Educational Innovation with Jason Learning and Urban Tech

“It’s hard to give up what you’re good at, even when it’s not working especially well”.
-Jim Gaynor

I admit it. I gave my seven year old an iPod Touch for Christmas. Although this has resulted in a precipitous increase in dreaded “screen time,” there have been other impacts as well. Last night for example, she showed me an app she was playing with, which seemed to involve some complicated rubric for efficiently operating a small farm. It was bright and engaging, with cute little cows, and tiny helpful farmhands. I briefly attempted to take over the management, and, much to her horror, productivity dropped immediately – the Dustbowl had begun. I simply couldn’t acquire the rules and cause/effect relationships as quickly as she could. Her ability to learn, mediated only by the software, is unbelievable.

I was thinking about my daughter’s experience recently, when Grafton invited representatives of Jason Learning, a nonprofit organization that connects students to real science and exploration, and UrbanTech, a nonprofit educational group, to a full-day symposium. The session focused on technology-based infrastructure to support both educational and behavioral outcomes. The challenge, as explained by Jim Gaynor, CEO of Grafton, at the meeting,is to disrupt the “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it,” mentality that so often challenges both education and healthcare in general. He said that the true solution will be “disruptive innovation” that “sheds cruel light” on the inefficiencies of the status quo.

I have heard therapy interpreted as “a therapist and a patient alone in a room talking.”My professional experiences clearly indicate that this model, steeped in a 100 plus-year history, is not the most effective or productive for the children we serve. Thus, animal-assisted therapy, music therapy, vocational and horticultural experiences (among others) pervades the treatment we provide at our Berryville Psychiatric Residential Treatment Center. Similarly, education is probably not just “a teacher in a classroom of students, talking and writing on a blackboard (or even a Smart board).”

Jason Learning (from “Jason and the Argonauts”) was founded by famed maritime archeologist, Bob Ballard. He felt it imperative that we create new avenues to draw children into the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).As Eleanor Smalley, Jason Learning’s executive vice president and COO, noted, “…we are moving from a literate society to a scientifically literate society.”They currently reach 2.7 million users worldwide. By pairing curriculum with real-life researchers through partnerships with organizations such as National Geographic, Battelle, and NASA, Jason Learning makes scientists available both live and on-line to encourage a cultural shift towards the primacy of science in education. They also provide a professional development program to increase teacher’s efficacy in STEM subjects. Pre- and post- assessments measure the impact of the learning and each student’s outcomes. Locally, Jason Learning is already available to all students in Fairfax and Loudoun County Public Schools. As the group has had increasing exposure to large districts throughout the country, special education advocates have taken notice. And Jason Learning’s online, self-guided activities have been shown to be extremely effective for those with learning differences.

UrbanTech uses similar technology (i.e., online games, guided learning programs, etc.) to create social/emotional skills learning opportunities for students. The synergy between the two companies led to a strategic partnership. UrbanTech grew out of a five-week social skills training program for inner-city youth, which is provided in a “game-like” environment, using online videos and other techniques. It focuses on conflict resolution, communication, leadership, and other issues. Some of the children experienced a two-grade level leap in reading skills as a result of the program, even though reading was not the focus of the program! Instead, the necessity to read information on a computer led to increased skill acquisition. The primary criticism shared by one student was, “It was too short.”These kids also informed the look and feel of the curricula, helping the designers create an online environment that felt “real” and representative of the kids’ own view of the world. UrbanTech’s powerfully engaging user interface is also wed to a back-end system, which allows the group leader to monitor each student’s individual response to the program, and further refine their approach.

Grafton’s soon-to-be released REBOOT application, similarly creates a technology infrastructure that allows for a transdisciplinary team to monitor skills acquisition in real time, communicate freely about treatment planning, and develop a comprehensive outcomes database. All of this can later be mined to determine what worked at the individual and system level.REBOOT will make it possible for clinicians and families to know, at a glance, how their child is doing and guides their attempts to brainstorm creative and individualized interventions that will move the child forward. I can’t think of a more empowering use of technology in our work.

Perhaps the future looks more like teachers creating structures for self-guided, tech-enabled learning. Perhaps, like us therapists, educators need to see their role as “putting themselves out of business,”moving the educational experiences out of classrooms and into homes and communities. Most likely it will entail some mix of both methods mediated by the individual educational, as well as social and emotional needs of the child. It’s a brave new world, and we don’t pretend to predict the direction this will take, but clearly Grafton wants to be a part of the exploration. I encourage you to check out these two companies, and determine if your kids could get access through their school. We at Grafton look forward to working together with them (and others) toward a better future for our kids.