Digital and online learning for students with disabilities

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A leading US research centre has published a new report intended to kickstart a collaborative research effort into the complex role of digital and online learning for students with disabilities

Equity Matters, published by the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, presents preliminary findings from a number of the Center’s research projects and experiences, and reports on emerging trends, outcomes, challenges, and promising practices.

It covers different contexts and practices, arguing that K-12 online education has rapidly evolved from ‘a primary focus on full-time virtual settings to the growing pre-eminence of blended (and personalized) environments.’

The authors say that currently there is sparse independent research available to help distinguish educationally effective digital materials, activities, delivery systems, and progress monitoring procedures from those that yield little gain—or even lead to negative outcomes. In some cases, it says, this is because groups ‘vigorously avoid any association with independent inquiries’.

Among the report’s key findings are that:

  • Few states offer or require certification or endorsements in online teaching, despite the fact that all stakeholders generally agree that the knowledge and skills, both technological and pedagogical, necessary for success differ dramatically from those skills and knowledge required in brick-and-mortar settings.
  • A shared belief is that the flexibility of digital learning materials, when combined with appropriately designed online delivery systems and instruction, can address the variable learning needs of elementary and secondary students with disabilities in ways difficult or impossible to otherwise achieve.
  • The capacity of online learning systems to track, record, and present information about student progress—at the point of instruction—offers enormous potential for supporting more personalized learning for all students, including those students with disabilities. Unfortunately, the current data gathered within many of these systems are often siloed and do not always support instructional decision making.
  • State Directors of Special Education agree that great potential exists for online systems to collect a variety of data, but, currently, these data do not support the reporting requirements they are charged with addressing.
  • Leaders of full-time virtual and blended online schools, and digital materials and systems vendors uniformly agree that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed for brick-and-mortar settings need to be re-visited (and likely revised) once a student enrolls in online learning.
  • Parents of students with disabilities who are being educated in full-time virtual settings spend more time supporting their students in day-to-day online learning than do parents of these students in blended or supplemental settings, despite the fact that few parents report having expertise in providing special education services.

The authors say the report’s main aim is to ’spark discussion, reflection, and debate, with a focus on enhancing understanding within all participant groups, leading to the design of more responsive systems, practices and policy to support enhanced outcomes for all learners – especially students with disabilities.’

Center staff are scheduled to appear at ATiA 2016 in Orlando, Florida (3-6 February 2016) and CEC 2016 Special Education Convention & Expo in St Louis, Missouri (13-16 April 2016).

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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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