Earbuds for instructional coaching

"Bug in the Ear” project allows distant learners to connect with their coaches during critical teaching and learning moments.

Kathleen Artman Meeker’s 6-year-old student had three words in his vocabulary: “No,” “eat” and an expletive that he used to maximum effect in the classroom. The outbursts disrupted the class and puzzled Meeker, who was desperately trying to help him.

And she finally did, thanks to valuable feedback from a behavior consultant who observed Meeker’s interactions with the student. That experience led to “Bug in the Ear,” a 2015 pilot project that tested “in-the-moment” feedback using earbuds and video camera phones to link coaches to educators.

Meeker, now an assistant professor in the University of Washington College of Education, partnered with colleague Nancy Rosenberg, Applied Behavior Analysis Program director and special education lecturer, to launch a pilot with educators in an intensive practicum in the Applied Behavior Analysis Distance Education Program.

The educators work with children with autism and other developmental disabilities on their own, without an advisor present in the classroom. Even when educators videotape their interactions, it takes at least a week before an advisor can see it and provide feedback. This time lag makes it more difficult for educators to put input into action. The “Bug in the Ear” approach helps them overcome this challenge.

“We do a lot of coaching at our school, but a lot of it is after the fact. A prime teaching moment is often lost because we can’t give immediate feedback,” Rosenberg said. “And many of our students are long-distance learners, so we can’t be in their classrooms.”

Using earbuds to maximum effect

As part of the pilot, educators were asked to wear Bluetooth-enabled earbuds and connect to their coaches via the FaceTime app. With cell phone cameras on, coaches could now see and hear them interact with students — providing instant feedback that only the educators could hear.

With earbuds, “we were virtual guests in our students’ classrooms. We saw what they saw,” Meeker said. “An educator facing a challenging moment with an uncooperative student said, ‘What do I do next?’ And someone was there with an answer! Try this, we told them. And if that didn’t work, we suggested something else. And we could do that in real time, right there in the moment. It was very exciting.”

Bug in the Ear provides valuable lessons

The pilot has been reaffirming for Meeker, who remembers well-meaning advice from others who had not witnessed the 6-year-old’s behavior when she was trying to figure it out on her own. Be more firm; don’t take that from him; put your foot down, she heard many times.

The consultant “saw a pattern that none of us had been able to see. And she seemed to solve this mystery for us about (the student’s) behavior,” Meeker narrates in an educational video made for the College of Education to discuss the potential of Bug in the Ear.

The subtle change in approaching the student, “made a difference for me, it made a difference for (the student), it made a difference for his family,” She narrates.

And it underscored the importance of having someone else listening in, paying attention to those small details that mean a lot but can be easily lost by an educator working hard to reach a student, Meeker said.

Their preliminary data has shown a lot of potential for in-the-moment feedback. For example, because teachers were coaxed by their coaches to keep trying new approaches, they more than doubled the number of chances they created for children with autism to communicate.

“The children talked more and they talked in new ways,” Rosenberg said. “With one student, we saw her confidence grow in every class, and we saw that using technology this way could be very powerful.”

While the pilot only tested earbuds with educators in a very specialized field, Rosenberg and Meeker said their experiences and results showed that earbuds and virtual coaches could be used in a number of other situations and classes.

Meeker’s and Rosenberg’s tips for getting the most out of the Bug in the Ear approach

Sharpen your coaching skills: Just as a football coach should never yell instructions at his quarterback as he steps back to throw a pass, a long-distance educator coach should know when and how best to offer feedback through an earbud. “Timing is really important. When to prompt a child for an answer or how much to push is a very delicate balance. When you’re watching a teacher interact with a student, you need to know when to offer a suggestion and when to hold back,” Meeker said.

As part of this process, it is important for the coach and the student to agree to ground rules, such as drawing the line between too much or not enough coaching.

Debrief after each session: “If you’re going to be in someone’s ear, you have to establish trust,” Rosenberg said. The best way to do that is to communicate early and often. Establish ground rules with the student before that earbud is turned on. “Some students want a lot of feedback. Others expect less. A student may say, “Tell me what to do now! Don’t let me flail!” You have to be ready for that, and ready to have an appropriate answer,” Rosenberg said.

Use tech tools that are easy to use and maintain: “It is great if people want to use their own phones,” Meeker said. “Today, technology makes remote communications much easier and there’s plenty to choose from — as long as you can establish a stable connection.” Meeker and Rosenberg are currently testing a camera on a swivel that follows the educator.

This story first appeared in "Innovators Among Us," a report from the UW Provost's Office on trends and issues in higher education.


Kathleen Artman Meeker, Assistant Professor of Education
206-685-7562, kameeker@uw.edu

Nancy Rosenberg, Senior Lecturer and Applied Behavior Analysis Program Director
206-543-5489, nancyr@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications
206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu