Diana Greer, Sean Smith, Ed Meyen and James Basham
LAWRENCE — Across the country, virtual schools and online education are gaining popularity at a rapid rate, yet little research exists on whether such methods are effective for students with disabilities. Researchers at the University of Kansas’ Center for Research on Learning have landed a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to find out whether online learning is working for students with disabilities and to develop new methods of using technology to improve learning.
The KU researchers are interested in finding out what’s happening in online education throughout the country, what methods are working and if students, teachers and parents are getting the most from it, as well as virtual schools, which have become an attractive alternative for parents whose children struggle to learn in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. KU researchers will conduct research on new e-learning instructional designs based on prior research on learning processes. Particular attention will be given to the learning attributes of students with disabilities.
“We want to determine what’s happening in online instruction in K-12 schools and whether students’ needs are being met,” said Diana Greer, assistant research professor and co-principal investigator for the project.
The Center for Research on Learning will form the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities with two partner organizations: The National Association of State Directors of Special Education, known as NASDSE, which promotes education and services for children and youth with disabilities; and CAST, formerly known as the Center for Applied Special Technology, which has a long history of exploring ways to use technology to improve education for students with disabilities. NASDSE will identify trends and research needs related to online learning, and CAST will identify and develop new online education interventions.
The KU center will conduct research on the effectiveness of interventions and promising practices in pilot study sites across the country, drawing on more than 30 years of experience in conducting high-quality research. In addition to the partner organizations, 25 states have agreed to work with the new center.
“Many students with disabilities have unique needs,” Greer said. “We’re going to learn so much from these students that will drive what we do at the center, drive our development and drive what we research.”
The partner entities will conduct in-depth surveys of students, teachers and parents in schools in each of the 25 states taking part. Researchers will examine general education and special education curriculum in schools and measure it with student achievement to determine the effectiveness of online learning for all students.
“We’ll be targeting states that are leaders in the area of online education,” said Sean Smith, associate professor of special education and co-principal investigator. “Places that have done a lot of work in this area and are leaders in the field will have a lot to offer us.”
Researchers will examine the impact of e-learning on the achievement of students with disabilities.
Following the initial round of research, the Center for Research on Learning will develop a web site for educators sharing effective methods for online education and universal designs for learning. The site will be both a repository and delivery vehicle for effective online educational practices.
The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities will begin work in January. Principal investigators are Don Deshler, director of the Center for Research on Learning; David Rose, founder and chief education officer at CAST; and Bill East, executive director of NASDSE. Co-principal investigators from KU, in addition to Greer and Smith, are Ed Meyen, professor of special education and co-director of the Center for Research on Learning’s e-Learning Design Lab; and James Basham, assistant professor of special education.
The project is especially timely, Greer said. Estimates have been made that by 2019 as much as 50 percent of K-12 curriculum will be delivered online. Some states require students to take at least one or more online courses to be eligible for graduation, enhancing the importance of ensuring online curriculum is meeting the needs of students with a range of disabilities.