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CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 1 Introduction Statement of the problem Virtual learning was once an uncommon concept that has become an accepted method in American education (Pape, Adams, & Ribeiro, 2005). When virtual schools began to develop in the 1990’s, they generally served gifted and talented (GT) students offering accelerated and advanced placement courses for enrichment. Since that time, virtual schools have continued to develop and offer a variety of courses to students with a range of different educational needs. Students with disabilities are becoming more attracted to virtual schools and have shown increased enrollment (Hassel & Terrell, 2004; Rhim & Kowal, 2008). Interest of students with disabilities in virtual schooling in combination with mandates to close achievement gaps and increase graduation rates have drawn the attention of virtual schools to address the needs of students with disabilities (Muller, 2010; Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010). Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu (2010) addressed virtual high schools and outcomes of students with disabilities by discussing five issues, referred to as the five Cs (i.e., “connect, climate, control, curriculum, and care”), associated with the high dropout rate among students with disabilities and discussed ways virtual schools could improve outcomes for these students (p. 93). According to Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu (2010), the number of students with disabilities enrolled in virtual schools is unknown because of the lack of data collected on these students. It is estimated that the population of students with disabilities enrolled in virtual programs is similar to the traditional school population. The United States Department of Education reported that 13.6% of students served in traditional school programs had a disability CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 2 during the 2006-2007 school year (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). Much of the data collected by virtual school programs is student reported. Many virtual schools merely require students to report the presence of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Because a great majority of virtual schools are supplemental to traditional schools, they do not get a copy of the IEP document or require disability specific information (e.g., disability type) to be reported. To best serve students with disabilities in virtual schools, disability specific data must be researched (Kim-Rupnow, Dowrick, Burke, 2001; Muller, 2010; Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010). According to the National Education Technology Plan, housed under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), virtual schooling was recommended as a school choice option for students with disabilities (Hassel & Terrell, 2004; Rice, 2006). In order to develop evidence-based practices for students with disabilities further research is needed to learn how to help these students successfully complete virtual school courses (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010). Virtual schools will need to take part in a system change that implements best practices for serving students with disabilities in a digital setting. (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010). Current research suggests the number of students with disabilities enrolling in virtual school courses will continue to increase (Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010; Hassel & Terrel, 2004; Rhim & Kowal, 2008). Thus, it is important for researchers to recognize this and develop quality virtual school programs for these students. Research Design and Theoretical Framework The research design for the present study consists of a qualitative framework using quantitative data. The nature and novelty of this study call for a unique design. Research has begun to recognize the importance of serving students with exceptionalities in virtual schools, CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 3 but has neglected examination of how these students have performed in virtual settings to date (Hassel & Terrel, 2004; Kim-Rupnow, Dowrick, Burke, 2001; Muller, 2010; Rhim & Kowal, 2008; Repetto, Cavanaugh, Wayer, & Liu, 2010). In order to explain the performance of students with exceptionalities in virtual schools, it is first necessary to know how these students are performing. Study results will allow for development of grounded theory. Figure 1 provides a diagram of the research design and potential theoretical explanation. Three potential outcomes are possible. Students with exceptionalities may perform similar to, better than or worse than students without disabilities. Theoretical possibilities for these outcomes are discussed in following sections. In addition to student outcomes, pace requests will be examined. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) students select one of three paces (i.e., traditional, extended or accelerated) when they enroll in a virtual course. Research shows that extended time benefits students with disabilities (Alster, 1997; Elliott, & Marquart, 2004; Runyan, 1991; Sireci, Scarpati, & Shuhong, 2005; Zuriff, 2000). The present study will determine if subjects with exceptionalities request additional time and if they actually used the additional time requested. The relationship between pace and final course grade will be examined. Possible theoretical explanations have been considered for each potential outcome. Students with exceptionalities perform lower and experience more academic struggles than students without exceptionalities in traditional school settings (Benz, Lindstrom, & Yovanoff, 2000; Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2007; Reschly & Christenson, 2006; Kaufman, Alt, & Chapman, 2001). Results indicating that students with exceptionalities perform as well as or better than students without exceptionalities would show that virtual schools may better meet the needs of students with exceptionalities. The cognitive load theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are two theories that may provide an explanation for such an outcome. CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 4 Should results indicate that students with exceptionalities perform worse than students without exceptionalities, there are three theories that may provide an explanation. Readiness, transactional distance, and self-efficacy theories provide possible explanations for low performance among students with exceptionalities in virtual schools. Theories in support of virtual schools for students with exceptionalities are discussed in following sections. Cognitive Load Theory The cognitive load theory was developed by John Sweller in 1988. Paas, Renkl, and Sweller (2003) summarized cognitive load as, “working memory, in which all conscious cognitive processing occurs, can handle only a very limited number-possibly no more than two or there-of novel interacting elements” (p.2). The ultimate goal of cognitive load theory is to provide guidelines for presenting an amount of information that will promote optimal learning (Sweller, Van Merrienboer, and Pass, 1998, p. 251). Cognitive load refers to the load put on the working memory during the learning process. The heavier the cognitive load that has to be learned in a short amount of time, the more challenging it is for an individual to process the information in short term memory. In order for optimal learning to occur, cognitive load must be considered. According to Chandler and Sweller (1992), cognitive load can be made heavier by irrelevant tasks. An example he used was taking a test written in another language. The cognitive load for such a task would be multiplied for the test taker as they would spend more time processing and translating the questions rather than the responses to the questions. The test being in another language is an unnecessary contributor to cognitive load. Cognitive load can often be reduced significantly through careful consideration of the actual necessity of each required task. CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 5 Cognitive load theory relates directly to this study by helping to explain and predict the potential benefits and outcomes of virtual schooling for students with exceptionalities. Traditional school settings impose a heavy cognitive load on students. In order to arrive at school by a specific time, students must complete a variety of tasks (e.g., setting an alarm, preparing and selecting clothing, completing a hygiene routine, selecting, preparing and eating a meal, planning for, preparing and selecting a meal to take, transportation considerations, etc.). These tasks often impose a heavier than normal cognitive load for students with exceptionalities who have slower learning rates. Once students arrive at school, they may have already reached cognitive overload. They have to find their lockers and make sure they have all needed supplies, and arrive at the correct classroom before it begins. The strict schedule of traditional school settings often do no allow students to spend as much time as needed on academic tasks. Additionally, students are forced to take classes that a school offers at the time of day that works out for scheduling purposes. This may present challenges for students with exceptionalities who may struggle in math and find themselves more alert in late afternoon, but are required to take math first in the morning. The traditional school setting requires many cognitive tasks that may overload students with exceptionalities. Virtual school environments may reduce the cognitive load of students with exceptionalities by requiring less cognitive tasks in order to attend. Virtual schools allow flexibility of schedule, pace, and course selection. Students are given the option to take classes any time during the day and in any order they prefer. Virtual courses allow students to take as many necessary breaks as needed and review information as many times as a student needs. Additionally, virtual schools often offer courses that are not available in traditional school CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 6 settings. It seems that virtual schools may reduce cognitive load which may help improve the outcomes of students with exceptionalities. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs In addition to reducing cognitive load to improve learning outcomes, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests students physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem needs be met before higher order skills such as academic learning are able to occur. Maslow’s higherarchy of needs in Figure 2 describes five levels of human need that must be met before an individual reaches self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). One set of needs must be met before the next set of needs can be met. The first domain, physiological needs, includes the basic life needs such as food, drink, sleep, and shelter. The second domain, safety needs, includes security and psychological safety. Maslow suggests that meeting one’s safety needs are secondary to meeting one’s physiological needs. For example, an individual is not going to care about their security if they are starving and homeless. An individual’s need to be eat and have shelter are more concerning than their personal safety. CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 7 Figure 2. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Education researchers have applied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to school settings suggesting that education must first meet the basic needs of students before they are expected to learn. Virtual school settings may help meet some of the basic needs of students with exceptionalities that help to improve their outcomes. The scheduling constraints of traditional school settings impact the physiological needs of students of students. The hours of traditional school settings often require students to arrive early to school and may not allow students to get adequate sleep. The lunch schedules of traditional high schools may have students eating lunch too early or too late leaving them hungry at some point during the school day. Often classrooms can be too cold or too hot, impacting student learning. Learning is effected by lack of sleep, hunger and being uncomfortable. CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 8 Once physiological needs are met, safety needs are of second importance according to Maslow. There are many safety issues related to traditional school settings. Students who ride a school bus wait at bus stops that are not always safe to then get on a school bus where there is much potential for bullying. Throughout the school day there are many opportunities for student safety to be threatened by other students (e.g., lunch room, during transitions between classes, and waiting for the bus in morning and afternoon). Students with exceptionalities may have potential to struggle with safety concerns more than students without exceptionalities. They may be bullied or picked on more easily because of their exceptionally low or high intelligence. Students with physical impairments may fear for their safety in navigating the school or in the case of an emergency. Students with quadriplegia for example, have to depend on another capable person to complete every physical task. Individuals with quadriplegia would have to have help during emergency situations (e.g., fire, bomb threat, or shootings). This dependency can threaten the safety of students with exceptionalities. According to Maslow’s theory, students cannot learn if they do not feel safe. Virtual schooling removes these threats by allowing students to learn in an environment where they feel safe. Belongingness and love needs are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy that suggests students must feel a sense of belonging and acceptance before learning can occur. This has been a significant issue for students with exceptionalities for decades. In cultures worldwide, individuals with exceptionalities are outcasts and misfits because of their differences. Fitting in and feeling accepted maybe one of the most unmet need of students with exceptionalities. These students receive different work in different classrooms. They have different needs and often behave differently. Peers and teachers alike can tend to focus on and highlight these differences. Traditional school settings often unknowingly highlight the differences of students with CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 9 exceptionalities. These students never achieve a sense of acceptance or belonging. According to Maslow, they are not able to learn effectively until this occurs. The set-up of virtual schools lowers the visibility of these differences. This is discussed further in the review of literature. Finally, the esteem needs of students must be met before learning can take place according to Maslow. Esteem needs include feelings of competence, approval and recognition. Students with mild disabilities often exert all of their energy attempting to keep up with the rest of their class members. Many times, they barely get by in order to move on to the next level and often lag behind academically, never achieving competence, approval or recognition. Gifted and talented students are often ostracized for their advanced skills rather than recognized and approved for their accomplishments. The decreased visibility of exceptionalities in virtual school settings may help these students develop a sense of belonging, approval and acceptance in the virtual environment. The immediate feedback and availability of instructors allows for more opportunities for students to gain a sense of belonging and approval. Although most traditional high schools make every effort to meet the needs of both students with and without exceptionalities, it is realistically impossible for them to do so. The principles and set-up of virtual schooling seem to naturally meet the physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem needs of students with exceptionalities. Summary The combination of Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs serve as a potential theoretical explanation for sucessuful outcomes of students with exceptionalities in FLVS. The set-up of virtual schooling may reduce the cognitive load of students with exceptionalities by removing unmeaningful cognitive tasks while allowing students CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 10 to give their best cognitive efforts towards academic learning. The set-up of virtual schooling may also help meet Maslow’s hierarchy of needs allowing students to learn academic content and skills. The combination of these theories as a theoretical perspective support the notion that virtual schooling may benefit students with exceptionalities and improve their outcomes by reducing cognitive load and meeting students needs. References Alster, E. (1997). The effects of extended time on algebra tests scores for college students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 222-227. Benz, M., Lindstrom, L., & Yovanoff, P. (2000). Improving graduation and employment outcomes of students with disabilities: Predictive factors and student perspectives. Exceptional Children, 66(4), 509-530. Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62, 233-246. Elliot, S., & Marquart, A. (2004). Extended time as a testing accommodation: Its effects and perceived consequences. Exceptional Children, 70, 349-367. Hassel, B., & Terrell, M. (2004). How can virtual schools be a vibrant part of meeting the choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act? U.S. Department of Education Secretary’s No Child Left Behind Leadership Summit: Increasing Options through e-learning. Washington, D.C.: Author Kaufman, P., Alt, M., & Chapman, C. (2000). Dropout rates in the United States, 2000: Statistical analysis report. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED460174) CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 11 Kim-Rupnow, W., Dowrick, P., & Burke, L. (2001). Implications for improving access and outcomes for individuals with disabilities in postsecondary distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 25-40. Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396. Muller, E. (2010). Virtual K-12 public school programs and students with disabilities: Issues and recommendations. Alexandria, VA: Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors Osgood, D., Foster, E., Flanagan, C., & Ruth, G. (2007). On your own without a net: The transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 1-4. Pape, L., Adams, R., & Ribeiro, C. (2005). The virtual high school: Collaboration and online professional development. In Z.L. Berge & T. Clark (Eds.), Virtual schools: Planning for success (pp. 118-132). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Repetto, J., Cavanaugh, C., Wayer, N., & Liu, F. (2010). Virtual high schools: Improving outcomes for students with disabilities. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11(2), 91-104. Reschly, A., & Christenson, S. (2006). Prediction of dropout among students with mild disabilities: A case for the inclusion of student engagement variables. Remedial and Special Education, 27(5), 276-292. CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK 12 Rhim, L., & Kowal, J. (2008). Demystifying special education in virtual charter schools. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved September 1, 2010 from www.uscharterschools.org/specialedprimers Rice, K. (2006). A comprehensive look at distance education in the K-12 context. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(4), 425-448. Runyan, M. (1991). The effect of extra time on reading comprehension scores for university students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24, 104- 108. Sireci, S., Scarpati, S., & Shuhong, L. (2005). Test accommodations for students with disabilities: An analysis of the interaction hypothesis. Review of Educational Research, 75, 457-490. Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science. 12(2), 257-285. Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10, 251-296. U.S. Department of Education. (2009). The condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009-081), Table A-20-2. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Zuriff, G. (2000). Extra examination time for students with learning disabilities: An examination of the maximum potential thesis. Applied Measurement in Education, 13(1), 99-117.
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