Special Blend

Creating new opportunities for students with special needs.

GUEST COLUMN | by Clay Whitehead

CREDIT Presence LearningSpecial education can be a confusing and intimidating world to those with little exposure to it. If I were to ask a random group of teachers about special education, I bet I would hear some heartwarming, meaningful success stories of how special educators have changed students’ lives. But I also bet I would hear a lot of stories of contentious cases, lawsuits, settlements, compliance mandates, and, of course, due process.

Those same teachers would also probably mention the cost of special education.

The actual statistics are staggering: educating a child with special needs costs twice as much as a general education student.

But, as in many areas of education and of our society, innovation is offering a new path forward. Beyond the innovative technology, here’s why everyone should be interested: the path forward is both more student-centric than the status quo and more economical for schools.

The group of technologies at the heart of this innovation is commonly referred to as blended learning, shorthand for individualized instruction made possible through technology.

When people think about educational technology, they typically think of a computer lab full of students working on self-paced activities on computers. What they don’t envision is this: students using videoconferencing and online activities to collaborate live with an expert who has special training to match that student’s individual needs.

When people think about educational technology, they typically think of a computer lab full of students working on self-paced activities on computers.

The first areas where this type of live, online instruction has taken off are speech therapy and occupational therapy. Believe it or not, the first online speech therapy session was conducted via satellite video conference in 1979! Now, the technology for these videoconferences is everywhere – moving from the corporate boardroom to become a mainstay for grandparents keeping in touch with grandkids at a distance – and so are the students receiving live online therapy.

Giving a student the ability to work with a specially matched therapist on a schedule that works for that student can make a world of difference for that student’s outcomes, both academic and social.

One young student who my colleagues and I worked with several years ago provides a great example.

Five-year old Emma had a severe stuttering problem. However, her local school district lacked a speech-language therapist with the expertise to help her, so they turned to online speech therapy for help. After just six months of online sessions with a highly specialized therapist who was thousands of miles away, Emma went from stuttering 36 percent of the time to only stuttering two percent of the time. The online therapy sessions, along with in-person support, provided the help Emma needed to prevent her stuttering from becoming a life-long issue and showed the power of blended learning in helping such students succeed.

And as for cost? Just imagine what the cost would have been if Emma hadn’t gotten consistent speech therapy and her stutter became a life-long condition, requiring treatment throughout her school career.

As blended learning models gain traction, it is important that schools and districts include special education in their strategic plans.  Leaders should think broadly about how using live experts-at-a-distance can help them fill in expertise not available locally to improve outcomes and overall efficiency in serving students with special needs.

Clay Whitehead is the Co-Founder, Co-CEO, and chief student advocate of PresenceLearning (www.presencelearning.com), where he leads the company’s school partnership efforts, driving its commitment to ensure the best care possible for all students. Clay was inspired to found PresenceLearning in part by the role of technology in his own struggles with learning disabilities as a young child. Serving thousands of students in public, charter and virtual schools across the U.S. and globally, PresenceLearning has shown that online delivery of related services is practical, convenient and highly effective. For more information about blended learning, Tom Vander Ark, a leading champion of blended learning, offers great advice and guidelines in his “Blended Learning Implementation Guide.”

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