As new technologies allow digital lessons to be tailored to various learning styles, a growing number of programs are evolving to enable students with disabilities to take online courses created with their needs in mind.
While such options are still not readily available for most students in special education, virtual programs are being seen as a means to fill gaps in special education services in cost-effective ways.
Some schools are offering online speech therapy classes that feature video interactivity, for instance, while others are turning to digital curricula designed specifically for special education students, rather than trying to adapt existing online courses to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
But these developments—which are part of a bigger trend to blend face-to-face and online learning in public schools—are raising questions about the role and effectiveness of online coursetaking for students with disabilities because there is little evidence that the approach improves student achievement for those students. Some educators also question whether companies touting new online-learning services for special education students truly appreciate the investments they will need to make to meet the needs of those students.
“This is very time-intensive, and it’s not one-size-fits-all,” said Michelle H. Lourcey, the chief academic officer for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which provides supplemental courses to schools across the state and which has developed a roster of courses for special education students. “I don’t know how many for-profit companies would be willing to put in the money and effort needed,” she said.
Throughout the day in special education teacher Lindsey L. Taylor’s classroom at Ashbrook High School in Gastonia, N.C., students take applied science, introduction to math, and algebra courses all developed by the state’s virtual school. The students in her class have a range of disabilities, including bipolar disorder, ADHD, oppositional defiance, autism, and cerebral palsy.
But the students have been able to navigate through the online courses, boost their knowledge, and this year they are taking the same assessments as students who are not in special education, Ms. Taylor said. She’s seen a measurable impact from using the courses: In last year’s biology class, for example, the state (which makes predictions for student test scores on state tests) predicted one student would score in the second percentile, but that student instead scored in the 82nd percentile, Ms. Taylor said. The majority of her other seven students made significant gains too. “Even though my students might not be on grade level, the growth they’re making is enormous,” she said.
That’s largely because the blended learning curriculum from the virtual school—which features a mix of online and hands-on lessons—was designed specifically for students with disabilities, Ms. Taylor said. The courses use simpler vocabulary words, they are deliberately more repetitive, and they use the concepts of universal design for learning—such as tools to convert text to speech—to provide greater access for those with disabilities. Each course also features an online teacher from the virtual school, which developed the courses several years ago after state lawmakers insisted special education students should be learning the same curriculum as the rest of the student population.
The special education course of study is the state virtual school’s biggest area of enrollment, with 8,010 course enrollments this semester, Ms. Lourcey said.
The online courses require a significant amount of collaboration between the on-site educator and the virtual teacher. Along with the classroom teacher, the virtual teacher reviews and grades online student work, provides feedback, and assigns work. At the end of each day in Ms. Taylor’s class, she fills in a detailed Google doc to help the online teacher know which students struggled, which ones did well, and which students had behavior problems. The two educators work together to troubleshoot behavioral issues, address learning struggles, and craft study strategies, Ms. Taylor said.
Skip Stahl, a senior policy analyst for the Wakefield, Mass.-based Center for Applied Special Technology, said he sees the North Carolina virtual courses as a gold standard unlikely to be replicated by for-profit companies.
“There’s something in between the highly resourced, highly specialized work that North Carolina is doing and the kind of insufficient, first-round efforts that have been emerging from a commercial-vendor perspective,” he said. “Is it possible to create an environment that is sufficiently attractive to support commercial-vendor investment while at the same time providing an optimal environment for students with distinct learning needs?”
Companies Sell Services
However, companies working in the K-12 education market are starting to see potential opportunities to provide online services for the 6.4 million students in the United States who receive special education services.
To begin with, blended learning for such students has the potential to provide more personalized instruction, said Sean J. Smith, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, based in Lawrence, and a principal investigator for the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities. “There is a nature of individualization that blended and fully online learning offers that could really support individuals with disabilities in that environment,” he said.
But Mr. Smith emphasized that a one-size-fits-all approach to blended learning would not work. “We’ve had that problem with face-to-face learning, and we’re going to have the problem with online learning, too.”
Earlier this year, two companies—San Francisco-based PresenceLearning, which offers live, online access to speech and occupational therapists as well as special education teachers, and Fuel Education, whose parent company is Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc.—established a partnership to deliver online special education services. Those services are delivered through Fuel Education’s online learning platform, called PEAK.
That partnership includes delivering mental- and behavioral-health services and specialized academic instruction, Mr. Smith said.
Certified Virtual Teachers
The newest offering from the partnership is specialized academic instruction provided by credentialed special education teachers, said Katie Povejsil, the vice president of marketing for PresenceLearning. An online special education instructor uses the school’s own curriculum to provide live, virtual small-group or one-on-one instruction in math and language arts, she said.
Allison G. Oxford, the director of instructional-support services for the 8,000-student Murray County schools in Chatsworth, Ga., said she has used PresenceLearning’s online speech therapy for three years with students in her district.
“This gives us the flexibility to have on-demand therapists that are highly qualified,” she said. “Before, we simply didn’t have enough people.”
Prior to using the online services, the district had to bus students to locations for therapy in the summer to get make-up services to meet requirements that couldn’t be met during the school year, she said.
But some experts worry that moving toward blended learning for special education students could be risky.
Bill East, the executive director for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said he’d be concerned about the training that online special education teachers receive.
“Are there skills that teachers need to know and be able to do that are different from when they teach in brick-and-mortar schools?” he said.
Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Virtual Spec. Ed. Is Evolving Option