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New Center: Concerns About Online Options for Special Ed. Students

Leaders of a new center designed to expand students with disabilities' access to online courses said in just a few months of work, they have some serious concerns about those students' participation in e-learning.

"Our preparatory investigations have already raised a number of concerns that we think are urgent enough to report even now," wrote Don Deshler of the Center for Research on Learning, David Rose of the Center for Applied Special Technology, Bill East of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and Diana Greer of the Center for Research on Learning, in an open letter written this month.

In their letter directed at teachers, parents, students, product developers and policy-makers, the principal investigators of the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities said their initial steps have uncovered a number of issues, including:

  • Complaints as parents and others raise concerns about how students with disabilities are served in online learning environments.
  • Inconsistent policies from state to state and district to district for providing special education and related services to students with disabilities in online environments.
  • Major gaps in basic and advanced accessibility for students with disabilities. "As some states have begun to include online learning as a graduation requirement, this poses a significant civil rights issue," they said.
  • Minimal teacher training for educators working with students online, including regular education teachers. "The special preparation in the unique competencies required to provide online instruction to students with disabilities is often totally absent."
  • Little knowledge of why students with disabilities and their parents choose online learning. "Some have raised concerns that online learning is being adopted as the least effortful alternative," they wrote.
  • No national data describe the students with disabilities engaged in online learning.

Parents of students with disabilities have given me many reasons why online courses have been the perfect fit for their children, including because their children are easily distracted or can't keep up in a traditional classroom. But participation of students with disabilities in some states, I found, despite robust online offerings, was nonexistent.

The Center is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's special education department.

"The urgency for raising these concerns now, rather than later, stems from one clear finding," the center's investigators wrote. "Students with disabilities are rapidly being assimilated into online learning activities in the absence of enough information to address these concerns."

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