Skip Navigation

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?

During the one-hour recorded session, the participants posed several of their own questions and shared state-specific information. From this session, the following five overlapping themes emerged.

  1. Definitions: Questions existed about the definition of online learning and its implications for special education.
  2. Free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE): Concerns emerged about providing FAPE for all students with disabilities when online environments are mingled with traditional definitions of LRE.
  3. Monitoring: Interest was expressed in the development of indicators that could be used for state monitoring to determine the quality and accessibility of online environments for students with disabilities.
  4. Funding: Interest was expressed in the creation of resources that describe how state, federal and local funding allocations relate to online learning placements.
  5. Policy: Interest was expressed in resources that describe how policies may be written in regard to all of the previous themes.


State directors were interested in clarifying what is meant by “online learning”.  They presumed that the term spans a range from full-time online programs to a single course online, which lacks sufficient specificity for special education operational and policy concerns. For example, special educators would need different types of information to support students with disabilities in a full-time program than in a single course.  The directors identified other placement variations along the online learning continuum, including full-time online education either within or outside of brick-and-mortar schools, fully online education mixed within and outside brick-and-mortar schools, online portions of education within brick-and-mortal schools, and online courses within or external to brick-and-mortar schools.

FAPE in the LRE

The state directors discussed several issues related to FAPE in the LRE. General concerns regarding FAPE included: (a) how to ensure online settings are accessible to a wide variety of students; (b) the field’s lack of knowledge about what are best, evidence-based practices for online programs, generally, and for students with disabilities, specifically; and (c) how to determine appropriate related services for students served online.

More specific concerns were raised as well.  For example, is it possible to interpret a local education agency’s (LEA) lack of an online learning environment among its placement options as a possible denial of FAPE for some students? Also, when connectivity is cut off for a period of time, how are services to be delivered or compensated for later?

Regarding the concept of LRE, directors expressed the importance of having a clear definition for LRE in online education. For instance, is LRE in an online setting defined within the continuum of all types of placements (e.g., it would fit somewhere between full-time regular class and hospital-based)? Or should each online environment provide a full continuum of placements?

In addition, participants discussed whether some students would be served best in online settings and for what purposes. For instance, would an online environment be considered the LRE for students with health issues? For students at risk of dropping out? Those served under the juvenile justice system? Concerns involved who makes the enrollment/placement decisions (e.g., parent, school personnel, Individualized Education Program [IEP] team) and whether these people are well enough informed about what the online environment entails to make this decision.

The focus group also discussed whether appropriate programming (e.g., instructional, related services, extracurricular activities) should be provided through online environments for specific students. In particular, they were concerned about the possibility of parents or districts placing students with disabilities into another district online environment without informing the receiving district staff that the student has an IEP.  The risk is that special education services would not be provided appropriately, if at all for such students.


The focus group participants were concerned about their lack of access to appropriate quality indicators for online environments for students with disabilities.  They discussed not being able to measure whether vendors or LEAs were providing and delivering a good product with fidelity.  They would like to know more about best practices, and from these practices the indicators that should be used to monitor and make online learning more accessible to a wider range of students.


The special education directors mentioned that when a state funds online schools and courses, these must be made accessible to every student in the state. They also wanted to know how online learning placements affect state funding and federal allocation to LEAs that provide only portions of a student’s services.


Each of the previous four themes could be enveloped under the state directors’ questions about policy. Should policy for online education be distinct from other policies or should it be embedded within current policies (e.g., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA])? One director suggested that current policies were sufficient to implement online education and that the instructional models should meet the expectations of these policies. Others suggested that policies should describe how to fund various types of online programs, how to monitor these programs for quality and implementation of IEPs, how to ensure that highly qualified teachers are teaching our students, how to ensure accessibility for all students, how parents’ roles should be defined in full-time online learning environments, and define what LRE means in an online environment.


In reflecting on these themes, we conclude that the questions, concerns and needs identified by these state directors both align well with the Center’s research mission and provide formative insights for our future research agenda. Some of the possible research initiatives that could spring from the themes raised by the special education directors include:

  • interviewing administrators, teachers, and IEP teams—including parents—to determine how services are currently delivered, how they meet students’ needs and IDEA and Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requirements;
  • directly observing students’ educational environments to substantiate provision of appropriate services;
  • surveying groups of stakeholders to ascertain who determines if students with disabilities are placed in an online environment, their beliefs on where online learning fits into the continuum of placements, and how are students identified as having a disability if the school is not a state-led initiative;
  • surveying these groups regarding the sort of content that is provided, where the content comes from, how they assess student progress, and the validity of these measures; and
  • surveying administrators to learn how different groups are funding students with disabilities in various online environments given wide circumstances (e.g., fully online vs. supplemental courses; one district provides one set of services, while another provides different set).

As the Center continues to conduct research on how K-12 online learning affects access, participation, and progress of students with disabilities, our goal is to generate data and create knowledge that will inform design, selection, and implementation of online digital delivery and support systems, curriculum materials, and instructional practices.  We greatly appreciate the valuable contribution made by these state directors to our endeavors.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


    (1 Comment)

    1. Ellen George     March 27, 2015  7:16 pm Reply

      I am a doctoral student who would like to write a dissertation on IEP goal attainment for students with disabilities who are enrolled in online learning environments. I am having some difficulty accessing data. Does anyone know of some data sets that are already in existence?

      Thank you,
      Ellen George