me, and I’d do it again in an instant.”

Trudy Suggs is the instructor for several online courses, including grant writing and nonfiction writing.

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