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How online education serves special needs students

The right approach to online learning can allow for even more customization and individualization of curriculum for special needs students
By Beau Neal, CEO & Founder, SYS Education
November 18th, 2021

The right approach to online learning can allow for even more customization and individualization of curriculum for special needs students

Over the past few years, the pandemic made online education the de-facto schooling format for nearly all Americans. While it proved viable for many, it also exposed some of the common pitfalls in the traditional online education landscape, leading to a common perception that online education formats don’t yield the same level of instruction and retention for students. However, this belief is often misguided or a direct result of imperfect execution by school systems that struggle to adapt to a virtual format.  

As an educator in the online format since the outset of my teaching career in 2013, I firmly believe that with the right practices and systems in place, there are in fact many ways in which online education offers a more supportive, inclusive, and personalized learning experience–especially for typically overlooked or isolated students, such as those with special education needs and IEPs.

Online education can offer an inclusive and discreet experience for special education students that optimizes their potential and boosts their academic performance, personal confidence, and overall growth as a student.

An important aspect of learning for all students is the student’s perception of themselves as a learner. Learning experiences can either empower a student or reinforce a negative self-perception. For example, the all-too-common phrases “I’m not as smart as them,” or “I’m not good at school,” embody this phenomenon, perpetuating negative trends like low participation or disengagement in the day’s lesson plan.

This can be even more difficult in the special education space, as students who are pulled out of the general population or isolated due to their support needs can often feel othered or left behind in a general education class. Their special needs can make them feel like the odd one out, causing numerous negative impacts on their academic performance, as well as their self-esteem and mental health, which can dissuade them from not only reaching their full potential in the K-12 ecosystem but also from pursuing higher education as well.  

In an appropriate, optimized online education system, this element of otherness or separation can be effectively minimized. Assistive technologies such as text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and video and audio submissions can be embedded into online education systems as effective tools that personalize the learning experience. Because these technologies can be provided to the general population of students, the students who require them feel less isolated and there is less of a stigma attached. Also, in an online structure, the student controls what information about themselves is available to the general class. They can share what they want, but beyond that, there’s a level of privacy that can be comforting for a student who has had negative experiences with their classmates in the past. 

An inclusive model for special education has been proven to provide key support and benefits for students. For example, a recent study conducted by Abt Associates and Instituto Alana concluded that “included students with disabilities academically outperform segregated students, and more specifically, that “inclusive education can provide a range of academic and social benefits for students with disabilities, such as higher achievement in language and mathematics, improved rates of high school graduation, and more positive relationships with non-disabled students.”

Inclusion also has far-reaching implications for special needs students beyond the classroom. The same study showed that students who spent a larger percentage of their day in a general education classroom over a separate special education classroom were less likely to receive a disciplinary referral, more likely to belong to a school group, more likely to have competitive employment, and more likely to live independently. Online learning presents an opportunity for educators and administrators to create a more inclusive learning environment than previously existed in a classroom setting, with a more integrated structure that minimizes obvious separation and isolation and creates a more equitable classroom structure. 

Of course, special education is by nature different for each student, depending on their needs. While at the surface one might assume that online education makes this individualization more difficult, the right approach to the online system can allow for even more customization and individualization of curriculum, without separation, isolation, or otherizing these students.

About the Author:

Beau Neal is the CEO & Founder of SYS Education, an education technology company with a mission of empowering and supporting schools through cutting-edge tech and instructional support. In his role as CEO, Beau’s principal responsibilities are to pioneer SYS Education’s growth and expansion into new school districts and to execute the brand’s vision of providing educational and supportive services that are completely tailored to each unique partner’s needs.

The concept of individualization (apart from isolation) is one of the ideas that spurned the creation of Frontier Charter Academy, which Neal and colleagues founded after identifying major gaps – and major opportunities for innovation – in the online education system. In an online environment that allowed students to pursue their own academic interests and approaches, Frontier Charter Academy ended up achieving the highest student retention rates in the entire state of Oregon. Frontier Charter Academy led to SYS Education, which provides an online learning program that is not seen as secondhand to in-person, but actually a better fit for many special education and special needs students.

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