Blended Speech Therapy: Q&A with Clay Whitehead

PresenceLearning delivers more than 10,000 online speech therapy sessions a month to schools in 25 states. The company, formed by two recent Stanford MBAs, is a good example of two translational innovations–synchronous online instruction and distributed workforce–now deployed in education to meet widespread special education challenges.
TVA: Why are two Stanford MBAs working in special needs?
CW: Late in 2008, we began thinking about what to do after grad school. We both had experiences with special needs – Jack had a family member on the autism spectrum and I had experienced learning disabilities. The two things that made a difference for me were my mom, who made sure I was assessed and received the support that I needed, and also the assistance of a computer – that’s really how I learned how to read and write. It came down the fact that speech therapy and special education was something that Jack and I knew and cared about. We could get our arms around it. That’s what allowed us to make the jump.
TVA: What did you decide not to do?
CW: Broadly, we knew that we wanted to be in education because building a successful organization takes time, and we knew that we had to do something we cared about deeply, like education, to invest that time. Speech therapy stood out as an area with clear challenges, and we saw that we could make a positive impact as entrepreneurs. Nothing else that we thought of (and we explored a lot of ideas) met that threshold for us.
TVA: But why edtech?
CW: No matter what happens at the end of the day, you’re doing something good in the world. Even if we don’t grow to be the size of a Wireless or an Archipeligo, we know we’ve done something good.
TVA: How do you feel about the state of edtech delivery in online speech therapy?
CW: We’re clearly past the inflection point for adoption. Online speech therapy has been around for more than 20 years. The research studies are there. The technology is there. Schools are contacting us every day about our services. What we’ve learned is that online therapy is just the same thing as face-to-face therapy, but online; it’s still all about the people. Our therapists use the same flash cards, the same techniques, and write the same reports. The key to success for an online SLP, just like a face-to-face SLP, is the quality of the SLP and the support he or she is given. The code that PresenceLearning has cracked is how to bring that all together for districts and families in a way that is high-quality at scale. Online speech therapy after all, isn’t just a therapist on Skype. That’s a model that isn’t going to work. Districts need things like integrated scheduling, data tracking, and compliance features.
TVA: Are you seeing positive results in speech therapy?
CW: Our students tie the national averages for articulation goals and beat the averages for language goals by an average of 16 percent. As a result, we’re often able to accelerate a student’s progress towards their goals and a return to the classroom. We see amazing stories every day, like one child who went from crying every time he was called to speak in class to raising his hand confidently. Our communication is our identity, and progress in speech therapy can be life changing for these students and their families.
TVA: How many therapists work with you?
CW: We have 250 therapists in our network for this upcoming school year. Most work two or three days a week from home when it’s convenient for them. All of them have their ASHA Certification, Master’s Degree, and proper state licenses.
TVA: You brought distributed workforce management and synchronous online instruction to speech therapy. Are there other translational innovation opportunities in education? 
CW: We’re in 25 states right now and asked by lots of schools to consider other categories where it’s hard to find a specialist in a local community or where they see an opportunity to enhance instruction using our technology. We are stepping our toes into occupational therapy, early intervention, and parent training.
TVA: You have some competitors now, will blended learning become more prominent across special education?
CW: Yes. I think that special education has all too often been the last area for technology to reach even though the kids in special education often can benefit from technology the most. So, I see a huge future for blended learning in special education. Most people have to see to understand–we encourage them to watch our video and do their homework.
TVA: Are there regulatory barriers?
CW: We don’t need significant change to expand our service.
TVA: Do you see demand growing?
CW: Last year we quadrupled in size, this year we’ll at least double and possibly triple.
TVA: It sounds like you’re making a growing a business and making a difference.
CW: We’re creating the opportunity for children to build a relationship with a therapist. The power of communication is so amazing. We saw one young man hug the computer to say goodbye at the end of the session – that’s the kind of results we’re looking for!
For more see Telepractice Brings Online Speech Services to School Districts of all Sizes.
This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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