Virtual School Meanderings

February 22, 2017

Article Notice – Administrator Work in Leveraging Technologies for Students With Disabilities in Online Coursework

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.


This article describes a study of online educators’ use of technology as part of the accommodations they provided to students with disabilities at their school. Specifically, research focused on four teachers who were members of an interdisciplinary team in a large virtual school program, in a state with established policies regarding online education, and online course work as a requirement for graduation. Data were collected over 4 months in a series of weekly interviews and through a content analysis of stipulated accommodations and modifications in student Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents. The findings of this study indicated (1) providing technologically grounded accommodations and modifications required intensive collaboration with students, parents, and other special education support staff at the virtual school, (2) online teachers struggled to keep up with all of the possible means and methods of enhancing the learning experience and providing accommodations that were stipulated in the IEP while also remaining sensitive to practices and supports that they could provide (using technology that were not mandated), and as a result (3) technology use as part of accommodation was most often relegated to what naturally exists in an online learning environment and is available to all students. The implications of this work are that transferring disability service plans, and IEPs in particular, is no simple matter, and that moving to a technological environment (and the notion that the online environment is inherently accommodating) needs interrogation at every level (practice, research, and policy).

The purpose of this study was to describe online administrators’ use of technology as part of the accommodations they supervised for students with disabilities at their school. Specifically, we focused on three administrators who were assigned to support an interdisciplinary team of special education–certified teachers in a large virtual school program in a state with established policies regarding online education and a requirement for online coursework as part of graduation. Data were collected over 4 months in a series of weekly interviews and through a content analysis of stipulated accommodations and modifications in student Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents. The findings of this study revolve around collaboration with students, parents, and other special education support staff at a virtual school and the struggle to maintain anchored to technology and which resulted in technology use as part of accommodation being relegated to what naturally exists in an online learning environment and was available to all students. The implications of this work are that transferring disability service plans, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in particular, is no simple matter and that moving to technological environment and the notion that the online environment is inherently accommodating needs interrogation at every level (practice, research, and policy).

The intent of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act was to ensure that individuals who needed access to personnel with special training and other services as necessary support for learning were indeed receiving that access (Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001). Accommodations are supports used by students with disabilities that modify assessments through changes to the test or testing environment in order to provide greater access to instructional accommodation and life chances in order for assessments to better represent student knowledge (Kettler, 2012). Initially, accommodations were focused on making sure that students with disabilities had the same opportunity to demonstrate knowledge on tests, particularly high-stakes tests, as other students. However, as the students’ performance on these tests became major drivers in other aspects of the accountability movement, accommodations during instruction became as or more important to provide as accommodations during testing time (Smith, 2015).

Several studies and reviews of literature suggest that the policies designed to ensure access have been implemented with uneven quality because students do not have enough time with trained certified teachers (Giangreco, Suter, & Doyle, 2010; Rea, McLaughlin, & Walther-Thomas, 2002; Zigmond, 2003). In addition, students with disabilities are often given access to technologies that they, for a variety of reasons, do not use (Scherer & Federici, 2015). Further, teachers are prepared to use technologies, but they use these minimally or not at all (Ottenbreit-Leftwich et al., 2012).

When students with disabilities are enrolled in online courses, the added technological demands (Collins, Schuster, Ludlow, & Duff, 2002) and the additional layers of placement and accountability (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Steker, 2010) require increased vigilance for personnel in the virtual academy. In addition, undertaking a fully online course usually decreases the amount of time students spend with teachers (Barbour, 2015). Although parents often perceive online learning as a way to secure one-on-one time with teachers for students, that is not necessarily how online courses operate (Rice & Carter, 2015a, 2015b).

The question that arises then is how do K–12 teachers in fully online settings conduct their work with students? Specifically, we were interested in administrators’ experiences supporting the implementation of accommodations using technology inherent to online coursework. We began to explore this question from three broad perspectives: teaching online, teaching with technology, and working with students with disabilities. Through these three lenses, our major research question is how do online teachers providing special education services merge understandings about disability accommodation and technology use in their work with students?

We answered this question by identifying a team of special education teachers in a large virtual school program and we engaged in research strategies to capture their experiences. The implications of this research shed light on this complex question of what happens when students with disabilities—who are entitled to legally mandated services—come into the highly flexible online environment to learn using technologies that should be available as part of the normal course of the educational process, rather than as assistive or additional.

Developing a Conceptual Framework

Conceptualizing virtual school administrators’ support for the implementation of IEP accommodations as they are provided through technology in online educational settings required a framework that addressed policy. For this, we drew on the work of Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer (2002) who wrote about policy implementation in educational settings. According to these scholars, education policy faces the same challenge that most public policy does, namely, that local implementation is difficult. Coburn’s (2016) recent work in special education policy has also highlighted these challenges, saying that federal policy changes the natural roles of educators, students, and parents to such an extent that confusion is the result and services cannot be properly rendered.

The difficulties of local implementation call for research into the implementation process for education policy initiatives. The IEP implementation is an example of such an implementation process. The cognitive framework for looking at implementation developed by Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer (2002) has three pieces: individual cognition, situated cognition, and role representations. These three elements are highlighted in Figure 1. These elements overlap to produce insights into how agents to determine what is in their control, what is not, and what their professional responses should be to these conditions.


Figure 1. Cognitive framework for policy sense making.

Individual cognition

The first element of local implementation considers the agent as an individual sense-maker. The element pays attention to how individuals notice and interpret stimuli and how prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences influence the construction of new understandings.

Situated cognition

In addition to individual cognition, it is necessary to complicate the human sense-making process stressing the importance of situation or context in understanding how the implementing agents engage in this sense-making. Specifically, the fields of sociology and social psychology inform the ways in which multiple dimensions of a situation exert influence over the implementing agents’ sense-making from and about policy. The social sense-making process is also informed by a situated cognition perspective, which argues that situation or context is not simply a backdrop for implementing agents’ sense-making but a constituting element in that process.

Role of representations

Policy discussions where learning is the focus must consider the ways in which policy stimuli operate in implementing agents’ sense-making. Critical to this process is the development of representations of ideas about changing practice in policy that enable the implementing agents’ sense-making. In other words, what do words like “compliance” mean when it comes to policy implementation? Further, how do shifting notions of “compliance” that vary from individual to individual and from context to context become recognizable as such to others?


Individual cognition, situated cognition, and the role of representations are all at play in work with students with disabilities (Coburn, 2016; Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002). When online learning is the method of instructional delivery, there are likely to be additional complications because online learning is large and there are so many policies to navigate. These policies include disability policies, school policies about technology, curriculum policies, federal policies with funding contingencies, local policies governing how and where schools are set up, and policies around Internet connectivity and access where the students are trying to log on. It is these multiple simultaneous layers of policy that were of concern when this study was designed and implemented. In this study, technology use in supporting the IEP was not just a matter of what devices students were using and whether they were permitted and made available; it was about how administrators understood and engaged with policies in order to leverage technologies for accommodation purposes.

Studies from two bodies of literature informed this research project. The first was technology use for students with disabilities in traditional schools. Reviewing literature provided a sense of what teachers and students who enrolled in online courses might have experienced before coming into an environment where most instruction was provided online. The second body of literature emerged from previous research about serving students with disabilities in those online contexts. Together these studies formed a frame for thinking about how to define our research purposes, engage with our administrators, and analyze the resultant data.

Technology Use for Students With Disabilities in Traditional Schools

Studies examining the use of technology to support students with disabilities strongly state that these technologies must meet specific needs for specific learners, so it is critical to understand both the content and the needs of the learners (Burns, Kanive, & DeGrande, 2012; Fede, Pierce, Matthews, & Wells, 2013). Israel, Marino, Delisio, and Serianni (2014) have recently conducted a thorough review of literature, which will not be repeated here. At the end of their review, these researchers stated:

Regardless of the instructional delivery, barriers to learning [for students with disabilities] should be examined on an individual basis so that teachers can provide instruction that is accessible, engaging, and meaningful. Once teachers identify barriers, they can begin to investigate how to leverage technology to address them. (p. 14)

If this is the case, then a critical place for developing inquiry is among small groups of teachers where their decision-making processes and reasoning are captured and considered. These decision-making processes may occur around barriers that emerge to student learning, but they are also present as information from IEP documents that are translated within the online setting. Critically what the work in technology for students with disabilities told us was that someone—usually a teacher—has to be constantly learning about various devices (what they are and how they work) and employing them with students in ways that are intentional, strategic, and smart.

In addition, barriers to student learning can be addressed through curriculum design using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework (Meo, 2008). The UDL framework assists in designing curriculum that meets the needs of all learners (Rose & Gravel, 2011).

Students With Disabilities in Online Environments

As students with disabilities enroll in online courses, issues regarding the implementation of their IEPs arise. However, only a small number of studies have looked at various kinds of online learning for students with disabilities according to a recent review (Greer, Rice, & Dykman, 2014). The findings of the few studies that were available have focused more on virtual school programs’ potential to serve students with disabilities, rather than looking at what was actually happening to the teacher or the students. Another cluster of studies looked at whether certain curricular or instructional interventions using technology led to learning outcomes that were tantamount to what students without disabilities could achieve. What was apparent from this review was that there were few to no research efforts to describe or understand how teachers work with students with disabilities within learning environments that relied heavily or exclusively on technology.

More recent work by Rice and Carter has provided descriptions of teachers as they described their work with students (2015a) and as educators at all levels have constructed roles around providing services to the students with disabilities (2015b). However, this work did not address technology’s role in developing and implementing IEPs. Doing so is critical because of the ways in which technology has been at the heart of providing access to civic life for students with disabilities as per American with Disabilities Act provisions, of 1990. In addition, instructional and assistive technologies in particular are often included on IEP documents as part of accommodation services in traditional schools.

Three special education administrators participated in the study. These administrators worked in a large virtual school program in a state that requires an online learning course at the secondary level in order to graduate. This program also occupied an interesting policy space because the traditional public schools where the students reside still make the IEPs. In addition, there are frequent legislative shifts in funding for State Virtual School and the formulas that govern how the monies are to be divided between traditional and virtual change from year to year. Challenges arising from these fiscal vicissitudes were frequently mentioned by the administrators as they tried to make sense of their experiences. The students that the teachers teach and the administrators support are enrolled in 1 to 3 classes in mathematics, English, or physical education. As this is an interdisciplinary group to which the administrators have been assigned, the teachers who work in this group share students. Most students in this group, particularly the ones with disabilities, take at least two courses. However, since these courses are taken in a fully online setting, they are entering and finishing the courses at different rates, with some completing their courses in only a few weeks, but with most following the calendar of the school year common to their home schools. Because of these vacillations, the number of students enrolled in the program at a given time varied between 400 and 600 students—a notable swing. Of these students, as many as one third at any given time were students with disabilities.

A case study research design was employed in this study (Merriam, 2014; Yin, 2013). In a case study, multiple strategies are engaged in by a researcher or a team of researchers to gather as much information as possible about the phenomenon under study. In this case, the administrators were all appointed to collaborate with content teachers in a virtual school program. The group was intentionally designed by the school to enhance collaboration between teachers who are certified to teach students with disabilities and the special education administrators who we focused on in our study. These special education administrators met with special education–certified content teachers weekly in virtual meetings to provide support and offer professional development. However, the special education administrators were also available to teachers as questions arose about serving the students in their charge. Finally, these administrators were regarded to have more expertise with some subject matter, but they were not restricted to working with only one content area. Thus, these administrators knew each other well, and there was a core of teachers to whom they were assigned that they also knew well as part of their work. As is customary in case studies according to Merriam (2014), the administrators were presented the findings and given an opportunity to review them and give feedback. The findings presented reflect their views and feedback.

About the Administrators

The administrators were John, Cathy, and Lillian. None of these administrators could name particular formal training experiences for virtual education or for teaching with technology. John held a master’s degree in special education and was hired in the early days by State Virtual School to teach English language arts. He was invited after several years of teaching to be an administrator and then eventually to lead the other special education administrators, which he had been doing for more than 8 years at the time of the study. He reported making it a priority to provide professional development to teachers who are working with students with disabilities and adding members to the administrative team at the school who have understandings about special education in addition to administrative expertise.

Cathy started out her career in education as a teacher in a brick-and-mortar setting and had 8 years of virtual education experience at the time the study was conducted. She worked as a special education teacher and a literacy coach and then was hired by State Virtual School to teach mathematics online. As she taught, she realized that there were few resources for teaching students with disabilities online and so she joined the administrative team of the school with an interest in supporting teachers.

Lillian also came from brick-and-mortar schools as a self-described “quasi-administrator,” where she played a role in determining student eligibility for special education services. She was the newest member of the administrative team and was the newest to virtual education with 4 years of experience.

The case in which this study was carried out was also bound in time by the annual spring rush to finish online courses in time for graduation or to avoid summer school in the brick-and-mortar setting. This rush begins in March and ends in June, which is also the end of the fiscal year at this school. However, even with this graduation rush, students were enrolling, working, finishing, and un-enrolling daily and weekly during the study. Conducting the study during this time of year provided an opportunity compressed time for ample questions to arise regarding modifications for students with disabilities and it is also a testing season where accommodations would need to be made for these students.

Data Sources and Collection

The primary data courses for this study included a record of interactions with parents, students, and teachers around accommodations for students with disabilities including implementation of their IEPs, information from the IEPs from students who were enrolled at some point during the bound time period of the study, and individual interviews. Each of these data sources will be described in this section and the analysis of these will be featured in the section that follows afterward.

Interaction records

The record of administrator’s interactions with parents, students, and colleagues was provided by the participating school. All administrators received pseudonyms that were known only to the two primary members of the research team. These records consisted of date/time information, code number of the student, reason for the contact, and an anecdotal record of the conversation offering a summary and any actionable items promised by the administrator. It was important to collect these data as an additional source of information about what accommodations were provided and how so, particularly with regard to technology. In addition, we wanted to see how technologies were mentioned, negotiated, embraced, or rejected by stakeholders as students worked through their courses. Finally, these records gave us some sense of whether students were actually receiving the accommodations that were listed.

IEP accommodation data

The second source of data was the actual accommodations provided in the IEPs. This data set consisted of unique student numbers (without links to names), county of residence, school district (local educational authority), the brick-and-mortar school the student was attending, primary disability, secondary disability (where applicable), and listed accommodations. These data were important because they gave us an idea what the range of potential accommodations might be in terms of their complexity and we were also able to learn how technology may or may not have been mentioned in these documents, many of which were made before the student entered State Virtual School and had not been revised since. We also had access to Section 504 accommodation data from student plans, but because another set of administrators were technically in charge of Section 504 accommodations, we did not focus on those for this study.


A final data source was individual phone interviews with the three administrators, all of whom are certified in the state where the virtual school is run, to provide special education support. These interviews were conducted once per week for 6 weeks during the study period. These interviews lasted between 20 min and 1 hour. Each interview was recorded and transcribed. Interview data were coded using a narrative framework where researchers looked for evidence of emplotment (Polkinghorne, 1997). When administrators in a qualitative study attributed causality to some circumstance, the result is a plot. These plots can be analyzed to reveal administrators’ perspectives on a phenomenon. An interview schedule appears as Table 1.


Table 1. Interview Topics and Sample Questions.

Table 1. Interview Topics and Sample Questions.

Data Analysis

Since we had such an array of data sources and a desire to preserve the richness of the data and attend to all aspects equally, the analysis contained four elements. Figure 2 offers more information about these four elements. The first element was a coding of the interaction data. The second element was a content analysis of the IEP accommodation data. The third element was a narrative analysis of the interview data where the findings of the other two analyses were used to triangulate and verify the data. The fourth and final element of the analysis involved the selection of emblematic narratives (Mishler, 1990) in order to represent the data from all three sources. Each of these will receive some elaboration in the following sections.


Figure 2. Data analysis elements.

Coding interaction data

The interaction data were analyzed first because of its potential to provide short descriptions of incidents or narrative fragments against the rest of the data could be compared (Lal, Suto, & Ungar, 2012). These fragments were extracted from the data and sorted on a continuum as to the degree to which technology played a role in the plot. When we finished, we could see the range of the narrative fragments. Since we were not coding in the traditional sense, we could not do a reliability calculation against each other. Instead, we looked at the data, organized them on the continuum, and recorded them. Then we recompiled the data and put them away for several days. Then we returned to the data, reorganized them on the continuum, and checked our new organization against the previous one. As might be expected, the ends of the continuum matched the previous organization, but the fragments in the middle were imperfect. For these, the accommodation data from the IEPs and the interview data became important for gaining more information to corroborate the hypotheses we were forming.

Analyzing IEP accommodation content

A total of 152 unique accommodations and services were being provided to students who represented every major type of disability. These students are taking courses where the administrators are providing support to teachers. Researchers evaluated the accommodations and services to determine whether they were applicable to the online environment and then classified them into a hierarchy of categories: requires technology, could be supported by technology, and can only be provided in shared physical presence. Within those categories, the researchers also looked at what accommodations were readily transferrable online and which ones were not. For example, the accommodation of preferential seating has no bearing in fully online learning because students are not sitting in a classroom. The largest category of accommodations (n = 40) dealt with specialized instruction with a trained teacher. There were accommodations and services that were applicable to online learning and which centered on technology use (e.g., use of a computer to compose instead of a pencil) and audio-supported reading. However, these accommodations were not uniquely offered to students with disabilities, as all students enrolled online had access to them.

Finding narratives in interview data

The logs of interactions that were provided to us by the school were coded against the interview data. In order to do this, events from the interviews were matched (where they could be) and events without matches from both data sets were checked against each other for resonance (Damianakis & Woodford, 2012). The notion of resonance, when used this way, simply means “Is this emerging narrative plausible? Do the pieces make sense?” As we worked, three major themes emerged based on the resonant plots of the narratives in the data. These themes are presented in the findings section.

Selecting emblematic narratives

Once we had the themes that represented the data, it was necessary to consider representation. In representing these themes, we elected to use emblematic narratives (Mishler, 1990) as it is not practical to share every story. The narratives shared below, therefore, represent the themes because stories with highly similar plots repeated across the data, and because these stories offered the kind of detail that enhanced the trustworthiness of the findings. Essentially these selected narratives crystallize (Marshall & Rossman, 2014) into an integrated narrative that offered insight into the complexity of the phenomenon we were studying.

The findings of this study are revealed as three key ideas or themes. First, we learned about the tremendous collaborative undertaking necessary to provide access to technology for students with disabilities in a fully online setting; second, we learned about the work of technology integration with professional knowledge and judgment. Third, we learned that because of the heavy workload required for collaboration, professional knowledge, and judgment, oftentimes technology use in these settings was relegated to what was already available in the online environment. Further accommodations were made under the auspices of the brick-and-mortar schools. Each of these themes will be discussed in turn.

Technology Integration as Highly Collaborative Work

During the data analysis process, the most common accommodations for students with disabilities centered on testing. This is in accordance with Smith’s (2015) assertion about the original intentions of accommodations. Examples of these accommodations to ensure access to state and local testing and provide the student included (1) extended test-taking time, (2) having tests read aloud, (3) reading tests in large print, and (4) being presented test items as one question per page. These accommodations required considerable collaboration in environments where the various responsibilities of teaching (curriculum making, implementing, and evaluating) have been unbundled or pulled apart. This pulling apart of job responsibilities is part of the new economy for many jobs because it makes it possible for workers in different locations to specialize for efficiency (Autor, 2015). The following elaboration from an administrator illustrates what it takes to rebundle the pedagogical responsibilities necessary to make a testing accommodation.

If we have a child who says they get fewer number of problems in their assignment and there are 20 math problems, I need a curriculum specialist and the principal and the teacher to go through that assignment to determine, which they wouldn’t find any to begin with, but to determine which ones the student could not do and still meet the standards. So, you take that, times the number of assignments in that course, which might be 50, multiply that by the amount of courses we have, which is over 115. You can see that with no resources, the ability to make that happen is impossible.

However, accommodations uncovered in this study were not solely for end-of-course or end-of-grade level testing. Although some of these accommodations were included in the IEP data, such as the use of a computer to do work, others were not. Common examples of these instructional accommodations negotiated through interactions with parents and teachers included practitioner-created power points with small quantities of material on each slide. These accommodations are based on broader statements in the IEPs, such as “student will have access to computer-based accommodations.” The following is an excerpt from an interview with an administrator where such an accommodation was created.

In talking with several teachers, we came up with this plan. It’s legal, based on the IEP. We’re not giving them an edge. But what we have determined to present only one question at a time, one per slide. That’s one advantage; the child can focus. And the second thing is reading to them. Now they’re hearing it.

Notice also in this excerpt that the special education teacher is leveraging professional understandings about students with disabilities, asserting that when students have preferences for auditory material, the accommodation also serves that. In this instance, the administrator was able to take the material from the IEP and match it to a task that a general education teacher could do to make the instruction more accessible. However, there was no true attempt to use technology to personalize and the administrator has no real idea as to whether the student prefers auditory information or not. This seemed to be a mere assumption based on a generalization about students with disabilities—that they are not good readers and would rather hear information. In the next example, the administrator describes what a teacher must do that also takes true personalization out of the equation while magnifying the collaboration necessary.

Students finish the exam, submit it to the teacher, and of course, the autograded items would already be graded, right or wrong, but there will be items that the teacher will present to that student in a recorded session. The teacher reads the question and answer choices robotically. There’s no help involved. They’re simply reading the question and answer choices. The student provides the answer.

In this example, the teacher is charged with reading “robotically.” The word is an interesting choice considering the technologies at stake in this environment although it is reasonable to assume that the original intention of using the word was to assert that the teacher reads in a way so as not to give away the answer. Even so, there are a variety of options technologically that would have a reader—an actual robotic voice—read according to student preferences for tone and other prosodic elements that would not give away the answer choices. However, to learn what all of those options might be and keep them at the front of one’s mind and then collaborate with the general education teacher to understand and use these effectively is a tremendous undertaking.

Integrating Technologies and Professional Knowledge

Building upon collaboration, the second theme of the work is integrating technology with professional knowledge. This professional judgment was often referred to by the administrators as “trickiness.”

Where accommodations are put in the IEP for reduced assignments, that’s where it gets tricky with State Virtual School because our curriculum and the school curriculum are different in terms of the assignments and the different standards being addressed. We only have the courses that we have and there isn’t any extra in our courses.

The online curriculum used by State Virtual School is more streamlined than the curriculum of a brick-and-mortar school. The courses offered to students at this school were designed to be completed with fidelity, as the virtual school is such a large operation (more than 20,000 total enrollments per year). The impetus for this stringency is to ensure students cover standards associated with each assignment, and each question within that assignment. Although one may think that the elimination of the “extra” would make learning easier for students, the administrators described this as a challenge. As what the students are obligated to learn is so theoretically straightforward, there is little opportunity to modify or move beyond. In using professional knowledge in these contexts, educators have to be concerned about making sure that the curriculum is followed with minimal modification while also following the individualization mandates of the IEPs. The administrators lamented for two reasons: (1) students might not be served properly according to the law, yet (2) personalization was difficult to achieve under these circumstances.

There are students working on a second or third grade level. What can we do so that the students can take core courses of ours at a second or third grade level? They can’t; we can’t modify our courses.

Although the online curriculum supports some student accommodations well (extended time, enlarged print, etc.), the policies of the State Virtual School have created tension between accommodating students and the ability of the school to make claims to a “rigorous curriculum.” This challenge is illustrated by a student that has an IEP accommodation stating that the student will have a reduced workload. In the process of learning how to implement policies, the administrators have to consider which policies they are beholden to be compliant to the foremost. Typically, they choose the policies of State Virtual School. The school after all is their employer with more direct power over them than disability policies. To overcome this challenge, the administrators had a key strategy for reconciling their concerns: to consider the online environment as inherently accommodating.

Relegating Technology to What Naturally Exists

Some technology usage is required in student learning in virtual environments, but as this study demonstrates, online education can be provided with minimal interaction with technology. In the case of State Virtual School, as long as assignments are completed and turned in via the Internet, additional use of technology to learn does not necessarily have to happen. However, students with disabilities may be among those who could benefit most from technological tools to support learning in the virtual environment. We learned from this study that these administrators were asking questions about how to leverage technologies for students, but felt limited in their ability to provide answers to students and families.

A student needed a text reader based upon her IEP and her learning disability. So, I called her or I e-mailed her and she called me. We have little discussions. And there’s a free text reader that anyone can get online. We suggest using that to a lot of our struggling readers. I mentioned that to a parent, saying that there are others, but they cost money. And, of course, we don’t have the resources to provide that.

The end result of this interaction was to continue to use the no-cost option, regardless of its suitability for the student. In addition, the administrators capitalize on the features of online learning, such as unlimited time and the lack of a fixed daily schedule as being key resources for students with disabilities. However, these are features that all students have access to, and in some cases—such as in the case of a lack of routine—might actually be a hindrance to some students and their families. Further, when students cannot be accommodated in this virtual environment, they are often sent to their original brick-and-mortar school to receive accommodations to be successful in the online course. Examples of this were frequent with testing when students needed to be able to take frequent breaks. The testing technology at the virtual school made it impossible to stop a test once started in order to protect against cheating—a phenomenon difficult to track and overcome in virtual learning spaces, but that also meant that a student had to travel to a location at a specific time to have a test supervised where there could be breaks.

Answering to families around these issues was painful for these administrators. In an attempt to address this issue, these administrators working as a disability support team determined what they felt that they could and could not provide to students with disabilities as a manifestation of their current understandings of multiple conflicting policies. Below is a general listing of what accommodations are available to students with disabilities:

If an IEP states that the student receives extended time on assignments and exams, we can fit that within the pace guide that all of our courses have. If a student has to do four assignments a week, based on the pace guide we can cut that to two if there’s an IEP that gives extended time. If that IEP states that the student receives speech therapy, that is, something we do not do. Now, of course, every IEP is different, but we have been able to create the general idea of best practice of what we can and what we can’t do at State Virtual School.

Notice how this list of role representation policy is referred to as “best practice.” Doing so brings the learning that the administrators displayed into contact with the individual and social dimensions of their work as implementers of policy. The constraints they feel have been translated into an official code around practice that is (interestingly) rationalized not in the school policy but instead invokes the IEP as the source of authority and then explains why the social context of this policy renders the IEP impotent. What is left is access to a pace guide or timeline of lessons, which again is a service that every student has access to and is not technologically grounded—other than the fact that it appears on the Internet: but it could be.

This research employed a case study design to learn about the ways in which special education teachers in a large state virtual school responded to roles as policy agents for students with disabilities. Because of the study design and the qualitative paradigm, there is no expectation of generalizability on our part as researchers. But what we did want to do is to illustrate very clearly what was happening around the issues of disability, technology, and policy in a local context in ways that consumers of this work could understand and think more complexly about their own sites and settings for practice and research.

Of particular importance were the ways in which technology appeared in the grand story of serving these students in an online setting. What is clear is that taking and teaching courses online was not necessarily synonymous with technology use. The role of special education teachers in these schools is constructed to a high degree by the way in which they engaged with policies of the school and disability policies as implementation agents. In this particular setting, we learned about the complexities of collaboration necessary to use the technology when curriculum is governed by many separate entities and the opportunities for professional judgment that are not fully realized because of the overwhelming choices the educators must make around issues of school policy and resource distribution.

Meeting the needs of the students with disabilities largely emerged as highlighting the features of the online environment as accommodation. This enabled a cognitive reconciliation of policy (Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002) that illustrates really well why policy is so difficult to implement at a local level, even when the local level is in the context of a theoretically more flexible online learning environment and power has been distributed in ways that demand collaborative decision-making. What this means is that instead of individuals having to learn about policy individually as in Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer’s original model, educators at all echelons of authority must learn this together using specific student cases as exemplars.

For practice, this study taught us the importance of preparation to collaborate in an online environment. These educators would have benefited greatly from the chance to learn more about how to orchestrate complex networks of advocates for students in online environments. Indeed, collaboration for advocacy among educators in traditional environments is an area of new and emerging research, but this may mean that there is a tremendous opportunity to learn about how to build collaborative capacity with the goal of advocacy in these new environments. It seemed vital that these administrators have the ability to negotiate further accommodations with other sources of curriculum authority within the school, a phenomenon which Coburn (2016) pointed out was a typical problem in providing services for students with disabilities in schools. Further, as these administrators reported that they did not receive preparation to use technology in the online environment for students with disabilities, collaboration also might have given them the chance to learn from other schools or programs how this might be done.

In terms of research, this project points to a need to learn more about how students experience the accommodations given to them in these environments. This is especially important for learning whether an online learning course does have inherent advantages that render popular accommodations outmoded as devices of individualization. The study also points to a need to build and test new technological tools that are feasible for educators, students, and families to use that enable students with disabilities in online courses to use technology to meet their needs online as opposed to the current scenario in this study where the technology was often jettisoned in order to ensure the demands of the IEP could be met.

Finally, this study offers empirical descriptive support to the idea that IEPs in fully online education are difficult to implement, and the ultimate concern is that young people who qualify are not receiving the support to which they are entitled. These difficulties do not arise from educators’ lack of interest in compliance but rather the challenge of learning how to comply in the face of multiple conflicting policies. In more local contexts, such as in the case of State Virtual School, it would have been helpful for the school to have considered the fact that students with disabilities were going to come and take their courses and in fact taking an online course was mandatory and ergo, whether they were receiving federal monies or not, elements of disability access that apply to all public programs would apply to them. This study challenges the received wisdom that this access requirement that transcends direct federal support applies only to the physical world. In short, technologies in online coursework has provided great opportunities for scholars and the public alike to think about access and support in new ways. Many of these entities embrace those opportunities.

Authors’ Note The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education #H327U110011. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. The project officer is Celia Rosenquist.

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) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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February 21, 2017

Article Notice – An Operationalized Understanding of Personalized Learning

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.

As referenced in the Every Student Succeeds Act and the National Educational Technology Plan, personalized learning is the new focus in many K–12 learning environments. Nonetheless, few people understand what personalized learning really means and even fewer can design and implement a personalized learning environment appropriate for all learners, especially learners with disabilities. This 18-month descriptive research study focused on identifying the design characteristics of personalized learning environments and the initial results of these environments. Findings indicate that personalized learning environments require more than technology, that the technology itself is simply a tool to support implementation. These personalized learning environments were highly learner self-regulated, had transparent and actionable near-real-time data, provided various structures for student voice and feedback, and integrated purposeful supports for embedding the principles of Universal Design for Learning at the cornerstone of practice. Personalized learning requires a shift in instructional practice on behalf of both the teacher and the learners. Implications for further research and practice are discussed.

In the last 5 years, various innovations have taken place in the technology sector, triggering trends and shifts in the practice of education. Five years ago, during the early inceptions of the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (Center), virtual school or fully online enrollment was skyrocketing (Waston, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2011). Now K–12 fully online education is still growing, but this growth has been outpaced by the expansion of blended learning environments and the emergence of what has been termed “personalized learning” (Watson, 2008). In blended settings, students may engage with online curriculum resources and activities within the context of a brick-and-mortar classroom setting as well as with an “in-person” classroom teacher. Additionally, in the blended classroom, teachers and students frequently have access to real-time academic progress data to help individualize their learning.

In the most ideal sense, online and blended learning trends emerge as the education system, and the technology sector learn from one another about how to design and implement more effective environments. On a practical level, monitoring and analyzing trends or practices in education, especially those prompted by the rapid evolution of technology, is difficult at best. As a Center, we have been funded to identify trends and to measure and design promising practices for supporting the education system’s most varied learners: those with disabilities.

At the time the Center grant proposal was written in 2011, members of the technology industry showed some excitement about the ability to design education systems capable of individualizing, and personalizing, educational materials based on the needs of each learner. Although the idea of personalizing education had been studied and reported in academic literature, especially in computer science (Lin, Yeh, Hung, & Chang 2013), there was limited known application of personalized learning in the education system, especially in K–12 education (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2011). Nonetheless, with the Center’s focus on learners with disabilities, the ability to personalize, based on learner needs, offered great potential. Nearly 5 years later, the education system is on personalization overdrive, with systems claiming and attempting to personalize learning for all students (Enyedey, 2014). In fact, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) as well as the recent National Education Technology Plan (2016) call for more personalized learning intermixed with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework (

The reality of personalized learning is that although it sounds like an excellent proposition for education, there is not consistent understanding on what it truly means and little understanding on how to actually design and implement a personalized learning environment appropriate for all learners (Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013; Penuel & Johnson, 2016). As researchers who conduct research on identifying, designing, or supporting the implementation of better learning environments, within this article, we will share understandings, findings, and lessons learned within personalized learning. Through the research conducted within the Center, it has become evident that well-designed personalized learning environments can transform both teacher and student behavior and encourage students’ academic growth in ways that might not be possible without these advances (see Findings presented in this article).

A personalized environment is both active and complex, and it emphasizes individual learner growth, often in the context of skill based and cooperative student grouping. If designed and implemented correctly, personalized learning is extremely disruptive to the traditional education system. For instance, a personalized system places very little to no emphasis on whole group measures or on measuring academic growth based on single assessments. Further, personalization is less concerned with measuring performance compared to a hypothetical “average” student across an average curriculum and more focused on each student’s skill growth as an individual learner. Specifically, if an education system accepted the idea that each learner had variability and that each learner would progress at a different pace, based on a wide number of variables, then the notion of an average student or learner is not overly useful (Rose, 2016). Personalization essentially does away with the factory model of education. In his book on establishing a new vision for how society should think about averages as compared to individuals, Rose (2016) provides a clear rationale for how the traditional notions of the average have provided society an outdated and misunderstood emphasis on planning and educating the average student when no one is truly average. In actuality, each individual has wide learning variability, and personalized educational environments should consider these differences in the instructional process.

Personalized learning has the potential to revolutionize the education system (Duncan, 2013). Nonetheless, without guidance or research-based understanding, personalized learning will be haphazardly referenced, partially implemented, eventually demonized, and then viewed as an unrealistic fad in education. The purpose of this article is to provide an operationalized understanding of personalized learning. This understanding is derived from the perspective of researchers who have both investigated and supported implementation of personalized learning on the ground with schools and teachers. This research includes observations of numerous personalized learning environments and interviews with teachers, students, and education leaders. Researchers have investigated promising practices, and designed, as well as tested implementation strategies. This article will highlight some of this work. For more information, visit the Center website:

General Terminology
Blended learning

As defined by Christensen, Horn, and Staker (2013), blended learning is a formal education program where students learn, in part, through online learning with some learner control over time, path, pace, or place. At least some of the learning takes place in a school-based, brick-and-mortar setting, away from the home.

Competency/proficiency-based learning

In this curricular structure, students progress based on mastery of successive goals. Students are often grouped by age and/or proficiency levels not grades, and movement through a course of study is based on evidence-based skills or knowledge achievement not seat time.1

Digital delivery systems

Content management or learning management system (LMS) that displays provides access to digital materials and learning interactions for student use. Most of these systems require an individual student log-in via username/password or unique student identification number and record and display student usage and achievement data.1

Digital learning

Use of digital technology to support learning. This term is context free to specific digital technology, environment, pedagogy, instructional design, and learner interaction with the material or environment.

Personalized learning

According to Patrick, Kennedy, and Powell (2013), personalized learning means tailoring learning for each learner’s interest, strengths, and needs. This approach encourages flexibility to support mastery and enables learners to influence how, what, when, and where they learn .1


A scientifically based framework focused on supporting the variability of every learner through proactive and iterative design that integrates multiple means of engagement, representation of information, and action and expression of understanding.1

A Brief Understanding of Personalized Learning

The use of technology to personalize learning in education is not new. Skinner (1958) successfully demonstrated how “teaching machines” could be used to support increased learner independence, allowing students to complete tasks independently and at their own pace. This work established one vision for how technology could be used to support the instructional learning environment. Since that time, Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) has been studied and supported by a number of researchers for how it can provide learners with a more fluid digitally based learning experience (Pennington, Ault, Schuster, & Sanders, 2011) when compared to traditional teacher-centered classrooms. Recent work in this area has focused on adaptive and dynamic implementations, sometimes referred to as personalized learning systems. Essentially an updated version of CAI, these personalized learning systems generally guide learners down an array of learning pathways based on performance (Coleman-Martin, Heller, Cihak, & Irvine, 2005).

The Challenge of Digital Decision-Making

Many completely digital personalized environments rely heavily on machine-based, stimulus–response analytics rather than on contextualized, learner-centered growth patterns to make learning pathway decisions for students. Many of these models simply replace the teacher with digitally generated oversight (Shute & Zapata-Rivera, 2012) and fail to take into account learner strengths and weaknesses, the learning context, and the affordances of the instructional system. Beyond being driven by narrowly developed algorithms (often created from statistical models of the hypothetical average student referenced previously), these completely digital environments also neglect other important knowledge and skills such as social–emotional development and hands-on problem-solving (Basham, Stahl, Ortiz, Rice, & Smith, 2015; Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006). This is not to suggest that fully digital environments are ineffective in supporting the K–12 student population but rather to assert that more research is necessary.

Student Self-Regulation and Learning Online

According to McLoughlin and Lee (2010), while the ability to use digital technology to personalize learning for each student hold promise, the process of personalization puts enormous pedagogical and procedural burden on the students—as well as teachers—to make critical instructional decisions. From a design perspective, because of the various interactions that must take place among the student and the technology as well as the student and the teacher, it could be hypothesized that personalized learning environments rely heavily on student self-regulation. System-level design scaffolds, and tools for developing self-regulated learning are critical to personalization efforts (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2005). For instance, design elements in successful environments include the explicit teaching of self-regulatory behavior and embed supports for the use of these skills (Dembo & Eaton, 2000). Moreover, the various design elements that support student self-regulated learning have shown meaningful impact across academic areas (Dignath, Buettner, & Langfeldt, 2008). Yet, although self-regulation likely plays a role, in reality, there is little known about the active design elements and practices within personalized learning environments and even less is known regarding the impact of these environments on student outcomes, especially for those with disabilities and other diverse learning needs. In fact, a search of academic journal databases returns no articles related to design elements, classroom practices, and outcomes associated with personalized learning.

Moving Beyond the Fully Digital

In 2013, the company IBM predicted that within 5 years, classrooms would support personalized learning by continually gathering data and supporting personalized pathways for success (IBM, 2013). In 2014, a National Summit on Technology Enabled Personalized Learning (National Summit) was held to identify both pioneering work and barriers in the area of personalized learning (Abbott et al., 2015). Interestingly, both the IBM report and the findings from the National Summit focused on the need for various types of models for supporting personalized learning. In the final report of the National Summit, Abbott et al. highlighted blended learning as a feature within personalized environments. Abbott et al. also highlighted UDL as a foundational framework for building when considering the adoption of personalized learning environments. According to the National Summit report, the research associated with the National Summit identified five organizing themes for advancing the practice of personalized learning: data, technology architecture, human capacity, content and curriculum, and research and development. These themes were interconnected with considerations of instructional design and practices, technology standards focused on development of new technology (e.g., system interoperability, resource tagging), and regulations that govern both business and education practices.

While K–12 education systems are advancing the adoption of personalized learning, very little research has looked at personalized learning in “real-world” blended K–12 education settings. Conceptual indications support the idea that personalized learning is comprised of various moving and intermingled human–machine interactions and system design features. Nevertheless, a search for refereed research literature based on personalized learning finds the largest number of articles are written on building machine-driven systems (e.g., Chen, 2008; Hwang, Kuo, Yin, & Chuang, 2010; Lin et al., 2013; O’Keeffe, Brady, Conlan, & Wade, 2006) and only one study that examined both system design dynamics and learner outcomes of personalized learning (e.g., Chiu-Jung & Pei-Lin, 2007). No studies found investigated the design features, the operational human interactions, and initial outcomes for K–12 students, especially those with disabilities.

Students with disabilities have conditions that coexist. For example, students with physical or sensory disabilities may present with associated learning, attentional, and executive function challenges. These conditions overlap and interlock, creating complex profiles. These complex learning difficulties require personalized learning pathways that recognize children’s and adolescents’ unique and changing learning patterns (Carpenter et al., 2011). Although personalized learning for students with disabilities is important, it is still an emerging practice. Achieving true personalization requires schools to understand data that are high volume, high velocity, and high density and to disaggregate these data to support learning profiles at the individual student level (McDermott & Turk, 2015). Since students with disabilities are usually a small population within a school and data about them are subject to privacy protections, frameworks need to be developed that truly account for student learning. These frameworks need to be developed as part of well-designed and well-funded research projects. An example of such a project was developed within the Now the Schools network ( This project focused on developing engagement frameworks that focused on learner profiles and concomitant scale development, providing information to schools about students with complex learning needs and alerting them to what types of data patterns will emerge for students with various needs, an inquiry framework for curriculum supported by staff development materials, and ongoing support from the Now the Schools network. More projects like this should be developed in both the United States and abroad.

To advance initial understanding in the ability to operationalize K–12 personalized learning settings, there is need to conduct both exploratory and descriptive research on associated design features, human and role interactions within these systems, and initial outcomes within these designs. To support this need, the Center initiated a longer term research project in a widely recognized K–12 personalized learning environment. For this project, the team was interested in answering the following questions:

  • How are personalized learning environments operationalized?
  • What levels of success do students with disabilities demonstrate in personalized learning environments?

The Center conducts work across the nation on various research partnerships, and this project was conducted in a northern central state. The district was an urban reform district (URD) with roughly 6,500 students in Grades K–12. The district operated 12 schools across this large, urban area. The URD was a state takeover district, designed to reinvigorate chronically low-performing schools. At the initial point of takeover, the district’s student population included about 20% students with disabilities (this diminished over time to more normalized levels of around 12%). By design, the URD used technology, data, and human practices to support a personalized learning environment. The district had an extended school day (7.5 hr) and extended school year (210 days).

The URD learning architects designed a personalized and proficiency-based district where students established and maintained their own learning pathways. Within these environments, each student had their own personalized learning plan, and students with disabilities also had federally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP). Using a personalized setting that was blended with machine–human interaction, these active environments demonstrated an inherent alignment to UDL. Moreover, rather than being grouped by grade levels, students were grouped by age, supporting an environment that was fully inclusive and accepting of learning differences. The system mandated that a series of transparent, academic, self-regulatory protocols be present and actively employed in each classroom. Students were encouraged and provided with the tools and scaffolds to take ownership of their individual learning. The primary focus of this district’s partnership with the Center was to develop an understanding of what was working compared to what was not working within these environments and to support the design of environments and practices that worked throughout the district.

Data Collection

Researchers conducted 50 observations (over an 18-month window). Observations took place monthly, within a 2- to 3-day window, in agreement with the district. The researchers had the ability to move throughout the district, conduct observations, watch day-to-day operations, talk with district staff, and (with necessary permissions) talk with students and parents. Single observations lasted from 20 min to multiple hours. For this study, researchers conducted observations and then developed initial themes from the emergent observations. After developing some common themes, researchers then conducted observations and interviews to support an operationalized understanding of the principles and practices. Researchers also used an instrument designed to measure UDL alignment. During the later observations, the researchers used the UDL Instructional Observation Instrument (Basham, Gardner, & Smith, 2013) to align practices to the UDL framework. In the process of identifying design principles and practices, researchers also interviewed both instructional staff and students to confirm how these principles and practices were operationalized on a day-to-day basis within the environment. To investigate the factors associated with student outcomes, researchers gained access to 2012–2013 school year data. These data included all student and school-wide data associated with academic performance, behavioral incidences, and enrollment. These data also included student demographic information, including—but not limited to—disability status.


To identify design principles and practices, the researchers conducted numerous long- and short-form observations over an 18-month window, across multiple classrooms and other learning environments within URD. To identify design principles and associated practices, researchers used a multilevel coding process. During initial observations, researchers used an open observation technique to identify common principles and practices across settings. Initial themes and common language among researchers were then developed by reviewing data, developing initial coding, and then cataloging associated observation data. After developing initial themes, researchers conducted targeted observations and interviews to confirm and support the findings from the open observations. Data from observations and interviews were all then coded in alignment with the common themes that emerged through the open observations.

Factors associated with students who met different levels of anticipated growth were demonstrated in terms of demographic characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, and disability (yes/no). χ2 Test was performed to examine the associations between these demographic variables and each of six levels of anticipated growth (yes/no). Effect sizes (φ, Cramer’s V) were also reported. In addition, those percentages were visually inspected for a pattern of change over a range of students’ ages. Given the clustered nature of the data (i.e., students nested within schools), generalized linear mixed modeling (GLMM) was then used to identify the variables that significantly contribute to meeting at least 1-year growth (yes/no), accounting for dependency of observations. Specifically, the models included the fixed effects of age, days from enrollment to start, gender, ethnicity, citizenship (U.S./non-U.S. citizen), limited English proficiency, disability, IEP (yes/no), and their potential interactions. The random effects included were students and schools (i.e., intercept variances). The model parameters were estimated via restricted pseudolikelihood estimation (Wolfinger & O’Connell, 1993) implemented in SAS PROC GLIMMIX (SAS Institute Inc. (2010). SAS [Software, version 9.2.] Cary, NC. SAS Institute Inc., 2002–2010). The descriptive statistics and preliminary GLMM results indicated similar, but not identical, growth patterns over age between math and English, and thus GLMM analysis was conducted separately for math and English.

This section highlights the findings from the observations, interviews, and data obtained from URD.

How Are Personalized Learning Environments Operationalized?

From an observational stance, there was a visible, omnipresent role of student self-regulation designed, built into, and consistently used throughout the personalized learning environments. Related to self-regulation, during the time of this study, all observed environments had a consistent use of classroom/system-level data; these data were transparent indicators of learner self-rated progress and effort. The overriding integration of UDL with a heavily identifiable focus on the use of multiple means of action and expression was apparent within the environments. There was also a continual development and use of various protocols and strategies to help support both teacher and student decision-making in established personalized pathways in the learning process.

In the URD personalized schools, students became active participants, assuming responsibility for their learning, unlike in traditional classrooms where teachers assume primary responsibility for instruction. Within these personalized environments, the teachers took on the role of designing learning environments, wherein students had the appropriate resources, engagement, and scaffolds to be successful. Teachers were in charge of designing and maintaining an environment that supported student self-regulation, providing the learners with necessary tools, strategies, and scaffolds for success. Teachers would often discuss how designing for learning and engineering learning was important to working within the environment. Teachers also discussed using student data and student voices in planning pathways for student learning. School administration and staff communicated a “can-do” attitude: During interviews, teachers often discussed solving problems as well as developing and testing solutions based on the needs of their environment or their students.

URD learners participated in planning, establishing goals, and producing evidence of what they have mastered based on projects, performance tasks, and common assessments. Learners gained understanding of information through a variety of forms, including instruction from teachers, various forms of technology, expert peers, traditional reading materials, and, if needed, learning coaches. By the middle of the school year, more than 25% of students across the 12 URD schools had already achieved 1 or more years’ growth in reading and in math. Both students and teachers discussed how feedback on learning progress was important to the process. For instance, during one interview, a middle school student indicated that weekly meetings to discuss his “learning data” were critical for him to stay on pace and helped him take ownership of his learning.

Technology was a critical component within URD. Teachers used technology to support individualized, small group, and, occasionally, large group instruction and data collection. The district was established as a nearly 1:1 district, yet often learners were seen working in pairs or groups, collaboratively working on projects or demonstrations of understanding. When students were working individually on computers, they were often learning a new skill in an online system, completing an individual project, or taking a quiz. Beyond modern technology, learners would often be seen drawing, writing, or doing some other type of low-tech projects.

The district purchased various technology systems for supporting both learners and teachers. According to conversations with the district administration, these systems were adopted with a focus on designing personalized learning environments for all learners or based on specific learner or teacher needs. Beyond centrally adopted systems, teachers were encouraged to innovatively problem solve and test solutions around learner needs. During one visit to a high school, a team of teachers were discussing an issue they were having with students not completing out-of-school activities and homework, trying to prepare students to transition to postsecondary life, the need to provide the learners with useful solutions, and then described the need for learners to keep to-do lists while also being facilitated by adults (allowing teachers and parents the opportunity set reminders, etc.). The teachers devised a solution, wherein the learners could use a free Google calendaring system. In another example, a team of middle school teachers discussed the desire to communicate with learners and parents during off-school hours. From their experience, parents were not eager to e-mail, but text messaging was useful. The teachers also did not want learners and parents to have 24-7 access to their personal mobile phone numbers, so they found a system that allows them to text parents (occasionally scheduling reminder texts to have student complete work) without giving the parents the teachers’ mobile phone numbers. Teachers then took turns monitoring the system, or being on-call, during off-school hours, to respond to questions.

The district partnered with a nationally known educational technology vendor to customize a cornerstone, personalized LMS, Agilix Buzz (Agilix Labs, (2016). See: Agilix Buzz. This system supported individualized learning pathways and gathered support data (including student self-report data). Within the LMS, teachers would upload digital learning objects or assets to support student learning of specific competencies. The compiled objects or learning sequences could be shared between teachers and used with various learners in the district. This system also allowed learners to self-identify and report comfort level with content, level of engagement, and level of effort put into learning a competency or task. These data could be used for identifying barriers to learning (e.g., was not engaged, did not give much effort). The system also allowed learners to find and seek assistance from their peers who were identified in the system as master learners for a given competency.

In an effort to build in redundancy, the district also required progress trackers to be posted in each classroom. These trackers showed learner movement or growth through individual competencies and not the actual pace of learning. Thus, each learner, regardless of level, could demonstrate growth on their individual competencies. The combined interaction across the teachers, learners, technology, and data in the environment was clearly observed and discussed. The systems allowed the learners and teachers to access daily updates on academic progress. These daily progress data were combined into a weekly profile used in learner–teacher conferences to review progress, identify mastery levels, or isolate academic challenges that might require increased attention. The availability and regular use of student progress data provided teachers and learners with the information they required to effectively personalize instruction for URD learners.

In one-on-one conversations, learners would often talk with researchers about their data. For example, on an initial visit to a middle school classroom, a learner was explaining the data system to a researcher and said, “No one in this class is average.” During a visit to an elementary classroom of 5- to 6-year olds, one learner took a researcher by the finger to show him the “buzz” score she had earned in English language arts (ELA) and math and said, “My Buzz score is … they are different, but that’s okay, everyone is different.” Older students would often simply refer to their scores or levels, without reference to the system, then talk about their progress and their plans for academic growth. Students in upper elementary or middle school would often discuss their scores relative to the competencies or through academic “I Can” statements.

While some classrooms represented a more traditional classroom seating setup (these were generally in older grades), most learning environments in URD were designed for open flow, wherein learners could work in small groups or individually at both desk style or other, comfortable seating arrangements. Some classrooms provided a means to pull together larger groups of students or even entire classes. Entire classes were observed only when learners were explicitly learning a new learning strategy or when a teacher had decided that all learners needed to learn or meet about something as a group. Across all of the observations conducted, only two larger group instructional experiences were observed, and others were discussed by teachers. One larger group experience took place when a larger group of students was pulled into a room to learn how to use a new graphic organizing tool in studying and expressing understanding. During another observation in a middle school classroom, learners were pulled together to learn how the group was going to help support a community event that was taking place at the school. Teachers also discussed pulling entire groups of students together to learn and discuss concepts such as self-regulation and grit. During all other observations, there were various pockets of students working independently or in small groups. During one observation of an elementary classroom, two learners were viewing a video from YouTube, three learners were working in a digital learning systems, two learners were working on worksheets, two other small groups of learners were working on two separate paper-based projects, and the teacher was facilitating a small group at the interactive whiteboard. Visiting the classroom, one could very quickly imagine the planning, time, and coordination of resources (including data) that went into making this single classroom operational.

Reflecting the district’s view on technology, teachers were encouraged to think about, design, and test new learning spaces. Teachers were inspired to test new space configurations and could propose ideas and receive small amounts of funding for purchasing items such as furniture or mats. For example, for a period of time, a group of elementary teachers decided to combine their rooms to provide a “learning village.” Within the village, one room was an open creative space that provided students with an opportunity to spread out, sit on a large carpet, sit in beanbags, or even sit on a table. This space was also used for larger groups to participate in a lesson or story time. Another classroom was established as an individual or very small group workspace, and it was generally a quiet space. The third classroom was set up as small group space, wherein learners worked small groups (generally around tables) and could also be seen sitting on the floor in groups. Teachers and learners would move about these three rooms within the learning village based on need.

What Levels of Success Do Students With Disabilities Demonstrate in These Personalized Environments?
Student growth

Figure 1 shows the percentages of students who met at least 1 year’s growth (age 6−18 years). The percentage of students meeting at least 1-year growth in math slowly changed (increased then decreased) in a quadratic pattern. This percentage changed also in a quadratic pattern in English, but it rapidly increased by the age of 12 years then slowly decreased after that age (Table 1).


Figure 1. Percentages of students who made at least 1-year growth.


Table 1. Met At Least 1-Year Growth in Math.

Table 1. Met At Least 1-Year Growth in Math.

Note. Odds ratio (OR) was estimated at mean age (11.88 years). IEP = individualized education program.


Of the data on 6,180 students, 6.2% met ½-year growth; 6.8% met ¾-year growth; 13.9% met 1-year growth; 12.7% met 1½-year growth; and 38.5% met 2-year growth in math. 65.1% met at least 1-year growth in math. Male students showed lower percentages of meeting ½-year growth in math, but higher percentages of meeting 2-year growth and at least 1-year growth than did female students.

When the data were disaggregated for students with disabilities, these students showed lower percentages of meeting ¾-year growth, 1-year growth, and 1½-year growth in math, but higher percentages of meeting 2-year growth and at least 1-year growth than students without disabilities (SWOD). However, the estimated effect sizes suggested that all the differences were minimal.

There was a quadratic change pattern observed and confirmed by significant Age × Age interaction (see Table 1). In addition, days from enrollment to start and gender had significant effects. The chance of meeting at least 1-year growth increased by 5% (odds ratio [OR] = 1.05) with each 100 more days from enrollment to start. Male students were 17% (OR = 1–.83) more likely to meet at least 1-year growth than female students. Finally, there was significant Age × IEP interaction (see Figure 2). The likelihood of meeting at least 1-year growth was similar between students with and without an IEP by the age of 12 years, but the gap in the likelihood becomes greater after this age. There was no significant interaction between age and gender and between gender and IEP.


Of the data on 6,035 students, 3.6% met ½-year growth; 3.4% met ¾-year growth; 6.0% met 1-year growth; 5.2% met 1½-year growth, and 50.0% met 2-year growth in English (see Figure 2). This demonstrated that 61.3% met at least 1-year growth. Overall, male students showed lower percentages of meeting 1-year growth in English, compared to female students. Students with disabilities showed lower percentages of meeting ½-year growth, ¾-growth, and 1-year growth, 1½-year growth in English than SWOD. However, the effect size estimates were small for all differences. Similar to the results for math, days from enrollment to start had significant effect. The chance of meeting at least 1-year growth increased by 5% (OR = 1.05) with each 100 more days from enrollment to start. The Age × IEP interaction was not significant.


Figure 2. Students with and without disabilities meeting at least 1-year growth in math.

This study sought to develop a better understanding of K–12 personalized learning environments and the potential of these environments to support students with disabilities. Specifically, the researchers conducted observations and interviews, engaged in conversations and communication with district staff, and entrenched themselves in the month-to-month operations of the district at various levels (district leadership, building leadership, and teachers) for an 18-month period. The overarching purpose of the study was to identify the foundational principles of operation with the hopes of supporting further research and development in the area of personalized learning. Overall, the research found that there are specific design elements apparent within these settings that can be replicated and researched in other settings. Generally, the research also found indication that both learners with and without disabilities can be successful in these personalized settings. In fact, there is some indication that learners with disabilities cannot only be successful but thrive in personalized learning environments.

Foundational Components of Personalized Learning

While the intricacy of architecting personalized learning systems should not be lost on the simplicity of a single research project, over the 18-month period, various design components became apparent as the research unfolded. From the onset, the chief learning architect of the system told the researchers that the vision for the district was simple to completely redesign schools to be solely focused on one thing: the individual learners. This vision was constantly communicated to district personnel and drove how the district operated. From signs on the walls to the district’s Wi-Fi passwords, the vision was clear: focus on the learners. Within URD, supporting and taking ownership in individual learner betterment, regardless of learner variability, was the primary job of each staff member. This vision established a culture of equity and cooperation with a can-do attitude. Everyone worked individually and in teams to problem solve and overcome barriers to support each individual learner regardless of the learners’ variability. In a school, toward the end of the day, or while teachers were on break, researchers would often observe teachers collaborating on how to solve an issue for a learner or group of learners. Whether it was identifying and testing a new learning strategy, looking for a new pathway for success, finding a new technology, and/or thinking about the learning space, teachers were given the authority and directive to be innovative and engineer solutions that worked for each learner.

Another foundational element that became apparent is that the UDL framework served as a primary driver of implementation within these personalized learning settings. Learners were provided with multiple ways to engage within the environment with self-regulation serving as a basis for how the personalized environments operated. Learners were empowered to continually make choices for how to gain new information and instruction using available multiple media resources, thus there were multiple means of representation. Learners were able to take action and express their understanding of content in multiple ways.

Beyond the integration across the three UDL principles, these environments had alignment to the four UDL critical elements (UDL-Implementation and Research Network [UDL-IRN] [2011]). Each learner approached activities with clear intention and goals—for example, learners could talk about their learning through their I Can statements. The design of instructional environments was intentional and considerate of learner variability. This planning for variability was evident in the multiple pathways provided within the competencies; the instructional tools that could be used; how students could use various supports, including teachers; a number of strategies, technology, and peers; and how many environments were designed to support the needs of students working independently, in teams, or in larger groups. Throughout instructional periods, there was continual use of flexible methods and materials used to support learning. Finally, there was ongoing and transparent use of data to support timely progress monitoring for both learners and teachers to make instructional decisions.

Operationalizing Personalized Learning

Within these environments, these design components were intermixed with elements operationalized in the day-to-day practices of establishing and operating a personalized environment. From this initial study, the Center has established a research project with another district that is in the early stages of personalized learning implementation. The project at URD, combined with this new partnership, has provided an opportunity to study the various design components and elements of implementation in more detail. Beyond the aforementioned foundation design components, the findings of the research projects have pointed to the following specific elements of operation.

Highly self-regulated environments

While self-regulation is actually a guideline under providing multiple means of engagement within UDL, it is important to specifically discuss the need for self-regulation in personalized learning environments. For perspective, the Center’s current research (highlighted in forthcoming articles) begins establishing personalized learning environments through self-regulated data collection systems. Thus, it is critical that culture, design, tools, strategies, and interactions within the learning environment support a self-regulated learning process. This process requires designing environments, systems, and a learning culture that supports self-regulation, as well as teaching learners the necessary strategies and systems, and the importance of self-regulation. Specifically, the design of these environments has focused on the integration of a three-phase process of self-regulation: (1) forethought, (2) performance, and (3) self-reflection (Zimmerman, 1998). For example, learners often establish weekly and daily learning goals and define their desired accomplishments. Learners learn strategies for persisting, or, as necessary, reengaging. Finally, learners take time to self-reflect: After an instructional period, a student may take time use a self-reflection tool and/or simply complete a exit ticket where they rate their ability to accomplish the desired tasks.

Transparent, continual, and actionable data

Both teachers and learners in personalized learning environments rely heavily on data that are transparent, continual, and actionable. These data are used to make decisions relative to a learner’s progress, path, and point of instruction within an individual instructional sequence. Importantly, these must be actionable, therefore it must be meaningful, available, and usable. It is useful to have these data readily visible for both the learner and the teacher—in URD environments, it was often in the LMS as well as displayed in the room. The two types of data that have most relevant have been transparent indicators of student progress and student effort. Both types of indicators support the ability for both the learners and teachers to make actionable decisions.

Continual feedback and weekly meetings

Providing learners with continual feedback is critical to supporting learner growth and understanding. Beyond the day-to-day feedback, establishing weekly checkpoints for all learners to review progress and discuss future pathways forward was a common element in URD and one that was most frequently discussed by teachers and learners as being important.

Integrating learner voice

Encouraging learner voice in data collection through exercises such as self-reporting effort or engagement level provides both learners and teachers with the ability to determine what is working and what should be altered. If a learner is able to look at their own data and see a relationship between working with a certain group of learners and an inability to get a task done in a timely manner, then they may consider changing groups. In another example, if a learner continually decides to simply watch the instructional video, then incorrectly completes a practice task, the teacher might look at the data and have the student do a 1:1 check for understanding prior to starting a practice task.

Multiple means of taking action or demonstrating understanding

Again, although UDL serves as a cornerstone, with the observed personalized learning environments and research in URD (as well as the Center’s current research), researchers found that purposeful effort must be made to encourage teachers to design environments that allow students to demonstrate understanding in more than one way, which provides for more personalized learning. Realistically, it is easier for teachers to assign one type of assignment (e.g., X questions or worksheet) with a specific competency or lesson goal than it is to allow multiple forms of understanding. Within URD, learners were required to demonstrate mastery at least 3 times prior to moving on to the next competency. Research in URD found that encouraging learners to demonstrate mastery in multiple ways, especially if they have some choice, provides for higher levels of engagement and more authentic and meaningful learning.


The purpose of this research was to identify the operational elements in personalized learning settings and to identify potential outcomes for all students—especially students with disabilities—in those settings. This preliminary descriptive research should be further developed. While observations for other projects within the same district have yielded different perspectives than what is reported in this article, it is possible that, as the researchers conducted monthly observations over the 18-month window, observer-expectancy effect may have emerged unconsciously. If this emergence occurred, it would have affected the vision of the observers to only see certain aspects of these learning environments which would have potentially provided for confirmation bias, thus supporting misinterpretations. Further research in personalized learning should be conducted to either validate or revoke the findings of this research.

Implications for Future Research

As suggested in Abbott et al. (2015), there are five areas that need additional research to advance personalized learning. Participants at the National Summit found that, as a field, there is a need to study how educators and researchers use data, how technology is architected to support learners and associated pedagogical practice, how to educate personnel who are prepared to work in personalized settings, and how content and curriculum are developed to support personalized learning. These areas should be supported with a research and development agenda that advances the understanding of practice. The research conducted within this study would concur with the Abbott et al. (2015) findings but suggests that interdisciplinary research focused on overcoming barriers within the research community relative to working in siloed disciplines both in education and intersecting fields and disciplines (e.g., informatics, computer science, interaction design) would provide personalized learning with maximized growth and understanding. Minimally, this research supports the idea that partnerships among field-based practitioners, industry, and researchers could be utilized to encourage further understanding of these areas (Basham, Smith, Greer, & Marino, 2013). Moreover, given the current state of growth in online and personalized learning, investments should be made on further understanding the interworking dynamics as well as potential outcomes of these environments. Within this future research, it is important to consider the personalized learning outcomes beyond the standardized academic test. Developing personalized learning environments to program learners to perform well on an academic measure is vastly different than creating transformative environments that support greater human betterment. Investing research efforts on whole system reform rather than single or limited variable intervention (e.g., a personalized LMS, self-regulation) would be needed to fully understand the potential of personalized learning. Investing in long-term research will support understanding and development of educators, researchers, industry, and society at large.

Implications for Personalized Learning in Practice

As discussed previously, truly personalized environments are a major disruption of the status quo of education. This disruption both begins and ends with a focus on designing environments that are primarily targeted at improving the growth and development of all learners, individually. This focus starts with the belief that every individual learner can and will be successful and that it is every educator’s responsibility to take ownership in supporting this success. In reality, personalized learning requires a completely unique approach to the design, implementation, and assessment of learning. In the implementation of personalized learning, teachers become designers or engineers of learning. The learning engineer can design environments that meet the parameters of success for all learners, and when these environments fail, must work to identify, solve, and test solutions through an iterative design process. For personalized learning to be operationalized in schools, environments must provide the learners and teachers with necessary capacity, tools, and strategies to support effective implementation.

There is an ever increasing push toward the development and implementation of personalized learning environments. This research found that when education is personalized, it has the potential to provide immense growth outcomes for learners with disabilities. In the development of these environments, the current academic research base is overly focused on the design of more sophisticated, advanced, technology-based systems for supporting personalized learning. The current research supports the idea that a more systems-level focus on curriculum, environment, pedagogic, school culture, and personnel development is also needed. In alignment with this research, education systems working toward personalized learning should invest in more than innovative technology; specifically, this research supports the understanding that potentially greater investments should be considered on the various other aspects of the learning environment. Investing in systematic reform that considers whole system changes based on learners as individuals is critical to advancing both understanding and practices within personalized learning.

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 Officer, Celia Rosenquist.


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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

February 20, 2017

Journal of Special Education Technology – Special Issue: Emerging Practices in K-12 Online Learning: Implications for Students with Disabilities

Note that this is special issue was guest edited, and all of the article authors, came from a single university-based center.  As I have suggested in other networks, the whole point of submitting to journals is to increase the rigor and impact (in an academic impact sense) by having others referee or review it. If all you are doing is getting direct co-workers and like-minded collaborators to comment on it, it is just as well to self-publish.

Anyway…  Here is the table of contents for this special issue.  As all of these articles appear to be open access, throughout the week I’ll post these a couple each day.

Journal of Special Education Technology

Table of Contents

Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2016

Special Issue: Emerging Practices in K-12 Online Learning: Implications for Students with Disabilities

Guest Editor : James D.Basham , Sean J.Smith , and Tracey E.Hall

Full Access

The Emerging Field of Online Special Education

First Published August 1, 2016; pp. 123–125

Show Abstract

Full Access

An Operationalized Understanding of Personalized Learning

First Published August 10, 2016; pp. 126–136

Show Abstract

Full Access

Administrator Work in Leveraging Technologies for Students With Disabilities in Online Coursework

First Published August 1, 2016; pp. 137–146

Show Abstract

Full Access

Universal Design for Learning

Scanning for Alignment in K–12 Blended and Fully Online Learning Materials

First Published August 4, 2016; pp. 147–155

Show Abstract

Full Access

Reading Achievement and Reading Efficacy Changes for Middle School Students With Disabilities Through Blended Learning Instruction

First Published July 27, 2016; pp. 156–169

Show Abstract

Full Access

Preparing Special Educators for the K–12 Online Learning Environment

A Survey of Teacher Educators

First Published August 8, 2016; pp. 170–178

Show Abstract

February 3, 2017

[CJLT / RCAT] New Issue Published and Open Competition and Guidelines for Special Issues

Another item from Tuesday’s inbox…

Dear Readers,

Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de
l’apprentissage et de la technologie has just published a new issue:
Volume 42, Number 5, a special issue titled “Issues and Challenges of
Training Teachers to use Technologies in the 21st Century | Enjeux et défis
de la formation des enseignants à l’usage des technologies au 21e
siècle.” This issue is available on our web site at We
invite you to review the Table of Contents here and then visit our web site
to review articles and items of interest.

Thank you for your continued interest in our work,

CJLT Editors
University of Alberta & York University


Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de
l’apprentissage et de la technologie
Vol 42, No 5 (2016)


CJLT Special Issue Editorial | Éditorial du numéro spécial de la RCAT
Thierry Karsenti


TPACK in Elementary and High School Teachers’ Self-reported Classroom
Practices with the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) | Connaissances abordées
dans les pratiques déclarées d’enseignants du primaire et du secondaire
qui exploitent le tableau numérique interactif (TNI) en classe
Sonia Lefebvre, Ghislain Samson, Alexandre Gareau, Nancy Brouillette

Liens entre le modèle CBAM et l’approche d’enseignement dans le
contexte de l’adoption d’une classe d’apprentissage actif par des
enseignants au postsecondaire | Relationships between the CBAM Model and the
Approach to Teaching Inventory in the Adoption of the Active Learning
Classrooms by Postsecondary Teachers
Samuel Fournier St-Laurent, Bruno Poellhuber, Madona Moukhachen

A Quantitative and Qualitative Inquiry into Future Teachers’ Use of
Information and Communications Technology to Develop Students’ Information
Literacy Skills | Enquête quantitative et qualitative auprès de futurs
enseignants portant sur l’utilisation des technologies de l’information
et de la communication pour développer les compétences informationnelles
des élèves
Stéphanie Simard, Thierry Karsenti

Stratégies de prise de notes à l’aide d’une tablette électronique chez
des étudiants du secondaire | Digital Tablet Note-Taking Strategies among
High School Students
Patrick Giroux, Diane Gauthier, Nadia Cody, Sandra Coulombe, Andréanne
Gagné, Suzie Gaudreault

Un projet de mise en place de la visioconférence en support à la formation
des enseignants inuits : enjeux et bénéfices d’une
recherche-développement en milieu nordique | Implementation of
Videoconferencing to Support Inuit Teacher Training: Advantages and
Glorya Pellerin, Gisèle Maheux, Yvonne da Silveira, Stéphane Allaire,
Véronique Paul

A Connected Generation? Digital Inequalities in Elementary and High School
Students According to Age and Socioeconomic Level | Une génération
connectée? Inégalités numériques chez les élèves du primaire et du
secondaire selon l’âge et le milieu socioéconomique
Simon Collin, Thierry Karsenti, Alexis Ndimubandi, Hamid Saffari

The Interactive Whiteboard: Uses, Benefits, and Challenges. A survey of
11,683 Students and 1,131 Teachers | Le tableau blanc interactif : usages,
avantages et défis. Une enquête auprès de 11 683 élèves et 1131
Thierry Karsenti


Open Competition and Guidelines for Special Issues

The CJLT publishes a maximum of one special issue per year. All proposals
submitted for Special Issues undergo an open call followed by a formal peer
review by the CJLT editorial team.

If you are considering submitting a proposal for a special issue in the
CJLT, please refer to the proposal guidelines and send the proposal to the
CJLT managing editors (

Special Issue Proposal Guidelines

A Special Issue proposal should contain the following information:

– The title of the proposed special issue.
– The names, institutional affiliations, emails, and positions of the
proposed Guest Editor(s) together with brief biographical details.
– A brief description of the rationale, fit with aims and scope of the CJLT,
its innovative nature and significance in relation to existing published
work in educational technology, contribution to learning theory, and a
statement on why this special issue will appeal to our readership (not to
exceed 1500 words).
– Names and position of each proposed contributor and a 300-word abstract of
their planned paper, together with an indication of their commitment to
contribute to the special issue.
– A statement that all manuscripts submitted are not currently under review
elsewhere, the material is original, and has not been published in prior
conference proceedings, journals, or other scholarly fora.
– Provision of at least three names and corresponding emails, per
manuscript, of arm’s length academics (not personally affiliated with any
of the authors and/or the guest editors) with a brief statement of the
reviewers’ research expertise in the area.
– Proposed timelines for the special issue manuscript submissions to the
managing editor that are ready for peer review (e.g., the guest editors have
reviewed each manuscript for APA format, references have been cross-checked,
writing is free from editorial errors, etc.).

NOTE: The CJLT editors and managing editors oversee the peer review process
for special issues and make the editorial decision to accept, accept with
revisions, revise and resubmit for review, or reject. This process typically
takes 12-18 months from the proposal submission deadline to the publication
of the special issue.

All manuscripts for the special issue will be subject to standard peer
review and must adhere to the CJLT issue guidelines and timelines (e.g.,
published in a spring, summer or winter issue; 5 manuscripts per issue).
Manuscript word count should fall between 5000-6500 words (not to exceed
7000 words) including references, figures, diagrams and tables.  Guest
Editor(s) are required to adhere to a publishing agreement with the CJLT
once a special issue proposal has been accepted by the Editorial Team.

Special issues are managed via the Open Journal System (OJS) used by the
CJLT, and overseen by the managing editors. Normal CJLT refereeing
procedures (at least two referees per paper) apply.

If you have any further questions, feel free to get in touch with the
managing editors at

Proposals for special issues to be published in 2018 are due April 1, 2017.
Notification of acceptance will be provided by April 30, 2017.
Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology /
La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie

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