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Aurora Institute

Making Online Learning Accessible for Students with Disabilities: Lessons from Texas

Education Domain Blog

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Issues: Issues in Practice


Online learning can provide the least restrictive, most tailored educational environment for students with disabilities if they are designed with all learners in mind. Advantages of online learning include greater individualization and flexible pacing, time, path, and pace. It can also reduce the stigma of special education with more customized learning environments for each learner.

Federal law protects the rights of students with disabilities to access a free, public education. Because these laws are enforced through complaints and lawsuits, pro-active state and local implementation is essential to ensure that access and equity are happening in all learning environments.

When it comes to online learning, states can play an important role in ensuring online courses are fully accessible for all learners. The State of Texas is taking proactive steps to ensure that K-12 online learning is fully accessible to all learners.

The Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) is Texas’ course access program, providing public school students with expanded course offerings across learning environments from diverse, accountable providers. As part of TxVSN’s quality review process, course providers must align coursework to state curriculum standards, meet the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses, and meet the TxVSN accessibility standards.

The iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses state that courses must comply with federal law, and that courses “must meet universal design principles, Section 508 standards and W3C guidelines to ensure access for all students.” To ensure compliance, the TxVSN developed accessibility standards with detailed guidance and resources for meeting the iNACOL National Standards.

TxVSN’s course review process analyzes courses using the accessibility standards. In the review, two Texas-certified content area teachers review the course individually. If there are any points of disagreement of whether or not a course meets a standard, the teachers meet to come to a consensus. After the teachers have reached a decision, the course is either approved, or TxVSN gives the course provider a report summarizing why the course did not meet the standards. Providers have 60 days to make modifications and resubmit the course for review.

By including accessibility standards as part of a rigorous course review process, Texas is meeting the national standards and ensuring compliance with the legal requirements for accessibility for students with disabilities.

Recommendations for Policymakers

The TxVSN is taking proactive steps to support accessibility for students with disabilities above by ensuring that online course providers meet legal requirements and national quality standards in a rigorous, statewide course review process.

States can support access and equity in online courses by:

  • Adopting the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses;
  • Establishing a statewide process to review courses with detailed criteria for meeting legal requirements and the National Standards; and
  • Addressing knowledge and capacity gaps of educators, course designers, and administrators to meet these standards and apply best practices for supporting diverse learners across learning environments.

Learn More

On September 9, 2015 at 2:00pm EST, join iNACOL for a webinar with national experts on making blended and online learning accessible to students with disabilities, “Realizing the Promise: Making Personalized Learning Accessible to All Learners.”

For more information, see the iNACOL report Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education.