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Back-to-school tips from Indiana University

This back-to-school tipsheet discusses the following topics:

Pitfalls of online courses
Parental tools for sharing important information with caregivers of children with disabilities
The future of college rankings
Preparing young children for the first day of school
Parental tips for monitoring their kids' online activities
Afterschool programs: An urban challenge
Online creativity should be monitored, but also encouraged

Frustrated Computing

Education experts at Indiana University offer suggestions for students to consider before signing up for an online course.

Print-Quality Photo

Online courses aren't for everyone, particularly college freshmen. Freshman taking distance learning classes were twice as likely to receive grades of D or F or to withdraw from the course compared to their counterparts in face-to-face classes, according to research at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Older students fared much better in the online courses. "Freshmen really stood out," said Mark Urtel, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Education in IUPUI's School of Physical Education and Tourism Management. "It's counterintuitive -- people say younger students are the ones who grasp technology, use it most, and know it the best, but it's my opinion that they grasp the technology and use it on their terms, not necessarily ours." Urtel's study is based on students' grades in a course he taught both online and face-to-face. Initially, he noticed patterns in students' grades so he sought funding for further study because of the growing popularity of online courses. Freshmen, he said, are generally under-represented in research involving online courses. And he said online courses also enjoy the perception that they must be better, appropriate or even easy because they involve high-tech approaches. Urtel said distance education courses work well for some students, but freshmen need to be aware of the pitfalls and challenges involved. In his study, 60 percent of freshmen received either a D, F or withdrew from the class. "Given the rapid growth of distance education and on-line learning, some people may assume that it involves technology, it's got to be better," he said. "Our findings, as they relate to freshmen students in particular, suggest otherwise."

Distance education experts at Indiana University offer the following suggestions and considerations:

  • First semester freshmen, in general, should not take online courses, Urtel said.
  • A student needs to be an organized, disciplined type of person to do well in an online course, said Lesa Lorenzen-Huber, a clinical assistant professor in IU Bloomington's Department of Applied Health Science and Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology. Usually older students do better, although older students with jobs and families can sometimes get easily overwhelmed. If a child is ill and work is demanding, the online course is the easiest thing to let go or procrastinate about because there is not a required time to attend or work on the course.
  • A good online course should also be well organized, Lorenzen-Huber said. If you can't easily find your way around after a day or two, it may be the fault of the course design. Or, you may not have the technological expertise necessary for that particular course. There should be good opportunities for student-student and student-professor interaction.
  • Investigate what kind of experience an online course is offering, said Elizabeth Boling, chair of the Department of Instructional Systems Technology in the IU School of Education. Online experiences run the gamut from the simplest self-paced study course that feels a lot like going through a workbook on your own and at your own pace, to courses like those in her department's master's degree program that may require students to carry out collaborative project work with peers (who may be located in another state or country), learn and use new media, make frequent contributions to discussions, meet deadlines for assignments and maintain a certain grade point average.
  • Think carefully about what you want out of an online course and ask questions about it--or check details online--before enrolling, Bolin said. The highest quality course will not seem like a high quality course if it does not match students' interests or learning style, yet a less-than-polished online tutorial on the students' obscure hobby might be just right.

For more tips, go to this link:

Here are some Web resources: A checklist to see if online courses are suitable for you,; reports from the Sloan Consortium about online programs,

Urtel can be reached at 317-278-2015 and Lorenzen-Huber can be reached at 812-855-1733 and To speak with Bolin, contact Chuck Carney at 812-856-8027 and Top

Vicker book cover

Beverly Vicker's book, "Sharing information about your child with autism spectrum disorder," includes information useful to parents of children or adults with other disabilities.

Tools to help parents of children with developmental disabilities share information with caregivers. For parents of typical children, leaving the babysitter with a list of emergency contacts and a basic bedtime routine may be sufficient. But for parents of children with autism or other developmental disorders, there's a great deal more information to convey, said Beverly Vicker, a speech pathologist with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University's Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. In her new book, Sharing Information About Your Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2007), she guides parents through the process of assembling information about their child's unique behavioral patterns, sensitivities and communication issues. "The thought of preparing a notebook for respite caregivers may be as appealing as preparing one's income tax returns. Both are necessary documents to construct, however," she said. In the book, Vicker provides worksheets, topical information handouts, examples of completed notebooks from two families, and an accompanying CD. Although it is directed to parents of children with autism, both the book and her tips below can be useful for parents of children or adults with other disabilities.

  • Search out trustworthy caregivers. Government and public agencies can provide information about respite caregivers, usually through a Bureau of Developmental Disabilities or similar office. Teachers and friends familiar with respite services can also be good sources for references. Vicker recommends the book, A "Stranger" Among Us: Hiring In-Home Support for a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Neurological Differences by Lisa Lieberman as an excellent resource for the hiring process.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. "The guiding directive for the entire endeavor of providing information for respite workers is to project yourself into the role of the respite worker," she said. "What would you want to know in order to feel comfortable and confident to handle routine situations as well as the unexpected ones that might occur in your household?" Putting this information in writing will reduce anxiety for both parents and care providers.
  • Err on the side of over-preparing. Although excessively detailed information may overwhelm care givers in some situations, it is generally better to have written information on hand than to assume care providers have all the necessary background knowledge. "One cannot assume that the care giver will remember all spoken instructions, particularly as a crisis arises," Vicker said.
  • Think ahead. Prepare your materials before the first day of respite services. "This way you are less likely to forget or overlook important information," Vicker said.

Vicker can be reached at 812-855-6508 or The book can be ordered online at Top

College rankings a thing of the past? The rankings might change in the wake of protest, but they aren't likely to go away. Don Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the Indiana University School of Education, said the verdict is out on whether a big change will happen after 24 presidents at mostly smaller liberal-arts college signed a letter critical of U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings. "I think a big litmus test will be if some large public flagships sign onto it," Hossler said.

  • Background: U.S. News & World Report publishes a special college guide each year based on their rankings. In May, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported its own analysis of data from the last 24 years revealed some institutions—particularly private colleges and universities—seem to have an advantage in earning a high ranking. Compared to other less scientific surveys, Hossler said, the U.S. News listings are the best publicly available data. He noted the Princeton Review allows any online reviewer to enter comments about particular aspects of an institution, and however many comments are received are the comments offered. Several years ago, another college survey ranked the IUB campus highly for a program it never offered. "Of the various entities out there that try to do rankings, U.S. News does the most credible job," Hossler said.

Hossler said if larger institutions stop participating in the survey, it will spur more negative media attention on the rankings. If several reports indicate problems with the rankings through "easily understandable criticisms," Hossler said, the survey might be in some danger. "The rankings only have power as long as people attach a lot of credibility to them," he said. Despite the criticism, Hossler said, college rankings will likely always be around, in part because of American desire to know "who is number one."

To speak with Hossler, contact Chuck Carney, at 812-856-8027 and Top

Preparing young children for the first day of school. "Getting ready for school is an event that parents face with mixed emotions -- a sense of excitement about our children's development and new experiences to come; a sense of loss because our children are growing up; a sense of helplessness because we are no longer in control; perhaps apprehension because we will not be there to protect them," said Cathy Beard, family support specialist with the Early Childhood Center at the Indiana Institute for Disability and Community at Indiana University. For parents of children with disabilities, these feelings may be even more intense. "Planning now for that transition will help restore a measure of control, and will alleviate some of the anxiety we may feel the day our children go off to school," she said.

  • Build up the big day. "Always talk about school in a positive way," Beard said. Reading books about going to school and making new friends, circling the date on the calendar, and planning a special family outing to celebrate going to school can help build enthusiasm, she said.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Beard suggests taking a bus ride and talking about bus rules, visiting the new school and playing on the grounds, carrying a backpack with a book or two inside, and packing lunchbox picnics throughout the summer.
  • Assess self-help skills. Things like putting on and taking off outerwear, tying shoes and using table manners are essential skills for an independent school day, Beard said. Also make sure your child has experience using public restrooms.
  • Establish a sleep schedule you can follow during the school year. Remember to allow extra time in the morning for everyone to get ready, Beard said. Gradually moving toward the bedtime you'll use during the school year will help your child adjust. "Do this early so it is not viewed by your child as a drawback to going to school," she said.

Beard can be reached at 812-855-6508 and Visit the Early Childhood Center online at Additional information is available from the Early Childhood Meeting Place, which contains resources for families of all young children: Top

Kids and the Internet -- what's a parent to do? "Would you let your child out of the car in downtown Indianapolis and leave them there -- for a time similar to the amount they spend online?" asks Lois Ann Scheidt, an adjunct instructor in the Indiana University School of Informatics and one of a handful of scholars studying Internet safety issues among adolescents. The answer, she says, should be "No." The reality, she said, is parents cannot fully regulate their child's online behavior 24/7. Scheidt offers these tips and considerations to give parents a hand:

  • The 8-14 Rule. Parents should seriously consider not allowing their children within this age group to participate in Internet social networks. Scheidt said they do not have the "cognitive ability or experience" to evaluate online situations with foreign contacts, or deal with negative or explicit material accordingly.
  • Keep your computer in a public area. Surprisingly, many parents continue to store their computers in closed rooms. Locating computers in a public area will allow parents to be in the vicinity of their children and have the opportunity to sit down with them.
  • You get what you pay for. The best deal on a computer isn't always the safest deal. Parents should be adamant in looking for the right software online by plugging in "antispyware software reviews" or "firewall" into any Web browser or search engine. Frequent updates on all software are a must.
  • Help choose online usernames. Parents should strongly urge their children to refrain from using their initials, names, or personal information in any of their usernames. For online messaging, it's best for the parent to sit down with their children and choose the name for them. For tips on choosing good passwords, visit this link:
  • Go surfing. Visit sites like and Scheidt said Net Nanny provides sound advice on parental control and updated links to child safety filters. It creates an easy, user-friendly filtering system that lets parents determine which content can be seen online. She said is a nice alternative for children interested in joining a safe, social network.

Scheidt, who is purusing a doctorate in the School of Library and Information Sciences, can be reached at 812-526-2783 and Top

Providing high-quality afterschool programs: An urban challenge. Afterschool programs can boost students' grades; supplement education in the arts, music and culture; provide essential childcare for younger students; and help prevent juvenile crime, teen pregnancies, smoking, drinking and drug use among adolescents. Yet these programs encounter a number of obstacles in disadvantaged neighborhoods, said Alfred Ho, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. He recently co-authored, with graduate students Tiffany Murray and Rina Patel, a study on afterschool programs in Indianapolis in conjunction with the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at IUPUI. The study found that schools in poorer neighborhoods and those in which students scored lower on standardized tests were more likely to lack afterschool programming. "These neighborhoods stand to benefit the most from these programs, but they are the least likely to have them," he said.

Ho suggested a number of barriers to afterschool programming in disadvantaged neighborhoods:

  • Missing the bus. "Students who ride the bus have no way of getting home if they stay after the end of the school day," he said.
  • Fees beyond family budgets. Among single-parent households, which were most prevalent in poorer neighborhoods, 35 percent of female-headed households had an annual household income under $15,000. "Many of the existing programs cost several hundred dollars a month, clearly more than these families could afford," Ho said.
  • Finding space. Utilizing the school building after hours requires rearranging janitorial and security services, often at greater cost, Ho said. Poorer neighborhoods may be less likely to have alternative sites available, such as recreational facilities or community centers.

Overcoming these barriers will require finding new sources of funding to supplement enrollment fees, schedule later busses and pay for costs associated with space, Ho said. "I think the answer will be partnering with philanthropy to target these specific areas," he said.

To speak with Ho, call 317-278-4898 or email An issue brief based on the study is available online at Top

Online creativity should be monitored, but also encouraged. Marjorie Manifold, Indiana University art education assistant professor, said parents should be aware of online dangers, but should also be aware of the outlet that online storytelling and other cyber venues for art provide. "This is a whole dimension that we are not teaching in school," Manifold said, "because we teach art in school as a discipline. It has to be serious." Manifold said that much of artistic education has become too focused on the outcome, such as standardized test scores and future choices. "We're teaching this so you can have a career," she said. "No. It's not a career. It's life, which is different. And a lot of them feel that way, surprisingly, about science and math, too."

Manifold cites her own family experience with "storylining" as an example. She said her daughter became very involved in creating elaborate stories with online partners. When she read some of the stories she wrote, Manifold came away impressed. "They were better written than some of the books I've read," she said.

Interest in particular subjects is driving some of these online works, Manifold said, but the underlying driver is something else. "I would say what it shows is people seeking relationships," she said, noting that she thinks the ongoing Harry Potter craze is more about interest in the nature of human beings than interest in magic. Through storylining and other online art, kids can express emotions and understand human behavior in a better manner.

While dangers certainly lurk in some online corners, Manifold said parents and teachers should be looking at how the content of some online work might be an expression of kids' development. And some of it is quite good. "Some of the work -- by the time the kids have done this years and years is so professional -- it would just blow you away," she said.

To speak with Manifold, contact Chuck Carney, IU School of Education, 812-856-8027 or

For more back-to-school tips, see Indiana University's July Living Well health and wellness media tip sheet at this link: For assistance with any of these tips, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 and, or Elisabeth Andrews, at 812-855-2153 and