Top-rated IRIS Center provides trusted resources for educators

In January, a panel of independent reviewers evaluated the quality, relevance and usefulness of the products of 14 of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP) national centers funded in 2006–2007. The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements (IRIS II) ranked second, missing the top spot by only .08 points.

The center received a new five-year, $7.5- million grant that began in January 2013. Continuing and expanding the former IRIS Center’s mission, the new center develops free online resources about working with all children with disabilities and their families. IRIS is headquartered at Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University.

“We now cover the age spectrum from birth through 21,” says IRIS Project Co-director Naomi Tyler, who is associate professor of the practice in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College Department of Special Education. “We’ve added early intervention and early childhood resources about working with infants and toddlers, as well as resources about older students who take longer to finish school or need transition supports during high school. We’re also adding more outreach and developing tiered services for college faculty who infuse IRIS resources into their courses and curricula.”

Founded in 2001, the IRIS Center serves as a national resource for teaching and learning tools, coursework enhancements, and training materials. The center seeks to build the capacity of educators to use evidence-based instructional and intervention practices in addressing the needs of children with disabilities. IRIS also develops instructional modules and resources for university professors to use in their coursework, for professional development providers to use in trainings with practitioners, and for independent learners who seek to increase their own personal knowledge. Employing technology to effectively develop and deliver resources about evidence-based practices is an IRIS goal.

On the IRIS website, faculty and professional development providers can find a broad array of materials to supplement their classes and trainings, including interactive challenge-based modules, case studies, activities, information briefs, evidence-based practice summaries, and sample syllabi. Video Vignettes that feature success stories and teachers using evidence-based techniques are new to the site.

Take resources on reading instruction, for example. Because the curriculum in upper grades relies more and more on independent reading skills, the 25 percent of students who struggle with reading in the early grades will eventually struggle in all academic areas. The IRIS Center provides modules, case studies, and supplemental training materials on reading-related topics like early reading, progress monitoring, comprehension strategies, and peer tutoring.

“Between 2006 and 2012, the number of visitors to our website tripled,” Kim Skow, IRIS project coordinator, says. “By the end of this new cycle, our goal is to have 3 million visitors a year. We’ve developed a lot of great products over the first two IRIS projects and now have more than 50 modules.”

Created in collaboration with nationally recognized researchers and education experts, IRIS Center tools tackle instructional and classroom issues like classroom behavior management, early childhood instruction and response to intervention (RTI). The IRIS Resource Locator is a search engine that helps users identify resources by topic, type, and module element. For example, a new module, “Teacher Induction: Providing Comprehensive Training for New Special Educators”, emphasizes the importance of administrative support for beginning special education teachers and shows how that support can increase the teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. IRIS modules are built on the How People Learn (HPL) theory developed by former Peabody professor John Bransford and his colleagues. HPL is founded on a problem- or challenge-based approach to understanding instructional or classroom difficulties.

“The IRIS Center bridges the research-to-practice gap through a free, interactive website that translates research about the education of students with disabilities into practice,” Tyler says. “So many faculty have such heavy workloads that it’s hard for them to keep up. They not only look to our website for trusted information on evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions for students with disabilities but also for supports for their own college teaching—resources like our sample syllabi and coursework planning forms.”