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Equity Matters: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities

Posted on Nov 10, 2015

Annual Publication 2015

On Tuesday, November 10, 2015, The Center released its 2015 Annual Report, Equity Matters: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities. From a variety of research inquiries–national scans, forums, surveys, interviews, observations, and data analysis involving various stakeholders in K-12 online learning (administrators, teachers, parents, students, and developers and vendors of digital curriculum materials and delivery systems), the following items are a sample of important issues that have emerged:

  • Few states offer or require certification or endorsements in online teaching, despite the fact that all stakeholders generally agree that the knowledge and skills, both technological and pedagogical, necessary for success differ dramatically from those skills and knowledge required in brick-and-mortar settings.
  • There is a shared belief that the flexibility of digital learning materials, when combined with appropriately designed online delivery systems and instruction, can address the variable learning needs of elementary and secondary students with disabilities in ways difficult or impossible to otherwise achieve.
  • The capacity of online learning systems to track, record, and present information about student progress—at the point of instruction—offers enormous potential for supporting more personalized learning for all students, including those students with disabilities. Unfortunately, the current data gathered within many these systems are often siloed and do not always support instructional decision making.
  • There is agreement among state Directors of Special Education that great potential exists for online systems to collect a variety of data, but, currently, these data do not support the reporting requirements they are charged with addressing.
  • Leaders of full-time virtual and blended online schools, and digital materials and systems vendors uniformly agree that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Section 504 plans developed for brick-and-mortar settings need to be re-visited (and likely revised) once a student enrolls in online learning.
  • Parents of students with disabilities who are being educated in full-time virtual settings spend more time supporting their students in day-to-day online learning than do parents of these students in blended or supplemental settings, despite the fact that few parents report having expertise in providing special education services.

State Directors Survey 2012 ExampleWhen state special education administrators are asked, “How many students with disabilities are enrolled in online learning, which of these students perform best in which types of environments, and how are they progressing?” they may be able to identify how many of these students were enrolled at the start of a semester, and whether the academic achievement for these students was at, above, or below the established standards. However, beyond basic initial enrollment and outcome information, they simply do not know the answers to these questions.

These and other findings raise questions and identify areas of needed additional research relevant to all students engaged in full-time virtual, blended or supplemental learning. Because students with disabilities present the widest sensory, physical, cognitive and behavioral variabilities, these students challenge the education system to become more flexible, responsive, and effective. Students with disabilities offer a unique opportunity for designing learning systems that can address their learning variabilities from the outset, not as an afterthought, and, in doing so, more effectively encompass the needs of all learners—those with disabilities, and those without. The annual publication hopes to prompt all stakeholders to work together to investigate, design and deliver better online learning environments for all learners.

Visit the Equity Matters 2015 publication page to download the full publication or download each chapter as a stand-alone document, and let us know what you think in the comments!