Michele McKeone BS '05 (Communication)
In today's world, Internet skills are often taken for granted, learned through everyday interactions or self-teaching.
For students with autism, however, that's not always the case, as Michele McKeone BS '05 (Communication) found while teaching in learning-support classes in the School District of Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Teaching Fellowship program.
"Despite what these students were capable of, they were being pigeonholed into janitorial or maintenance jobs that didn't require computer skills," says McKeone, who holds a master's degree in Special Education from Chestnut Hill College. "No one was teaching them how to use the Internet or sign up for an e-mail account, today's life skills. I realized there was a widespread need for this type of education."
In response, McKeone developed Autism Expressed, an online platform that allows students with autism to learn basic Internet-literacy skills, as well as online safety and etiquette, in an independent or classroom setting.
"With Autism Expressed, students engage in a fun, interactive learning environment," she says. "They watch a video teaching a lesson about a basic Internet skill, and then do an activity applying the concepts they've learned to earn a badge. It's set up in such a way to engage the students in the learning process."
Such skills are crucial in the 21st century, McKeone says. "What's needed in education has shifted because of the way technology has changed. Information can be garnered anywhere. It's how you synthesize and work with it that has the impact, and that's what these students need to learn.”
McKeone started using the Autism Expressed program in her learning support classroom at South Philadelphia High School, but soon wanted to make it available for use by other schools and organizations.
"I had this idea, but I didn't necessarily have the tools and understanding needed to grow it," she says.
Encouraged by her former professor, Neil Kleinman, senior fellow at the University's Corzo Center for the Creative Economy, McKeone applied for the Corzo Center Creative Incubator/Wells Fargo Fellowship. Her time in the Creative Incubator program helped her refine the idea and gain business insight, and she received a $10,000 grant to put her new knowledge to use.
"The Corzo Center was, for me personally, the catalyst and the bridge," McKeone says. "I learned how to translate design experience into a viable business. Without that, I would not have gotten to this place. The grant allowed me to transfer what I was doing in my classroom to a larger scale."
The public platform of Autism Expressed launched in October 2012, and has been signing up schools and individual subscribers since then. Despite the growing success, McKeone isn't quite ready to leave the classroom behind.
"My job is where this came from," she says. "I get my inspiration in the classroom because I'm right there, seeing how things take effect and what is needed. So for me, even though it can be challenging, it's also a benefit."