A Model of Support for Students with Disabilities in a Blended, Co-taught Classroom

Concurrent Session 9

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This interactive presentation shares the blended, co-taught model developed by the North Carolina Virtual Public School to meet the needs of special education students in the Occupational Course of Study. Our research provides perspectives for schools, districts, and states that may consider developing similar programs in their own contexts.


Amy Garrett Dikkers is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She teaches in face-to-face, hybrid, and online learning modalities with undergraduate students and current educational professionals through Master’s and doctoral programs. Her scholarship in online and blended learning spans the spectrum of Pk-20 educational organizations. To date she has over two dozen publications that examine the value of online and technology-enhanced education for diverse populations of students and the teachers who work with them.

Extended Abstract

As virtual opportunities for K-12 students continue to expand across the country, so do online learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Researchers have found meaningful implications for the growth of online learning for rural schools and districts, which often have to serve diverse populations of students with limited resources. Vasquez and Serianni (2012) contend that online learning can expand options for rural students, especially students with disabilities. However, Cavanaugh, Barbour, and Clark (2009) urge that more studies are needed that examine the quality of high school student learning experiences in virtual environments, especially those of lower performing and at-risk students in order “to design appropriate supports as this particular population of students continues to grow within virtual schools” (p. 13). The Occupational Course of Study (OCS) program at the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) responds to this call by utilizing a blended, co-taught approach to instruction. Both online and face-to-face teachers collaboratively make decisions based on what is best for special needs students –one teacher understands the learning disability, the other specializes in content—both are working together to individualize learning for that particular student, using a cadre of best practices in both the online and f2f world. Our research seeks to unpack the OCS blended, co-taught model, understand the unique roles of teachers and the unique needs of students in the partnership, and provide perspective for schools, districts, and states that may consider developing similar programs in their own contexts (Garrett Dikkers, Lewis, & Whiteside, 2015). 

The following research questions guided the study:

  1. What does blended learning in an Occupational Course of Study classroom look like?

  2. To what extent/how are OCS students prepared and supported to learn in a blended co-teaching environment?

  3. To what extent/how are teachers prepared and supported to teach in a blended co-teaching environment?

Typically qualitative research involves multiple opportunities for researchers to interact with participants (Creswell, 2013; Ravitch & Carl, 2016); however, NCVPS OCS teachers and students are spread across the state of North Carolina. Yet, our primary research purpose was to gain a basic understanding of their experiences, so we utilized an online survey approach as an efficient means to gather data from participants (Ravitch & Carl, 2016). Since the literature points to cross sectional survey methods as the best approach for mid- to large sized populations (Babbie, 1973), the research team designed separate teacher (21 questions) and student (39 questions) surveys with a mix of demographic, Likert-scale, and open-ended questions. Through our partnership with NCVPS, permission was granted by the Chief Academic Officer and Division Director for the teacher survey to be distributed through the OCS teacher listserv. The Instructional Director of OCS sent an email to online and face-to-face OCS teachers of 12 OCS courses asking them to participate. The student survey was posted in the announcements section of the students’ online OCS course.

The student survey remained open for three weeks in the spring of 2014 to a potential target population of 4,197 OCS students. The survey received an overall response rate of 17.5% (n=736). The teacher survey also remained open for three weeks the following fall to a potential target population of 216 online teachers and 543 classroom teachers. The teacher survey received an overall response rate of 27.5% (n=225). The overall response rate for online teachers is 30% and the overall response rate for face-to-face teachers is 26.5%.

Our student survey revealed the extent to which students felt prepared and supported to learn in a blended, co-taught environment. When asked if someone taught them strategies or skills to help them learn online, 41.7% of OCS students reported they did not receive previous instruction. The 58.3% of students who did receive previous instruction reported receiving help mainly from their face-to-face teacher. When asked about additional supports for their online coursework, students again cited the importance of their face-to-face teacher and mentioned the support of peers and family members.

Teachers were asked similar questions with regards to preparation for teaching OCS students in a blended learning environment. When asked how prepared they felt, 50.47% (n=108) of teachers reported feeling very prepared, 34.11% (n=73) felt prepared; 10.75% (n=23) felt somewhat prepared, and 4.67% (n=10) reported no preparation. When asked how prepared teachers felt to partner with another teacher to serve the needs of the OCS population, 60.28% (n=129) reported feeling very prepared, 33.64% (n=72) were prepared, 4.67% (n=10) felt somewhat prepared and 1.4% (n=3) did not feel at all prepared.

When teachers were asked how prepared they felt to teach OCS students in a traditional classroom (i.e. not online), 36.45% (n=78) reported feeling very prepared, 33.64% (n=72) felt prepared, 24.3% (n=52) were somewhat prepared, and 5.61% (n=12) did not feel prepared at all. When we examine this question filtered by online versus face-to-face teacher, twice as many face-to-face teachers (42%, n=60) feel very prepared to teach OCS students than the online teachers (23%, n=15). This is understandable because many of the online content teachers do not have licensure or certification in special education.

When teachers were asked how supported they felt to teach in an OCS online environment, 65.88% (n=139) felt very supported, 23.22% (n=49) felt supported, 9% (n=19) indicated they felt somewhat supported, and 1.9% (n=4) did not feel supported at all. When we looked at the responses to this question divided by online content teacher or face-to-face OCS teacher there was a noticeable difference in response. 75.38% of online NCVPS teachers felt very supported compared to 61.81% of face-to-face OCS teachers.

Our research reveals opportunities to enhance and extend the blended, co-teaching model and offers recommendations for NCVPS and other schools and districts looking to blended learning as a solution for serving the needs of specific groups of students. In an education environment that is increasingly using technology-enhanced, blended, and online learning, teachers and students need to be prepared to work across modalities to achieve student success. Our recommendations include:

  • Students should receive additional supports and preparation for learning in an online environment prior to and during their online learning experience.

  • There should be a clear process in place for communication and handling issues as they arise.

  • Both teachers should be able to modify online content (i.e. take out assignments, pare down on requirements, etc.) based on the needs of students in their classrooms.

  • Both teachers need to be involved in planning. Content area and special education teachers should work together as a team to develop curriculum, plan instructional strategies, and create assessments for their students.  

  • Districts should offer specific professional development for teachers designed to address the power and potential of co-teaching.

  • F2f special education teachers can complete an online module before joining a partnership and, at the very least, practice working through a tutorial of the learning management system.

  • Professional Learning Communities can support the experiences of teachers, as both f2f and virtual teachers express the desire to have more conversations and connections with teachers who have taught in the program before.

Success of the blended, co-taught model depends to a large extent on the teachers’ perceptions, role definition, and collaboration and on their ability to meet the unique needs of OCS students. Through our exploration of the OCS blended model at the NCVPS, it is clear that students, face-to-face special education teachers, and virtual content area teachers see great benefits to blended learning. Those benefits include skill development for students with disabilities that may enhance their employment opportunities after graduation from high school, the ability to graduate from high school, and a balance of continued rigor and relevancy among state learning standards and workforce training. However, what is also clear is the continued need for teacher training and support structures for all teachers involved in the partnership. Available achievement data also leaves several unanswered questions, as OCS student success on statewide end-of-course assessments is low when compared to state pass rates. This data suggests the need for a more in-depth examination of the consistency of implementation of the model, the extent of professional development and support for teachers, and a re-examinations of the model’s impact on student learning.


Babbie, E. (1973). Survey research methods. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Cavanaugh, C., Barbour, M. & Clark, T. (2009). Research and practice in K-12 online learning: A review of open access literature. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1). Retrieved from   http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/607/1182.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Garrett Dikkers, A., Lewis, S., & Whiteside, A. L. (2015). Blended learning for students with disabilities: The North Carolina Virtual Public School’s co-teaching model. In M. F. Rice (Ed.), Exploring pedagogies for diverse learners online - Advances in research on teaching, Volume 25, (67-93). West Yorkshire, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Ravitch, S. M., & Carl, N. M. (2016). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Vasquez, III, E., & Serianni, B. A. (2012). Research and practice in distance education for K-12 students with disabilities. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 31(4), 33-42.