Distance Learning Program in Autism Spectrum Disorders At the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities (NY UCEDD/LEND)

March 8, 2013

Caroline I. Magyar, PhD
Caroline I. Magyar, PhD

Since the passing of the Combating Autism Act (PL 109-416) there has been concerted effort at the national and state levels to increase public awareness of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This has resulted in new information being disseminated on a regular basis. However, many professionals report finding it challenging to keep pace with new information relevant to evidence-based practices in ASD. Moreover, in New York State there continues to be a shortage of appropriately trained school and community personnel, particularly in our rural and inner urban areas, to assist individuals affected by an ASD and to support parents and/or caregivers in their advocacy efforts for coordinated and quality care.

To address this training need, in 2011 the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities (SCDD), University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, NY, developed a medium-term distance learning program. The goal of the program is to build capacity throughout the state by providing year-long training in ASD and best-and -evidence-based practices to professionals with direct clinical contact with individuals with ASD of all ages and ability levels. The program is part of the SCDD's Leadership Education in Neurodevelopment and Related Disabilities (LEND) program and was developed by Caroline I. Magyar, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics. Dr. Magyar also coordinates the program and is the primary instructor for the course.

The training curriculum includes a curriculum map that guides teaching for mastery of core learning objectives across training modules, trainee groups, and across time as course content is revised each year to reflect current best-and-evidence-based practices in ASD. All coursework is delivered through Blackboard and other distance learning formats.

Through an Individualized Program of Study, students are guided through a sequence of learning modules that allow for structured learning of curriculum content. The training curriculum includes 13 Core Learning Modules, each provides information on characteristics of ASD and related features, and best-and evidence-based practices in assessment and treatment/intervention. In addition, there are 11 Supplemental Learning Modules that provide information on specific interventions and/or services relevant to ASD treatment. Participants select 3 of the 11 modules that best address their training needs as it relates to their particular scope of practice. Each of the Core and Supplemental Learning Modules takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours to complete. Finally, the curriculum includes a practice-based learning strand, called a Concentration Strand. The Concentration Strand is designed to provide targeted training in a particular area considered to be of critical importance to building service capacity within our community. One to 2 strands are offered each year based on outcomes of community needs assessment. Each Concentration Strand consists of six, 2-hour interactive webinar lectures, and two, 30-minute case discussions via teleconferencing. The Concentration Strand includes a practice component that requires each student to identify a case study to apply the information learned in his/her Program of Study for practice-based learning. Practice activities require about 6 hours, on average to complete, based on student knowledge, experience, and availability of resources within their practice site. All students complete a minimum of 40 hours of training and a Certificate of Completion is provided to those who meet course requirements.

Student enrollment is limited to 20 trainees per year to ensure sufficient instructor support as each student receives advisement from Dr. Magyar to develop their Individualized Program of Study and to assist them in meeting their professional learning objectives. Advisement includes assessment of student learning objectives and the design of an individualized training plan based on the curriculum information offered within a given year. Recruitment activities include targeted outreach to professionals practicing in areas identified as shortage areas within NYS, with a particular emphasis on professionals working in our rural and urban areas. Because the SCDD has an extensive history of state-wide collaborative projects and community-based training activities, recruitment efforts can be targeted to support capacity building not only with regard to content of training, but also in relation to under-resourced areas in the state.

A mixed-method evaluation approach is used to evaluate the effectiveness of the training program. Formative evaluation is used to assess (a) the format of the curriculum (content, materials, and training activities) and the methods of instruction in meeting the learning objectives; and, (b) perceived benefit to the student's practice with individuals with ASD. Data inform revisions to curriculum content, materials, activities, and format for the subsequent year. Summative evaluation assesses the overall impact the training program had on building capacity. Data are collected on the number of students enrolled, student demographics (e.g., type, level of education, practice/home setting, geographic region, years of experience etc), percentage of students completing a minimum of 40 hours of training, number of individuals with ASD affected by student participation in the training, perceived confidence in applying best-and evidence-based practice in their work with individuals with ASD, and the level of student satisfaction. On-going community-based needs assessment assist in identifying emerging training needs and these data inform revisions to the curriculum and/or instructional format and the recruitment plan for the subsequent training year.