Creating an Instructional Balance in Today’s Classrooms

Interview with Holly DeLeon, Vice President of Educational Technology Company Touchjet.

As vice president of the educational technology business for Touchjet, harnessing the potential of technology is one of the things that excites Holly DeLeon the most. But she also realizes the dangers of following the popular trends, including the movement toward 1:1 instruction. Instead, she believes that a balance between the use of personal devices and collaborative learning is an important one that teachers need to consider as they seek ways to help their students learn both academically and socially. 

DeLeon admits to being fascinated by the neurology of learning and in particular, how the neural paths “get mixed up.” Early on in her career, she worked as a speech pathologist with mentally handicapped children in the Fort Worth Public Schools. She later opened up her own community-based clinic in North Texas, serving adults and children with varying degrees of disability. DeLeon holds a Bachelor’s degree in speech/language pathology and a Master’s degree in speech/language pathology and special education. She also earned a certificate of clinical competence for the private practice of speech pathology. 

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In order to guide her decisions as an education tech leader and an advocate for teachers, DeLeon uses her early experience as an educator and the many senior management roles she’s held in some of the nation’s top instructional tech companies—including Leapfrog SchoolHouse, Livescribe, McGraw Hill Education, and LearnPad. DeLeon is a sought-after national and international speaker, delivering talks on educational applications, student learning, and teaching with technology.

Enjoy our interview with Holly DeLeon to find out why she believes classroom technology can meet diverse classroom needs and help shape student learning with different learning styles.

GradSchools: Tell us about your education and your background. How did they bring you to a career in educational technology?

I have both a Bachelors and Masters degrees in Speech/language Pathology. I always knew I wanted to be involved in the education world, but did not see myself as a classroom teacher. I went into speech pathology because I was fascinated by the neurology of learning and what happens when the neural paths get mixed up. I liked the idea of working with students that had a variety of disorders ranging from simple articulation problems to children with cerebral palsy, autism or a cleft palate. I also worked with many adults in the areas of stuttering and voice disorders, as well as adults who had aphasia following a stroke or head trauma.

I had a dream in graduate school of opening a private, community based clinic with all disciplines under one roof. Little did I know I would have the opportunity to open that clinic just two years later. It was the first such clinic in the north Texas area and even though I sold it in the late 1980’s, I am pleased to say it is still going strong and in the same location as when it first opened.

As educational technology was emerging into K12 education, I had the opportunity to work with some cutting edge companies that needed the expertise of someone who understood the education space and knew sound and reading development. Over the years, all of that past experience with speech and reading development got used in a very different way.

GradSchools: You’re the VP of Educational Business at Touchjet. What does Touchjet do? What are its products?

Touchjet creates interactive touch technology that brings people together, whether that’s in the home or the classroom. It is a critical tool in schools because it increases collaboration and group learning. The company’s first product, the Touchjet Pond Projector™, turns any flat surface (wall, ceiling, floor) into a giant touchscreen up to 80”. It has a built-in Android operating system, so users can download any of the Android apps directly to the device itself—like Khan Academy or Netflix.

Our second product, the Touchjet WAVE™, turns any flat screen TV or monitor into an interactive touchscreen with the Android operating system.

Both products launched through crowdfunding campaigns. The Touchjet Pond Projector had one of the most successful Indiegogo campaigns in history, securing more than $800,000 in funding. The Touchjet WAVE is currently on Indiegogo with the campaign set to end in October. It met its funding goal of $100,000 within the first 24 hours of going live and is currently at six times that amount.

GradSchools: Much of your own education focused on speech pathology. Have you been able to use this background in your work with classroom technology?

My early career was as a speech pathologist in the Fort Worth Public Schools working with severe and profound mentally handicapped children. I learned how schools worked, how special education worked, and what needed to be done to change the status quo of K12 education. All of that early experience informs everything I do now in working with educational technology companies. It helps me understand the struggles and opportunities for classroom teachers. It helps me talk to administrators from an informed point of view. I believe you use all that early experience to make you more authentic and believable to educators.

GradSchools: Touchjet is working to counteract the 1:1 movement in classrooms, meaning each student having his or her own device. What are the disadvantages of 1:1? What are the advantages of collaborative learning?

First, I want to clarify that we are not saying that 1:1 is a bad method, but that there needs to be a balance in schools of 1:1 and collaborative learning.

As far as disadvantages go, it is based around the value of group interaction. When students are isolated on individual devices, they don’t have the opportunity to learn problem solving skills from each other—there is a lack of peer-to-peer learning. Also, interacting in the classroom is where children develop their social skills through situations that involve teamwork and resolving conflict.

It boils down to giving children the ability to learn from each other while also developing social skills.

GradSchools: What would you suggest to an educator looking to balance individual learning with collaborative learning?

If a teacher wants to provide both types of learning but needs a balance, it’s important to think about the best way for children to learn the content while developing lesson plans. Maybe there is a math plan where it would be beneficial to solve the problems in small groups with students helping each other. Then there could be a time where students are learning new concepts before they can apply them and reading to themselves might work better before implementation.

GradSchools: How have educators responded to Touchjet’s classroom technology products? How have students responded?

There has been an extremely positive response to Touchjet’s products in the classroom. One teacher at Matthews Elementary in Texas said that the Pond is a great instructional tool that allows learners to showcase their projects by making work visible and interactive. She said that she was planning to write a grant and find support so she can bring it to her classroom. Several other teachers have been responding positively as well, and they’re all using the Pond in different ways.

GradSchools: How have users implemented Touchjet technology in surprising ways?

Teachers are using the Touchjet Pond in the classroom for everything from coding to language learning. One teacher is using it for integrated coding sessions using lessons from Plus there are a few teachers who are using it with their own coding programs. I also spoke with another teacher who is using the Pond to teach navigation to her students by using the maps apps.

GradSchools: What is the most rewarding or exciting aspect of your job? What makes you look forward to going to work in the morning?

I firmly believe that if we are going to positively change things in this great country, it has to start with the education of our children. I am appalled by the number of students still struggling to get on grade level in reading and math. We have so much diversity in every classroom, it is almost an impossible job to think one teacher can accommodate the learning styles and diverse levels of each and every child. That is where we have the hope for technology to actually allow that status quo to change.

If we can learn to effectively harness the power of technology in the classroom, we can immediately see when a child is struggling and intervene. We can modify lessons with a single click of a mouse. We can get immediate results so we do not send children home not knowing how to do their homework. We can educate children in a variety of settings, not just in that classroom. All of that is the promise of technology in the classroom, and I have not been this excited in decades about the future of K12 education.

GradSchools: What is your advice to someone considering a career in educational technology?

Be prepared for one constant – CHANGE! With the emergence of the 1:1 movement and the advent of devices like the Touchjet Pond, we are creating a whole new paradigm in the classroom. The days of the teacher standing in front of the class and the students passively sitting in their desks is fortunately behind us (well not really, but we are getting there). Be open to new ideas because they are emerging faster than any of us can keep up with them. If you see a new technology or a new digital program, think first, “how will this improve the way we teach and the way students learn.” If you wholeheartedly believe it will help change things, jump in and make it happen.

GradSchools: Where do you see educational technology in 10 years?

I would be foolish to even speculate. Think about 10 years ago. Did any of us foresee the coming of the iPhone, iPad or streaming video to any device we have with us? Did we think there would be such a thing as a $200 tablet in the classroom? Could anyone have dreamed about a device that turns your giant screen TV into an interactive tablet playing any of 1000’s of apps? The answer is NO! But that is also what makes this such an exciting time. We are now using technology to do the things that computers can do well—synthesize data, store data, make data available immediately – which then allows teachers to do what they do best: instill hope in a child struggling, motivate a child to push harder and teach a child a new way to examine information. Let’s use technology to empower both our students and our teachers and we will be able to finally see the change we have all longed for over the years: more students reading on or above grade level, more students graduating from high school and going forward to college and career and fewer struggling readers ending up in prison. My only prediction for the next 10 years is we have the opportunity to change what it means to “educate” a child – and that is exciting!

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