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Perspectives from State Special Education Directors on Online Learning (White Paper Series)

Posted on Apr 22, 2014

Report Cover

The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has surveyed state directors of special education regarding online learning and has released a short white paper, available for free download here.

In September 2013, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities surveyed state directors of special education regarding: 1) their states’ guidance; 2) disability categories represented in online learning; 3) related services provided online; 4) assurance of privacy, accommodations, a range of digital content, and the probability of student online success; and 5) perception of the importance of promising practices for this population in online settings.

In general, findings suggest that state directors of special education believed that their states do not provide guidance around the topic of students with disabilities in online learning; many states do not collect data on which students with disabilities participate in online learning and therefore many state directors do not know if all disability areas are represented in online learning; speech-language services are the related service most often provided online; most respondents did not know if their online programs ensured privacy, provided accommodations, or provided a range of digital content; most were not aware of the probability of students’ success in online settings; and many respondents were not aware of the importance of some foundational practices for online learning programs; such as flexibility, sense of community, student orientation, allowance for choice, adult guidance, combining online learning with other activities, and building adaptive learning into the online system.

What Data do States Collect?

Posted on Apr 16, 2013

Assumptions are flying, people are questioning: we wanted to know. So, we asked.

Of the 50 states contacted, 31 states responded. Of these, 11 states reported that they collect some data on students with disabilities who receive education in a fully online school in their state (California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington). Four of these states also reported that they collect information about students with disabilities who participate in supplemental courses online (California, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia). No states reported having the ability to collect data on students with disabilities who participate in a blended learning environment.

These surprising results underscore the need for state officials and researchers alike to document and measure enrollment, performance, and outcomes for students with disabilities–and students in general–in online environments. Such data is invaluable in planning programs for students with disabilities and determining if and how special education services are being provided. COLSD will continue to gather data about online learning through initiatives like its Washington state and Lawrence, Kansas school district case studies. For more information go to

More information about how we conducted this research:

Appropriate State Department of Education staff from 50 states were identified and contacted to find out what data each state collects, or could easily gain access to, regarding students with disabilities who participate in online learning in each of three distinct areas (fully online schools, supplemental online courses, or blended learning environments). Names and contact information for technology directors, data managers, or another knowledgeable staff member were discovered through state special education directors’ suggestions or online searches. The state staff were contacted via email or telephone to schedule a convenient time for them to discuss what data their state is collecting and where the data could be accessed. All contacts were given the option to complete the survey themselves and email it back when completed. If the original contact did not believe he or she was the correct person to provide this information, that person was asked to forward the request to an individual in their state who they believed was more suited to answer our questions. All state contacts were contacted a maximum of three times. The survey asked whether states were collecting data on students with disabilities in fully online settings, supplemental courses, and/or blended learning environments. If states did collect this data, they were asked if they collected specific pieces of data for these students, such as information on their disability, race, gender, type of school they attended, language status, and length of time in attendance.


Gamification: Why use it?

Posted on Aug 17, 2012

In my not-so-long-ago days of secondary schooling, gamification meant PowerPoint Jeopardy, the Oregon Trail, and the stock market simulation game – which I once lost to a kid that put all of his money into Birkenstock and let it sit while playing Oregon Trail all hour. Because of that, though, when I’m on Scottrade trying to figure out my break-even prices, I remember that some things are just pure luck – sometimes a shoe company defies the market, sometimes you and your family get cholera. I owe these lessons to the staples that make up gamification:

It’s fun: Gamifying a job removes the “work” connotation from it. Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit was quoted in a Laptop Magazine article explaining, “We don’t have a lot of fun [at work], and gamified systems can often bring a little bit of fun to things which are fundamentally work.” In the school setting, the concept is the same. Gamifying a lesson removes the “learning” connotation from it. I think this is key for keeping students engaged. The online learning environment is the only way that I could have had the experiences I mentioned above.  I never sat down and thought I was learning history or how to invest, to my adolescent mind that would have meant physical books and classroom lectures; I was simply playing games, and that is the beauty of gamification.

It motivates: Gamification is a competitive environment. The report, Gamification in Education, reasons that gamification takes the motivational power of games and applies it to real-world problems. It went on to offer a very compelling idea for this: gamified environments could foster role-playing scenarios – not necessarily a tribal leader seeking world domination, but, more productively, the “unfamiliar identity of a scholar.” Think of online courses delivered entirely in this manner. It is certainly an eventual route education could take; we’ve been trying to make the classroom fun for years (Oregon Trail, PowerPoint Jeopardy, etc…). In a school using gamification, there could an LED scrolling board of achievements or of the top ten students of that week – this would motivate some, and praise others.

It rewards: To create these scholarly role-playing environments, rewards are necessary. Here, we see things like badges present themselves – digital gold stars. The report explains, “The game can provide social credibility and recognition for academic achievements, which might otherwise remain invisible or even be denigrated by other students.” In the context of education, this is important because if it becomes popular to be at level six in Math Master or have that Ridiculous Reader badge, then nerds just became cool. I just became cool. The report notes, “Students are rewarded for desired behaviors and punished for undesirable behaviors using this common currency as a reward system.” When we were handed back a paper with a red A+ on it or when we saw the actual gold stars on our tests as kids, it felt good. These rewards are necessary because they immediately give positive reinforcement to the student; in the online world, leaderboards or badges would give us something to put up on the digital fridge.

Monday, we’ll look at the real life applications of gamification.

Alba, David. (February 29, 2012). What’s Gamification, and How Can It Make You Happier in Life and
Work? Retrieved August 10, 2012 from

Lee, Joey & Hammer, Jessica. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, What Bother? Retrieved on
August 10, 2012 from

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Blended learning helps advance students onward to higher education.

Posted on Aug 6, 2012

CMS’ third goal for online learning was made with an eye to the horizon. Before long, advanced placement and collegiate level courses were added for students ready for study at the next level. I feel that this is important because unlike a traditional school setting, blended learning promotes an environment where students can work at their own pace and own path with no cap or limit to how far they can advance on their own. This goal uses blended learning as the tool it has the potential to be – a limitless innovation.

  • Goal Three: Increase college readiness/awareness and earn college credit while still in high school.
  • Result: Collegiate level courses were made available to students ready for the next level of schooling.

When asked her thoughts on how to promote awareness and foster discussion about online learning, Hope provided her own experience with the matter. “Once I began to see the power of this resource, I began to tell a lot of people. Additionally there was a demand in our district-so it was really that I promoted it and then schools, parents, and students began to demand access.” I think this is a good take on how blended learning should be supported. The more we talk about our own experience with blended learning, the more people without access to it will be encouraged to examine and demand it. If we don’t speak up, some may never even know it’s a path worthy of consideration for their school.

One of the concluding thoughts Hope left ruminating in my mind regarding approaches to promoting online learning was that “the main driver, however, will have to be quality opportunities as well as insightful and innovative implementation. When students succeed it speaks for and promotes use.” Embracing online learning only as a tool meant for advancement from remediation would stunt its growth. Implementing it only in the high school setting would follow in suit. As capable and alluring as online learning might be, the amount it can live up to our expectations still depends on the amount that we embrace it and the care we put into implementing it. We need to utilize it in ways that encourage growth rather than confinement. I think back to the only Greek proverb I know: “ society grows when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit beneath.” CMS has shown us that we can have our shade and enjoy it too.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

How to overcome skepticism in online learning

Posted on Jun 13, 2012

A portrait of Dr. Nellie AspelThis week I interviewed Dr. Nellie Aspel who is currently working as principal of North Shelby School in North Carolina. She has won many awards including the Wachovia Southwest Region Principal of the year and the Cleveland County Distinguished Woman in 2007. Because Aspel was one of the main writers in charge of the rewrite process and development of courses for the  Occupational Course of Study program, her insights provided a good history lesson into the formation of an online program for students with disabilities.

As I discussed in an interview with North Carolina Teacher Leslie Fetzer, OCS is a blending learning program where students get two teachers, one online and one in the classroom. It first started with the committee called, Alternative Course of Study. In this committee, members decided to focus OCS for students with minor or intermediate disabilities, because they are a group of students that Aspel feels had been left out.

Some were skeptical about the online part of the program, thinking that students were just going to have the students sit on a computer. Aspel overcame this by doing many demonstrations about the OCS program which helped others to understand the program better.

“We did a presentation for the State School Board that includes testimonials from these programs and also showed research that supports students working in paid jobs prior to graduation from high school as an indicator of post-school success,” Aspel said.

Critics saw how well the interactions were done and the learning skills that could be taught online. This changed their minds drastically.

In 2000, OCS was approved for all schools in North Carolina by the state school board. In its current form, it is a way for students with disabilities to get a high school degree that looks nearly identical except for some minor changes on the transcript. The classes through OCS are just as hard as any traditional high school and meet the same needs. The committee made sure of this though text books, end-of-course tests, pacing guides, progress monitoring, documentation of vocational training hours, competitive employment requirement, career portfolio, technology skill development, CTE courses (and pre/post testing for those courses), and additional teacher training.

Aspel feels the future of the OCS program is only going to grow and get better. They are constantly gaining more classes like, English 1 and 2, Intro to Math, Algebra A and B, Biology. As Aspel says, “OCS has become well ingrained in North Carolina. It is not going anywhere.”


Katie Mulich is a blogger and reporter for the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.