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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!

IDEAlly Prepared: Special Education Teacher Preparation for Online Instruction

Posted on Aug 12, 2016

On August 12, 2016, the Center released IDEAlly Prepared: Working toward Special Education Teacher Preparation for Online Instruction. This report emerged from Center-sponsored discussions with representatives from institutions of higher education who prepared teachers for instructing students with disabilities. The discussion issues focused on their preparation programs for teachers to enter online learning environments (fully online, blended, and supplemental) and implement Individualized Education Programs sponsored through the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

Report contents include:

  • An overview of online teaching competencies according to research;
  • Methodological strategies for inviting and learning from teacher educators in this discussion group, including participant invitation, instrument development and discussion protocol, and data analysis procedures;
  • Findings from the discussion groups around the challenges of preparing teachers for online learning environments including the lack of models and resources, inconsistencies in institutional support, difficulties in building relationships with virtual schools for student teaching and practicum placement, and grappling with the conceptualizations of IDEA that the online learning environment demands;
  • Findings from the discussion about promising practices including the use of virtual observations and other remote practicum experiences, advocacy for the development of online learning curriculum, and increased access to online courses as initial preparation, as well as advanced degrees.

In addition, this report provides an assessment of critical next steps to ensure that more teachers who enter the virtual classroom are truly prepared to meet the demands of students protected and served under IDEA legislation. These steps include:

  • Attention to the needs of students with disabilities and their teachers in standards from agencies such as the International Association for K12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and the Information Society for Technology in Education (ISTE);
  • Attention from the organizations that accredit institutions of higher education around the preparation of teachers not just with online learning, but for it.
  • Increasing the access to online course taking experiences for both prospective and practicing teachers;
  • Increasing research funding for the development of models of teacher preparation for online learning and for the identification of best practices for children and teachers;
  • Policy guidance from federal and state entities and identification of local policies that are effective for meeting the demands of IDEA in online settings.

Readers who come to this report with questions about the reality of preparing teachers to support students with disabilities in virtual environments will gain understandings about the intricacies of teacher preparation as well as an appreciation for the efforts of teacher educators as they take up this work.

To download the entire report, click HERE.

Parents Invited to Participate in Groundbreaking, Nation-wide Study

Posted on Apr 29, 2016

The Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities is working to understand parents’ and students’ activities in the fully online learning environment. We are seeking parents with children in grades 2-8 who are currently (or within the past year) educated in fully online learning environments.

Purpose of the Study

We hope to gain a deeper understanding of the day-to-day roles and responsibilities of the parent (or other adult) who is involved in their students’ online learning.

Desired Outcome of the Study

We will inform stakeholders (parents, educators policymakers, vendors providing online educational content, and others) of the specific opportunities and challenges that students with disabilities and their families face in online education. With this knowledge, stakeholders can make better informed decisions about online learning programs, program implementation, parent involvement and training, student engagement, and other matters that will improve the learning environment and outcomes for students with disabilities who are being educated online.

Expectations for Parent Participants

  1. Work with the Center to complete an online survey regarding experiences in online learning.
  2. Participate in a focus group with Center researchers and other parents at a central location to discuss these experiences in greater detail.

Cash Stipend

Parents will receive a cash stipend if chosen to participate in focus group portion of the study.

Social Media Toolkit

Help us spread the word by sharing this opportunity on social media! Our Parent Study Social Media Toolkit can help get you started with example Facebook, Twitter, and Newsletter posts.

If you are interested or have questions please call (785) 864-0452 or e-mail

Invited In: Measuring UDL in Online Learning

Posted on Jan 28, 2016

On January 28, 2016, the Center released Invited In: Measuring UDL Design in Online Learning. This report on K-12 online learning explores and evaluates alignment to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework among selected online learning product vendors. Invited In assists online developers, administrators, teachers, and parents in understanding the online lessons, resources, and related digital materials used by K-12 students, how online learning variances impact students with disabilities, and how to select products that provide appropriate learning options for struggling learners and students with disabilities.

Report contents include:

  • A means to further consider K-12 online lessons and related digital materials in consideration of their accessibility and subsequent value to struggling learners and students with disabilities.
  • Current efforts to determine the appropriateness of K-12 blended and fully online content often relies on compliance with accessibility standards. Districts and education product developers can use a number of resources, including the Volunteer Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), to assist in determining the accessibility of their digital content or materials. However, current accessibility standards focus solely on physical and sensory considerations and not on the essential cognitive elements that create and enhance learning opportunities for all students.
  • Building on the evaluation capabilities of the VPAT, the UDL framework should be considered as a means to further determine accessibility for a broad scope of learners, including those with disabilities.
  • Using the UDL framework, developers and educators examine online content from the perspective of cognitive accessibility and variability.
  • How Center researchers employed the UDL Scan Tool in their evaluation of six online vendor products to determine how each serves—or does not serve—students with learning and access needs.
  • Six vendors of blended and fully online products were selected by researchers for review to determine alignment to UDL principles and related guidelines.  Vendors included free and for profit providers representing all K-12 grade levels and content areas.
  • Data was complied and reported on six K-12 online products’ alignment to UDL’s three principles.
  • Analysis of the findings specific to each of the six vendors, summarizing what the findings indicate for learning opportunities.

The rapid growth of online learning presents opportunities and challenges for K-12 in blended and fully online educational programs, especially for struggling students and those with disabilities. The nature of online instruction, course materials, and supplementary supports has the potential to offer all students with unique, personalized learning experiences that best fit their individual needs. To ensure that all learners benefit from online learning opportunities, the development of online learning materials must be appropriate and accessible to students with both physical and cognitive accessibility needs.

The VPAT serves as an excellent tool for evaluating overall physical accessibility to digital materials. The VPAT may be accessed free of charge from the ITI website. Use of the VPAT and other accessibility measurement tools, however, does not provide districts, schools, educators, and parents with measurements to assist in looking beyond physical accessibility in order to assess the cognitive accessibility of learning materials. The UDL works with the VPAT and other tools to provide assessments for materials to determine their accessibility for all learners.

Because UDL focuses on learners’ needs and provides a step-by-step framework for assessing learning products and their content, it goes beyond physical accessibility evaluations to provide developers and educators with methods for creating and assessing materials to ensure their appropriateness for all students. UDL alignment assures that the educational products provide access to the information and also facilitate access to learning. Used together, other online evaluation tools and the UDL Scan Tool determine a full scope of accessibility and and help educators ensure that both disabilities and learners variabilities are appropriately addressed so that all students may benefit from the potential advantages of online learning. Learn more about UDL and download UDL guidelines on the UDL Center website.

To download the entire report, visit the Invited In publication page.

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!