Online Learning | August 2013 Digital Edition

3 Online Speech Therapy Success Stories

Schools with limited resources or limited access to speech-language pathologists are turning to virtual options to meet their students' needs.

This article, with an exclusive video, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's August 2013 digital edition.

A popular misconception in education circles is that, when it comes to speech therapy, in-person interaction is an absolute must. Online speech therapy, the thinking goes, is handicapped by glitchy videoconferencing technology and a lack of face-to-face interaction. But ever-faster broadband, paired with services from companies such as PresenceLearning, TinyEYE, and VocoVision, has helped online speech therapy become more than a stopgap way to connect certified speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to students in cash-strapped or remote districts. Here are three stories that show how online speech therapy can be as effective as--and sometimes more effective than--its traditional counterpart.

"Shock and Awe," Then Success
With 100 students in grades K-12, La Vida Charter School is situated in a rural Northern California valley about 100 miles from the Bay Area. Four years ago, when the school couldn't find an SLP to accommodate its on-site speech therapy program, it turned to the web. Director Ann A. Kelly discovered TinyEYE via her own internet research, but when she introduced the service to her own staff and to other schools in the district, Kelly was immediately shot down.

"It was basically shock and awe," Kelly says, "and disbelief over the thought of using the web for an educational service like speech therapy." A fellow school leader said the delivery method should be "illegal," and another pointed out that it was probably noncompliant. An undeterred Kelly decided to test out the service anyway. Fast-forward to 2013, and the same naysayers are now asking her for online speech therapy recommendations.

"Our whole district is now interested," Kelly says. The typical student uses the service on a weekly basis for at least 30 minutes, but several high-needs children use it more frequently. Those students with adequate bandwidth and computers equipped with at least 1 GB of RAM can tie into the service from home, while the remainder of the population uses the online therapy only in the school's resource room. Each child has a designated time slot and works face-to-face with an online SLP via live, real-time videoconferencing. The provider recruits and manages the SLPs, ensures their availability at the designated times, and takes care of the scheduling.

Four years into its online speech therapy initiative, Kelly says the school has seen positive results and heard good feedback from students, parents, and a special education coordinator who oversees the program and monitors the children's progress on the institutional side. "Our special ed coordinator has been impressed with the insight and expertise that the therapists bring to the session and that they use in their assessments," says Kelly.

Kelly admits, though, that the technology sometimes gets in the way of the learning and prohibits seamless interaction between students and their SLPs. A major culprit? Headphones. "It's something you might not expect, but headphones don't always work right and they wear out quickly," Kelly says. "Just when you think you have everything set up and ready to roll, they give out on you."

Despite these frustrations, Kelly says that using online speech therapy "has been a positive experience," and these days she helps other schools and districts meet their own speech therapy challenges by pointing them to online options. As a next step, her school is currently looking into the feasibility of offering sign language training via an off-site professional. "If it works out," she says, "we'll be able to expand our accessibility options even further by having a sign language specialist who works with both the parents and the students online."

Meeting IEP Goals
The School District of DeSoto County in Arcadia, FL, another small, rural district, faced a double whammy last year: Not only were SLPs difficult to recruit and retain, but a few that were in place had just retired. "We posted ads for the open positions all summer long and couldn't find anyone," says Debra Giacolone, director of special education and student services, who started exploring online options after learning about them from a colleague.

After investigating several online options, Giacolone decided to try out PresenceLearning's offering with the district's middle and high school students. In place since the fall of 2012, the web-based solution is orchestrated by a speech and language services coordinator who schedules and monitors student usage in an on-site lab. Equipped with a username and password, students don their headphones and spend about 30 minutes with the program. "Students do what they are supposed to do," says Giacolone, "and then they log off and go back to their regular schedules."

During the sessions, students use webcams in face-to-face sessions with therapists who not only hear the students' speech and see their facial expressions and how they move their mouths, but can also "zoom in" and see exactly how students are positioning their tongues. This kind of tech-enabled observation can really help SLPs make necessary therapeutic adjustments. 

Like Kelly, Giacolone says that getting early buy-in from staff members and parents was a key challenge when the online speech program was first introduced. "Whenever you make this kind of change, there's sure to be pushback," she says. To work through the challenge, the district set up "preview" webinar sessions and involved the middle and high school principals in the process. "Once they saw it in action, the online speech therapy sold itself," Giacolone says. "We haven't had a single parent or student complaint since putting the program in place."

The district has yet to conduct a comparative study to determine specific results, but Giacolone has seen improvement in special education students' ability to work toward individual education plan goals. "We've been pleased with their progress," says Giacolone, who is just beginning to roll out the online speech program in the district's elementary school. "Now that we know it's effective, we'd like to get more creative and use the program with our younger students."

Helping Home-Schoolers
According to Maria Berecin-Rascon, director of special education at Casa Grande Elementary School District (AZ), SLPs are in short supply in her state, especially in less populous districts. "Even recent college graduates aren't an option because they head to the metropolitan areas and don't want to work in rural areas," she says.

Because a proportionate share of Casa Grande's special education funds are allocated to private and home-schooled students, Berecin-Rascon works with a broad group of students. Home-schooled students who have adequate internet bandwidth, for example, are given a laptop, a headset, and a TinyEYE account to log into on a scheduled basis. Those students who lack the bandwidth must come to the school to receive instruction. Another 15 or so private school students work with a paraprofessional at their own institutions to set up and participate in online sessions with an SLP.

Berecin-Rascon says that while parents were at first reluctant to use the online service, a quick education on how slim the district's speech-language resources were--and a demo of the TinyEYE system--helped the detractors see the value of the service. "The program pretty much sold itself, even at the private school level," she says. She would like to increase her district's use of the online solution, but may be limited by Medicaid regulations. "Speech services are reimbursed, but teleservices are not. If we moved forward on a large scale, then our district would lose some of its funding."

To districts currently considering online speech therapy, Berecin-Rascon says that it provides a viable way to balance students' needs with scarce human and financial resources. And don't be afraid to test out innovative solutions, she adds, even if everyone isn't on board at the outset. "Eventually, when they see the results and the progress, they'll come around."

As an example of that progress, she mentions the first student in the area to use online speech therapy. A first-grader who was attending private school, the girl was completely nonverbal when she started working with an SLP via a videoconferencing setup on a regular, scheduled basis. Within a year and a half--and with the help of parents who offered reinforcement and enrichment at home--the student was able to express herself verbally.

"She's made great progress," Berecin-Rascon enthuses. "Along the way, her parents have grown in their understanding and respect of the online service."

 

5 Online Speech Therapy Apps

In addition to the full-blown online speech therapy solutions, apps can also help improve children's speech. Here are five to check out:

AACSpeechBuddy is an augmentative and alternative communication solution for individuals who have trouble communicating. $39.99 for iOS and $27.99 for Android.

ConversationBuilder helps elementary students learn how to have multi-exchange conversations with their peers in a variety of social settings. $19.99 for iOS.

Pocket SLP is a suite of apps for speech-language therapy. Prices vary; for iOS and Android.

Rainbow Sentences is designed to help students improve their ability to construct grammatically correct sentences by using color-coded visual cues. $7.99 for iOS.

Speech With Milo offers a number of language apps ranging in price from $1.99-$24.99; available for iOS and Android.

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