Communication | Feature

Hacking the Classroom to Encourage Student Independence

Student at a touchscreen computer in a multimodal communications classroom
A student in Shannon Putman's class works at the "student-run hub" outfitted with a touch-screen computer and camera.

To say that special education teacher Shannon Putman "does things kind of differently" in her classroom is an understatement.

On a given morning, one can find students zipping back and forth on scooters answering questions about core curriculum, or turning in homework using a QR code scanner. But those are the words the Kentucky-based, Cochran Elementary School multi-modal communication teacher uses to describe her unique teaching methods, which blend sensory integration and technology to help students with communication disorders find alternative means of interaction.

Others do Putman greater justice.

"Shannon is very much a zealous, very enthusiastic ideas person," said Timothy Dowling, whose twelve-year-old daughter Rebecca has a dual diagnosis of autism and Down syndrome, and is in her seventh and final year of the multi-modal program.

Dowling said that after seven years in the program, Rebecca's main modality--or method of communication--has shifted from American Sign Language to a mobile assistive technology app, known as ProLoQuo2Go, on her iPad.

"I'm inspired by Shannon's work. She's 'hacking' the classroom and engaging with her students in non-traditional and highly innovative ways," said Chad Ruble, the founder of Tapgram, an assistive messaging program Putman recently implemented in her curriculum (see sidebar, E-mail on Tap). "I'm excited to see how Shannon's classroom benefits from her creative use of technology to inspire and engage her students."

That technology runs the gamut of both form and function, making use of a suite of technologies, including gaming consoles and BYOD iPads.

There is the "student-run hub" she has built, which features a touchscreen desktop computer "jury-rigged" with a Playstation 3 camera to read personalized QR codes, which Putman prints out as labels and sticks on the top of homework assignments and attendance slips. Students are responsible for turning in assignments and checking into class on their own, and Putman is working to add another element that will allow them to track their own progress on the district's computer-based learning programs.

There is the class web site, where Putman posts pictures and videos from each day, details class events, uploads homework assignments and field trips, and features student blogs, which students write not by typing, but by dictating sentences into an iPad using ProLoQuo2Go.

There is Tapgram, the browser-based app that allows students use to send simple, personalized messages and photos to each other, their parents, and their principal from computers or iPads without the use of a keyboard. "If they did something good, they can Tapgram [their parents] and say, 'I added two digits and got it right and I'm excited.' We celebrate anything we can in here," Putman said.

And there is "Brain Drain," a game Putman invented for the Microsoft Kinect to incorporate movement into her students' learning. The game features an enticing narrative in which students play to save the world by answering academic questions--though instead of using words, they use sensory movements to respond. Since Putman doesn't know how to code herself, she simulates those movements with her computer as the students play through Microsoft Photo Story. She is currently working with web developers in hopes that Microsoft will pick up the game.  

Independently Minded
Each activity lends itself to Putman's greater goal: preparing her class to function independently in the real world.

"I love talking about my class because it's a multi-modal communication classroom and it's actually the only one in Jefferson County, [Kentucky]," Putman said. "It started out as a pilot class … for students who had communication disorders but could hear. It kind of morphed--I actually have three hearing impaired students now, but they have another issue that they're dealing with."

E-mail on Tap
Tapgram founder Chad Ruble created his keyboard-free communication platform--a web-based, but tablet-friendly, application that allows one to share simple messages with two taps--as a way to better communicate with his mother after she had a stroke. Frustrated with the existing assistive technology geared toward aphasia, which he found clunky, Ruble, formerly a New York-based journalist began searching for a way to send messages to his mother in California.

His initial iteration, the Kinecticate, transformed the Microsoft Kinect into a device that allowed a user to send messages with gestures. The response he received was overwhelmingly positive--not just from his mother, but from a community of people who had seen his video on YouTube.

"It made me realize my mom is not the only person like this, and her condition isn’t the only condition that prevents people from engaging in a fun digital connection with the people they love," Ruble said.

Because the Kinecticate wasn’t a viable option for scaling, Ruble created a web-based prototype that performed a similar function on a tablet--now called Tapgram. He hired a web developer and the team launched about ten weeks ago. Users can choose from three different kinds of icons--feelings, people, and places--and select a sentence that goes with it. That message is e-mailed to friends and family and upload to the platform’s own message board. Recently, Ruble and his team added an option for users to customize their own icons, and they plan to add features like photo sharing and auto-posting to sites like Facebook.

Ruble’s ultimate goal is to make the app flexible enough so that people can adapt it for situations and conditions he didn’t initially anticipate.

"I just wanted to make something I knew would help people in my mom’s situation, but also in my situation, [those] who had a family member who they just wanted to be in contact with," he said. "[It's] something to make a situation that’s hard for a lot of people just a little bit easier."

Many of Putman's students have autism, Down syndrome or Apraxia of speech and use sign language to express their thoughts. Putman works closely with these students and helps them discover additional ways to communicate, both in class and outside of it.

"The disadvantage of signing is that if you go to McDonald's, or if you're out in the park, or if a kid comes by and asks you're name, most people don't know American Sign Language," Dowling explained. "Even if we're at home and [my daughter Rebecca] wants orange juice, which is her favorite thing to want, I can't hear her ask for it if she's signing it--which she does, to herself with no one looking."

Perhaps Putman's greatest accomplishment is preparing her students for those kinds of real world scenarios. Using the ProLoQuo2Go app--which quite literally gives her students a voice--Putman takes her class out into the local community. The app works by pressing pictures and words to form a sentence, and then tapping the sentence to vocalize it, so her students order meals through the app, shop and pay for their own groceries while asking questions of customer service representatives.

"My greatest fear is that once they leave me, they'll end up in a home somewhere, or--god forbid--something would happen to their parents," Putman said. "I try to use anything I can to get them to able to live a happy and independent life."

Putman even takes her fifth graders shopping for supplies they'll need for middle school--items like clothes and deodorant, which they ask for with ProLoQuo2Go and pay for with pre-paid Visa gift cards.

"Of all those [communication] modalities, I think the ProLoQuo2Go is the most important one because you can actually hear it. So when Rebecca wants orange juice I hear from the next room, 'I would like a glass of orange juice,' in a nice little girl's voice," Dowling said.

Putman jumps on any technology that instills a sense of freedom in her students.

"When you can finally find a way to give them a voice or get them to do something and get that level of independence where they're not relying on anybody, that's where the magic happens," Putman said.

And as with any great "thinker and tinker"--another phrase Ruble used to describe Putman--she always has a new idea in the pipeline.

"What I'd really love to do is teach other teachers how to integrate sensory strategies and how to integrate technology," Putman said. "I never thought I would be this way, but I love coming up with things. I feel like I would love to be able to help other teachers … try to find the same success that I've been lucky enough to have."