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Equity Matters 2016: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities

Posted on Nov 3, 2016

COLSD researchers have released the most comprehensive study of its kind on online education for K-12 students with disabilities. It provides up-to-date research and policy information on the state of such educational offerings in all 50 states and five territories—making this study essential for educators and policymakers.

On Thursday, November 3, the Center made public its Annual Report, Equity Matters 2016: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities. This year’s publication focuses on promising practices for addressing the needs of students with disabilities in full-time virtual, blended, and supplemental online settings. It summarizes state and territorial policies related to students with disabilities, research on these students in online settings, the shifting roles of parents and teachers in K-12 virtual education, and state educational agency responsibilities.

Here are the main findings from the Annual Publication:

  • Generally, practice is in front of research and personnel preparation.
  • Our state and territorial policy scan found that roughly 75% of all states and territories had Unclear, No with Evidence, or Nothing Found across the six major pillars of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • Eighteen states clearly define which entity is in charge of providing Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities in online settings.
  • Only four states had guidance and/or policy on the provisions of Child Find (the IDEA legal requirement that schools identify children with disabilities who may be entitled to special education services) within online learning environments.
  • Eight states require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) review prior to enrollment in fully online or supplemental program.
  • Teacher preparation institutions are not preparing teachers for online and/or blended instruction.
  • Teacher preparation institutions indicate there is a lack of teacher preparation standards for online education tied to accreditation, especially in the area of special education.
  • Teachers in all modern education settings (particularly online ones) require an understanding of learning, pedagogical design, technological knowledge, and skills.

These findings are critical in light of the tectonic shifts taking place in U.S. K-12 education. Across the country, online learning opportunities continue to increase. The 2016 COLSD State/Territory Policy Scan of this year’s Annual Publication found that 80% of the states and territories surveyed had at least one fully online school in operation. This change is an increase of two additional states from 2015. Furthermore, over 50% of the states and territories surveyed have state-sponsored online entities in operation. The increasing option to enter an online learning environment suggests that parents will continue to have the choice to enroll their children in online learning and that they will continue to need support in making the experience successful.

With this in mind, the findings of this year’s Annual Publication are all the more crucial for educators and policymakers. Determining which courses, schools, and instructional models are creating positive outcomes is critical for online providers because online coursework can attract students from across the nation and therefore has the potential to influence massively more students than physical schools.

Findings in this study identify areas that are relevant to all students with disabilities engaged in online education. We hope that online learning environments can achieve their potential to become places in which all K-12 students can learn what they need to know to live optimally significant lives.

Visit the Equity Matters 2016 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!