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Carrie Allday Theoretical Framework


									CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK                                                                   1


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


       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


       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.


       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.


Alster, E. (1997). The effects of extended time on algebra tests scores for college students with

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Benz, M., Lindstrom, L., & Yovanoff, P. (2000). Improving graduation and employment

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Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of

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Elliot, S., & Marquart, A. (2004). Extended time as a testing accommodation: Its effects and

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Hassel, B., & Terrell, M. (2004). How can virtual schools be a vibrant part of meeting the choice

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CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK                                                                 11

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CARRIE ALLDAY THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK                                                                  12

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