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Free Online Course for Teachers, Coaches to Focus on 'Learning Differences'

A foundation that supports education of children with disabilities is teaming up with North Carolina State University to offer a free six-week "massive open online course," or MOOC, aimed at teaching participants about student learning differences. 

The Spring 2015 Learning Differences MOOC begins Feb. 9, and is intended primarily for teachers and teacher-coaches. Participants can learn about working memory, student motivation and executive function, and pick modules based on the grades or subject matter they teach. 

The course will feature videos of classroom instruction and interviews featuring students with different learning disabilities, such as Matt Brown, a student at Vassar University and a volunteer with Eye-to-Eye, a mentorship program for people with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

The university partner is the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, a part of North Carolina State University's College of Education. The foundation partner is the Oak Foundation, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland and seeks to improve outcomes for students with learning differences. 

As I wrote back in September, the Oak Foundation is also a sponsor of a global fellowship for American and international teacher-coaches working with Teach For All, an umbrella group for international organizations that also recruit mostly new college graduates to work in disadvantaged schools. As with that fellowship, the creators of this online course are using a term they consider more expansive than "learning disabilities" or "special education." 

The intent is to include students with learning differences as a school-wide responsibility. "We know that many students with learning disabilities are in classrooms with general education teachers," said Mary Ann Wolf, the director of digital learning programs for the Friday Institute. Plus, almost all students have some kind of learning difference, she asserted. "If we really want to meet the need of every student in our school, understanding learning differences is really critical." 

This course marks the second time these organizations have offered an learning differences MOOC; the first one was back in October and had more than 1,400 participants. This time around, partner organizations such as Teach For America are promoting the course more broadly, so they expect to have more participants. During the first course, about 34 percent of the participants identified themselves as general education teachers and 21 percent were special education teachers; the remaining participants were teacher-coaches, school administrators, and other education professionals. 

And, while the course does not delve deeply into the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, Wolf said that she hopes teachers will be able to walk away with instructional strategies that they can start using right away. 

"I am hopeful that it will grow even more because what we saw was that people learn from each other," she said. "And the more that we have people with different experiences, the more it helps build the community and built the course."

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