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2008 News Releases

Longwood implements federal grant to enhance foreign language instruction of students with disabilities

December 15, 2008

Dr. Wade Edwards and Dr. Sally Scott Dr. Wade Edwards and Dr. Sally Scott

Longwood University has begun a three-year demonstration project to study and enhance foreign language instruction for students with disabilities. Project LINC (Learning in INclusive Classrooms) is funded by a $428,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education that began Oct. 1, one of only 23 grants awarded to higher education organizations throughout the country, and the only one in Virginia, to help develop demonstration projects for students with disabilities.

The Longwood project seeks to improve foreign language teaching at the introductory level by developing a portable and ongoing training curriculum to support inclusive classroom techniques for new, part-time and temporary faculty, who nationally make up an increasing percentage of foreign language instructors. The project is co-directed by Dr. Sally Scott, director of disability services, and Dr. Wade Edwards, associate professor of French and coordinator of modern languages. They are currently searching for a full-time project coordinator, funding for which is included in the grant.

"The question we’re trying to answer in the project is: How do we help diverse students learn?" said Edwards.

Even before funding kicked in, Scott and Edwards were already working on some parts of the project. Among the projects approved this year, the fourth three-year cycle for this grant program, Project LINC was the only one in the area of foreign language instruction.

"All of these are demonstration projects with an emphasis on innovation and are designed to fill a gap," Scott said. "Each of these organizations has sliced off a different niche on their campus."

The project will incorporate Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) principles, which Scott helped to develop with colleagues at the University of Connecticut before coming to Longwood in 2006. UDI is an approach to teaching that consists of the proactive design and use of inclusive strategies that benefit a broad range of learners including students with disabilities.

"UDI encourages people to think in advance: ‘Who will use this, and how will it be accessible?’" said Scott. "This is based on Universal Design, which originated with the design of buildings. You’re trying to anticipate diversity and build in inclusive features in advance. The goal of diversity services is to make the educational experience as equal and as accessible as possible for everyone. UDI gives professors an opportunity to make their instruction more accessible to many diverse learners."

In the first year of the project, organizers will identify, develop and evaluate UDI instructional strategies. In year two, faculty training will be developed for new foreign language instructors. In the third year, faculty training materials will be disseminated to high schools, community colleges and colleges in the region, as well as nationally through outreach to professional organizations, conferences, and publications.

"The first year will be devoted to pedagogy, in the second year we’ll orient and mentor new faculty, and in year three we’ll share information, speak at conferences, and maybe publish information on a CD or web site," Edwards said.

He and Scott are being assisted by a "leadership and development team" that, besides them, consists of Dr. Geoff Orth, assistant to the vice president for academic affairs; Dr. Susan Hildebrandt, assistant professor of Spanish; Dr. John Reynolds, professor of German; and Dr. Lily Goetz, director of international studies. Orth and Goetz also teach a foreign language.

The project evolved from consultation and later collaboration between Scott and Edwards after the foreign language program in recent years noticed more students asking for a waiver to the foreign language requirement due to a disability. "We needed to shore up the process for a waiver," said Edwards. "The waiver process wasn’t what it is now, which involves testing, evaluation and consultation with faculty."

Edwards and Scott gave a presentation on the issue of waivers, "Reexamining the Foreign Language Requirement through a Universal Design (UD) Framework," at a conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability in July 2007 in Charlotte, N.C. "The conference came as Sally and I were finishing the first year of our collaboration on the administrative question about waivers," Edwards said. "Once we returned from Charlotte, we started to turn to instructional techniques for making the foreign language experience for students with disabilities as inclusive as possible. The discussion of pedagogy grew into the grant proposal."

About seven percent of Longwood students have some disability, the most common of which is a learning disability, Scott said. "Many have a disability that affects performance in aspects of reading, writing or spelling in the native language, so with foreign languages there’s potential for greater disjuncture and for the learning disability to be more intense," she said.

The project also was prompted by a 2007 report by the Modern Language Association, "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World," that called for greater attention to inclusive education, due to the increasing number of nontraditional students. "The field is changing on both sides: the qualifications and experiences of the instructor are changing, and the kind of student is changing as well," Edwards said. 

Last fall, after speaking with Dr. Charles Ross, dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Science, Scott and Edwards received a $1,250 grant from the Dean’s Fund for Scholarship Excellence. That grant funded two student focus groups – one of students with learning disabilities, the other without learning disabilities – and a faculty focus group, in February 2008, about foreign language instruction. "We wanted to get local data; we didn’t want a one size-fits-all approach," Scott said. "Fortunately, the Longwood administration has been very supportive of our efforts."

The grants in this program provide "technical assistance and professional development to faculty and administrators who teach and counsel students with disabilities at institutions of higher education," the U.S. Department of Education said in a news release announcing the grants in late August. "The grants help ensure that these students receive a quality education, improve student achievement and increase their completion rates."