High Tech Meets High Touch

Haring Center’s novel “bug-in-ear” method brings world-class coaching where it’s never gone before


Until recently, “high-tech” teacher coaching meant a teacher candidate shooting video in the classroom, then reviewing the footage after the fact with professors and peers.

“None of that was especially satisfying,” said College of Education Associate Professor Kathleen Artman Meeker. “It was removed from actual practice. And when teacher candidates went back into the classroom the next day, it required a lot to apply what we’d talked about.” Meeker and Nancy Rosenberg, director of the UW’s Applied Behavior Analysis program, wondered whether there might be a better way. Rosenberg had seen a few small studies from other disciplines that described real-time coaching using streaming video, with a direct connection between participants via a wireless earpiece—a “bug.”

After an initial encouraging test on campus at the College’s Haring Center for Research and Training in Inclusive Education, the two decided to pilot the method in the field.

Video spotlight

Watch bug-in-ear coaching in action with paraprofessionals Arianna Kruchowski and Van Le and hear Professor Kathleen Artman Meeker discuss its potential to improve special education practice.

Finding the perfect partner

Rosenberg said they had specific things in mind while looking for their first educational partner. First, they wanted to work with paraprofessionals, who do vital jobs in many classrooms but often have scant access to training opportunities.

“We felt it was an educational justice issue,” Meeker said. “We wanted to bring support and training to people who haven’t traditionally had much access to them.”

The researchers also wanted to focus on “skills that are difficult to teach if you’re not in the moment.”

Learn more

The UW Haring Center provides early education to children with and without disabilities, conducts groundbreaking research into inclusive learning, and champions the best practices it develops so that young children of all abilities can learn, play and grow together. The center offers a variety of on-site and online professional development opportunities.

Seattle’s K-12 Academy for Precision Learning (APL), with its neurodiverse student population and classrooms with a lot of paraprofessional support, turned out to be the perfect partner.

“APL has a very strong emphasis on building the self-advocacy skills of students with disabilities, which is another educational justice issue,” Meeker said. “It’s an important part of every APL student’s education. So we all decided that this was a perfect skill to work on together.”

After consultation with APL staff including Clinical Director Courtney Gutierrez and Executive Director Jennifer Annable—herself a former director of the Haring Center’s Experimental Education Unit—the researchers decided to hone in on a specific teaching practice known as “incidental teaching.”

Helping kids help themselves

In this case, teaching the kids self-advocacy skills was “incidental” to the academic subject matter of the lesson.

“APL’s paraprofessionals were to help students make self-advocacy statements—effectively expressing their needs,” Meeker explained. “This is an important skill for independence and being members of communities and going out and becoming leaders.

“What was new and exciting for us was the wide range of students, in terms of age and also in terms of individual communication strategies. Some students were very verbal and could advocate for themselves in paragraph-length statements. Others used iPads or pictures to communicate what they needed.”

Setting up the system in the classroom, which included small "robot" cameras that swiveled to follow the action, turned out to be relatively easy and cost-effective, using common off-the-shelf hardware and software—with a little added help from Ryan Stewart, associate director of technology support, and a tech-savvy graduate student, Meeker said.

“With bug-in-ear I could hear so much more of what a student was saying. We got a level of detail I’ve never been able to get by sitting in a classroom. I felt like we were truly in it together.”

In it together

Initially, Meeker and Rosenberg were concerned that even this fairly familiar and relatively inconspicuous technology might distract students or have a negative impact on their interactions with the paraprofessionals.

That simply didn’t happen, Meeker said. Somewhat surprisingly, the method turned out to be less disruptive than having a guest physically present.

“Especially for students with autism, who might get upset about changes in routine, in-person coaching really, really changes a lot of the dynamic,” Meeker said. “But everyone was very comfortable. If I were physically sitting at that table I’d be changing the moment. I might make the paraprofessional nervous or distract the student.

“With bug-in-ear I could hear so much more of what a student was saying. We got a level of detail I’ve never been able to get by sitting in a classroom. I felt like we were truly in it together.”

Audio Extra

Paraprofessionals Arianna Kruchowski and Van Le discuss their experiences partnering with UW College of Education researchers in the "bug-in-ear" pilot project.

More results, less time

Also, students used more language and advocated for themselves more often—results that continued even after the pilot was finished.

“It was amazing to have the ability to communicate with someone in real time but be several miles away,” said Elizabeth Kelly, a special education PhD candidate who acted as a coach for the pilot.

“Because the feedback was so immediate, it was incredibly effective. It was also very flexible. For instance, one morning I woke up feeling sick but didn’t want to cancel my coaching session. So I delivered the coaching from the comfort of my own home.”

“The children talked more and they talked in new ways,” Rosenberg said. “We saw that using technology this way could be very powerful.”

“We’re focused on serving as many students as possible on a daily basis,” said APL’s Gutierrez. “So it was exciting to have the opportunity to try out new strategies in collaboration with an organization like UW that will be able share the results with lots of educators and families beyond our walls.

“The UW researchers are unique in that they paid attention to making sure we felt comfortable the whole way through. They supported us in any challenges we faced, while giving us lots of coaching and positive feedback at each step. It made it a lot easier for us to fully engage and feel successful as participants in the process. We would definitely like to work with them in the future!”