Supporting Neurodivergent Students in an Online Environment

Online Dual Enrollment: Benefit or Challenge?

By Manju Banerjee (originally published in the April 2019 issue of AC&E)

Enrollment in college courses while still in high school has been rapidly growing (NCES, 2013)—even before the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 made dual enrollment a critical strategy for state and local educational agencies in supporting transition to college and allocating funding. ESSA provided the first federal definition of “Dual Enrollment.” Specifically, the ESSA statute (Section 1801) describes dual enrollment (DE) as a “program offered by a partnership between at least one institution of higher education and at least one local educational agency through which a secondary student who has not graduated from high school with a regular high school diploma is able to enroll in one or more postsecondary courses and earn postsecondary credit that:

  • is transferable to the institutions of high education in the partnership, and
  • applies toward completion of a degree or recognized educational credential as described in the Higher Education Act of 1965.”

In recent years, however, dual enrollment has attracted unwanted attention with some asserting that it is oversold and not really beneficial in acquiring early college credits (Thomson, 2017). The issue at stake is transferability of college credits and variability in models of DE delivery. While it is true that taking college credits in high school does not guarantee that the credits will automatically transfer to one’s college of choice, there are several benefits to dual enrollment. Dual enrollment can help students understand the demands of postsecondary education while still in high school, lower the cost of college by providing free college credits (depending on the state), and offer challenging and varied curricular options not available in the high school.

Benefits of Dual Enrollment for Neurodivergent Students

Critics claim that research-based evidence on the benefits of dual enrollment remain sparse. Particularly lacking is information on whether dual enrollment is beneficial for neurodivergent students, such as those with Learning Disabilities (LD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Historically, dual enrollment was reserved for students performing above grade level and seeking a more challenging curriculum. Now, dual enrollment serves multiple purposes.

An important distinction for neurodivergent students taking dual enrollment is the difference between taking courses primarily for college credits versus the college experience. For many of these students, the college experience offered by dual enrollment outweighs the return on investment of college credits, cost reduction, and/or transferability of credits. Many neurodivergent students who are college-able are not ready for college following high school graduation. Dual enrollment offers a taste of college, while still being supported by special education in high school. The experience of being in a course with college students and participating in college-level coursework offers a unique opportunity for self-advocacy and communication with college professors and peers. For some, it is the best reality check on academic expectations at the postsecondary level.

The premise of this article is that neurodivergent high school students taking dual enrollment need more than college accommodations in these courses (see a description of the differences in accommodations in high school online dual enrollment).

Supporting Neurodivergent Students in an Online Environment

One such model is Landmark College Online Dual Enrollment. Landmark College in Putney, VT, launched the first-of-its-kind online dual enrollment specifically for neurodiverse high school students just a few years ago. The program experienced a 438 percent increase in student enrollment from spring 2017 to fall 2018. Since then, Landmark College dual enrollment has grown rapidly and owes much of its success to deliberate course design and format of delivery, which includes an online instructor and a course liaison for each course.

Course design is anchored in the Landmark College Seal of Quality (LCSQ) for online courses. It is well known that the online platform is not particularly friendly to students with learning, attention, and executive function challenges (Kent, 2015). The LCSQ therefore places critical importance on course design and practice. The LCSQ draws from research-based practices espoused by the Online Learning Consortium and Educause and includes Landmark College pedagogies honed over 30+ years of experiential instruction of neurodivergent students. All courses follow a similar design including orientation and navigation structure. Students are guided through the course material with text, audio and video content. Text is kept to a minimum to facilitate access for student with language processing difficulties; accessible graphics are used to provide multiple means of representation. Screen display is carefully crafted so that students first see prioritized information when they open the course activities, such as due dates for a given assignment. Content and course activities are interactive, encouraging peer-to-peer and student-to-instructor interactions. While most of the content is asynchronous, synchronous sessions are provided each week in small groups or on a one-on-one basis with the instructor.

The course liaison is a unique and significant component of this model. The liaison serves as an advisor and a transition coach within the course. The model includes onsite liaisons in some instances, and purely online liaisons in others. The role of the liaison is to encourage students to build advocacy and communication skills and to scaffold their learning and support executive function difficulties. For example, when a student has not logged onto the course site in two days, the liaison will reach out to the student to enquire why the student has not engaged; or if a student has fallen behind on assignments, the liaison will discuss with the student ways to communicate with the instructor. The role of the liaison is guided by Landmark College’s principles of non-directive coaching which espouse creating a “safe space to fail” while still holding students accountable. The liaison works very closely with the instructor, school personnel, and the online staff at the College to problem solve as situations arise and to ensure smooth operation and communication at all times. Course size is kept small at a maximum of 12 students per course. Currently, the course offerings are small and all are introductory college courses, but plans are underway to offer four new courses in spring and fall 2019.

Manju Banerjee, Ph.D., is Vice President for Educational Research and Innovation at Landmark College.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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