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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!

Parent Survey Findings

Posted on Dec 4, 2014

Paula Burdette and Diana Greer of the Center have published their findings from the 2012 Parents’ Survey about their children with disabilities in online learning.

Here’s a short synopsis of the paper:

While research has been conducted on parental involvement in K-12 online learning, none of this research relates specifically to the parents of students with disabilities. Thus, researchers developed a survey around the following constructs: parental roles, instruction and assessment, communication and support from the school, and parental challenges. Researchers then distributed the survey to parents who had a child with a disability enrolled in an online setting. This article describes the survey findings based on 119 qualified responses from across the United States. In general, parents were pleased with the outcomes that their children were experiencing in online learning, but some issues still exist for educating students with disabilities within this environment.

And here’s where you can find the entire paper at the Journal of Interactive Online Learning:

Let us know what you think about these findings. We always love to hear from you!


Online Education Survey Project Description

Posted on Sep 2, 2014


Between September 2012 and January 2014, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD) conducted nationwide surveys with four groups:

1. District Administrators who support Teachers who work with Students with Disabilities,
2. Teachers who work with Students with Disabilities,
3. Parents of Students with Disabilities, and
4. Students with Disabilities.

In general each of these surveys was designed to find information regarding: 1) demographics; 2) instruction and assessment; 3) support needed and provided; and 4) satisfaction.

The surveys were conducted through Qualtrics, a Web-based survey tool. Due to the numerous branching and skip logic steps used in these surveys, the best access to them is through a Word document. However for the same reasons, the Word version of the surveys is quite long, particularly for the parent survey because it was provided in both English and Spanish. Both the Word versions and the Web versions can be accessed below.

In September 2012 and again in 2013, COLSD also surveyed State Directors of Special Education throughout the nation 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. This survey, distributed by a privately owned Web-based tool, has been closed and is no longer accessible through the Web. This final survey can be accessed as a Word document here.

Survey Links (.docx)

District Administrator




State Director of Special Education

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.

Research Update: enough help from online teachers?

Posted on Jan 8, 2014

Do students think they are receiving enough help from their online teachers?

That is the question behind some of the latest research being conducted at the Center.

First, researchers started with this premise: Online teachers play as crucial a role in the online learning process as they do in the traditional classroom, and student preferences in how they are assisted is an important factor in the personalization that online learning can bring to education.

Based on these ideas, researchers were interested in determining if students felt as though they were receiving enough help from their online teachers. Most research in this area has been conducted at the collegiate level with adult learners, leaving much to be explored within K-12 online learning. That is why we contacted a state department of education and sent a pilot questionnaire to students engaged in online learning to become more aware of their experiences. As a member of the research team, I’ve been working on crunching the responses from the pilot.

Gathering student preferences and experiences allows for a more holistic approach in assessing online learning and meeting student needs. One area in which to gather student input is preference in teacher assistance. Some students and their families might be attracted to online learning due to the autonomy it offers and might seek less assistance from online teachers, whereas others are drawn to the aspect of individualized instruction and desire more assistance.
In an upcoming post, I’ll walk through our research design in a bit more detail and share some initial findings.

Danna Harvey is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology and works as a research assistant at the Center on Online Learning.