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.
“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.”
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.