Instructional Design for SPED Research Paper Starter

Instructional Design for SPED

This article presents an overview of Instructional Design (ID) for Special Education (SPED) in United States K-12 public schools. It describes how the field has evolved from an emphasis on non-technological solutions for students with low-incidence disabilities (e.g., hard of hearing, blind, mobility-impaired) to more technology-oriented approaches for students with high-incidence disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities, ADHD, mild mental retardation). The term Instructional Systems Design (ISD) refers to technology-based solutions such as Assistive Technologies (AT) and Universal Design (UD) that have the potential to provide better access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities. A brief summary of federal legislation that has influenced the field is also included.

Keywords Assistive Technologies; Differentiated Instruction; Disabilities; Instructional Design; Instructional Systems Design; Special Education; Universal Design; Universal Design for Learning

Special Education: Instructional Design for SpecialEducation


Instructional Design (ID) is an interdisciplinary field combining psychology, business, education, and in recent years, computer technology. The term Instructional Systems Design (ISD) refers to technology-oriented approaches to curriculum development, though the two terms are sometimes used synonymously. The goal of each is to systematically develop learning objectives based on analyzing learners' needs, and to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of a given instructional approach governed by a particular learning theory such as behaviorism or constructivism. Behavioral approaches underscore the role of the instructor and tend to emphasis rote learning with extrinsic rewards for success. In contrast, constructivist approaches capitalize on the intrinsic motivation of learners, allowing them more freedom to choose personally meaningful learning tasks.

In the context of Special Education (SPED) in K-12 public schools in the United States, ID has historically attempted to meet the needs of specific groups of learners who require curriculum modifications, particularly students with low-incidence physical and sensory disabilities (e.g., hard of hearing, blind, mobility-impaired). The development of Assistive Technologies (AT) has been a primary focus of ISD, ranging from low-tech AT (e.g., canes, wheelchairs, eyeglasses) to high-tech AT (e.g., electronic mobility switches, alternative keyboards, signing avatars).

Traditional special education was designed to provide specialized services to achieve a set of goals that differed from those of general education. Although there will always be a small minority of students whose disabilities are so severe that they require a different set of learning objectives, the emphasis on segregation is changing for the majority of students with milder disabilities. As a result of federal laws passed over the past few decades, schools have shifted focus from providing education to learners with special needs in the least restrictive environment to finding ways to help them access the general curriculum. According to Wehmeyer (2006), the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) introduced the concept of “ensuring access to the general curriculum for students receiving special education services and required that the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) of all students receiving special education services include a statement regarding: (a) how the student’s disability affects involvement and progress in the general curriculum; (b) the program modifications or supports for school personnel that are provided for the child to be involved and progress in the general curriculum; and (c) the special education and supplementary aids and services provided to ensure a student’s involvement in and progress in the general curriculum” (p. 225).

The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA continued these 1997 requirements and “extended them, mandating that schools ensure that the IEP team includes someone knowledgeable about the general education curriculum and that it meet at least annually to address any lack of expected progress in the general education curriculum” (Wehmeyer, 2006, p. 225-6). IDEA 2004 prohibits a disabled student from being excluded from the general education setting based solely on the need for modifications to the general education curriculum. These mandates aim to “align practice in special education with school reform efforts in general education, efforts that have been codified in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)” (Wehmeyer, 2006, p. 225).

In order to better accommodate students with IEPs in the general education classroom, IDEA 2004 also calls for a National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) that requires textbook publishers to use a consistent file format when developing alternate versions of texts (e.g., CD-ROM or web-based) for students with print disabilities. This is an improvement over the earlier Chafee Amendment (1996), which gives permission for special educators to convert copyrighted print materials (e.g., to create Braille, audio, or digital versions), but places the burden of responsibility on educators rather than on publishers. However, neither law makes provisions for students with high-incidence cognitive and psychological disabilities (e.g., learning disabled, ADHD, mild mental retardation, emotional disorders). More than 95% of the estimated 6 million children participating in special education fall into the high-incidence category (Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, & Zabala, 2005).

Because students with IEPs are increasingly participating in regular education classes for a majority of their school day (McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2006), the field of ID is now highly focused on devising solutions to provide access to the general curriculum to the millions of children with high-incidence disabilities. In addition to non-technology based approaches, AT solutions are rapidly appearing, ranging from spellcheckers and calculators to more advanced technologies such as electronic storybooks and universally-designed (UD) materials. As more and more K-12 public schools use the Internet as an instructional resource, educational websites are also under pressure to make their websites accessible to the largest number of learners possible. Existing accessibility guidelines as set forth in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998 are being transformed and updated by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).


Five instructional design approaches for special education are described in detail: (1) Curriculum Modification; (2) Differentiated Instruction; (3) Assistive Technologies; (4) Universal Design; and (5) Universal Design for Learning.

Curriculum Modification

A curriculum modification is a change in what a student is expected to learn and/or demonstrate. In this scenario, a student with special needs typically works on modified course content while the subject area remains the same as for the rest of the class. This is in contrast to a curriculum accommodation, in which the instructional level, content, or performance criteria are not changed (Fisher & Frey, 2001). Five common curriculum modifications are as follows:

1. Reduction -- The assignment remains the same except that the number of items is reduced. For example, a spelling list for typically-achieving students may have 20 words while a student with special needs may be asked to learn 5 or 10 words per week.

2. Streamlining -- The assignment is reduced in size, breadth, or focus to emphasize the key points. For example, if an entire class is supposed to write an essay about a novel, the assignment can be streamlined for a specific student so that s/he is asked to create a plot diagram or character web rather than write an essay.

3. Infused Objectives -- The assignment remains the same, but IEP objectives or skills are incorporated. For example, a specific student might have an IEP objective to answer yes/no questions by using his/her eyes to locate the words on a lap tray. During an assignment or test, the teacher can phrase questions in a yes/no format so that the student can practice this IEP objective.

4. Curriculum Augmentation - The assignment remains the same, but the teacher expands the lesson or unit to include generalizable learning strategies such as chunking (separating a large task into component parts), creating graphic organizers, or developing personally-meaningful mnemonic devices for recalling important information.

5. Curriculum Overlapping -- The assignment for one class may be completed in another class. This is helpful for students who have difficulty making connections between different subjects or who work slowly and need additional time to complete assignments. For example, in a computer class, a student can type an assignment for English class and submit the same piece for a grade in each class.

Differentiated Instruction

Tomlinson defines differentiated instruction as “a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms” (cited in Hall, Strangman & Meyer, 2003, par. 1). Interestingly, the design and development of differentiated instruction as a model began in the general education classroom in order to better meet the needs of students considered gifted. The special education community quickly recognized the value of differentiated instruction as an alternative to the factory-style instructional model upon which the American educational system is built; i.e., one size fits all.

Tomlinson (2001) identifies three elements of the curriculum that can be differentiated: Content, Process, and Products:

• Content

• Several elements and materials are used to support instructional content.

• Align tasks and objectives to learning goals.

• Instruction is concept-focused and principle-driven.

• Process

• Flexible grouping is consistently used.

• Classroom management benefits students and teachers.

• Products

• Initial and on-going assessment of student readiness and growth.

• Students are active and responsible explorers.

• Vary expectations and requirements for student responses.

Assistive Technologies (AT)

When people think of instructional design for special education, Assistive Technologies (AT) often come to mind first. AT for low-incidence populations with sensory disabilities has typically focused on providing an alternate format or alternate medium of the original material. A good example of this approach is a book, magazine, or newspaper that has been made available in Braille or recorded on tape for students who are blind or who have low vision (Boone & Higgins, 2007). Other examples of AT for blind and low vision learners include text-to-speech software, screen magnifiers, and refreshable Braille display devices. Captioning and signing avatars are good examples of AT for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Students with...

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