Online learning for SWD: not an easy option for parents

Online learning for SWD: not an easy option for parents

(Kan.) Parents of children with disabilities often turn to online learning when the rigors of a traditional classroom become too challenging.

But as new research from the University of Kansas shows, a successful transition to web-based instruction requires parents to become a lot more active in the educational process—serving sometimes as not just teacher, but also medical aide, classroom advocate and curriculum manager.

“The differences between instruction in the face-to-face classroom and the fully online setting also mean that parents engage differently with their children and educators,” the research team from the university’s Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities concluded.

“Parents of children with disabilities take on different and additional responsibilities within the online learning environment,” they explained. “Specifically, these data described heavy responsibilities closely linked to a teacher rather than an on-site mentor or learning coach, who would be expected to play a more peripheral role.”

Nearly 2 million K-12 students nationally attend all or part of their school day over the internet or other forms of distance education—which can include closed circuit TV, audio conferencing or video cassette—according to 2010 figures from the U.S. Department of Education. No doubt that number is a lot higher today.

No statistics could be found to isolate how many students with disabilities are getting their instruction online, but assuming SWD represent almost 13 percent of total K-12 enrollment in the U.S.—even with the outdated 2010 figure it could be suggested that there are hundreds of thousands of families relying on instruction over the web.

Although online learning gives students flexibility in when and where learning takes place, there are also challenges even under the best of circumstances. What the new Kansas report highlights, however, is the heavy burden parents take on when their SWD begins online instruction.

The report is based on interviews with 12 parents of SWD in grades 3 through 8 living in Ohio, Utah, Georgia, Kansas and Wisconsin.

The major takeaway from the report is that parents have to assume many roles to keep their child progressing.

“I would describe my role as being a full-time teacher because we may start our homework anywhere from 9 o’clock in the morning until maybe 4 o’clock, we have our breaks, and I’ll give him a lunch,” said one mother. “We’re just like being in a regular school. It depends on how he feels that day.”

The job becomes even harder with a child that has other health issues in addition to a disability.

“One minute his blood sugar may be 400, the next it may be 50,” said a parent from Kansas. “You don’t know when he is going to go into a diabetic coma. You don’t know when he’s going to go into hallucinations. You don’t know when he’s going to go into a seizure. He just has to be watched 24 hours a day.”

There are times when a parent must explore a lesson plan or curriculum and manage the content delivery to meet the individual needs of their child.

“If I made him do every single section of every single lesson he would just shut down,” said a parent from Georgia. “He’s smart and he catches on quick, and to make him do that stuff that he’d already mastered would just be frustrating for him. Finding what works for you and what you need to get done when, you know, just like a teacher would in a classroom, what flows best, what time of day you’re doing what type of thing, that sort of thing was big for us.”

The research team suggested that providers of online curriculum need to take into account the out-sized role parents play and perhaps adjust the content.

“For practice, online schools need to recognize that telling parents that they are not teachers, but coaches, does not ease their burden,” they said. “Instead, there needs to be support structures both human and technological to ensure that parents are not teaching.”

They also said state and local education officials should make sure parents are prepared before they decide to assume all the responsibilities related to online learning.

“For policymaking, state entities and local educational authorities have information that should guide decision making about parent support requirements for online schools,” the report’s authors said. “They might initiate discussions about ensuring that students with disabilities have on-site mentors who are prepared to work with students when the parents are unwilling or are unable, since students with disabilities are entitled to educational opportunities equal to their peers.”