3 tips on incorporating special education into your blended-learning design


Aug 7, 2015

This week I had the pleasure of participating in a discussion with the National Center for Learning Disabilities on how special education teachers and advocates can champion and inform the rise of personalized and blended learning in K–12 systems across the country. As more and more schools embrace new instructional models, we have a window of opportunity to create a system that incorporates the needs and strengths of students with disabilities into the fabric of the system, rather than create yet another instructional paradigm that must be “retrofitted” after the fact for students with disabilities. To get there, here are three areas that school systems implementing blended learning should start paying attention to:

1. Special education administrators and educators should be part of your design team.

We’ve often discussed how effective blended-learning design requires gathering the right people around the design table. In Chapter 4 of their book Blended, Michael Horn and Heather Staker write that formulating the right team needs to come early in any blended-learning implementation:

The key to organizing the right group to lead a blended-learning project is first to match the problem to the type of team that can bring about the level of change you desire. At this point, you do not need to know exactly what model of blended learning you want to deploy or what the design of the program will be. But you do need to have a sense of the scope of the change that you want to realize.

They go on to describe that sometimes this means simply bringing together a subject-area department to discuss curricular changes, and other times design teams should reflect the whole-school in order to coordinate bell schedules, create interdisciplinary competency-based projects, or implement other structures that require fundamentally changing the very priorities of the teachers, administrators, and other personnel across the school system.

Given the stubborn silos that often exist between special education departments and their general education counterparts, however, no matter what problem a school is trying to solve, it’s likely that special education teachers should be at the blended-learning design table from day one. Even—and especially—if a school’s initial blended-learning program or pilot stage is not targeting students with disabilities; by including special education teachers and administrators upfront, the design will more likely be inclusive and even optimize for the needs of all students.

2. Blended learning can facilitate inclusion, but don’t assume that’s a given.

We often think of blended learning as a delivery model with the potential break the factory-based model of education. With technology to support differentiation and expand opportunities for one-on-one and small-group instruction, classrooms can start to evolve beyond whole-class, direct instruction in which educators teach to a nonexistent middle. Instead, ideally, data can connect what happens online with what happens in a blended classroom so that both modalities can be targeted at students’ needs and strengths with far greater precision. The logical conclusion, then, is that a blended-learning classroom can be far more inclusive because students at a wide variety of levels can be co-located while working on different skills and content areas. Logistically speaking, this offers an enormous opportunity to expand special education inclusion efforts. As I’ve written about in the past, some schools, like Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence, R.I., are managing to do this by implementing a Station Rotation model and incorporating numerous supportive adults into their blended-learning design.

We often caution, however, that blended learning is not synonymous with its potential benefits. In other words, a blended-learning model itself is not by definition inclusive, nor does it optimize for students with disabilities’ learning needs and strengths. Rather, the particular content, assessment, and human capital animating any blended-learning model will determine the extent to which it truly meets all students’ needs. Including special education teachers in the design and procurement processes, as described above, will better ensure that any given model is actually suited to inclusion.

3. IEPs offer decades of lessons on how—and how not—to document all individual students’ progress, strengths, and needs.

If more granular data and differentiated supports sit at the heart of a blended approach, then we shouldn’t ignore Individual Education Plans (IEPs) as a key artifact of our historical efforts to individualize planning and supports in schools. As my colleague Karla Phillips of the Foundation for Excellence in Education wrote in a great blog post earlier this week, IEPs offer both guiding principles and cautionary tales for personalized learning efforts to capture the unique needs and strengths of each individual student through more thorough data collection on student performance.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, blended-learning advocates should note Phillips’ points and understand how their current efforts to document student progress in data backpacks or learner profiles are or aren’t redundant with IEPs. But blended-learning implementation may also offer a promising path forward to modernize IEPs. Indeed, the compliance-driven quality that surrounds IEP’s offers one of the greatest lessons: currently, IEPs often function as a contract that spells out services, but not necessarily as a tool that drives instruction. Blended-learning designs should not ignore the assurances for services that IEPs provide, but as they surface more data on student performance, they can push special education departments beyond compliance to create more dynamic plans that actually inform and drive instruction in the classroom.

Blended learning is quickly spreading across the country as more and more schools see the power of technology to better differentiate and engage students. Let’s make sure that we channel the power of blended learning with smart designs that can support all students.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Wes Sawyer

    I teach special education and I appreciate the points you have made here. I have been studying about blended learning for about a year now. I believe blended learning if done well could be a big boost for special ed students and many other students who struggle with school. Unfortunately your comment about the “stubborn silos” that exist between special ed and general are very real. But I’m confident that over time we can see some progress. I want to thank you and everybody at CCI for all your work.