Special Report
Special Education

Training Educators for Virtual Special Education

By Michelle R. Davis — August 22, 2011 6 min read

Special education teachers who work with students in a virtual environment often need professional development that goes beyond traditional offerings to find tools and strategies that work without face to face communication.

For many online schools, that challenge means providing special education teachers with intense professional development, often weekly, to make sure they’re meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

Such professional study usually takes place online, using Web-based conferencing tools and virtual classrooms, during a teacher’s work day. The presentations—on everything from assistive technology to online individualized education programs, or IEPs—also can be recorded and accessed during a teacher’s off hours.

But whether online or face-to-face, professional development is a critical component in supporting special education students in an online classroom, said Maurice E. Flurie, the chief executive officer of the 4,800-student Commonwealth Connections Academy, based in Harrisburg, Pa.

“In a brick-and-mortar school, student populations are more stable, and teachers have more time to determine what a student’s gaps and learning needs might be,” Mr. Flurie said, referring to his sometimes-transient population of students. “In our environment, we need to be able to identify student needs sooner.”

Tailored Training

To start with, virtual special education teachers must have the same training that all new online teachers need, said Carrie McClain, the assistant director of special education for the 8,500-student Georgia Cyber Academy, in Atlanta. About 10 percent of the school’s K-10 enrollment is categorized as special education students.

But special education teachers in a virtual setting need to go beyond what online teachers in general learn. They must be taught to conduct an IEP online, for example, to take advantage of all their communication tools, and to be aware of a wide range of assistive technologies and how best to incorporate them into an online curriculum. While parents can request in-person meetings and a school will comply, discussions often take place online or over the phone.

In professional-development sessions, Georgia Cyber Academy’s special education teachers learn about the various applications that allow them to share an IEP document with other teachers and parents, how to change the instructional model of a class based on a student’s needs, and how to create a behavior-intervention plan that fits into a virtual school, Ms. McClain said.

“A behavior intervention plan from a brick-and-mortar setting that says the student needs to work on keeping his hands to himself in the hall is no longer appropriate,” she said. “We need to make adjustments based on the change in the learning environment.”

Much of that professional development is done through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous web conferencing sessions for teachers, sometimes featuring experts and guest speakers. During the last school year, special education teachers at Georgia Cyber Academy received between 15 minutes and an hour of professional development per week, Ms. McClain said.

For special education teachers employed by Connections Academy, an online education company based in Baltimore that operates 23 virtual schools in 22 states, there are weekly professional-development opportunities as well, said Marjorie M. Rofel, the senior director of student services. Special education teachers new to teaching at Connections Academy schools also enroll in the company’s special education “teacher university” for their first two years.

“It’s targeted professional development for new virtual teachers,” Ms. Rofel said. About 11 percent of Connections Academy students have IEPs, she said. Such plans are required under federal law for students with disabilities.

The university covers a variety of topics, including assistive technology and supplementary instructional programs, and helps teachers form an online cohort of colleagues to use as a sounding board, Ms. Rofel said.

Connections Academy’s professional development for special education teachers typically takes place during the work day. Because of the way online teachers work, schools don’t have to shut down or find substitutes when teachers are in a professional-development session, Ms. Rofel said.

“They do it during their regular day, often around lunchtime, so they can sit at their desks,” she said. Since it takes place during their work hours, teachers do not receive additional salary or stipends for their professional development work, she said.

Year-Round Help

Special education teacher Kathryn P. Weaver said she gets year-round professional development at Commonwealth Connections Academy in Pennsylvania. The special education team meets weekly, in person, to discuss new policies and regulations. The school also provides themed topical training. During the past school year, it focused on how to support students’ transition from school to work, from school to higher education,and to independent living.

Because the school is virtual, there’s not much opportunity to provide hands-on job training for students with particular needs—for example, to teach a cooking class aimed at independent living, Ms. Weaver said. But the professional development she received got her thinking about what she could do to address the issue.

She was able to link students to local social services and job-training programs. She discovered methods of connecting students to college disability offices. The professional development also inspired Ms. Weaver to challenge her students to think about money management, how to calculate a tip, and how to get around their communities on their own.

Ms. Weaver presented her 8th grade students with an activity that awarded them $200 in virtual money and asked them to plan a three-course dinner party for eight friends. Using a grocery store website, students calculated food costs and planned “upscale” parties, she said. The following week, she gave them the same challenge, but limited their budget to $50.

“A lot of students realized that here are their math skills at work in the real world,” she said.

For Cindi Madej, a special education consultant with the Columbiana County Educational Service Center, based in Lisbon, Ohio, the lens through which she views professional development is a bit different.

Her organization provides services to 11 school districts, and she seeks out professional learning opportunities for special education teachers who teach in a face-to-face environment but are looking for more online resources.

“School districts are having to meet accountability standards for students with disabilities,” Ms. Madej said, “and they’re having this frustration, for example, that a student with normal intelligence is not meeting the language requirements based on a linguistic” disability.

Districts are seeking out technologies that might help, such as software that might read text to a student. During the past school year, Ms. Madej brought in an expert who presented teachers with an array of technologies, including iPods, hand-held devices, and educational software and trained them on their use with special education students.

Teachers received in-person training on the technologies and had access to a website with shared resources. The teachers developed a plan to use the new technology and chose to focus on four students with learning disabilities. The teachers were also trained to collect and analyze data, Ms. Madej said.

The center plans to conduct similar professional development with special education teachers in other districts.

“Teachers were so eager to sign up this year based on feedback from teachers last year,” Ms. Madej said. “When they found some successes, they were spurred on by it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Training for Virtual Interaction

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