On the Spectrum in an Online Course: More Questions than Answers


Elizabeth Gazza

| No Comments | | Leave a comment

Often, faculty who teach online courses know little about the students who enter their online classrooms.  I know that my current students are practicing professionals enrolled in an online accelerated program in order to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, but little else.  I use a variety of strategies early in the course to assess and learn about my students.  For example, at the start of the course I ask students to introduce themselves so that I, along with their new classmates, can begin to learn about them, their interests, and their goals.  As I observe and engage with my students I learn more about each one of them.  On occasion, a student will display a unique set of behaviors that require further exploration. This blog post is about the behaviors displayed through emails to me by an online student, and how the email messages taught me about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the limited evidence available to guide faculty who teach adults with ASD in online courses.

There tends to be an ebb and flow to the communication pattern between faculty and student in an online course. It is common for me to receive emails from individual students at the start of the course. As students acclimate to the online environment, the number of emails tends to decline only to increase again as an assignment due date approaches. Through these messages I often discover the students who need more one-on-one interaction with me, those who have difficulty with time management, and those who are technologically-challenged.  However, the number, timing, contents, and tone of the messages also provide valuable insight into individual students. 

Over the past seven years I have received some rather interesting emails from students, but the pattern of emails sent by a former student perplexed me.  The email messages from this student came into my inbox nearly every day and their frequency did not decline as I was used to seeing in the course; in fact, the frequency increased. While I strived to reply promptly to all of my students, the faster I replied to this student, the sooner I received another message.  The contents of the email messages were as troubling as the frequency.  The messages were often lengthy, yet curt, and often contained rambling complaints about course set up, the teaching strategies I used, the self-assessments and reflective blog assignments, and grades earned on course assignments.   Repeated messages on the same topic were sent by the student, even though the questions had been answered in a previous message.  I began to feel as though I could do little to satisfy or meet the demands of the student.  I decided it was time for a live conversation with the student.

The student initially resisted my request to speak with her, but eventually agreed to a phone conversation. During our conversation the student revealed a diagnosis of ASD. Upon learning this, the behaviors I observed started to make sense.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Autism Speaks, ASD is characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. This helped to explain the behaviors displayed through the email messages and it prompted me to question what came next for me and the student, especially when the student was adamant that disability services on campus would not be utilized.

I was familiar with ASD, but only in children. I never considered that an adult with ASD would enter my online classroom. The disabilities services experts on campus provided me with a variety of resources for teaching students with ASD and told me that often, students with ASD prefer online courses.  I read the resources and discovered they were all about synchronous classroom teaching.  I found little that translated to asynchronous online teaching. For example, when a student repeatedly asks questions in a physical classroom, the teacher can set a limit on the number of questions that will be answered during class and meet with the student after class to address remaining questions.  How does this approach translate to a virtual classroom where the teacher is ‘available’ to the student  24 hours per day, 7 days per week through the course site and/or email? 

Another area of concern for me related to the reflective blog assignments that required student to assess their own abilities and post a reflection on their findings to their blog, which was accessible to everyone in the course.  This strategy facilitated student-student interaction, which is a quality indicator for online courses.  However, did requiring such interactions impact accessibility of the course for students with ASD?  What accommodations, if any, could be made to these assignments if required for a future student? 

It is apparent that this experience raised my awareness about the students who enter online classrooms.  Unfortunately, it also raised more questions for me than answers due to the apparent lack of evidence to support faculty teaching students with ASD in online environments.  If it is true that students with ASD tend to prefer online courses, it is highly likely we will all encounter situations like that one I’ve described.  What and/or how can you contribute to this body of evidence? To help faculty teaching online to effectively manage online classrooms and facilitate learning for students with ASD? 


Gazza.Beth photo

Elizabeth Gazza PhD, RN, LCCE, FACCE is an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  She is a registered nurse who has held faculty and administrative positions in nursing and higher education in public and private institutions in the US.  Dr. Gazza’s first experience with online education was as a student in the PhD in Nursing program at Duquesne University.  She has been teaching online courses in online programs in bachelor, masters, and doctoral level nursing education programs for the past 6 years.

Leave a Reply