Skip Navigation

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.

Enrollment, Persistence, Progress, Achievement… Oh My!

Posted on Jan 27, 2015

Here’s how you do it – enroll in an online program, stay with it and you will progress nicely and even make some great achievement – right?

Well, maybe not! It’s a little like the “Wizard of Oz” in that we’re following this “yellow brick road” – but do we know where we’re going?  Dorothy had some problems along the way and states are having some problems too. But they see some promise on the horizon too.

On November 18th and 19th, 2014, COLSD held a forum with state department of education staff to discuss online learning and students with disabilities – We wanted to know what they find important about several topics regarding online learning and students with disabilities.

This is the first in a series of eight blogs about what we learned from them.  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!

Online Learning Vendor/School Contracts: What’s the Substance?

Posted on Jul 1, 2014

These days it seems every school district wants its own online or blended learning program – if only to compete with charters and statewide schools. To do online/blended learning right, though, districts need to start with clear educational goals and then line up the specific curriculum, instructional, and training resources they need to achieve these goals.

John Watson, Keeping Pace, 2014 blog[1]

Growing Pains

American traditional public schools are looking more and more to provide online learning opportunities for their K-12 students. You can see this trend in the popular literature (i.e., newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc.) and more importantly in the public policies of 44 states authorizing and even mandating online learning (e.g., Arkansas HB 1785, Arizona HB 2129, Colorado SB 139). Many states and districts across the U.S. use either not-for-profit entities (e.g., regional education service agencies such as BOCES, universities, etc.), for-profit entities (e.g., educational management companies), or both public and private entities to develop and implement these online learning opportunities. For example, Michigan Virtual School is funded by the Michigan Legislature to be operated by the Michigan Virtual University, a private, not-for-profit entity, and Michigan Connections Academy is operated by the for-profit subsidiary of Pearson, Inc., Connections Academy.

There is an ideological debate in the United States about the use of for-profit management systems in our public education. This is evidenced by the National Education Policy Center’s (NEPC) Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013 report[2] and Keeping Pace’s John Watson’s rebuttal to NEPC’s findings. NEPC’s report states: “Given that some for-profit companies now enroll more than 10,000 students, policymakers should impose caps on student enrollment at schools run by such companies until evidence of satisfactory performance for a provider is available.” (p. ii) The Keeping Pace response was: “If one is arguing that schools that are performing poorly should be shut or capped, should that argument not apply to all schools? Why does size of school or management organization matter? Why does for-profit status matter?[3] (KP blog, June 23, 2013). The debate has moved to the courts. Louisiana’s House Bill 976[4], also known as Act 2, authorized the “Course Choice” program where for-profit and public course providers are approved to offer about 1,500 online, blended, and face-to-face courses. These providers include large companies such as K12 Inc., Florida Virtual School, and Sylvan, and five public school districts and every public college and university in Louisiana. Teachers unions challenged the constitutionality of the law specifically around the funding. A district judge ruled the program unconstitutional, saying that the funding method unconstitutionally diverts public funding to private enterprises. The state education agency is appealing this ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court. (The Times-Picayune, January 12, 2014)

Typically, information about online learning curriculum, instructional strategies, learning management systems, outcome data and other aspects of online learning that are run by public agencies such as school districts are public domain. It has proved more difficult to find information about aspects of online learning when states or districts contract out these services. The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, a federally funded research project operated out of the University of Kansas, was interested in learning about agreements for providing online education that districts have with companies. We obtained 19 agreements from districts in two states. These agreements were with six different companies. We reviewed each of the contracts and extracted a few commonalities that we found interesting. We thought others might be interested as well.

What’s all the Fuss?

In general, each of the contracts described that the company would provide the following to the district/school: curriculum; teachers or staff; a learning management system (LMS); and reports based on data gathered from the LMS. A large majority of the schools were charter schools; that is 17 out of the 19 contracts were with charter schools. All 17 of these charter schools were operated as fully online schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are usually governed by a group under a ‘charter’ with the state or local school district. The charter exempts the school from select state or local regulations. In return for these exemptions, the charter school must meet certain standards described in the approved charter. A fully online charter school would deliver most, if not all, of the students’ education through the internet at a location other than a school. The other two contracts were between lesser used companies and one traditional district for the online portion of blended classes. Blended classes refers to classes that use both traditional teaching and learning and online programs for instruction and/ or curriculum. While the specifics were different, three topics were common to the contracts: 1) adherence to “applicable laws”; 2) provision of instruction or teacher; and 3) reference to intellectual property.

Applicable laws

All of the contracts reviewed mentioned adherence to applicable laws. When defined, the companies described these laws as federal laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Most of the contracts (15 of 19) did not mention special education specifically. The four that did specify special education services, beyond adhering to IDEA, were highly used companies. See the Center’s matrix for Voluntary Product Accessiblity Templates, category of “content/learning management”, for a listing of many well-known and highly used online learning companies at These contracts described the responsibility for special education to fall on both the company and, to a smaller degree, the school. For instance, one highly used company’s two contracts stated that the company will “follow the Individualized Education Program (IEP).” Another highly used company’s two contracts stated that the company will be responsible for providing special education and related services and handling due process hearings. The two lesser known companies mentioned providing a personalized learning plan for all students, but nothing specific about the special education IEP. One lesser known company only discussed special education in regards to funding. This company required the school to pay the company approximately $2,000 per special education student they serve in the general class and $4,000 per special education student in a self-contained class.


Eight of the 19 contracts mention that a certified or qualified teacher must be provided. Only two contracts, including one highly used and one lesser known, locally based companys’ contracts, mention teachers in regards to provision of instruction. Five of the contracts state that a certified teacher must be available to contact students. Four of the eight contracts that mention certified or qualified teachers waive the requirement for a certified teacher under certain circumstances, such as if a class does not meet enrollment quota.

Intellectual Property

Each of the 19 contracts reviewed state that they own all intellectual property. This term is defined differently across the contracts, but most include the curriculum, LMS, tools, and company logos. One highly used company used the term data under intellectual property that the company owns, but appears to include only the data that can be considered legally ‘proprietary’ such as tangible and intangible materials, methods, lists, names, processes, and technologies.


This review sheds light on some possible pitfalls that schools might stumble into. First, only two of these contracts mentioned anything about how instruction would occur. While all of the contracts included provision of an LMS, none of the contracts made reference to the purpose of the contract being to educate students and focused instead upon providing access to data from the LMS. Second, these contracts tend to be unclear about how students with disabilities and other high need students will be ensured equitable access to the program offered. While some of the contracts note generally who is responsible for special education, nowhere in any of the contracts is there language that addresses how the most difficult to serve students will be supported to use and learn from the materials, curriculum, and instruction provided online. For instance, if a student with significant visual impairments or blindness enrolled in one of these school’s online program, how would that student be supported to use the technology, request assistance, and access the text and image portions of the curriculum? How would students with significant intellectual disabilities access these same aspects of the online program as well as the content at their instructional level?

It is apparent that online learning programs (both fully online and versions of blended learning) continue to be developed and the education community, including parents, continues to seek out these options. Still, this online learning trend is in its infancy, making it incumbent on all parties involved to ensure that business arrangements like the contracts shared in the paper are not inadvertently decreasing access to learning or in any way diminishing federal and state laws that protect all of our public school students.


The Times-Picayune (January 12, 2014). Retrieved May 21, 2014 at

[1] To access Keeping Pace’s 2014 blog, go to

[2] For a copy of NEPC’s Virtual School report, go to

[3] To access Keeping Pace’s blog, go to

[4] To review Louisiana’s House Bill 976, go to


Research Update: analyzing course text in online learning environments

Posted on Aug 29, 2013

The Challenge

As online learning becomes an increasingly popular instructional delivery method, it follows that online courses should be designed to meet the needs of a range of potential learners.  In order to make improvements or recommendations, it is important to know to what degree linguistic text in online courses is constructed to give students with disabilities or who struggle to comprehend text for any reason, the best possible chance of reading and comprehending online course material. While it can be surmised that linguistic text will be highly variable from course to course, it was important to know how the textual content of the courses in online courses compared in key features of text construction. To this end, a study of the linguistic features that make text more readable (cohesion) was conducted using text from three online learning environments. The text in English/language arts (ELA) was of particular interest because it is a required class in the American educational system with content that is widely tested and has a wide variety of types of texts involved in it.


Research Question(s)

The specific research question was “Is the ELA content comparable in terms of the five main measures of cohesion (narrativity, syntactic simplicity, word concreteness, referential cohesion, and deep cohesion)?”


Study Basics

In order to answer our question about the comparability of ELA content in three online learning environments:

  • Courses were identified for comparison
  • Identified courses were mapped for course content
  • Mapped courses were sampled using randomization techniques
  • Sampled text was extracted from the courses
  • Extracted text was analyzed using coh metrix (
  • Analyzed text was subjected to five separate ANOVAs (one ANOVA for each of the five characteristics compared)
  • Results of the ANOVA were gathered and reported



The results of the five ANOVAs revealed several interesting findings:

  • The ELA courses in the three learning environments were widely variable in the five characteristics tested
  • None of the learning environments had an ELA course that was a clear “winner”; each had linguistic limitations and affordances
  • Each of the ELA courses had aspects of cohesion that needed to be improved to provide optimal advantage to students with disabilities
  • The texts in the courses that were most cohesive for students with disabilities were often loaded with guiding words such as “after,” “therefore,” “in order that,” and so forth. These connecting words are not as important for advanced readers.
  • This study has the potential to open conversations about how to provide students access to multiple texts with multiple degrees of cohesion to ensure that all learners have opportunities to read text that is optimal for them.



Diana Greer

Mary Rice

Don Deshler