IDEA Opportunities and Challenges in Online Settings

By Skip Stahl, Daryl F. Mellard, and Theron (Bill) East

The rapid spread of digital technologies and online learning is fundamentally altering elementary and secondary education. These new technologies and learning environments have great potential to personalize education for all learners and create an environment that provides more equitable opportunities for students with disabilities to participate, learn, and achieve in academic and social domains. Simultaneously, online learning environments also bring with them new challenges for policy-makers, educators, curriculum developers, researchers, parents and students. Research, however, has been very limited in describing, testing, and accumulating the information needed to guide policy and practice. For the past four years the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has been exploring this rapidly changing landscape, the opportunities and challenges of online learning and their impact on learners with physical, sensory, cognitive and behavioral needs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provisions (e.g., free appropriate public education (FAPE)) were enacted with the understanding that students would be educated in face-to-face school and classroom-based settings. With increased expansion of online learning opportunities, however, that frame of reference is incomplete. Now students’ educational experiences might be fully online or some combination of classroom-based and online settings. The latter is commonly referred to as a blended environment. Consequently, students now have opportunities to control more of their education such as the schedule, pace and depth with which they complete their studies.

Numerous questions also arise regarding this digital shift in educational opportunities and IDEA implementation. When a student attending a traditional brick and mortar school is identified as having a disability, educators, parents, and other relevant stakeholders develop an individualized education program (IEP) that defines present levels of achievement and establishes goals for academic and social growth. A student’s IEP follows the student if the student changes schools or even moves to another state. The responsibility for addressing these details falls to the local educational agency (LEA) that is the student’s “home” school. Today, digital learning options may be delivered locally by national vendors or online schools located in other states—a significant shift in the education landscape; however, the same IEP requirements and protections continue to apply to children with disabilities in these settings. Given this shift, the Center has conducted a policy scan of states’ readily available information to better understand the policy and guidance that is available to educators, parents, and other interested stakeholders about implementing IDEA in the online settings (e.g., child find provisions, general supervision, IEP development, and FAPE). Apparent from this policy scan is that significant gaps exist in the policy and guidance as they pertain to the online environment and the education of students with disabilities and their families. On the positive side, new information is being disseminated that indicates that these topics are important to state educational agencies (SEA) and that their staffs are working to address these gaps to ensure that the IDEA requirements are being implemented in online settings.

Through the Center’s various research projects and research of others, we have learned that stakeholders in digital learning environments all understand that digital learning environments have changed both the what and how of learning for all students. One group particularly impacted is parents whose role as teachers or coaches greatly expands for those students participating in full-time virtual schools. For the parents of elementary and secondary students with disabilities, in particular, online learning may present an array of unanticipated challenges. Participants attending a series of Center Forums indicated that parents may face challenges associated with added time requirements, their technological savvy, their teaching skills, and the context of the digital environment that they didn’t encounter while their children were attending the traditional brick and mortar school setting. These challenges indicate a need to better clarify the appropriate role of parents working to support students with disabilities in digital learning environments. It is important to remember that SEAs and LEAs, not parents, bear the responsibility for providing the special education and related services necessary to ensure FAPE for children with disabilities in digital learning environments. For more information, please see the ED Guidance Regarding Education to Children with Disabilities Attending Public Virtual Schools (PDF | 336 KB).

Online learning has introduced substantial contextual variability and students with disabilities are, by definition, a highly diverse group with highly differentiated needs. The Center’s Annual Publication, Equity Matters, highlights both the challenges and opportunities that online learning presents to state and local educational agencies, parents, teachers and students in the hopes of expanding the conversation.

Going forward, efforts designed to clarify the relationship of IDEA principles to the online context requires continued careful thinking and a thoughtful analysis in providing services to students with disabilities. The potential for this digital revolution to improve meaningful, quality of life experiences for students with disabilities is significant and awaits our engagement and collective effort.

The preparation of this document was provided by the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (H327U110011). Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education, and such endorsements should not be inferred. For information about the Center, go to

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *