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Online Learning and Students with Disabilities

Page history last edited by Lenora hester 7 years, 3 months ago

Online Learning and Students with Disabilities


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. The Benefits of Online Learning

3. The Drawbacks of Online Learning

4. The Future of Online Special Education

5. References

6. Additional Web Links


Photo Credit: teachrite.com




            In recent years, technology has been playing an increasing role in K-12 education. Thanks to the advent of online K-12 schools, such as K12 Online Schools, online learning have become more and more popular with special education students. The parents of students with disabilities believed that online special education classes would be more beneficial than traditional special education classes.


            Online learning is still considered a new frontier in K-12 special education because the technologies required for this kind of environment are still in their early stages. While no doubt there are significant benefits to online learning for students with disabilities, such as flexible and adaptable curriculum, personalized instruction, improved academic performance and the convenience of taking classes at home, but there are issues that have yet to have been addressed, such as the effectiveness of online learning in special education and whether online learning can help students with disabilities perform just as well as students without disabilities. In addition, online special education, like all other forms of online education, requires a different approach to learning for both teachers and students, because traditional approaches to learning will not work in an online course. The approaches in special education that is necessary for student success may be complicated, due the differing needs and skill levels of special education students.


Photo Credit: Virginia Tech University (from VT Magazine)


The Benefits of Online Learning


There are several key benefits of online learning in K-12 special education. A student-centered learning environment and high levels of student engagement will be achieved through an online education (Vasquez and Serianni 2012) which allows students with disabilities to think more openly and independently. Online special education is the flexible customization of instructional methods to meet the needs of special education students. Since special education students have different types of physical and/or mental impairments, the instructional methods in online special education can be adapted to fit their needs. Another benefit of online special education is the ability to take classes at home, without the hassle of going on campus, which can benefit students who have severe physical disabilities, behavioral problems and/or have difficulty learning in a traditional classroom, particularly autistic students, who are often considered ideal candidates for online special education classes (Ash 2010). It also gives students with disabilities more time to learn using technology than traditional face-to-face special education classes, because they have the ability to take classes on their own time. Lastly, there are many online learning options available for special education students because there are a lot more online K-12 schools than a decade ago.


Advocates of online learning for special education students often touted the benefits of taking online classes by special education students. They believed that adaptive technologies and the use of computers and the internet, special education students can do just as well academically as students without disabilities in many cases. This removes the academic barrier between students with disabilities and mainstream students (Taylor, Smiley and Richards 2009). In several studies, students with disabilities who take online classes do nearly as well as students without disabilities in standardized tests. Additionally, online learning allows parents and educators to determine what deficiencies that the student might have and to use the appropriate technologies (depending on the type and/or severity of the deficiency) in order for student to overcome his or her deficiencies and succeed in online classes and allows a more flexible schedule for parents with busy work schedules the ability to monitor a student’s progress whenever they have time off from work (Ash 2010).


The Drawbacks of Online Learning


There are many drawbacks with online learning for K-12 special education students. First, just like any other online classes, there are no face to face meetings as in a real classroom (the classroom is online), which means there is no interaction between the teacher and the student with disabilities. Student assessments may not be as effective over technologies such as Skype. Teachers need to know in advance what disability that the student might have and to create customized lesson plans for that particular student.


Second, online learning for special education students requires not only a computer and internet access; it also needs approval from the parents, as well as the IEP (Instructional Education Program) advisor. While many students with disabilities will find online classes as an ideal environment to learn, online classes is not for every special education student; some will benefit more from online learning than others, depending on the student’s impairments and needs, such as students who have cerebral palsy or autism might benefit more from online learning than a student who are both deaf and blind. In addition, the IEP advisor must first evaluate and make recommendations whether the student with a disability should take online classes or not. Students who require rehabilitation may still require access physical access to speech and occupational therapists to make progress.


Third, there is no state or national regulations for K-12 students taking online classes. K-12 online classes, including special education does not have to follow state and federal academic standards. Currently, each state has different academic standards for which all students, including students with disabilities must complete in order to graduate (Vasquez and Serianni 2012), but it does not apply to online classes. However, the federal government and some states are planning to introduce federal academic standards for students taking online classes in the coming years. There are also no certification requirements for teachers in online K-12 classes, including special education. This means that the teacher may not need a credential or a bachelor’s degree in order to teach an online class, unlike a traditional face-to-face class. Some states are now considering an online certification option, in addition to standard teaching credentials for future teachers. For now, the quality of instruction in online special education classes is unknown due to lack of standards. There are standards like Section 508  and the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that have been widely adopted, but private institutions are not required to follow them. Sites such as Georgia Tech's CATEA GRADE provide resources for developers of accessible elearning web content. 


Lastly, most online K-12 schools are privately run and it can be very expensive for the student to enroll in these kinds of schools. Therefore online schools may not be a viable option for low-income students. Additionally, not all online schools will accept students with different types of disabilities. However, there are a few public and charter online schools that are free to all students, as long the student has access to the internet.


Photo Credit: University of Washington



The Future of Online Special Education


Since K-12 online education is still relatively new, a  lot more research is needed to prove whether online Special Education classes improve academic achievement in students with disabilities or not. While there some special benefits for students, there are also special drawbacks to this new form of special education at the K-12 level. Up until now, in the few research studies that have already been published, results have been mixed (in comparing the academic abilities of students with disabilities and student without disabilities). Some studies found that there are no differences in academic performance, while in others, students with disabilities are a disadvantage in reading and writing and learning History.


With online schooling for K-12 students becoming more and more common, there will eventually be federal and state standards for students with and without disabilities taking online classes. Funding and subsidies from government could make online learning accessible and affordable to students with disabilities. This may encourage more local school districts to offer online K-12 classes, including special education.


Resources for Online Learners

Two Resources that may help Students, Parents and Teachers are Dynavox devices and Dragon Speak Everything software. Students who have difficulty with fine and gross motor control may use a chair -mounted device by Dynavox. This is a self-contained, fully functioning touchscreen computer. These screens are especially made to be extremely durable. Students are able to type assignments, conduct internet research and most any other need in the classroom. In addition, they may have Dragon Naturally Speaking software installed. This software allows for voice recognition. This means that students may speak a response and the device will type it out for them, or the student can type a response and the device will speak for them.





Vasquez III, E., & Serianni, B. A. (2012). Research and Practice in Distance Education
     for K-12 Students with Disabilities. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 31(4), 33–42.


Ash, K. (2010, June 16). Educators Weigh Benefits, Drawbacks of Virtual Spec. Ed.
     Digital Directions. Retrieved 27 April 2013 from:


Taylor, R.L., Smiley, L.R., & Richards, S.B. (2009). Exceptional Students: Preparing
     Teachers for the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Additional Web Links


Online Sapiens: eLearning for Students with Disabilities

Wikipedia: Virtual Learning Environment

Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction: Special Education Guidelines for eLearning

Education Week: Digital Tools Expand Options for Personalized Learning (29 January 2010)

User Interfaces and User Experience Considerations in Instructional Design

Technology Profiles of Current K12 Students


Dragon Speak Everything

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