Posted on Oct 3, 2012
Posted on Oct 3, 2012
As Principal Investigators of the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, we are writing this letter to express some concerns about the present participation of students with disabilities in online learning.
Several months ago we accepted the challenge of finding answers to important research questions about how online learning environments can be optimally designed and implemented to be accessible, engaging, and effective for all students, including students with disabilities. To accomplish this goal, the Center is conducting research to identify and verify trends and issues as well as describe potential positive outcomes and negative consequences related to participation of students with disabilities in online learning. These findings will inform our development and testing of promising approaches to online learning for students with disabilities. This research program definitively has barely begun.
Our preparatory investigations have already raised a number of concerns that we think are urgent enough to report even now. Through professional networks, open-ended survey questions, examination of exemplar content, and reviews of publicly available “gray literature” (e.g., state policies, advocacy organization publications, vendor documentation), we have identified significant concerns in nine broad areas. While careful research ahead will be necessary to investigate these concerns, we think the entire educational community, from producers to consumers, should be aware of the issues that have come to our attention:
- Complaints: Reports of complaints and dispute resolutions are beginning to emerge as parents and others express serious concerns about how students with disabilities are served in online learning environments.
- Inconsistent Policies: Ambiguity and variability exist in cross-state and cross-district funding, policies, and roles and responsibilities for providing special education and related services to students with disabilities in online environments.
- Accessibility and Universal Design: Preliminary inspection of widely adopted online environments reveals major gaps in basic accessibility for students with disabilities. Equally concerning is the general lack of instructional design and the specific lack of universal design for learning options. As some states have begun to include online learning as a graduation requirement, this poses a significant civil rights issue.
- Teacher Training: Preparation for teaching online courses is often minimal even for regular education teachers. The special preparation in the unique competencies required to provide online instruction to students with disabilities is often totally absent.
- Monitoring and Accountability: No national data are available to demographically describe the students with disabilities engaged in online learning (e.g., socioeconomic status, types of disabilities, age/grade levels) and thus there is no way to monitor their progress, proportionality, and outcomes.
- Reasons for Placement: Educators and policy makers presently have little knowledge of why students with disabilities (and their parents) choose to engage in online learning (with the possible exception of those students involved in credit recovery activities). Some have raised concerns that online learning is being adopted as the least effortful alternative.
- Social and Emotional Supports: Educators and policy makers have insufficient information about whether and how online service providers address the non-academic and social-emotional aspects of special education in online learning.
- Lack of Guidance: No guidelines exist to determine whether an online learning environment is truly the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities.
- Inequities: A digital divide (e.g., access to bandwidth infrastructure and devices) remains in many communities throughout the U.S., and the extent to which this divide affects access for students with disabilities is unknown.
We are sharing these concerns at this time for two reasons. First, we want to raise awareness of them so that key stakeholders – teachers, parents, students, product developers, policy-makers – can be more informed about these issues when they design, market, choose, implement, or recommend online learning courses and activities for students with disabilities. The urgency for raising these concerns now, rather than later, stems from one clear finding: students with disabilities are rapidly being assimilated into online learning activities in the absence of enough information to address these concerns
Second, as a national research center, we want to stimulate vastly more research in this area. To support and facilitate the expansion of that research, we are hopeful that our Center can serve as a hub where researchers can share their most current research, can find useful tools, guidelines and technologies for research, can find collaborators and data sources, etc. To that end we have a website (www.centerononlinelearning.org) that is still early in its development, but already contains current analyses, informative blogs on articles on such topics as “Making online learning work for students with disabilities,” “Blended learning’s role in increasing graduation rates,” and “Advantages and disadvantages for special-needs students in online learning.” In addition, we have created an online reference and associated white paper that identifies an array of elementary and secondary instructional software products and digital materials with respect to Section 508 standards for physical and sensory access. On this website we will begin to share not only our research findings, but the tools and techniques with which we have conducted our research so that it can be replicated and extended by others.
Finally, we want to emphasize that we entered this field because we believe that new technologies, including online learning technologies, have enormous promise for students with disabilities. Like any other tool or resources, however, these new learning environments will need to be carefully designed and knowledgably implemented in order to be effective. We look forward to a future that embodies that potential, and to the work that lies ahead within our center and with other researchers as we endeavor to realize the promise of these new technologies.
Don Deshler, Center for Research on Learning
David Rose, CAST
Bill East, National Association of State Directors of Special Education
Diana Greer, Center for Research on Learning