Bellevue College looks to online software to help autistic students collaborate

School deployed Canvas from Instructure for special program

Bellevue College in Washington has deployed online learning software to help students with autism improve their small-group collaboration skills.

Fifty Bellevue students in an Autism Spectrum Navigators program have been taking advantage of a discussion board feature inside Canvas, a learning management system from start-up Instructure.

The Navigators program, now nearing the end of its second full year, has deployed the Canvas software for the past year, giving Bellevue students and teachers access to assignments, grades and other materials as well as collaboration through text, audio and video from desktops, tablets and even smartphones and tablets.

"We've had Canvas this entire year and we've seen a lot more confidence and interaction with students," Sara Gardner, manager of the Navigator program, said in an interview. "We use a social justice model instead of a medical one [for dealing with autism], so we aren't aren't trying to fix our students and rather are trying to use the technology to put students together to communicate better and...support them with skills."

Canvas offered the school a way to help instructors monitor Navigator students in their discussion groups to see how they handle group projects. "We needed to find a way to help them do group work, which is always difficult on the autism spectrum," Gardner said.

Students meet in small project groups once a week face-to-face and can extend those meetings with the online collaboration tools, Gardner said. About half of the students use smartphones whole others use tablets to access Canvas, where they can read assignments and announcements from instructors and classmates.

Because some of the students travel three hours each way to attend classes, their smartphones are extremely important to their learning.

Gardner herself is on the autism spectrum, and took her job on the condition she be able to telecommute part of each week because she finds office socializing and frequent face-to-face interactions difficult and exhausting.

"I'm more effective with the door closed and earplugs in my ears, but that's not very social," she said. "I will say as a person on the spectrum that a lot of socializing does take place online via computers and online discussions, so I had a pretty good idea of the value of Canvas."

While Canvas clearly has offered value to the Navigators, Gardner said it is harder to pinpoint how much it has contributed to overall levels of achievement. Students in the program have seen improved grades and more have completed courses than those not in the program over the past two years, she said.

In addition to the software tools, students meet with mentors regularly and their parents are invited to meet with program coordinators quarterly.

Canvas is deployed for the entire Bellevue College. Because Gardner wasn't involved in choosing the software over competitors, she couldn't comment on why it was chosen. Still, she said it is easier to use than other systems she has tried at other colleges.

Canvas is deployed by about 350 colleges, schools and corporations, with nearly six million end users, and has about 5% of the learning management market, according to Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer. BlackBoard is the largest learning management provider, with about 40% of the market.

With 220 employees since its launch five years ago, Instructure is "still in startup mode," Whitmer said.

Whitmer has a six-year-old daughter with Rett syndrome, which is usually considered one of many autism spectrum disorders. The syndrome has left her with little muscle tone and without the ability to walk or talk. She is often too tired to eat, requiring the use of a feeding tube.

Bellevue is the first institution using Canvas to directly benefit people with autism, he said. "It's great to hear about how Canvas can help with autism, and that's something I'd like to continue to help with in the future," he said.

"People say our product has great ease of use, which benefits everybody and also unsighted users," he said in an interview. "With my daughter, I'm excited for technology around eye tracking since she has so much locked up inside a body that doesn't work, and technology will offer opportunities to get outside of her body."

Whitmer said Instructure is working to build out a better global ecosystem for education technology so that developers of specialized learning apps can plug them into various learning management systems, not just Canvas.

Instructure has set up Edu Apps, an open app center, with various apps built on the Learning Tools Interoperability platform.

"We're hoping this spurs innovation," Whitmer said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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