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Distance learning
for special
education students

Author: Rose de Fremery

Distance learning technologies are helping many schools and teachers safely educate students during the pandemic, but special education students face special challenges with accessing the same learning opportunities as their peers. These barriers, which likely existed pre-pandemic, have become even more urgent to address in a digital-first learning environment.

Here's a look at some of the difficulties associated with distance learning for special education students and how technology can help overcome them.

Challenges with special education distance learning

Principals and other district leaders want distance learning to work for everyone, and they are legally mandated to make sure all their students can access a quality education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 7.3 million students receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In a traditional school setting, students with physical, developmental, learning and other disabilities may receive supportive services, such as speech therapy, physical therapy (PT) or occupational therapy (OT), so they can fully participate in the life of the school community. However, it's uniquely difficult to accomplish this goal when it comes to distance learning for special education students.

One of the chief challenges with special education distance learning is that schools cannot easily replicate these kinds of crucial services for students with individualized education programs (IEPs) in a distance learning setting. It's also harder to set up the customized classroom environments that would support special education students in the way they need. As a result, these students may experience serious setbacks in achieving their learning outcomes, particularly compared to students who do not require such learning accommodations.

In many cases, parents and caregivers have had to step in and provide this support to their own children, even though they do not have the professional training required to do it effectively. Professionals are sometimes able to teach parents and caregivers some of the skills for performing speech therapy, PT or OT via telehealth sessions, but it's still very difficult to do this at the level required without in-person guidance.

In addition, it's almost impossible to replicate the social environment of a school or classroom via distance learning methods, which can adversely impact the social development of children with disabilities. Even when students are finally able to return to school in person, they may find they are behind the level of development they were at before the pandemic.

Technologies that support distance learning for special education students

There are several technologies that can help schools and teachers better support special education distance learning. According to reporting from EdTech Magazine, it's essential for educators to first make sure they can adapt the distance learning tools they are using to the needs of individual students.

Teachers can conduct their daily classes using virtual classrooms and collaboration solutions, letting students access classes using the devices that are easiest for them to use. Or, they can provide individualized instruction using the same video-based tools. Oftentimes, devices such as tablets and smartphones have accessibility features—like live transcriptions and mono audio—that make it easier to both access a class and participate in it.

Some teachers have seen success by uploading videos of lessons that students can access individually and at their own pace. Various applications feature assistive technologies, like speech-to-type, which may help some learners engage with these lessons, participate in live classes or join specific activities. Others may let students record their answers, verbally responding from their devices. Depending on the needs of the learners involved, gamification techniques may also help with classroom engagement in a distance learning environment.

Involvement from parents and caregivers is crucial to success with distance learning for special education students. According to a special report from EdWeek, Bridging Distance for Learners With Special Needs, it's essential to proactively reach out to families for their input and perspective about their goals for distance learning and which technologies will best support their children's specific needs.

They should also consult the distance learning resources that disability rights and educational advocacy groups have created. Educating All Learners, one such hub, offers a wealth of best practices on topics like teaching and learning strategies as well as tech tools that advance accessibility.

Not all families have equal access to internet connectivity or digital devices, so schools should make sure they have the technology support they need to participate in effective distance learning for special education students in the first place. Otherwise, special education students will face even more barriers in accessing educational opportunities. Indiana's Fort Wayne Community Schools delivered remote learning in record time by rolling out a 1:1 plan that included mobile hotspots for the families that needed them, helping eliminate this obstacle.

Enable better special education distance learning

Teachers, therapists and families can improve special education distance learning outcomes for students by setting specific goals and regularly evaluating which approaches work well and which do not.

For their part, teachers can increase their chances of improving distance learning outcomes by providing individualized assistance and one-to-one guidance, regularly checking for understanding as they proceed. This way, they will have a better chance of mitigating the challenges associated with distance learning for special education students and helping them maintain a steady state of development while virtual instruction is still necessary.

With the right technologies and practices in place, schools can better democratize distance learning for special education students and learners of all types.

Learn how technology can help schools increase accessibility for students.