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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!

State and School Leaders Talk About Learning Online

Posted on Oct 14, 2015

The Center continues to reach out to groups who are directly engaged in or impacted by the involvement of students with disabilities in online learning. The presence of these students in full-time virtual, blended or supplemental coursework challenges us to re-consider special education in new contexts. Do practices effective in brick and mortar settings work as well online? If a student takes all of his or her courses online from home is this the least restrictive environment? Is online learning considered a regular part of a free, appropriate public education? If yes, and a school doesn’t provide any online offerings, is that a problem?

These and other questions continue to prompt our inquiries. In 2014, we brought together six state special education directors to address these issues. We wanted to explore what they find important in their states – their responses can be found in the Publications section of our website.

We also held a forum of superintendents and administrators of full-time virtual, blended and supplemental school providers serving a diverse set of students across the country in states that have high levels of online participation. This forum took place March 31 – April 1, 2015. We wanted to explore the same ten issues with both groups about online learning and students with disabilities:

  1. Enrollment, persistence, progress, and achievement
  2. Parents’ preparation and involvement in their child’s online experience and IDEA notifications
  3. IDEA principles in the online environment (e.g., free appropriate public education, least restrictive environment, due process protections)
  4. IDEA principles in the online environment (e.g., eligibility assessment, IEP development)
  5. Access and coordination of related services for students with disabilities
  6. Effective and efficient access, sharing, integration, and instructional usage of student response data among the parties involved in online instruction (e.g., instructor, administrator, provider, and vendor), along with privacy issues
  7. Effectiveness of teacher preparation in the online learning environment, and promising (or negative) practices that facilitate (or negate) professional development
  8. Instructional practices: Integration of optimal evidence-based practices; availability of skill/strategy instruction in online environments; use of the unique properties afforded in online environments
  9. Differential access to online learning within and across your schools (e.g., computer or tablet access, connection speed, district restrictions on material access and assistive technologies)
  10. Local supervision for online learning in general education and, in particular, for supervision in special education

Not surprisingly, opinions flowed closely together and widely apart as we looked at responses from forum participants from the two groups. Their ideas sketched a double helix of an outline depicting the DNA of online learning across its varied contexts. Forum participants helped the Center to identify the elemental structures of online learning in new and unique ways, and we are pleased to be able to share these perceptions in the hope of further informing the field.

We encourage you to visit the Publications section of the website to explore these discussions. Do the perspectives shared match your own?

EPUB for Open Textbooks

Posted on May 5, 2015

Or… Let’s build things the same way to address learner needs that are different.

Déjà Vu

Fifteen years ago a key impediment to meeting the academic needs of special education students was the inflexibility of print curriculum materials and the barriers they presented to students with sensory, physical and learning disabilities. At that time two essential components were identified to address this issue: 1) digital versions of textbooks and core instructional materials and 2) widely-adopted technical specifications for their creation.  The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, NIMAS, was built on those components. Fast forward to today.  While digital versions of print instructional materials have significantly expanded both access and usability, the majority of curriculum materials digital from the outset – both commercial and open resources – are, ironically, more rigid and less adaptable to retrofitting than their print counterparts.  Progress is being made, often following a civil rights complaint or lawsuit  intended to remind curriculum developers and adopters that learning resources designed for a mythical average learner yields predictably imaginary results.  A solution to this challenge is emerging, however, and it involves the same key components identified previously: digital content and uniform technical specifications that guide their creation and distribution. Read More..

What State Directors of Special Education Need to Support Students with Disabilities in Online Education

Posted on Dec 18, 2014


The following is a Proceedings Document based on Focus Group held at the NASDSE Annual Conference, October 2012. Two years ago, state directors of special education gave the Center some direction for our research. They indicated their need to have definitions of online learning and to learn more about online learning in regards to FAPE in the LRE (Free Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment), monitoring, funding, and policy.

Look for the Proceedings Document from the 2015 NASDSE Annual Conference soon.

During the 2012 National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) annual conference held in Sacramento, California, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (the Center), a cooperative research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education (OSEP), conducted a focus group with numerous state directors. The session began with a brief overview of what the Center currently knows about online learning and students with disabilities, and with the Center’s charge from OSEP.  Next, Bill East, senior principal investigator and Diana Greer, project director for the Center, guided a focus group discussion using the following questions:

  • What do you need to know regarding online learning and students with disabilities?
  • What research would you like the center to conduct to inform your work in the area?
  • What resources do you need to promote or implement online learning in your state? Read More..

What’s Important to State Departments of Education?

Posted on Dec 16, 2014

COLSD Forum with State Department of Education Staff

On November 18th and 19th, 2014, COLSD brought six state education staff members together to discuss online learning and students with disabilities – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Virginia. We want to know what they find important in their states, particularly around the following eight topics:

  • Enrollment, persistence, progress and achievement
  • Parent preparation and involvement in their child’s online experience
  • IDEA principles in the online environment (e.g., FAPE, least restrictive environment, parental notification, due process protections)
  • Effective and efficient student response data access, sharing, integration, and instructional usage among those involved in online instruction
  • Effectiveness of teacher preparation in the online learning environment
  • Integration of optimal evidence-based instructional practices; availability of skill/strategy instruction in online environments
  • Utilization of the online environment’s unique properties and affordances
  • Differential access to online learning within and across their state

The state staff members were quite invested in these topics and had a lot to share with us and each other. They talked about how these issues are addressed in their states, how important these topics are, the direction their states are moving in these areas, and the top challenges they face. They also favored us with some ideas for possible research.

In the Comments section, let us know what you want to know about this forum.

A synopsis of the forum conversations will be in an upcoming blog post!