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REL Midwest Reference Desk

Virtual/Online Program Effectiveness in Special Education

November 2015

Questions:

1. What does the research say about the effectiveness of virtual/online programs used in special education settings?

2. What does the research say about professional development for teachers who use virtual/online programs with students in special education settings?



Background:

REL Midwest received a request for information on the effectiveness of virtual/online programs in special education settings.

Following an established REL Midwest research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive and policy-oriented briefs and articles on virtual and online program effectiveness in special education. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed professional development for teachers using online programs with students in special education settings. The sources included federally funded organizations, research institutions, several educational research databases, and a general Internet search using Google and other search engines.

We also searched for appropriate organizations that may act as resources on this issue. We have not done an evaluation of these organizations or the resources themselves but offer this list for reference only.

Research References

1. What does the research say about the effectiveness of virtual/online programs used in special education settings?

Catalano, A. (2014). Improving distance education for students with special needs: A qualitative study of students’ experiences with an online library research course. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 8(1–2), 17–31. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1032235

From the abstract: "This article describes a study in which seven students with diverse disabilities participated in a one-credit online library research course which had been adapted to be accessible using the best practices literature on distance education for students with special needs. Students provided feedback on the design of the course and participated in in-depth interviews. Results of this study suggest any given class may have students with different types of disabilities, with different paths toward learning. Using the principles of universal design for learning can improve distance education not only for students with special needs, but for all types of learners."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Keeler, C., & Horney, M. (2007). Online course designs: Are special needs being met? American Journal for Distance Education, 21(2). Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ772140

From the abstract: "This article addresses the intersections between online education and special education in terms of instructional design. The relevant elements of online instructional design, which require particular attention when teaching students with special needs, are examined. The overall finding is that contemporary courses generally include design elements necessary to meet the basic needs of students with disabilities. The authors recommend design methods focusing on either universal design principles or a specified target population."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Laffey, J., Stichter, J. P., & Galyen, K. (2014). Distance learning for students with special needs through 3D virtual learning. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments (IJVPLE), 5(2), 15–27. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1154909

From the abstract: "iSocial is a 3D Virtual Learning Environment (3D VLE) to develop social competency for students who have been identified with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. The motivation for developing a 3D VLE is to improve access to special needs curriculum for students who live in rural or small school districts. The paper first describes a number of innovative features developed to translate a targeted curriculum and to undertake teaching and learning to meet special needs in a 3D Virtual Environment. Secondly the paper describes results from a field test of iSocial at 3 sites with 11 students. The results show promise for improvements in social competence, but also challenges for distance learning delivery of 3D VLE."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Additional Resources

Burdette, P., Greer, D., & Woods, K. (2013). K-12 online learning and students with disabilities: Perspectives from state special education directors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(3), 65–73. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1018283.pdf

From the abstract: "K-12 special education policies and practices that ensure students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment are coming under pressure from the rapid expansion of online learning. Forty-six state and non-state jurisdiction special education directors responded to a brief survey about K-12 online learning. Findings demonstrated an increase in the number of states providing online instruction; indicated that students with many different types of disabilities participate in online learning; and described the directors’ reflections on current issues as well as anticipated barriers to students with disabilities participating in online learning. Ambiguity and variability existed across state policies regarding online education as each state may have been in a different stage of adopting this relatively new approach to K-12 education. As a result, students bring to their undergraduate education a wide array of perceptions, attitudes, and prior experiences that may affect their learning outcomes."

E-learning for special populations [Special report]. (2011, August 22). Education Week, 31(1). Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ940694

From the abstract: "This special report, another installment in Education Week’s series on virtual education, examines the growing e-learning opportunities for students with disabilities, English-language learners, gifted and talented students, and those at risk of failing in school. It shows the barriers that exist for greater participation among special populations, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this approach. It also looks at the funding tactics schools are using to build virtual education programs for special populations and the evolving professional-development needs for these efforts."

Features in this e-learning report:

  • E-Learning Expands for Special-Needs Students

  • Assistive Technology Broadens Its Range

  • New E-Learning Funding Tactics Seen as Necessary

  • Virtual Education Targets Rise of Autism

  • E-Learning Opens Doors for Gifted Students

  • Opportunity Ripe for Online ELL Ed.

  • At-Risk Students Face E-Learning Challenges

  • Virtual Ed. Seeks Right Fit for Special Populations

  • Training Educators for Virtual Special Education

Meyen, E. (2015). Significant advancements in technology to improve instruction for all students: Including those with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 36(2), 67–71. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1057864

From the abstract: "Emerging technologies in the realm of instructional change brought about by the Internet provide the framework for the choice of significant advancements, discussed in this article, to improve instruction for all students including students with disabilities. They include the impact of technologies that allow for measuring physiological and motivational responses of online learners that enhance the personalization of online instruction, the impact of wireless computing in contributing to how ubiquitous computing influences learning environments for all learners, and the increased capacity offered by technology to increase sensitivity to variability among online learners and to stimulate research in the important area of inquiry."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Vasquez, E., & Straub, C. (2012). Online instruction for K-12 special education: A review of the empirical literature. Journal of Special Education Technology, 27(3), 31–40. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1001430

From the abstract: "Online environments increasingly are becoming a part of our schools. While online education holds tremendous promise—offering viable and attractive options for advancing student skills, increasing access, and potentially lowering the cost of educational services—there is little research on the efficacy of online instruction for students with disabilities. A comprehensive review of the literature was conducted to determine if the existing literature can provide a research base for delivering evidence-based practices mediated through synchronous or asynchronous online technology for students with disabilities."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

2. What does the research say about professional development for teachers who use virtual/online programs with students in special education settings?

Ke, F., Im, T., Xue, X., Xu, X., Kim, N., & Lee, S. (2015). Experience of adult facilitators in a virtual-reality-based social interaction program for children with autism. Journal of Special Education, 48(4), 290–300. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1048520

From the abstract: "This phenomenological study explored and described the experiences and perceptions of adult facilitators who facilitated virtual-reality-based social interaction for children with autism. Extensive data were collected from iterative, in-depth interviews; online activities observation; and video analysis. Four salient themes emerged through the process of data generation, analysis, and comparison of participants: heterogeneity in group-based facilitation, coexistence of virtual and physical interaction spaces, sparkle and out-of-track moments, and pretraining for individualized facilitation. The findings should enrich the research area of technology-enhanced special education by delineating the dynamic processes and patterns of facilitating Internet-based social interactions for children with special needs."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Additional Resources

Collins, B. C., Schuster, J. W., Ludlow, B. L., & Duff, M. (2002). Planning and delivery of online coursework in special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 25(2), 171–186. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ655448

From the abstract: "Based on a review of the literature and the authors’ experience, this article addresses issues in three aspects of the planning and delivery of online content: (1) online support services; (2) technology assistance; and (3) course content. Recommendations are given for administrators and instructors involved in the delivery of online coursework in special education personnel preparation."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Davis, M. (2011). Training educators for virtual special education. Education Week, 31(1). Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/08/24/01edtech-profdev.h31.html

From the abstract: "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…"

Serianni, B. A., & Coy, K. (2014). Doing the math: Supporting students with disabilities in online courses. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 46(5), 102–109. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1058898

From the abstract: "The purpose of this article is to provide teachers and parents with a framework and practical ideas for supporting their students with disabilities in online mathematics. Through the fictional scenarios involving Martin and Liana, factors that may contribute to a successful online learning experience will be explored, highlighting the benefits and challenges of learning in this environment."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Smith, S. J., & Basham, J. D. (2014). Designing online learning opportunities for students with disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 46(5), 127–137. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1058966

From the abstract: "With the growth in blended and fully online K-12 instruction, all students, including those with disabilities, are finding online learning a viable option to address learner variability. Personalized learning or the individualized education program appears to align well with the many features of blended and fully online instruction. The purpose of this article is to assist teachers and other practitioners in understanding the availability of blended and fully online K-12 content for the struggling learner and those with disabilities. The hope is that through an understanding of how best to determine the accessibility of online content, teachers can better identify the right type of instructional program for their students, including the consideration of blended and fully online learning curriculum."

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

West, E., Jones, P., & Semon, S. (2012). Promoting community for online learners in special education. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 28(3), 108–116. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ972451.pdf

From the abstract: "This study examined the sense of community in an online course for special education teachers enrolled in a master’s program. The sense of community in an online environment may contribute to students’ success and satisfaction (Knapczyk, Chapman, Rodes, & Chung, 2001). This article provides an example of a process for online community development and implementation that may foster a sense of community among learners, a tool that can be used to measure sense of community and insights from students who responded to this tool. Analysis of survey results from two cohorts of students who completed two sections of an online course in special education shows that the level of community they experienced was ‘just about right.’ This study highlights themes generated that include (a) favored course components (Elluminate sessions, learner-centered activities, and course convenience), (b) factors contributing to sense of community (communication, safe environment, supportive instructor, and opportunities to network across the group), and (c) problematic course components (technical issues and general dislike of online learning format)."

Additional Organizations to Consult

  • International Association of K-12 Online Learning
    (http://www.inacol.org/)

    From the website: “The mission of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is to ensure all students have access to a world-class education and quality blended and online learning opportunities that prepare them for a lifetime of success. iNACOL is a non-profit organization focused on research; developing policy for student-centered education to ensure equity and access; developing quality standards for emerging learning models using online, blended, and competency-based education; and supporting the ongoing professional development of classroom, school, district and state leaders for new learning models.”

  • National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE)
    (http://www.nasdse.org/)

    From the website: “NASDSE operates for the purpose of providing services to state agencies to facilitate their efforts to maximize educational outcomes for individuals with disabilities. NASDSE is a not-for-profit organization established in 1938 to promote and support education programs and related services for children and youth with disabilities in the United States and outlying areas. NASDSE accomplishes its goals by establishing and maintaining relations between those responsible for the development of statewide and federal special education programs and those responsible for general curriculum planning at the local, state and national levels. NASDSE activities are designed to provide professional support to its members and others interested in special education.”

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
    (http://www.ncld.org/)

    From the website: “The mission of NCLD is to improve the lives of the one in five children and adults nationwide with learning and attention issues—by empowering parents and young adults, transforming schools and advocating for equal rights and opportunities. We’re working to create a society in which every individual possesses the academic, social and emotional skills needed to succeed in school, at work and in life.”

Methods

Keywords and Search Strings Used in the Search

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Virtual OR online OR distance learning AND special education AND effectiveness

  • Virtual OR online OR distance learning AND special needs students AND effectiveness

  • Professional development AND online teaching AND special education

  • Online AND “special education”

  • Virtual AND “special education”

Search of Databases and Websites

Institute of Education Sciences sources: Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Program, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Center for Education Research (NCER), National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)

Additional data resources: ERIC, EBSCO databases, Google Scholar, Google, general Internet search

Criteria for Inclusion

When Reference Desk researchers review resources, they consider—among other things—four factors:

  • Date of the publication: We include the most current information, except in the case of nationally known seminal resources.

  • Source and funder of the report/study/brief/article: We give priority to IES, nationally funded, and certain other vetted sources known for strict attention to research protocols.

  • Methodology: Randomized controlled trial studies, surveys, self-assessments, literature reviews, policy briefs. We generally give priority for inclusion to randomized controlled trial study findings, but the reader should note at least the following factors when basing decisions on these resources: numbers of participants (just a few? thousands?); selection (Did the participants volunteer for the study, or were they chosen?); representation (Were findings generalized from a homogeneous or a diverse pool of participants? Was the study sample representative of the population as a whole?).

  • Existing knowledge base: Although we strive to include vetted resources, there are times when the research base is slim or nonexistent. In these cases, we presented the best resources we could find, which may include, for example, newspaper articles, interviews with content specialists, and organization websites.
The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk is a service provided by a collaborative of the REL Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). This response was prepared under contract ED-IES-12-C-0004 with IES, by REL Midwest, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of the response does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.