Mary Rice is an assistant professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico. Her research and teaching are focused on supporting productive learning ecologies for students with disabilities that include teachers, parents and others in digital/online environments. Raymond Rose is an online learning and digital accessibility evangelist. He is a lifelong educator and was part of the team that created the first virtual high school in the U.S.
“Is it okay to tell families that our online learning program (asynchronous from a third party) is not appropriate for a particular student?”
This was a question asked of us in our session, “Policy Considerations for Accessibility as Part of Inclusive School Planning,” during a presentation at the Digital Learning Collaborative Conference this year.
In fact, many participants expressed concerns their current online programs were not serving students who had identified disabilities and were being served under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act of 2004. Needed services should have been described in Individualized Educational Programs for the students.
As we listened to the session attendees, we surmised most of them represented online programs as administrators or program coordinators. Sometimes, we felt these folks were searching for a policy justification to exclude these students. Other times, it seemed to be the case that they were willing to enroll students with IEPs, but only on the consideration that students and parents understood their online school program did not consider themselves under direct obligation to meet the provisions of the IEP.
It also became clear that, in many cases, personnel from the online program had not been involved in developing the IEP, and there was a strong possibility some of these IEPs were inappropriate for the online setting.
The quick answer to the question asked by the session attendee is “no.” While it seemed the participant who made the query was hoping the relationship with a third-party vendor and the fact they were not the local educational authority would absolve them of responsibility, it is not true that students with IEPs must sink or swim in an online program.
The statement made by the participant that, “We have found that most of our students with IEPs struggle with the content because there are no learning support courses that we've been able to find” suggested a need to revisit the IEPs with the local school officials, parents and other IEP team members to identify sources of support. In cases where the online program is the local authority, the program does have primary responsibility for identifying support and providing it to ensure the child’s success.
Research conducted by Mary Rice and colleagues found many online instructional materials used to teach the state-mandated curriculum standards used in online education programs contained text that was too dense and complex for the grade level it was marketed for. Some of these materials for middle-level learners were found to have characteristics of 12th-grade reading level.
This was disheartening news because school officials and parents rely on these materials to teach required grade-level standards. Other research from Rice found a heavy vocabulary load in many of the instructional units that did not include support to help students learn the new words.
Moreover, many of the words given to students were specialized content words, rather than the recommended general academic high-frequency words that have been tied to content learning and overall school success. These concerns with the instructional materials that make them inappropriate for the grade level likely causes trouble for students with and without IEPs.
Another issue with many online instructional materials is that they do not meet minimum accessibility standards from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972. These standards include the ability to be read by screen reading technology; the use of captions; alternative text to describe images; the ability to change fonts, colors and access documents in multiple formats; and more.
Many of these programs also require clicking through a web of links to find assignments, and downloading and uploading steps that are onerous to students with physical mobility issues, attentional issues and behavioral challenges (because finding and opening and clicking and using multiple windows is so frustrating).
After our explanations, participants wanted to know more: “Is there a program out there that does accommodate students with disabilities? We just cannot find one.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s enforcement arm, the Office for Civil Rights, expects public school districts to use digital resources (including online instructional materials) that meet Section 504 standards. OCR defined accessibility as a condition where those with disabilities can acquire the same information and engage in the same interactions — and within the same time frame — as those without disabilities.
Unfortunately, there are few regulations on the educational market, especially in the U.S., to require materials to be accessible. OCR has no enforcement responsibility for digital resources vendors, but they do monitor schools. Educators need access to professional learning about accessibility so they can understand what constitutes accessible digital resources and not spend public monies on materials not all students can use.
The next question was, "How do schools get vendors to change and make their materials more accessible?"
To begin, schools need to be more discerning in their selection of digital resources. They need to ask more questions, and if they don’t like the answers, they need to wait for satisfactory answers, give the vendor a chance to fix the situation, and use the power of being a customer to make the vendor change.
If the vendors can sell their product to schools as they are, there’s little incentive to make the changes that would improve education for all children. To us, this is an unfortunate situation where promises to buy and use a product are made and kept to vendors, but educational promises to children are met with “I guess online learning isn’t a good fit, so you should go somewhere else.”
There is also hope on the horizon from state legislatures to alleviate the burden on schools to force change in the instructional materials market.
For example, this past year, the Illinois legislature passed HB 26 to ensure the content available on any third-party online curriculum made available to enrolled students or the public by a school district is readily accessible to persons with disabilities. It also provides that the State Board of Education shall require that the third-party online curriculum complies with Level 2.1 AA of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1 AA).
Laws like these give school leaders more leverage to refuse to buy inaccessible products and might also motivate vendors to increase accessibility features. School leaders might consult with legislatures to enact more of these types of laws.
In summary, we emphasized that many of the struggles students with IEPs are having in online programs are rooted in the use of instructional materials that fail to meet minimum accessibility standards and are in other ways not designed with learner variability for the specified audience of young students in mind.
It is therefore problematic to turn the child away from the online setting. Being more meticulous in choosing materials that meet these standards is the most promising way to address this challenge.
In addition to accessible materials, students who qualify for services under IDEA need IEPs that identify services within digital environments or include provisions for when students are learning in online, hybrid or remote/distance settings, even when these settings are not the students’ primary modality for receiving instruction.
To be even more proactive, education leaders can advocate with legislatures or other governance bodies to require accessible materials in public schools.