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Special Education and Online Learning

The sudden transition to online learning during the pandemic has been especially challenging for special education administrators, teachers, students and their families. Yet it’s possible for them to position themselves to succeed in their mission, with innovative learning technologies available in online education can be very beneficial for students with exceptional learning needs (ELN).

How Have Teachers Adapted to Remote Education?

School systems have scrambled to maintain continuity during the transition by devising various methods of providing students with materials, instruction, support and feedback. Many teachers use online services like Zoom, Google Classroom and social media platforms to provide synchronous and asynchronous instruction via computers, tablets and smartphones, allowing them to maintain “face-to-face” connections even during virtual class time. Students also submit their assignments and access digital materials and pre-recorded lessons through virtual classroom systems.

These online services can be excellent vehicles for remote learning and digital classroom organization. When integrated throughout curricula and instruction, comprehensive virtual classroom technologies can facilitate a smooth transition between online, in-person and hybrid education.

What Obstacles Does Online Learning Present?

The transition to fully online learning was difficult for students who had limited or no access to adequate digital devices or reliable internet at home, presenting challenges for some school systems. Teachers adapted by sending home packets of materials and pre-recorded lessons, talking with students on the phone and sending personal messages. But physically distributing materials is inefficient and does not allow for social interaction with other members of the class.

Virtual student attendance can also be a problem. When multiple students live in a single household, they may have to take turns using a single computer or device. Other family members might also have to use that same device for work and important daily communication.

As special education teachers know well, every student has unique learning needs which impact how they participate in online learning; this is especially true for students with ELN. It may be difficult for some to learn new digital tools and organizational skills. Plus, many types of disabilities and disorders, whether physical, cognitive or behavioral, inhibit students from engaging with teachers and other students in the virtual classroom.

The online learning environment also compounds the complexity of effective co-teaching, often an essential part of inclusive education for students with ELN. Students who use assistive and adaptive technologies to enrich their learning and help themselves participate fully in school may not have access to those technologies at home.

How Can Special Education Professionals Navigate These Obstacles?

The virtual learning environment may serve many students with ELN particularly well. Digital devices help students and teachers automatically adapt content to preferred delivery styles, be it written, read aloud, visual or a combination. Students can slow down, pause and rewind recorded lectures to absorb subject matter at a pace that works for them.

Learning technologies often include tools and links that are embedded within content, providing students a variety of opportunities to explore concepts further through various media like games or short videos. Students can thus become more independent in their own learning.

The virtual environment can also help teachers address challenging behaviors. For instance, if a student is having difficulties or becoming disruptive in a Zoom class, the co-teacher could virtually take the student aside, addressing the issue in a separate chat or call. The student can then view a recording of class time to see what they missed.

These are just a few examples of how virtual environments can afford special education teachers and their students the flexibility to adapt educational environments for students with ELN.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s online Master of Education in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors program emphasizes the importance of collaboration in special education, whether provided in person or remotely. Although involving a student’s entire support system is always central to special education, when in-person interaction is limited to immediate family and caregivers, collaboration becomes crucial. It is an integral part of special education and is more important than ever in today’s online learning environment.

Learn more about Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s Master of Education in Special Education – Challenging Behaviors online program.


Council for Exceptional Children: Quick Take: Co-Teaching with Remote Learning

Council for Exceptional Children: Resources for Teaching Remotely

Distance Learning for Special Education

Edutopia: New Strategies in Special Education as Kids Learn From Home

Education Week: Bridging Distance for Learners With Special Needs

National Center for Learning Disabilities: An Educator’s Guide to Virtual Learning

Rev: Instructional Teaching Strategies for Online Special Education

SmartBrief: Distance Learning and Special Education During COVID-19

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