80,000 Books in My Pocket

Exploring a Learning Ally for students who learn differently.   

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Paul Edelblut VP Education at Learning AllyAs origins go, here’s an interesting story: Learning Ally was founded in 1948 as Recording for the Blind to help veterans blinded in WWII complete their education with audio textbooks read by volunteers. In 1995, recognizing the increasing number of students with learning disabilities, they changed their name to Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. “As society has grown more aware of learning disabilities and how best to support students who learn differently,” says Paul Edelblut, VP of Education Solutions (pictured) for the national nonprofit, “our focus on those students has grown as well.” Today as Learning Ally, while they continue to support veterans and individuals who are blind and visually impaired, more than 80 percent of their membership base has dyslexia or some type of learning difference. Paul discusses the value of audiobooks, a chance his company took, and what drives him in his purpose to help students forward.

Victor: How do audiobooks level the playing field for students with disabilities? 

Learning Ally logo and tagPaul: I often use the story of my son when addressing this issue. My son who is in the third grade has been studying Mandarin for several years. When he is struggling with his work and asks for help, I have the option of looking in his student manual that is written in Chinese characters or picking up the parent guide. If I look in the student manual, I can’t read any of the information. If however, I pick up the parent guide, I am able to read the information in a format I do understand (English) and I can help the learning process.

There is a parallel for students with learning disabilities. All learners access information and acquire knowledge in their own unique way. Likewise, audiobooks create a channel for accessing the information for students when printed words are a barrier for them. For example, reading usually becomes a slow process for students with dyslexia, but if they have the audio version, they can keep up with their peers. We saw that memberships truly level the playing field as we reviewed the results of a research project we conducted across six different states. When we compared schools where Learning Ally audiobooks were available and used, to those where they were available but not used, the results showed that for both Reading and Math AYP tests in 2010 and again in 2011, schools moved more students to proficient or advanced proficient status.

Victor: How can students access Learning Ally audiobooks?
Learning Ally boy bookPaul: Learning Ally’s collection of 80,000 books is available for download for our members. We recently removed all book limits, so now a student can download any book in our collection to any device we support for playback including iOS from Apple, Android, PC, MAC and quite a few specialized devices. All it takes to access the catalog from one of these devices is a membership ID and an Internet connection. I was in a large urban school district working with a class of members one day and a young man approached me and excitedly said, “I have 80,000 books in my pocket!” When I asked him what he meant, this formerly reluctant reader had realized that he could download a book to his iPod, listen and then download another and another. It was a breakthrough moment for the former teacher in me!

Victor: What has Teacher Ally allowed educators to do that they couldn’t do before?
Paul: Teacher Ally is providing unprecedented visibility into the use of audiobooks by students who play them on their iPad, iPod, iPhone or Android devices. Through Teacher Ally’s interactions with the devices the students use to listen to the audiobooks, information is shared back to Teacher Ally to generate reports on how many times a book was opened and how many pages have been read. With this visibility into the student’s use of the books, a teacher can truly differentiate instruction based on each student’s progress. In addition, the management tools in Teacher Ally save educators and administrators precious time by streamlining the management of student accounts, simplifying the certification process and by allowing rapid distribution of books to students.

Victor: How does a school begin using Teacher Ally?
Paul: All of our institutional memberships now include Teacher Ally free with purchase. As soon as a membership has been set up, our team of support specialists will reach out to the coordinator at a school to help them get started creating teacher and student accounts and downloading books. The set-up time is quite efficient. In fact, during a recent training with 17 teachers in Colorado, they set up 52 students and put books on their shelves in a little under 5 minutes!

Victor: Does Learning Ally provide other services for educators?
Learning Ally eduators
Paul: In 2012 Learning Ally rolled out a series of Professional Development workshops for educators. Building on the best practices of the industry and our 65-year legacy of supporting students and teachers, we created three full-day workshops to enhance the skills and professional knowledge of educators. These sessions include: Effective Instruction for All Students, Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners, and Teaming for Solutions to Student Needs.

In each session we have worked hard to include many practical hands-on activities that teachers can put to use in the classroom immediately. Our master trainer conducted a session in Monroe, Florida a few weeks back, and the very next day a teacher sent over two pictures of her class implementing several of the strategies we taught with the caption “having a great day.” A critical part of our training is to ensure that teachers leave each session excited and enabled to implement what they learned.

Victor: Broad question, now: What are your thoughts on education these days?  

Paul: Education is full of promise and peril. We must, as a civilization, meet the moral imperative to transfer knowledge and educate all children, allowing them to achieve to the best of their abilities. If we use history as a guide, we know that education is not easy, nor is it cheap, but the price of failing to educate is too great to bear. As an industry, I believe education is slowly becoming more agile and responsive to the ever evolving changes in students, teachers, funding, technology, market drivers and in understanding how people learn. We have a lot more opportunity to improve in a race that has no finish line.

Victor: What are your thoughts on technology enhancing, improving or even transforming education?

Paul: I think in 2013 it is almost anachronistic to think of technology as a distinct piece that enhances, improves or transforms education. Rather, technology is as fundamentally a part of education as the student and teacher. It is because of this that technology is only as good as the way it is used by the teacher and student and this, ultimately, gets to training and professional development. At Learning Ally we see that technology has allowed us to remove many barriers to students getting the materials they need. It also provides data that drives instructional decisions and increases the utilization of our collection. These are all quite positive changes, but would not be possible without training students and teachers on how to get the most from the tools.

Victor: What message would you like to impart to education leaders?

Paul: There is a two-part message I would share. First, thank you for the long hours and tireless efforts on behalf of your students. Second, I ask that you remember times when you were challenged as students, and think of the need you had for different strategies or services to get beyond that challenge. Then, apply that same principle to all of your students.

Victor: Got any quirky stories that represent your mission, or slice of life, of interest to our readers?
Paul: Two stories jump to mind when I think about our mission. Learning Ally, for decades, measured our impact based on the number of books we shipped or downloaded to customers. We also knew from many individual member testimonials, that our human-read audiobooks transformed students’ lives. When we put our audiobooks to the test in a school setting, in our research noted above, we were taking a huge risk. What if we found that audiobooks didn’t move the needle for students? By challenging ourselves as an organization to think differently and measure school outcomes, performance of students on statewide exams, and then to find that we have a tremendously positive impact, made me very proud to be working at Learning Ally.

On a more personal note, it is often easy to talk the talk when speaking with educators, parents and students who are confronted with learning disabilities. It is often another thing to walk the walk. After a little more than a year at Learning Ally, I took on the role of a proud parent of a student who learns differently. My child was diagnosed with a significant working memory and language processing disorder. This has helped me be a better ally for the parents and educators we serve.

Victor: What else would you care to add or emphasize concerning these subjects or anything else?

Paul: Learning Ally is driven to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn when the printed word creates a challenge. We take great pride in knowing that we are making an impact for more than 300,000 members and we strive to grow this number each and every day.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Are you an edtech leader, trendsetter, or the creator of a cool edtech tool? The 2014 EdTech Digest Awards extended entry period runs until October 18, 2013. There is still time to enter. For full details, write to: victor@edtechdigest.blog

One comment

  1. A big part of providing students the accessibility they need to achieve success is “buy in”, and “walking the walk” adds a perspective that extends far beyond the classroom. Great interview!

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