Establish practice to review individualized education programs in online, blended environments

ORLANDO, Fla. — Online and blended learning frameworks are being used in every state, yet, only a few states provide guidance for school districts on how to serve students with disabilities in these settings, said a presenter at the 2017 National Future of Education Technology Conference.

“Practice outpaces what we know about these environments,” James Basham, associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, told attendees.

Basham pointed to his recent research with the Center on Online Learning and Students With Disabilities, which found that 75 percent of states either don’t have guidance or there’s no clear guidance on how districts should uphold fundamental Individuals with Disabilities Education Act responsibilities in online or blended settings. These obligations include, for example, identifying students, ensuring students continue to receive free appropriate public education, and conducting reevaluations.

“Don’t wait for your state guidance,” Basham urged attendees.

Every district should take steps now to be IDEA-compliant in online environments and make sure that students with disabilities receive the appropriate supports they need in these settings, he said.

Basham recommended that districts:

1. Recognize online individualized education programs are “vastly” different from traditional brick-and-mortar IEPs. There are many types of online or blended programs, Basham said. Everything from a fully virtual program to blended classrooms to a supplemental online course. Each of these environments may have different accessibility supports or potential barriers for a student with a disability, he said.

“These environments are vastly different than a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom,” Basham said.

When developing an IEP, a student’s team has to consider those differences, he said. What may be a useful accommodation for one environment may be unnecessary in the other. Or, a student may need additional supports to handle new demands. For instance, a student may need more supports for staying on task in a less supervised online program.

2. Review IEPs for online environment. Conduct an intake review of a student’s IEP after the student enrolls in a blended or online program, Basham said. Most likely, the IEP needs to be revised so that the student continues to receive FAPE in the new setting. Even where a student takes one online supplemental course and all her other classes are in a traditional classroom, the district should review her IEP to make sure she has appropriate supports for that one virtual course, Basham said.

3. Consider reviewing IEPs when the online environment changes. Teams should also review IEPs when there’s a change to the online environment, like when a district decides to cancel its contract with a vendor and switch to a new online provider, Basham said.

“We want to ensure that [students] have access to the same features that they need because accessibility varies across platforms,” he said.

A reading passage in one online reading course might be compatible with a student’s read-aloud software, but the text in a different vendor’s online course may be inaccessible and incompatible with that same program, he said.

“Team members need to know what the requirements are for this student to actually connect to this environment,” Basham said.

If it’s that a student requires word prediction software, the new online platform needs to either offer that feature or be compatible with a third-party software.

4. Create guidance on online placement, service delivery. States may be slow to provide guidance on how to serve students in online and blended settings, but districts need to address issues of child find, placement, and service delivery in these environments, Basham said.

“We need to deal with how services are actually delivered in an online or blended setting,” he said.

Also, IEP teams need to consider whether an online environment changes a student’s placement. Basham recommended reviewing the Aug. 5, 2016, Dear Colleague letter, reported at 116 LRP 34386 , that addresses the application of the IDEA to online and blended learning environments.

5. Share best practices with online, blended learning teachers. In online settings, parents often become learning coaches for their children. Encourage teachers to form positive relationships with parents, Basham said.

“These relationships should be comprehensive, considerate, and consistent,” he said.

Remind teachers to use explicit instruction with students. Also, have teachers monitor student progress frequently and take steps to intervene if a student appears to be falling behind.

Digital environments hold tons of possibilities for students, particularly those with disabilities, Basham said. However, districts need to consider how IDEA duties carryover into these new learning environments.

Speaking directly to special educators, Basham said: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a brick-and-mortar environment or a digital environment, we are responsible for upholding the pillars of the IDEA.”

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

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