Study: Most K-12 online learning content does not meet needs of students with disabilities

Study: Most K-12 online learning content does not meet needs of students with disabilities

Mike Krings

LAWRENCE — Online education is growing rapidly, reaching millions of students every day. However, a Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities at the University of Kansas study has found the majority of online educational products are not designed to meet the needs of students with disabilities and struggling learners.

Sean J. Smith, professor of special education and a co-principal investigator with the center, has authored “Invited In: Measuring UDL in Online Learning.” The report analyzes how six popular vendors of online learning products meet the principles of Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, the concept that education should be designed to meet the needs of all students. It also provides a tool that K-12 school districts across the country can use to evaluate online education programs they are using or considering for their students.

“When it comes to determining how appropriate online learning is for our audience, we needed to investigate if it’s accessible,” Smith said. “We found the majority of accessibility is focused only on physical and sensory disabilities. Those are important areas to address, but the majority of individuals with disabilities have learning, attention and behavioral needs that accessibility measures often ignore.”

The concern then is that the majority of K-12 online learning in the United States might not consider the needs of students with cognitive or learning disabilities, as well as struggling learners. “Invited In” sampled more than 1,000 online lessons from six major online learning vendors that cover more than 50 percent of the nation’s K-12 online market. The lessons, which spanned multiple subject matters and grade levels, scored low in meeting the principles and guidelines of UDL. For example, when determining alignment to the first three UDL principles, the highest possible score was 36, yet only one of the six vendors scored a 7 or better.

“Online content, as is, is very poorly aligned with the principles of Universal Design for Learning,” Smith said. “For an individual with reading, processing, comprehension or other challenges, or individuals with disabilities, with auditory, processing or a number of other issues, they are going to have challenges with this content.”

The lack of alignment to learning demands of all students is problematic given the nature of online learning. With traditional instruction from a book, a teacher starts with the content in the text and guides the lesson from there. With online learning, the module is the provider of the content and is often the only guidance a student has.

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