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“Shock and Awe,” Then Success

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.

Ann A. Kelly

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.”