HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (April 2, 2014) – The Department of Education at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) now offers a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Differentiated Instruction with a concentration in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), the first in the state of Alabama to do so.
"There are other autism-focused programs in Alabama, but UAH is the only one to offer a Master of Education in Differentiated Instruction with a concentration in autism," says Dr. Beth Quick, Chair of the Department of Education. "Earlier this month, we received final approval to welcome our first cohort of students into the program this summer."
The impetus for the ASD concentration came from a 2004 study concluding that the Huntsville area is home to a disproportionately high percentage of children with autism. That in turn prompted the Alabama legislature to create the Alabama Autism Task Force, whose findings included the following:
- Alabama is behind the national average in identifying and diagnosing children with autism at an early age.
- Increasing numbers of children with autism are enrolling in general education classrooms.
- Training for teachers responsible for students with autism is essential.
- There is a need for ongoing training and technical assistance for teachers.
"The result was an emphasis on the need for statewide teacher training," says Dr. Quick. "Data gathered from a needs-assessment survey of K-12 teachers and administrators in school systems located in the surrounding counties indicate there is definitely interest."
The next step was to provide a proposed program of study, including creating syllabi for all the courses developed, providing faculty credentials, and showing how it would meet state licensure standards – a herculean effort that was spearheaded by the department's two special education faculty, Dr. Whitney Meade and Dr. Derrick Smith.
"They did the full development of the proposal and agreed to be lead faculty on the degree," says Dr. Quick. And now that it's approved, it will join the degree program's other concentrations – Elementary Education, Reading Education, and English Speakers of Other Languages.
Each concentration can result in a Class A teaching license. But while the English Speakers of Other Languages concentration follows a traditional structure, the ASD program, Elementary Education, and Reading Education concentrations are cohort programs with one course delivered every five weeks.
"Instead of managing three courses at a time, like a traditional semester program, students can solely focus on one course for five weeks and do very well," says Dr. Quick. "They can complete a graduate degree in 18 months and still balance personal and professional demands."
The ASD program is also designed as a distance model, in which all of the courses are offered online with only a limited number of traditional face-to-face meetings. "The goal is to make it accessible to as many as would like to participate without being geographically bound," she says. "So as much as we can, we will use technology like lecture capture, discussion boards, and live streaming."
That will then allow teachers who are already working full time to apply what they're learning in a real-world setting. "The curriculum will focus on how teachers can implement strategies in their particular classroom, with their own students," says Dr. Quick, "so a lot of the assignments will be job-embedded."
And once they graduate, she continues, they will have a lot more than just an M.Ed. in Differentiated Instruction with a concentration in ASD and the salary increase that typically accompanies an advanced degree. They will also have the knowledge they need as educators responsible for students with autism.
"It's an increase in salary, yes, but it's value-added in that teachers will be better equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond to and plan for meaningful experiences in the classroom," says Dr. Quick, adding that there are merit-based tuition scholarships available. "It empowers them."