Virtual School Meanderings

February 21, 2017

Article Notice – The Emerging Field of Online Special Education

As I indicated yesterday in the Journal of Special Education Technology – Special Issue: Emerging Practices in K-12 Online Learning: Implications for Students with Disabilities entry, I’m posting the article notices from this special issue this week.

The growing practice of elementary and secondary online education is the primary focus of this topical issue. This article will introduce the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities and then highlight the articles within this publication. Throughout the issue, research findings support the need for more research in online learning practices. Overall, it is hoped this issue will support increased emphasis on research and practice in K-12 online learning.

Over the last decade, the field of elementary and secondary (K-12) online education has witnessed unprecedented growth (Watson, Pape, Murin, Gemin, & Vashaw, 2014). In fact, in a recent policy scan conducted by researchers at the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (Center) found that parents are able to enroll their children in full-time online education across all 50 states and at least 5 territories. Interestingly, only 36% of these states and territories guarantee accessibility for students with disabilities (Basham, Stahl, Ortiz, Rice, & Smith, 2015). Moreover, the same scan found that only 25% of the states and territories have clear guidance for which entity (online school or residential district) bears responsibility for ensuring the student is provided with a free and appropriate public education. Importantly, results of the state scan indicate that only 2% of the states and territories had clear data collection and monitoring procedures for students with disabilities in online settings. These findings point to an emerging K-12 education system that is pioneering, evolving at the pace of industry and innovation, self-governing, and under the radar of nearly the entire field of special education. Thus, far too few educators and researchers are aware of the potential, benefits, and in some cases challenges of online learning for students with disabilities.

In 2011, the University of Kansas, Center for Applied Special Technology, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education partnered to form the Center. Funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, the Center was charged with three primary tasks:

  • Identify and monitor trends as well as issues in K-12 online learning for students with disabilities and their families.
  • Identify and develop promising practices that increase the accessibility and effectiveness of K-12 online learning for students with disabilities.
  • Test the usability and feasibility of practices that will have potential impact on the field of online education for students with disabilities.

Given the vast scope and rapidly evolving nature of online learning, research teams from the Center have focused inquiries across a wide swath of online learning spaces. From fully online (sometimes called virtual), to blended learning in its many models and varieties, to now personalized learning, teams from the Center have attempted to keep pace as well as support understanding across this fast changing landscape.

As is highlighted in other publications (e.g., Basham et al., 2015), the Center’s research has at times been viewed as a challenge to the vendor-intensive world of K-12 online education. Unknown to many, much of K-12 online education is driven by the vendor-based online education systems that are simply adopted by school districts. Thus, much of the instructional content selection, delivery, and assessment rely on vendor-based machine-driven pedagogy powered by proprietary instructional algorithms (Smith & Basham, 2014). Across a number of schools, vendors also provide the instructional personnel or teachers to support the implementation. These new public–private institutional relationships are complex and for a variety of reasons (e.g., privacy laws, fear of unknown, concern about negative public reports) can be difficult to navigate, especially when it involves research. Through years of cultivation, the Center’s researchers have been able to establish working relationships with various online education entities across the United States.

A major lesson learned through these efforts has been the need and power of multipronged partnerships that involve a variety of entities and groups. At minimum authentic research requires (1) a collaborating district (or school), (2) a vendor eager to assess the efficacy of online education, and (3) research that is perceived to be mutually beneficial to all partners. This triangulated approach has been shown to be beneficial in research focused on supporting the educational betterment of all students but especially students with disabilities. Center work has continued to reiterate the growing need for research partnerships to collaboratively and openly ask questions, investigate, problem solve, and prototype to increase the effectiveness and impact of online instruction for students with disabilities. Research from within these partnerships provides topical findings important to the entire field of online learning.

Within this topical issue, research teams from the Center highlight five key projects. In the first article, Basham, Hall, Carter, and Stahl introduce the field to personalized learning. Within this article, they highlight the findings from an 18-month research project in a district that implemented personalized learning. Through this research, they identify key design characteristics and initial results on this environment on outcomes for all students, especially those with disabilities. Importantly, students with disabilities demonstrated immense academic growth in these personalized environments. They discuss implications for designing, implementing, and conducting research in personalized learning.

In the second article, Carter and Rice share findings from a 4-month project in a state virtual school program. Specifically, this article used a case study design to look across the work of three special education administrators who oversaw special education services and interdisciplinary teams in a virtual setting. Through content and interview analysis techniques, their findings highlight the complexity of trying to use technology to educate and support students with disabilities in fully online settings where technology use is usually thought of as a sure thing. Findings support a greater need to understand online education through mapping interactions with students and families over several months, open up the need for further research around the types of technology needed to support K-12 learners in virtual learning, and discuss the potential difficulties that arise when the traditional individualized education program is applied within these settings.

In the third article, Basham, Smith, and Satter highlight the growing need to move beyond the traditional notions of accessibility to consider alignment of K-12 online education systems to the universal design for learning (UDL) instructional design framework. In this article, they provide an overview of current accessibility guidelines, the implications for aligning to UDL, and then introduce the development of a UDL scan tool. They highlight the process of development as well as validation of the UDL scan tool and then discuss the need for critical benchmarks beyond accessibility for educators and industry, as they adopt new online learning systems.

The fourth article by Pace and Mellard shares the results of a study conducted on a blended learning experience. As discussed throughout the issue and in the Pace and Mellard’s article is that blended learning varies in design interpretation and implementation district to district. Their study looked at computer lab-based, blended learning, English/language arts (ELA) experience to a face-to-face ELA experience. In analysis of the treatment and comparison learning experience, they found no significant changes in reading achievement. Nonetheless, their research supports insights on implementation variables in the design of effective blended learning experiences.

In the fifth article, Smith, Basham, Rice, and Carter bring closure to this topical issue on a survey that identifies the need for teacher preparation institutions to have a greater focus on K-12 online learning. They share the results of a survey that found that all surveyed special education teacher preparation institutions lack integration or alignment with the International Association for K-12 Online Learning online teacher standards. The results of the survey and the needs of the field point to several areas, where preservice teacher preparation can support greater access and knowledge/skill development for preservice teachers to work in these emerging environments.

Each of these projects shares a unique perspective on the field of online education for students with disabilities, while simultaneously illuminating areas of need for further research. As will be discussed, continued research, increased technical assistance, and personnel development in online education with a specific focus on students with disabilities remain pressing issues. With online education active and growing in every district across the country (Evergreen Education Group, 2015), it is time for elementary and secondary education stakeholders to more actively engage in the online education conversation. Specifically, the readership of this journal is encouraged to contribute to furthering the research and the potential solutions within this growing field.

Finally, after nearly 5 years of research within the Center, we are thankful that the leadership at the Office of Special Education Programs had the foresight to identify K-12 online education research as an emergent need in education. Without resources for research, developments, such as K-12 online learning, have the potential to neglect students with disabilities and students with other diverse learning needs. It is critically important for resources to be dedicated to researching and shaping the emerging education system with a focus on all students. We believe that developing effective environments for students “in the margins” expands opportunities for all learners.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education (#H327U110011). However, the content does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Project is Officer, Celia Rosenquist.

Basham J. D., Stahl S., Ortiz K., Rice M. F., Smith S. (2015). Equity matters: Digital and online learning for students with disabilities. Lawrence, KS: Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities. Google Scholar
Evergreen Education Group. (2015). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Mountain View, CA: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from Google Scholar
Smith S. J., Basham J. D. (2014). Designing online learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 46, 111. Retrieved from http// Google Scholar
Watson J., Pape L., Murin A., Gemin B., Vashaw L. (2014). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Mountain View, CA: Evergreen Education Group. Google Scholar

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