Curry College Uses Assistive Technology to Level Playing Field for Special Needs Students

Curry College has improved its already-successful Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) by working with an integration firm to design assistive technology solutions for students with learning disabilities.

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Curry College Uses Assistive Technology to Level Playing Field for Special Needs Students

A Christie projector feeding a retractable 72.5-inch-by-116-inch Da-Lite screen is just one element of a technology upgrade aimed at providing options for Curry College students that learn differently.

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The students in Curry College’s Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) are of “above average or average intelligence,” says Laura E. Vanderberg. Ed.M., Ph.D., director of the program. It’s a cruel irony, therefore, when those students’ education is hindered by disadvantages that make academic success harder to achieve.

It’s also the reason PAL exists – to level the playing field.

These days that effort to level the playing field is often supported by integrated technology solutions. Working with Sudbury, Mass.-based integration firm Adtech, which focuses a large part of its business on working with higher education customers, Milton, Mass.-based Curry College recently upgraded the solutions that support PAL.

It’s not just technology, of course. PAL aims to provide a learning environment “that supports all types of learners,” as Vanderberg puts it, with a combination of assistive technology and expert faculty.

The new technology has been well received by students participating in the program. “When I walk into the PAL building, I no longer feel like I have a disability,” says one student.

The Academic Challenge

Despite being a small school with under 3,000 registered students on the outskirts of Boston, Curry College has been a leader when it comes to providing resources for students with learning disabilities. PAL was founded by Dr. Gertrude M. Webb, a professor who already had a long history of working with dyslexic students before PAL launched in 1970.  In 2011, Webb, who passed away a year later, told Curry Magazine about how she came to take an interest in students that others dismissed as hopeless.

“We are excited and honored to use our knowledge and expertise to help enable better access to education for students with atypical learning styles. As a parent of a child that learns differently I am thrilled to see programs like Curry College’s PAL,” says Adtech’s Philip Muscatello.

“I had a very bright boy in my class named Bill. I was teaching English in 1937, and I was teaching The Merchant of Venice. Bill seemed to understand the abstract ideas that the characters were expressing. Nobody else seemed to understand that, so I thought Bill was a genius, until I got his paper from the first test. There wasn’t a period, there wasn’t a capital [letter], and there wasn’t a sentence. Everyone else had given up on Bill, but I didn’t. He started coming to see me after school, and so began my work with students with dyslexia.”

Webb launched the program at Curry College “providing accommodations and teaching before the country as a whole was accepting students with learning disabilities in higher education,” Vanderberg says.

The program, which has about 350 students, provides resources for students with a variety of challenges. Vanderberg again emphasizes that the students in the program have average or higher-than-average intelligence. “Then they have a profile of specific weaknesses that we then target in our services,” she says.

“They have difficulties with language-based learning – things like dyslexia, dysgraphia [or] dyscalculia. We also work with students who are on the attention disorder spectrum. That can include attention deficit or executive function weaknesses, which isn’t a diagnosis in and of itself, but a set of difficulties in managing one’s thinking capacities to be able to engage in your day.”

The Assistive Technology Challenge

There is no cookie-cutter technology solution for helping students with diverse learning challenges, so the conversations that Curry College’s decision-makers had with representatives from Adtech were vital.

The integration firm does have a lot of experience with assistive learning technologies and “we are certainly able to draw from our experiences to help guide customers to appropriate solutions,” says Adtech senior VP of sales and marketing Philip Muscatello. “However, the direct conversations we have with our customers to really understand their needs is an invaluable part of delivering a great solution.”

Related: Curry College PAL students, faculty reacts to tech upgrades

Those conversations involved Vanderberg and Curry College classroom technology manager Ken Stewart. He says both Vanderberg and himself brought their visions to the table and Adtech was good at boiling it down and identifying how to actually bring it to life in terms of technology solutions.

Meanwhile, feedback from PAL students led the project going places that neither Stewart nor Vanderberg expected it to go. The result includes areas within the PAL building with technology aimed at helping students in unique ways.

Multi-Purpose Assistive Technology

The Assistive Technology Center is at the heart of Curry College’s PAL Program technology upgrade. It’s a multi-use room that Stewart says acts as a testing center, classroom, meeting room and even a movie night room (after all, the 6,300-lumen Christie Digital DLP projector shouldn’t be used just for academic purposes). More than anything else, it’s a space where a classroom environment can be structured in a way that adapts to students’ unique learning needs — as opposed to them being disadvantaged by having to adapt to traditional teaching environments

The Christie projector feeds a retractable 72.5-inch-by-116-inch Da-Lite screen. The room also features an interactive InFocus JTouch 70-inch touch display, which is used in classroom and meeting room applications.

The InFocus touchscreen collaboration solution is often used during classes, Stewart says. “When they have big meetings we have the big screen come down to use with the projector.”

Having both large-scale and intimate technology solutions in one room helps overcome some space challenges.  “I’m thrilled with the way that we installed the tech so that from any place in the room, it feels not too far and not too close,” Vanderberg says. “We have a small, sort of more intimate teaching setup with the screen here, and then we have a larger display set up, if we need to do a larger presentation or conference.”

Some PAL students don’t respond to exams in the traditional sense, so the multi-use room features the ability to set up exam stations.

A moveable lectern hosts much of the room’s key technology solutions including Extron ShareLink 200 Wireless Collaboration Gateway which allows students or instructors to share content on one of the large displays. There’s also a Sony Blu-ray 3D DVD player, which comes in handy during movie nights.

Lounging with Assistive Technology

In the Curry College PAL center’s student lounge students can share content from their devices (phones, tablets, laptops) onto a 58-inch LED display by NEC using Extron ShareLink 200 Wireless Collaboration Gateway. If they don’t want to go the wireless route, they can connect and share via an HDMI or VGA cable.

It’s a collaboration room. “You could have up to four different [devices] in here. They can take turns bringing their [content] up on the screen,” Stewart says.

But it’s also a room designed for focused learning, adds Vanderberg. She shares a story while pointing to one of the walls that is generally void of, well, anything.  “Originally, we were going to put artwork on this side. Then one of my students who has attention deficit walked into the space and said, ‘Finally, a place with nothing on the walls. Finally, a place where I can focus,’” she recalls. “I thought, even though I work with these students all day, I’ve lived with people like this, it is not my brain that’s doing the processing.”

It’s the reason that getting PAL students’ perspective was so important in the project.

Breaking Out of ‘Jail’

A computer lab is a computer lab, right? Not necessarily, especially considering how Curry College’s previous version of its PAL center computer lab was perceived by participating students. “It was an ugly, ugly room,” Stewart recalls.

“I feel like I’m no longer in jail.” –PAL student, on the evolved space

It was a small room with high-countertops along three walls amid protruding radiators. Add in desktops with chairs and the space was cramped and not conducive to learning. “The overall effect was very dark, and very, very small,” Vanderberg says. “Our students would enter, essentially, a cinderblock room.”

When it was created in the 1980s simply having a computer lab was cutting-edge, she adds, but times changed and students with learning challenges were left with a stifling space. So Vanderberg asked PAL students what they wanted out of a refreshed computer lab. “They said, ‘We want learning spaces where we can meet together,” she recalls. “It’s very hard to meet together when they’re all facing out and that was the model for many years.”

PAL students also, according to Vanderberg, indicated:

  • “We don’t necessarily need to have desktop computers, just access to the Internet.”
  • “We want to be able to decide if what kinds of groups we want to work in or if we want to work individually or collaborate.”
  • “We want to feel like it’s our space.”

So the new computer lab opens to the student lounge creating a nice collaboration or heads-down work option. “We encourage them to open and close the doors, move the furniture,” Vanderberg says.

The new computer lab environment has become a destination on campus. Vanderberg refers to one student who worked at the previous computer lab as well as the revamped lab. “He said, ‘I feel like I’m no longer in jail. I always felt like I was in jail in that room, because the windows were really high, it was dark. Now I come in and I’m inspired to work.”

Related: Curry College PAL students, faculty reacts to tech upgrades

The computer lab now includes an Epson interactive projector where faculty and students can connect a laptop and leverage Extron MediaLink 104 IP Plus for controlling media in the space. The changes to the space, however, are about more than productivity, particularly for students with learning challenges.

Curry College’s Retention Challenge

Vanderberg contends that in a small way students are embracing optimism in the new space. “Instead of feeling sort of constrained, I think students feel the sense of possibility, and we didn’t, as faculty, even know this possibility of having a shared screen that multiple students could project on at once, that they would feel comfortable accessing.

That sense of optimism is palatable throughout the PAL center. Students can be found all over the building learning in different ways. That seems to be the biggest benefit that the assistive technology upgrades help provide — that students have an option to find an environment that works well for them.

Many PAL program students have challenges related to notetaking and digesting lectures in traditional classrooms. So the PAL center hosts various ways for students to leverage personal electronics or tablets and voice recognition software to help them consume the information at their own pace and on their own terms. As a result, PAL provides students with spaces in which to essentially relive their classes.

Even in PAL Center’s Webb Conference Room there’s an Epson BrightLink 595Wi interactive projector that students can connect to via HDMI and displaying images on a wall painted with Ideapaint Dry Erase paint. Students sit, listening to recorded lectures, reading and studying below a portrait of PAL founder Gertrude M. Webb.

Thanks in large part to Webb’s influence, Curry is doing something right. Like most higher education institutions, a good measurement of its offerings to students is retention. Vanderberg says PAL retention is consistent with Curry College retention as a whole. “Across the nation students with learning disabilities don’t retain at the same levels as students without. They leave schools at higher rates for a variety of reasons. So for us to see now, from fall to spring, that we have the same retention across the first year [of living with the new technology] is a really great sign.”

For Adtech, as an integration firm, the success or failure of the systems it delivers to customers is usually defined by return on investment or system utilization. Muscatello acknowledges that the ROI that its customer is experiencing with the PAL solutions is uniquely gratifying. “Adtech’s culture is defined by learning, which we believe is the root of all that is rewarding,” he says.

“We are excited and honored to use our knowledge and expertise to help enable better access to education for students with atypical learning styles. As a parent of a child that learns differently I am thrilled to see programs like Curry College’s PAL.”

Related: Curry College PAL students, faculty reacts to tech upgrades