Equitable Online Learning

Equitable Online Learning through the Lens of Student Needs

Resources & Links

Supporting students through distance learning requires thoughtful planning and includes the provision of accommodations and services detailed in student individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. The intent of this document is to provide administrators and educational teams with resources to assist in the planning and implementation of equitable online learning services for all students.

Regardless of which type of online learning platform is utilized, students with disabilities may need additional supports in place to access and process the curricular content to maximize their learning. Washington state school districts need to ensure quality, access, and accountability of online learning options and ensure they meet federal IDEA and other civil rights regulations.

Depending on specific disability-related needs, students may require additional support to effectively engage in the online learning environment. Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute has outlined some disability-specific considerations for providing online learning including recommendations for autism, cognitive disability, other health impairments, emotional impairments, deaf and hard of hearing, visual impairment, and physical impairments. Access the full article here: https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/supporting-students-with-disabilities-in-k-12-online-and-blended-learning/

In preparation to offer online learning opportunities, we recommend that districts consider the following:

· Review accommodations and/or assistive technology currently documented in the student’s IEP or 504 plan.

· Consider how the accommodations or assistive technology supports that are documented in the IEP will be provided through online learning.

· Communicate with the student and parent/guardian on how to access the accommodation or assistive technology required.

· Consider if the online learning environment poses additional barriers to student access to the general education curriculum and progress towards IEP goals.

Environmental Considerations:

A change in learning environments can add a layer of complexity and new barriers that may not have been considered at the time the IEP or 504 plan was drafted. When shifting from a traditional classroom setting to an online setting, questions arise as to whether an online placement is considered a separate placement option within the LRE continuum of services. In planning for online learning, teams must consider if an IEP written with a traditional classroom in mind adequately outlines the supports needed for a student to participate in online learning. Effective transitioning to online learning “requires attention to the context of the learning environment and, for students with disabilities, ensuring that proper support practices and technologies are in place” (Basham et al. 44).

In addition, “IEP services provided online often require a clearer delineation of the roles and responsibilities of special and general educators, and IEP development and implementation often requires the creation of an IEP specific to that context” (Basham et al. 39). Teams supporting students with more complex needs may need to consider how they will provide multidisciplinary learning opportunities. Team members will need opportunities to collaborate and plan with the caregiver/parents for online learning to be effective and equitable. Additionally, educators will need to call on the expertise of the IEP team members, which may include occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, vision specialists, teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, or other specialists, to troubleshoot barriers presented by the online learning environment.

If the team has determined that the online environment necessitates additional supports, an IEP amendment must be completed to outline the additional accommodations needed in the new environment. Parents and students will need to have a clear understanding how specialized instruction and accommodations, mandated by an IEP, will take place. (Basham et al. 40).

The nature of online learning lends itself to less immediate supervision of the student by the teacher, requiring that students assume a more active role in their learning. Teams must be cautious in assuming that all students have the necessary self-regulation skills necessary for online learning. For many students with disabilities, self-regulation is an area of concern. Through the effective use of online instructional strategies and learning supports embedded in online systems and tools, teachers can encourage the development of self-regulation skills (Basham et al. 43). Some of the strategies that help develop self-regulation include, goal setting, fostering self-efficacy, scaffolding, reflection. While these may be practices employed in the traditional classroom setting, teachers may need to use technology tools that allow them to check in with students in creative ways or provide various opportunities for engagement. Tools for time management and engagement (e.g. online timers, Kahoot, Padlet), websites that provide supplemental videos on a topic (e.g. Science Channel’s “How it’s made”) and opportunities for movement (e.g. GoNoodle) are examples of ways to support students with focus and self-regulation.

Following Universal Design for Learning Principles improves Equity in Online Learning

Regardless of the environment (online or in-person), it is crucial to set up the learning environment with principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind. In a document entitled Equity Matters: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities, the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities states “research confirms the need for online learning systems to be designed with the widest possible range of potential users in mind. This design involves focusing on technical aspects to ensure that instructional content and navigation elements can be rendered or acted on in multiple ways—auditory, visual, tactile, etc.—either natively via embedded options or cooperatively by supporting third-party assistive technologies. Further, many online learning systems offer mechanisms for supporting and/or monitoring student engagement, moving support beyond basic physical and sensory accessibility and into the realm of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 1” (Basham, et al. 44).

When selecting an online learning platform, school districts must consider accessibility for all students. “According to the Office of Civil Rights, “accessible” means that ‘a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability.’ (Burgstahler, S. 2019)”.

The University of Washington Do-It Center (Disability, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) offers a guide to ensuring your distance learning materials and instructional methods are accessible for all students. The article 20 Tips for Teaching Accessible Online Courses provides recommendations that reflect Universal Design for Learning principle. Access the full article here: https://www.washington.edu/doit/20-tips-teaching-accessible-online-course.

Recommendations from the article include, but are not limited to:

– Using colors that provide high contrast.

– Present content in multiple ways (e.g. combination of text, video, and audio).

– Consider using accessibly designed Word Docs instead of PDFs, etc.

– Structure headings.

-Use large, bold fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds.

-Make sure all content and navigation is accessible using the keyboard alone and choose IT tools that are accessible.

– Caption videos, and transcribe audio content.*

*Google Slides has built-in closed captioning, while PowerPoint has the Translator tool which provides closed captioning in multiple languages. You can also edit captioning in videos you upload on YouTube.

Online Learning Resources Shared by Districts Across Washington State

Please refer to the companion document titled “Equitable Online Learning Through the Lens of Student Needs: Resources and Links” to view a list of online supports that have been shared by districts across Washington state. As you consider and select resources for online learning, be sure to supply parents and students with information and directions on how to apply accessibility features to meet individual student needs. Provide contact info for vendors to help students and families easily contact vendors for support on optimizing accessibility features.


Basham, J.D., Stahl, S., Ortiz, K., Rice, M.F., & Smith, S. (2015). Equity Matters: Digital & Online Learning for Students with Disabilities. Lawrence, KS: Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.

Burgstahler, S. (2019). 20 Tips for Teaching Accessible Online Courses. Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/doit/20-tips-teaching-accessible-online-course

Deschaine, M. (2018). Supporting students with disabilities in k-12 online and blended learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/supporting-students-with-disabilities-in-k-12-online-and-blended-learning/

Lock, Jennifer; Eaton, Sarah Elaine; and Kessy, Elaine (2017) “Fostering Self-Regulation in Online Learning in K-12 Education,” Northwest Journal of Teacher Education: Vol. 12 : Iss. 2 , Article 2. DOI: 10.15760/nwjte.2017.12.2.2 Available at: http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/nwjte/vol12/iss2/2