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Georgia Southern University

EAGLE Academy students seize distance learning as a new opportunity to prepare for the digital world

When Georgia Southern University College of Education members founded EAGLE Academy, they never planned for students to learn virtually.

“The premise was to bring students to live on campus, some for the first time, and have them cultivate lifelong skills that would help them be independent as well as active and engaged citizens in the workforce,” said Stephanie Devine, Ph.D., EAGLE Academy executive director.

An inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) program, the academy offers Equal Access to Gainful Learning and Employment (EAGLE) for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Georgia Southern IPSE program is unique in many aspects including that it offers the third and fourth years for students who have already completed an initial two-year program at another institution. EAGLE Academy also offers its students a custom-built academic program based on their interests.

When University System of Georgia colleges and universities closed their campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic, EAGLE Academy had to determine a new way to help students reach their goals from a distance.

“EAGLE Academy’s Program Director Julie Pickens has reimagined our network of graduate assistants, student assistants and peer mentors to help the students in the academy be successful in a virtual environment,” said Devine. “This is definitely a whole new world for the students in EAGLE Academy as our program was certainly not designed to be virtual. However, we are doing everything we can to make sure each EAGLE Academy student is receiving the support he or she needs to be successful.”

Program director Julie Pickens, Ph.D., said the transition has not only been a success but perhaps even beneficial for the students to experience.

“The online learning helps our students to adapt to changes and problem-solve with our support,” said Pickens. “It also may help students to really learn to advocate more for the support that they need to be successful. While it is not ideal to go fully online in the middle of the semester, the reality is that the world is becoming more digital and remote, and students will have to use online platforms more and more to live and work in the world.”

The support team for the academy has found Slack to be a useful communication and management tool for the group.

“We were using Slack to communicate with peer mentors about the students that they were supporting before we went online,” said Pickens. “However, it has been a great medium, especially now that everyone is so spread out and there are multiple people working to support the same students. I think that it does help everyone to know that we are all in this together and want the best for the EAGLE Academy students.” 

While the move to online was not expected and has been difficult for all students, the EAGLE Academy team has found communication to be key. In addition to Slack, the team uses Google Hangouts and FaceTime, as well as emails, phone calls and texts.

EAGLE Academy student Cole said thanks to his mentors, moving to a virtual platform is going well.

“I’m very comfortable with the learning and technology online because I have great people on my side to help me,” said Cole. “The main thing I’m going to take away from this experience is doing stuff on my own. It’s given me a big opportunity to be more independent.”

Academy classmate Brandon agrees that the online platform is a new opportunity.

“I like that I can make my own schedule and I can work at my own pace,” he said. 

Pickens said she is not surprised that the academy students are doing so well, as they have strong characteristics of adaptation to their advantage.

“I think that in some ways EAGLE Academy students may be better able to adapt to this experience than other students,” said Pickens. “These students have spent much of their academic career going into classrooms that were not always taught the way they learn. I think that this experience will further help students to learn those self-advocacy, self-determination and self-accommodation skills.”

All in all, students are doing well, but ready to get back on campus.

“This has made me try a new way of learning,” said Brandon. “But it has made me miss all of my friends at EAGLE Academy. I like living in my college dorm room. I miss going to the football, baseball, basketball and volleyball games. I can’t wait for the virus to be gone so we can go back to Georgia Southern.”

Georgia Southern University, a public Carnegie Doctoral/R2 institution founded in 1906, offers 141 degree programs serving more than 26,000 students through nine colleges on three campuses in Statesboro, Savannah, Hinesville and online instruction. A leader in higher education in southeast Georgia, the University provides a diverse student population with expert faculty, world-class scholarship and hands-on learning opportunities. Georgia Southern creates lifelong learners who serve as responsible scholars, leaders and stewards in their communities. Visit GeorgiaSouthern.edu.

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