Longwood University in Virginia is one of the nation's first academic programs to address the critical shortage of speech-language pathologists by offering a distance learning program to draw students with bachelor's degrees in other disciplines into the profession by preparing them for graduate study.
"The impetus to develop the program came from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and concern about the shortage of SLPs in the schools," said Gayle Daly, coordinator for the Communication Disorders program at Longwood, located in Farmville, VA. "We needed a creative remedy for this situation."
Created through a $50,000 grant from VDOE, the program is designed to meet the needs of students with an out-of-discipline bachelor's degree-particularly students in rural areas-who need to work during the day. These students face insurmountable obstacles in obtaining the pre-requisite courses needed for graduate study because traditional four-year academic programs typically offer courses only during the daytime, Daly said.
"Although there are a number of online graduate programs, we seem to be one of the only online prerequisite programs for those coming into the field from other disciplines," Daly said.
"There's been a tremendous response to the program," said Lissa Power-deFur, chair of the department of education, special education, and social work at Longwood. The program did little advertising, yet more than 100 people responded.
The Internet has proved to be a potent marketing tool, garnering responses from Virginia, California, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Colorado-and as far away as Japan. Graduate programs began to refer prospective students to Longwood, and discussion is underway to create a cohort of students from the New York public schools, which face a similar shortage of SLPs.
To develop the program, Longwood faculty met with graduate programs in the state to review typical prerequisites and established a pre-defined sequence of eight courses and three optional seminars on special topics, including an introduction to online learning and the profession; morphology and syntax; and preparation for graduate school. The entire course sequence can be completed in as little as four semesters.
At Longwood, the program also holds the distinction of being the only course series to be held entirely online. To transfer courses to a new medium, Longwood faculty attended an online institute and met with others that had conducted distance learning courses. Faculty members with extensive experience in teaching online courses developed innovative ways to present material. Adjunct faculty member Rita Purcell-Robertson (Fairf ax County Public Schools) has worked with international and domestic teams to develop distance education projects. Adjunct faculty member Ronald Jones (Norfolk State University) developed an innovative way to simulate a hearing evaluation online for his introduction to audiology.
Distance learning challenged Longwood faculty to think differently about how to structure classes, present content, and build relationships with students. "I look for ways for students to apply critical thinking and use their knowledge," said Daly, who is teaching her first online course.
Instead of having tests, Daly developed a project to promote student interaction and critical thinking by having students work in groups to develop a PowerPoint presentation targeted to first-time mothers on language development and strategies to facilitate speech and language. "They create a product that can be used later," Daly said.
Jones, who taught Introduction to Audiology this semester, created a PowerPoint audiometric simulation by borrowing the concept of simulating a client's hearing response using an audiometric simulator.
The program permits internal links between presentation slides, and Jones developed a series of slides with a stick figure showing responses that included a raised hand for "I can hear it;" a lowered hand for "I can't hear it;" and the figure indicating "That's too loud!"
These slides were linked to a second series of slides that show a listing of pure tone signals (250-8000 Hz) and decibel levels (-10-110 dB) for each ear. To simulate the sound a client would hear, Jones digitally recorded actual pure tone signals into the presentation program.
Students activate the program by opening the PowerPoint presentation and clicking on the test frequency shown on the first slide and then proceed to an audiometric test protocol. The slides with figures appear in response to a pre-programmed test sequence, andstudents record the responses onto an audiogram.
"High-Tech, High-Touch" Approach
Through a course designed to introduce students to the profession and to online learning, Purcell-Robertson allays students' concerns. "Many students are concerned that they are not savvy enough with technology to do the class," she noted. To assist students, the university provides tech support. High-speed Internet access is recommended, but course content is also available on a CD and then put into a library where students can reserve the material and have it sent to them.
Other students are concerned that they won't learn as much as students in a face-to-face class or they won't be able to have enough of a relationship with other students and the instructor.
To ease these concerns, students are asked to introduce themselves and discuss mutual interests, and they are greeted with a picture of Purcell-Robertson on her Web site. Purcell-Robertson uses a "high-tech, high-touch" approach to teaching and offers students many avenues for contact, including her university and personal e-mail address and cell phone, and she also sets virtual office hours.
When she teaches, she says she tries to be the "guide on the side, not the sage on the stage" by using a framework in which the learner takes an active role while the instructor facilitates the learning process.
Faculty surveys show that students responded very positively to the courses. "Since I'd never taken an online course before, I had doubts about succeeding," said Miriam Cole, a respiratory therapist for 20 years who plans to make a transition to speech-language pathology. Cole was inspired to enter the field after her son was diagnosed with autism and they were introduced to an SLP.
"I look forward to future classes and continuing to learn online," Cole said. "The instructors have been very responsive. The coursework and directions have all been presented clearly and are helping me be successful. I feel the classes will give me a strong background in the field."
For more information about the program, visit the Longwood Web site or contact Lissa Power-deFur at firstname.lastname@example.org.