PUTNEY — A new online program at Landmark College is making postsecondary education more accessible for students.
Beginning next semester, the Putney-based college that serves neurodiverse students with learning disabilities and autism, will offer a fully online associate of arts degree.
Dubbed “LC Online,” students will be able to major in business studies or general studies with a concentration in career competency. Both programs are fully accredited and prepare students to transition to a bachelor’s degree program or enter the workforce.
The new format is a “logical next step” for Landmark, said Gail Gibson Sheffield, vice president for academic affairs.
The college has offered online classes for nearly a decade, including a dual enrollment program for high school students in partnership with 60 schools around the country.
Last year, it introduced College START (Success Transition Awareness Resiliency Transformation), a fully online transitional first-year program that helps students decide whether college is right for them while earning credits towards an associate’s degree. Now students can continue to work toward completing their associate degree online or transition to on-campus learning if they choose.
“Our mission is directly tied to changing the way people think about education,” said Gibson Sheffield. “We’re all about access and being able to reach out to neurodivergent students, wherever they may be.”
According to Gibson Sheffield, LD Online will be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Students will also have access to a dedicated adviser and a student engagement/social pragmatics coach.
“It’s all been structured and uses our own research on how to best manage issues, like executive function challenges (and) better time management,” she said. “The courses have all been designed with those kinds of support systems built in so it’s more effective for a student with (a learning disability).”
She added online courses are also available to students living on campus.
“Online learning isn’t going away, and it’s really important to develop those skills,” she said.
Gibson Sheffield said the online format helps ease the transition to living on campus, which can be difficult for some students.
“It actually helps them manage some of their own anxiety around social anxieties.” she said. “Being able to just focus on their academics themselves and have a little bit more control over how they interact with others can really reduce some of that anxiety.”
Being in control of that transition was what appealed to rising second-year student Calla Lunney of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Lunney, 20, enrolled in College START last year, following a gap year after graduating from high school.
She said she knew she wanted to attend college but was initially hesitant to go all in with the experience.
“I wanted to ease myself into it so that I knew what it was like before I actually did it,” she said. “I liked the online aspect because it’s quick and efficient and easy to sit through.”
Lunney, who has high-functioning autism, dyslexia and ADHD, said she has had negative experiences in the past with schools because of her learning disabilities.
She said Landmark, with its focus on neurodivergent students, was the right fit.
“I wanted a place that could foster my growth and my love for learning,” she said.
Lunney said she intends to live on campus next semester, and is eager to get the full college experience.
She credited her time learning online with giving her a preview of what college was like.
“I thought college was this big, scary, life-changing thing, which it is as a concept, but not really at all actually. It’s super easy,” she said.
Another lesson she learned in her first year: “Meet your expectations, not the expectations of others.”
Peter Eden, President of Landmark, said the transition from high school to college can be a risky time for students.
“End of high school, gap, start of college: That whole transition period, students with (learning disabilities) can get lost, and then they don’t make it through college and then they don’t make it into the workforce,” he said. “If we’re able to provide the right kind of education — whether it’s face-to-face, online, hybrid — then we can keep them on track to give them skills during the developmental period.”
Eden added the focus on online learning is also a natural evolution for higher education institutions.
“The ideal college of the future has to be something which meets the students where they are — it provides solutions to their problems,” he said. “There are so many students who want or need Landmark College, but they’re never moving out of, you know, Arizona, for whatever reason. So we have to bring it to them.”
Moreover, he said, as students change and colleges increasingly face economic challenges, it makes good business sense, too.
“When you’re a small, rural college — especially with so many colleges closing and in the Northeast and Vermont — you can’t just say you’re innovative or agile, you’ve got to actually operate that way,” he said .