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More studies needed on blended learning for students with disabilities

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Today’s guest bloggers are Mary Rice and Bryan Dykman from the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.

Students with disabilities and their families have a history of struggling for educational services that enable them to participate with their peers and access the curriculum. These gaps in participation and access have traveled with the students into cyberspace as increasing numbers of K-12 students sign up for online/blended courses. Since the term students with disabilities is by no means monolithic, studying what happens to and for these students presents great opportunities and substantial challenge for researchers who are interested in online learning for diverse students.

A chapter by Greer, Rice, and Dykman reviewing 10 years of research on students with disabilities in online/blended settings attends to empirical work on this topic. The full paper appears in the Handbook of research on k12 online and blended learning (Ferdig and Kennedy, Eds., 2014). Download Handbook

This blog post will briefly summarize the chapter focusing on the findings and their implications.

While there were studies located that discussed online learning, we did not find blended learning for students with disabilities was well-represented in the research base. The major categories that emerged from reviewing the peer-reviewed, published studies about online/blended learning and students with disabilities were (a) curriculum evaluation, (b) student achievement, and (c) perceptions of stakeholders, and (d) policy development.

Curriculum evaluation was the largest group of studies reviewed. The findings of these studies assert that carefully designed curriculum has the potential to help students with and without disabilities learn content as well as satisfy the demands of existing standards. None of this work, however, was set up as an experimental study.

Achievement was the next largest category that emerged from the review. These studies found that although students with disabilities and their peers have much in common in how they approach online learning, they do not achieve at the same rate. These studies do, however, offer some insight into potential types of support such as strategy instruction/coaching, encouragement, and feedback that promote engagement that leads to achievement.

In the stakeholder perception studies, researchers found that most students enrolled in online learning are satisfied with the online learning experience. Moreover, it is perceived that online learning environments can empower students with disabilities by reducing stigmas often associated with disabilities. Additionally, online environments are perceived to provide modifications and adaptions necessary to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. Finally, parents and students are generally satisfied with their child’s online learning experiences.

Although most of the studies reviewed discussed policy as a major driving force in what online/blended educators can do for students with disabilities, there were almost no studies about the policy itself. The study that did address policy suggested that states vary widely in their consideration for online/blended learning as they shape requirements for meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

As this review was conducted, it became not only apparent that there were virtually no articles about online learning and students with disabilities, but the research that had been done had significant limitations to generalizability. There were significant concerns with the written reports of many research studies. We recommend future research in online/blended learning and students with disabilities attend more carefully at study design from a broad range of paradigms and study designs. We need more research that utilizes large datasets; we need more research in the particular ways that students with disabilities and their families navigate online/blended coursework; we need surveys that have been developed with more rigorous procedures, that are distributed to more stakeholders, and with results that are reported with greater transparency; we need to leverage mixed methods design and do more theorizing about the intersection of disability, space, and place in learning. We look forward to reading and thinking about this work for our own research trajectories and for future Handbook updates!

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Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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