November 2015 Issue  Volume 16  Number 11

Product Reviews and Guides

College Success: More than Textbooks from Learning Ally

Whether you are a first-year college student or you attended college 20 or 40 years ago, chances are that, if you have difficulty reading conventional print, most or all of your textbooks came from a single source in Princeton, New Jersey. Originally it was known as Recording for the Blind and later became Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Today Learning Ally has been in the business of recording texts for students pursuing postsecondary education for close to 70 years.

But earning a college degree for a student who is blind or visually impaired is far more complex than simply obtaining access to the texts your professors will require you to read.

In 2014, Learning Ally launched an extensive research effort to find out just what kinds of help college students who are blind needed to succeed in college life, and the result is a new curriculum. It was designed by Learning Ally staff and others to guide students through most aspects of adapting to life as a college student. Launched in April 2015 and still growing, Learning Ally's College Success program offers an online curriculum to guide students through acquiring the necessary tools to adjusting to life as a college student--and doing so with confidence and success.

Spearheaded by Kristen Witucki, Learning Ally community coordinator for students who are blind or visually impaired, College Success already has 237 members and well over a thousand views of some pieces of its core curriculum after just six months of going live on the Learning Ally website. Although Witucki is quick to point out that she has had plenty of help developing the curriculum content, she also possesses a deep pool of personal experience from which to draw. At 34, she has an undergraduate degree and three master's degrees, all of them obtained as a student who is blind.

"My own experience has actually been pretty positive," she says, "but I know that not everyone is as lucky as I have been." There are plenty of barriers new college students can encounter, situations for which a student might not be prepared and that can derail the college experience. College Success is designed to assist students by preparing for problems before they arise.

College Success Basics

Students entering college directly after high school have often had a fair amount of problem-solving handled by a parent or teacher for the visually impaired (TVI). If a teacher was apprehensive about having a student who is blind in class, the TVI or parent ran interference. If the student did all work on a braille notetaker, teachers were willing to accept e-mailed versions of assignments. If research needed to be done, someone else might have done the heavy lifting and provided the information to the student in an accessible format.

College Success offers resources to students on advocating for oneself, having up-front conversations with professors, organizing academic materials, and making sure that technology skills and equipment are equal to the demands of college classes. An assessment tool helps the student determine where technology skills and/or equipment might need strengthening, and a technology overview guides students through the combinations of devices that might comprise the college-ready technology tool kit.

Particularly commendable is the attention given in the curriculum to aspects beyond textbooks and technology. Henry Wedler, for instance, a College Success mentor currently working on his PhD in chemistry, provides instruction on how students can teach a fellow student or other assistant in making tactile images for science and mathematics classes even without any costly technological equipment. Recognizing that the well-rounded and ultimately employable college student is not one whose nose is always in a book, mentor Cindy Bennett offers her three-pronged approach to having a full college experience beyond the classroom.

Most colleges and universities today have offices serving students with disabilities. The College Success curriculum acknowledges up front that not all disability service offices (DSOs) are made equal and offers guidance in navigating those DSO waters accordingly. What does the law say about the rights of a college student who is blind? And what are the responsibilities each student must assume when claiming those rights? And, how can you best partner with the DSO on your particular campus to get the assistance you need? These concerns and more are gathered in the curriculum resources.

College Success Packaging and Delivery

The resources in the College Success curriculum are organized with outstanding clarity on the Learning Ally site. One simple sentence drew me in immediately: "In college, you are the leading representative of yourself."

This direct statement captures the essence of the College Success curriculum as it guides students who are blind through the various components needed to assemble a well-rounded student life of capability, control, and empowerment.

Clearly indicated headings and links render the site one of the most effortless online navigation experiences you will encounter, so that getting directly to the information you are seeking is fast and easy.

Concise, easily digested articles present each topic in a convenient (and short) package, so that you can work through the entire curriculum in a relatively short period of time or, alternatively, go directly to a topic of immediate concern for answers.

Most resources include a text transcript that you can read with your screen reader, notetaker, or smart phone. Many have audio versions of the text transcript as well.

This audio aspect--the voice of the author of the resource or another human reader voicing the transcript--is absolutely the simplest, most accessible audio interface I have ever encountered online.

When an audio reading of the resource is available, you are prompted with the necessary keystrokes to play or pause, move forward or back in the audio file, etc. The simplicity and ease of use is truly commendable.

Become a College Success Member

At this writing, 237 students have joined College Success. While joining is not a prerequisite for accessing curriculum content, there are definite advantages to membership.

First, due to the generosity of the Lavelle Fund, the same organization that funded the original research that led to College Success, a student who joins College Success gets a free membership to Learning Ally. Secondly, and perhaps of greater significance, membership opens the door to mentorship. A College Success student who requests a mentor begins a one-on-one relationship with a College Success mentor, a blind college graduate who is a seasoned veteran of the college experience and who can thus provide direction and support.

Conclusion

Learning Ally has identified a kind of secret ingredient in pulling together the overall college experience for students who are blind and visually impaired. It takes more than reading comprehension or a knack for testing well to succeed in college. Blindness skills are essential as are an understanding of technology, a flair for self-advocacy, and the willingness to step outside one's comfort zone.

In its first year, the curriculum holds promise. There are some inconsistencies in the content - some pieces are offered as human audio only while others are text transcript only. To appeal to all learning styles, it is hoped that all content will eventually be made available in both text and audio formats.

Witucki reports that more than half of those who have joined the College Success program are nontraditional students. Recognizing that demographic, a stronger representation of mentors over 40 would be a welcome addition.

For now, the curriculum is a fabulous beginning and the site worth more than a look by every college student who is blind.

To join College Success or just ramble around in its content, visit Learning Ally.

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