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Making e-learning more effective for K-12 learners with disabilities

January 2, 2015

Online learning is experiencing tremendous growth in the K-12 classroom. By one estimate, nearly 2 million K-12 students were engaged in some form of online learning last year. Some predict that at least half of all 9th-12th grade classes could be delivered in online environments by 2019. Since 2012, Don Deshler, Sean Smith, Jamie Basham and Ed Meyen, all faculty from KU’s Department of Special Education, as well as Daryl Mellard from the KU Center for Research on Learning (KUCRL), have conducted research into online learning and its impact on students with disabilities.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities is a three-way partnership between the KUCRL, the Center for Applied Special Technology and the National Association of State directors of Special Education. The center’s mission is to research how online learning can be made more accessible, engaging and effective for K-12 learners with disabilities. To fulfill this mission, the center conducts research in three primary areas: current and emerging trends and issues related to the participation of all children with disabilities in online learning, potential positive outcomes and negative consequences of online learning for children with disabilities, and promising approaches for effectively including children with disabilities in online learning.

Recent findings show that vendors of online learning platforms vary greatly in their adherence to national standards of accessibility. While some vendors have consistently taken careful steps to make sure that online environments are fully accessible to students with disabilities, others have taken limited steps and have actually created barriers. Examining K-12 online content beyond accessibility standards, the center developed and used a measurement tool to determine the alignment of instructional lessons for online learning to the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Initial findings suggest limited alignment for the majority of popular and widely used online curriculum. Online learning platforms are heavily dependent on text as the primary medium of instruction. Text complexity is unequal, inconsistent and unpredictable, and text complexity varies between courses and even within different parts of the same course/lesson. A wide variation exists among state and local policies that are likely to affect the enrollment, participation, persistence and outcomes of students with disabilities in online learning. According to every stakeholder group surveyed — vendors, state directors of special education, classroom teachers and parents — policies impede or block the ability to optimize online learning for students with disabilities.

When students with disabilities participate in fully online schools or courses, the role of their parents changes dramatically. In some findings, parents essentially take on the role of teacher, assistant teacher or homework monitor. A disproportionate number of students with
disabilities currently enroll in online courses when compared with the total number of students in a district or school. For example, out of a total enrollment of 11,000 students, one online vendor reported an enrollment of fewer than 200 students with disabilities. For the same year, a different online vendor reported an enrollment of 300 students with disabilities out of a total enrollment of 3,000 students.

Additionally, a disproportionate number of disability subgroups exists in online learning enrollments. Specifically, students with autism spectrum disorders and behavioral/emotional problems are disproportionately over-represented, and students who are blind are underrepresented.
Although these findings suggest concerns for online learning among students with disabilities, recent work in personalized learning offer examples of best practice and how blended and fully online K-12 instruction can be individualized to align to the specific needs of the student. The center’s work is seeking to better understand the impact of personalization, especially on the unique learning and instructional needs of students with disabilities. More information about the center and its efforts can be found at

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