Interview | Christina Whalen Goes to TeachTown

Dr. Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA-D, is an autism expert and Chief Science Officer of TeachTown, a developer of computer-aided instruction with fun animation to engage children with autism. In this interview, she discusses children with autism in K-12 schools, the science and benefits of computer-aided instruction, and her thoughts on the future of education and technology in special education. Christina would like to see schools implement teaching strategies that have “more real-world applications and to have better measurement for determining what kids are learning in school and how that will benefit them outside of school,” she says.

Victor: What does TeachTown do?

Christina: We create innovative and scientifically-based interventions using media such as animations, music, and computer software to teach developmental skills to young children with autism and other special needs, including general education students.  Our focus is to develop effective tools for educators, practitioners, and parents that will motivate children and make them eager to learn.  Our team also conducts vigorous research to continually validate our programs to ensure student achievement.

Victor: Who’s running the show at TeachTown?

Christina: The scientific back-bone and curriculum ideas for our products come primarily from me and from our team of clinical experts including, Dr. Lauren Franke, a speech-language expert.  We also have a team of education experts and behavior analysts in our offices in Los Angeles.  The creative aspects and design of our products come from our CEO, Terry Thoren, Michael Bruza, Chief Creative Officer and a team of talented animators, musicians, and writers. Technology is led by our Chief Technology Officer, Kevin MacDonald in our Seattle office.

The growth of our business can be credited to our Board Chair, Dan Feshbach, who created Animated Speech Corporation.  Dan is the father of a child with autism and is very committed to TeachTown’s mission to help as many kids as possible succeed academically. This unique combination of people and talents is what drives TeachTown to create such great products that support teachers and students in education.

Victor: How prominent is autism in U.S. K-12 schools?

Christina: One out of about every 110th child is the latest numbers I’ve seen…with about 1 out of 70 being boys.  These growing statistics cause more challenges for school administrators and teachers, particularly with budget and resource constraints facing our schools.

Victor: That’s a lot of kids. Tell us about your two education curriculum programs: TeachTown Basics and TeachTown Social Skills.

Christina: TeachTown®: Basics is a computer-assisted instructional (CAI) program that delivers highly engaging On Computer Lessons along with motivational Off Computer Activities for students who are developmentally aged 2 to 7 years. Our automatic data tracking and reporting system allows teachers more time for individual attention with their students, and it addresses early learning standards and IEP goals. Parents love their child’s improved behavior after spending time with TeachTown®: Basics, educators love that it is research-based and evidence supported, and kids are highly motivated because it’s fun!

TeachTown®: Social Skills is an animated video modeling-based social skills curriculum that integrates our engaging animated characters to teach socially valid skills. We are developing 5 social skills volumes, which include 10 themes for a total of 50 themes, each critical for a students’ academic success.  Accompanying each target social skill (theme) is a two to three minute animated episode that focuses on that skill. The skill is then further developed through a series of lessons including methods for differentiating instruction, generalization activities, and homework assignments.

Victor: Tell us something relevant about how you founded the company and developed your first product?

Christina: I came up with the idea for TeachTown as I was finishing up graduate school at UC San Diego. I was working with children with autism and often used the computer to keep them motivated for learning language and social skills.  I searched for a computer program that would be appropriate for these children and was not finding what I thought they needed.

Although we did not launch the company until much later, we had our first brainstorming session in Del Mar, CA at a pizza place. The idea began brewing over pizza and beer with a few of my friends and colleagues, Eric Dallaire and Lars Liden, who later helped to form the company. TeachTown was originally founded in 2003 out of my living room in Orange County, CA with 3 friends who helped build the first prototype.  That same year, we landed in Seattle, WA where I worked at the University of Washington in the Autism Center as the Early Intervention Director and Training Director on a research project.  We entered a business plan competition at UW in 2004 with our then CEO, Sven Liden, and applied for a Department of Education Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant that we did receive.  This allowed us to get office space (as part of us winning the business plan competition) and we were able to secure some early Angel funding from a few parents of children with autism. Later, we met Dan Feshbach who helped us to improve our business model and raise additional funds. We also paired up with Terry Thoren and his extremely talented graphics and animation team where we were able to bring in the wonderful characters that make TeachTown programs so engaging and motivating for children.

Victor: What research and formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to product development?

Christina: My background in Applied Behavior Analysis, Developmental Psychology, and Special Education formed the basis of my knowledge. My research with video priming and modeling, joint attention, and early developmental skills was particularly helpful in building the curriculum framework and the scientific theory behind TeachTown: Basics. I also attribute and draw upon my background in Pivotal Response Training to think of new and better ways to motivate students and to maximize generalization of skills learned to real world settings. Dr. Franke, who I mentioned earlier, also adds a great deal of value with her expertise in language development. We rely on her to keep our products developmentally appropriate for the populations we serve.

Victor: How do your products address some of your concerns about education?

Christina: One big issue in education is data collection and progress monitoring. Teachers often have difficulty doing this effectively and TeachTown: Basics helps to do this tracking for them. In addition, the program can help them plan daily lessons and assignments by providing a comprehensive curriculum that they can use to build IEP goals that are individualized for each student. For school administrators, accountability is definitely a priority and administrators like that they can have remote insight into their classrooms on a regular basis. Another issue is the cost of staff training. Most interventions require time-consuming and expensive training and even then, fidelity of implementation tends to be an issue over time. Our programs require very little training and we have excellent results with fidelity of implementation.

On a more personal note to me is the lack of quality curriculum and motivating programs for special education students. It’s disappointing and heartbreaking to walk into a special education classroom that has no access to computers or modern technology. To that end, I am very motivated to provide programs that are of the highest quality and that are fun for kids.

Not enough people focus on the needs of special education students and it is very important that even as we begin to provide technology programs for general educations students, that we never lose sight of the importance of helping students who have exceptionalities and challenges.

Victor: Describe the science behind CAI and Video Modeling – How do these technologies benefit students?  What types of assessments are in the program?

Christina: Research on computer aided instruction (CAI) is not new, yet there has been a surge of research in the past decade.  Results show that CAI has great potential as an effective intervention for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Some of this research indicates that CAI may be more effective in teaching certain skills to students with ASD.  Furthermore, computerized techniques show real promise in social understanding and there is evidence that information learned via CAI can generalize to the natural environment.

The instructional methodologies in the TeachTown: Basics program incorporate common techniques in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Specifically, Discrete Trial instruction and Pivotal Response Training (PRT) are combined as follows: The program presents objectives in discrete tasks and guides learning through prompting and reinforcement. The student chooses and starts a lesson by clicking on a building in the town scene, which has lessons targeting the specific location (e.g. farm building – which includes animals). Child-choice keeps motivation and attention to task high. All responses are coded automatically and presented graphically.

Previous research on the impact of cartoons on children’s learning has focused on negative aspects, highlighting aggressive behaviors and violence. However, a string of new research has focused on the pro-social qualities of cartoons, particularly teaching social skills to children, and cartoons’ effectiveness in this realm is gaining respect among consumers and researchers. In order for a cartoon to effectively teach social skills, we take into consideration many factors,  including careful details on its target population, the populations developmental stage(s), and the manner and context in which the targeted social behavior is presented.

There is clear evidence of positive outcomes for the use of video modeling for children with special needs, and there are even greater benefits for children in special education, particularly with ASD.   Video modeling is linked to an increase in frequency of desired behaviors, academic skills, and motivation. Highest intervention effects of video modeling were found for functional skills, followed by social-communication, and behavioral functioning. Lastly, generalization and maintenance of skills over time have also been a positive effect of this intervention.  Video modeling is a positive and promising strategy for teaching children of all abilities.

Victor: What are some examples of the program in action?

Christina: Here is an example of a lesson in TeachTown: Basics designed to teach children with autism and related disorders that eyes are a critical stimulus and that they should look at the eyes and follow the eyes to the relevant stimulus. After students complete these lessons, they should have the knowledge that eyes have important information. The off-computer lessons work on following eyes in naturalistic situations and working on joint attention and social engagement.

Can you tell this child is excited and happy?  This photo tells it all about the motivation in TeachTown Basics.

This is an example of one of our fun reward games. The student clicks on a person or animal in the circus and they come to life with animation, voices, music, and sound effects.

Here are our characters from the TeachTown: Social Skills Animations who are also featured in the lessons and reward games in TeachTown: Basics. From left to right: Pico, Jelly, Ginger, and Mochi, who are all doing an excellent job listening to their teacher, Ms. Mapleton.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Christina: I would like to see more technology use in special education classrooms and improved communication between schools and parents. I would also like to see schools implement teaching strategies that have more real-world applications and to have better measurement for determining what kids are learning in school and how that will benefit them outside of school.

Victor: I understand you speak on the topic of autism and technology interventions that work best to engage these kids. Where are you speaking next?

Christina: April 16, 2011 in Belmont, CA at The South Bay Annual Autism Resource Fair. I will also present a science poster and tech demo at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in San Diego, CA on May 13 and teach a workshop and panel a symposium at the Association for Behavior Analysis International Conference in Denver, CO May 26-31.  We will also exhibit at the 2011 CEC Conference in April in DC. (Council for Exceptional Children)

Victor: Where can educators and parents learn more about TeachTown programs to support children with autism and developmental delay?

Christina: We welcome everyone including administrators, teachers, parents, clinicians and educational technology advocates to visit our website at www.teachtown.com.  There are navigation pathways on the site for educators and for parents.  You can walk-through a product demo, see videos, read  research, and download free fun stuff to use with our characters including puppets, coloring pages, and schedules.

Friend us on Facebook to keep in touch with our fun characters and their adventures. Follow us on Twitter to stay abreast of product developments and the latest research on autism. Watch videos on YouTube.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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