Winter 2022

Five Considerations to Make Online High School More Inclusive

One size does not fit all and one type of course offering does not fit every high school student in online learning. To this effect, one online program or online course may not be as inclusive for every high school student with special needs. What considerations should be made to improve inclusion in our online schools?

Inclusive Education Canada states that “inclusive education is about ensuring access to quality education for all students effectively meeting their diverse needs in a way that is responsive, accepting, respectful and supportive (2020, para. 3). In addition to this, inclusive education must “provide a positive climate, promote a sense of belonging and ensure student progress toward appropriate personal, social, emotional and academic goals” and “[be] responsive to individual learning needs by providing sufficient levels of support and applying student-centred teaching practices and principles” (para. 5). Even before the pandemic, research shows that online learning is not as inclusive as we might think (Forlin, 2010; Clow & Kolomitro, 2018; Kern, 2020). 

Using both a survey and media discourse analysis of Canadian high school students with special needs, this article reflects their challenges presented in online learning. As a solutionary researcher, the challenges all have strategies and opportunities to make online high school more inclusive. After careful analysis, the challenges have resulted in considerations towards changes that can improve the success of students with special needs in our online high school classrooms in Canada. 

Across provinces and territories how students with special needs are categorized or differentiated is different.  In a workshop at the BC Blended Digital Ed Conference participants were asked to raise their hands if they have enrolled students in the following BC categories:

  • Physically Dependent
  • Deafblind
  • Moderate to Profound Intellectual Disability
  • Physical Disability or Chronic Health Impairment
  • Visual Impairment
  • Deaf or Hard of Hearing
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Intensive Behaviour Interventions or Serious Mental Illness
  • Mild Intellectual Disability
  • Gifted
  • Learning Disability
  • Moderate Behaviour Support / Mental Illness
  • 2E learners 

Overwhelmingly, workshop participants indicated that students with autism, gifted students, and students with learning disabilities were the largest enrollment of all the special needs in their online or hybrid classes. Every participant indicated having more than one student with autism. Focusing on evidence-based strategies for students with special needs, this article offers solutionary research with five considerations that have emerged for online high school. 

1.  Types of online learning environments

When a student comes to your school to enrol, do you just say “welcome” and process their enrolment? Unfortunately, the online class that you offer may not match the learning style of the student. While we may think synchronous and asynchronous are the only choices, the pandemic has shown us that there are styles and types beyond synchronous and asynchronous. Does your course or program have live sessions? Face to face sessions? Zero contact? Hybrid? All of these details are important for students who need specific learning environments recommended by their special needs assessments. 

What type of direct instruction does the online learning environment provide? Studies show that language development ranges are wide and varied amongst students with autism spectrum disorder with 75% of students with autism spectrum disorder showing challenges in spontaneous language, conversation skills, and social use of language (American Psychiatric Association, 2000;Ganz & Flores, 2009). The need for direct instruction for students with autism spectrum disorder is one of the most effective teaching strategies (Hattie, 2009; Stockard et al., 2008; Frampton et al., 2021). The more information that can be described about  the learning environment will better enable students to ensure they have a chance to be successful.

2. Be great at “grading”

More often than not parents and students complain about the marking and grades. Students and families are getting smarter and increasingly understand that grading is more than just putting a letter on an assignment. As students and families develop a vocabulary for what grading is, their expectations rise. Assessment is ongoing, positive, personalized and provides feedback for where a student can go with the assignment to improve. When these elements are not provided, students and families believe that the grade or mark is just a judgement. The solution is to provide criteria for all assignments that can be used to measure based on evidence.

Rubrics and marking schemes are assessment tools that can be used to demonstrate great grading, and improve the quality of assignments that are submitted for grading. 

Rubrics are used for both formative and summative assessment and outline the marking criteria. Rubrics can (Queen’s University, n.d., para 2):

  • Provide timely and detailed feedback that students can use
  • Encourages critical thinking/self-evaluation
  • Communicate expectations to students
  • Expose the component skills of any task
  • Encourage fair and consistent marking

This may sound so simple, but many online courses across Canada do not have rubrics. Or, students responded that some schools try to pass off one rubric for all courses or all assignment types, which is ineffective. One rubric does not fit all courses or all assignments. One rubric does not give important assessment criteria when one student is composing a song, while another student is creating a diorama. For any age or grade, “rubrics vary by task, discipline and course levels” (Queen’s University, n.d., para. 3). For a student with special needs (and all students), a rubric may act as a visual checklist for students to verify that all the components of an assignment are included. 

In lieu of rubrics, marking guides, advanced grading method for online learning, can be created in a similar way to rubric, except the teacher provides feedback on each criterion. Assess work using a marking guide where each criterion allows for more detailed feedback tailored to the criterion. This is less subjective, and students are able to see how they are marked before they even submit an assignment (UNSW, 2021). Better yet, ensure students see the marking guide with the assignment to improve the submissions. Many students surveyed responded that their online courses had neither rubrics nor marking guides. They aren’t sure where the grades are coming from or what is expected of them.

In regards to grading,  many families reflect about feeling students with special needs are automatically graded lower than their peers without special needs. For example, one student identified that he always receives a B. When a teacher from another online school looked at this work, the teacher could not believe it was an A, especially when there was no feedback for improvement. Some families who are concerned about grading wonder if this is a Human Rights issue. Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (2021) outlines legal principles that include “Adverse Impact Discrimination” where discrimination could be intentional or unintentional. Ontario Human Rights Commission (2018) goes further to stress that all teachers must be educated about disability-related issues. Thus, an opportunity for educators to expand their growth mindset to understand that having a disability or special needs does not mean a student is not capable, but that a student may learn differently or show their learning in a different way; it could still mean they are able to achieve the highest grades, without unintentional discrimination. 

3.  Be timely

As a parent, getting a mid term report with a list of assignments that show “late” and “late” and “late” periodically on the list, makes me question why a student is late so often. But the flipside is wondering if being late matters when assignments are not returned to students in a timely fashion. One student mentioned that they were considering giving their teacher a mid term report to point out that out of ten assignments turned in, only 3 assignments were returned to the student within seven days. The average return rate was 13 days after submission. Some jurisdictions across Canada outright stipulate a timeframe, professional standards, that work must be returned to students such as a common seven day time frame. It’s important to show our students the professionalism of returning assignments promptly, especially if late assignments submissions matter. 

4.  Improve the meaning of deadlines

A common complaint is deadlines. While some types of online learning may be self-paced, the need for deadlines is important for learners with special needs. The Universal Design for Learning guidelines “offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities” (CAST, 2018, para 1). The idea of extra time is meant for in class assignments, activities, and tests or exams. Executive functioning skills for students with special needs are especially important and are skills developed over time. The importance of deadlines is important for executive functioning skills in that this helps students learn to organize, plan and prioritize, to start tasks and stay focused on them until done or in steps, and to keep track or self-monitor their school work (Kappes, 2020). These are the skills a learner will need as they transition to adulthood and develop their independent living skills. 

So how can we improve deadlines? Improving the meaning of deadlines means that we need to change deadlines as a starting point for assessment, when we as educators will start marking an assignment for example. We can change the Learning Management System to have a “submission date” rather than a deadline in order to reduce the anxiety that students express when they see the big red “LATE” sign next to their submission. Lastly, we can develop a better relationship by communicating with all of our students when we see that they have not submitted an assignment on the submission date. 

5. Personalize the cohort or pod learning

“Cohort-based courses or cohort-based learning describes a learning style where a group of students (a ‘cohort’) gets to advance at the same time through a curriculum or learning program that is organized around a specific syllabus” (Raouna, 2021). Many students identify this as traditional synchronous learning where students take the same course and progress through in a paced, scheduled way; students start and finish the course together. Even further, pod learning may require that all students take the same group of courses.

The challenges that arise from cohort or pod learning are the lack of personalization in the learning experience and the inability to personalize the course choices. One student from a pod learning environment responded that they needed to take courses from three different high schools this year in order to personalize their learning this year. In provinces and territories where enrolling in multiple online schools is an option, the option is being well exercised. 

For students with special needs, enrolling in multiple schools or personalizing the course choices responds to allowing a student to follow their interests and passions. One of the best ways to engage students with autism is by ensuring their interests are included in instruction and activities (Mancil & Pearl, 2008). For gifted students, they are able to process through courses quicker than other students (Brumback, et al., 2004; McCormick & Plucker, 2013) which means a cohort or pod may not be a suitable learning style. In both cases, choice of courses that surround the special interests of students with autism or gifts and talents of gifted students is an effective way to personalize cohort or pod learning. 

Constraints in the research

Two challenges arise in the research. 1) Students and families are not always aware of the type of online learning they are enrolling in. 2) Students and families do not often understand that many choices of how a program or course is offered is based on provincial or territorial policies to meet funding requirements. While not everything can be changed in every program, there are strategies that can be considered to improve online education for students with special needs.


In conclusion, many of our current online programs or online courses need to change to improve inclusion for high school students. Where inclusion means a positive climate and sense of belonging, or being responsive to the needs of each student, our work in education constantly encourages us to be lifelong learners and improve educational experiences. Starting with a redesign or reframing of how we describe the online programs at the school level will help students and families better understand what the learning environment may be and if this matches the needs of the learning. 

Well described course descriptions that include details of live sessions, pacing, submission dates, and what types of assessments or if the course is project-based will inform inclusiveness for all learners or if another type of class might be better suited. Subsequently, being timely when returning student assignments and tests improves the relationships with our students and helps educators meet professional standards. Lastly, we can challenge the way online education is designed to find ways to personalize the cohort or pod learning. Inclusive education benefits all learners and educators whether online or face to face by promoting wellbeing, collaboration, and to build a better culture of respect for education across Canada. 

References American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). American Psychiatric Association Publication.
CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from
Clow, E., & Kolomitro, K. (2018, May 2). Online learning isn’t as inclusive as you may think. University Affairs.
Forlin, C. (2010). Teacher education online: Towards inclusive virtual learning communities. In Teacher Education for Inclusion (pp. 146-155). Routledge.
Frampton, S.E., Munk, G.T., Shillingsburg, L.A., & Shillingsburg, M.A. (2021). A Systematic Review and Quality Appraisal of Applications of Direct Instruction with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 44, 245–266.
Ganz, J.B., & Flores, M.M. (2009). The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction for Teaching Language to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Identifying Materials. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 39, 75–83.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
Inclusive Education Canada. (2020). What is inclusive education?
Kappes, S. (2020). Executive functioning issues in the workplace: What employers need to know. Understood For All Inc.
Kern, A. (2020, Jan 26). Creating an inclusive virtual classroom. Edutopia.
McCormick, K.M., & Plucker, J.A. (2013). Connecting student engagement to the academic and social needs of gifted and talented students. In K.K Kaufman, J. Baer, B. Sriraman (Eds.), Creatively gifted students are not like other gifted students (pp. 121-136). Rotterdam.
Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2018). Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities.
Queen’s University. (n.d.). Rubrics and marking schemes.
Raouna, K. (2021, Sept 23). The essential guide to how to create cohort-based courses. Learn Worlds. Retrieved from
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. (2021). SHRC to the special education review committee.
Stockard, J., Wood, T. W., Coughlin, C., & Rasplica Khoury, C. (2018). The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 479–507.
University of New South Wales (UNSW). (2021, Nov 2). Mark Moodle assignments using a marking guide. Retrieved from

E.D. Woodford is a former Principal. She currently teaches Graduate Studies for Queen’s University and is online faculty at Thompson Rivers University.

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