Despite growing pains, promising practices emerge in online learning

Online learning for students with disabilities is expanding, but certainly not without growing pains.

The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities noted persistent problems across the field in its second annual report, Equity Matters 2016.

Last year, the Center raised concerns about a lack of state guidance on a variety of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act issues tied to online environments. Since then, there’s been a slight uptick in states that provide guidance, but still only 24 percent have clear information on supervision of special education, child find, or the provision of free appropriate public education in online settings, according to the report.

Federal statutes and regulations simply weren’t written with these unique settings in mind, said Skip Stahl, senior policy analyst for CAST and one of the report’s authors.

As a result, states and local districts are left interpreting old rules for a completely new terrain, he said. Everything from what least restrictive environment means in a virtual school to when to revisit an individualized education program that was developed for a brick-and-mortar setting are open for interpretation.

Adding to those challenges, programs that prepare teachers to teach students with disabilities in online or blended environments are essentially nonexistent, said James Basham, another of the report’s authors and an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas.

Despite its continued concerns in the field, COLSD also noted promising practices that if cultivated could benefit students with disabilities. Basham and Stahl discuss those practices below:

• Promising steps toward personalized learning. Under the right circumstances, personalization made possible through blended and online learning can provide a new degree of customized instruction for students, Stahl said.

“We are starting to see galvanizing around the concept of personalization,” he said.

With personalized learning, educators move away from lecture-style teaching to become “learning engineers” who design instruction and assignments for individual students, he said. They use technology to receive real-time feedback on how students are doing and make changes accordingly, he said.

Personalized learning also affords students more flexibility in how they engage in materials and demonstrate learning. That all tends to lead to a more customized environment, which “is in many ways the overarching goal of the whole IEP process,” Stahl said.

“Let’s customize an environment for a student that addresses their areas of weakness and supports their areas of strengths,” he said.

There’s also growing awareness among states and online vendors that their programs need to consider diverse learners, Skip said. For instance, 21 states mandate that vendor applications for online providers specifically mention serving students with disabilities, according to Equity Matters 2016.

• Elements that contribute to student success. The Center identified two key elements that affect the progress of students with disabilities in online settings: teacher preparation and support for students to develop self-regulation skills. Teachers need to know how to keep students engaged in a setting where they might not have as much face-to-face time with their students, Basham said. In a full-time virtual setting, that might mean a teacher following up on a data alert that a student is behind in his work with a phone call or video conference to check in on the student, he said.

Teacher prep also needs to take into account the different role teachers could play in blended settings, Basham said. In some blended environments where students receive part-time online instruction with part-time in-person assistance, teachers play a more supportive role for students, he said.

“They’re more focused on designing and implementing these personalized environments, [rather than standing and lecturing],” he said. “They have to have a deeper sense of design and a deeper sense of how learning takes place.”

Strong self-regulations skills are also paramount to students’ success in online learning, Skip said. Some vendors have started to embed self-reporting functions in their online courses to track students’ interest, effort, or understanding of materials, according to the Center’s report. There’s also more attention on providing in-person social opportunities for students and families, Skip said. More programs are bringing online learners and their families together through field trips, athletics, or weekly meetups. That’s helped prevent students from becoming isolated, he said.

• Growing awareness of IDEA implications. In August, ED released a Dear Colleague letter clarifying some of the IDEA requirements that apply in virtual settings. See Dear Colleague Letter, 68 IDELR 108 (OSERS/OSEP 2016).

“It was a wakeup call for states,” Basham said. “It’s allowed states to come together and talk about these issues.”

Still, the many “flavors” of online learning continue to bring up questions, Stahl said. A persistent issue, for instance, is the point at which IEP should be revisited for a particular student when they enter online learning.

“We’re starting to see some guidance from vendors and states that when a student enters full-time virtual, certainly the IEP should be revisited within three months,” he said.

But what if the student only takes one online course or what if he spends part of his time in a brick-and-mortar setting?

Another concern surrounds LRE in online learning, Basham said. Take this real-life example, he said: When a student with disabilities exhibited disruptive behaviors, his online teacher decided to “turn off” the student’s ability to communicate with classmates by flipping a switch on her computer.

“Essentially by flipping a switch, the teacher transformed the student’s placement,” he said.

Where guidance may still be thin, Basham and Stahl said they are at least seeing conversation grow around these issues.

Basham will present the session The Future of Special Ed: Promising Practices to Support Students with Disabilities in Online and Blended Settings at LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference, to be held Jan. 24-25, 2017, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.

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