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It's Time for a Special Needs App Fund

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Alesha Bishop and Lisa Valerio worked together for 10 years at Charles Schwab. After both gave birth to sons with special needs, they have reunited to support the development of learning tools for students with special needs and family-friendly apps.

Lisa's son, now nine, has autism, is non-verbal, and could not use a mouse successfully. The iPad and apps like LAMP Words For Life, a vocabulary augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app with touch controls, began what Lisa called an "amazing transformation." It gave her son a "voice" and the ability to communicate.

The Prentke Romich Company, makers of the $299 app, are one of the few to focus on the AAC market. This app is the technology of the Vantage Lite by PRC, which is a $7,000 device that can now be downloaded as an app. This will open the world to so many children to be able to communicate.

Mom Maps helps busy moms find kid-friendly locations on the go. It was Alesha's first venture in family-oriented apps. She also foundedMoms with Apps to connect parents working in app development. With Lisa, she founded HenryNate to support development of apps to address special needs. Alesha and Lisa dove in and found a couple recently-organized groups, like BridgingApps, developed to connect people with special needs with mobile devices and helpful apps. SpeechWithMilo aids language development particularly for students with requiring some extra help. Proloquo2Go is an AAC iPad/iPhone solution for people who have difficulty speaking or cannot speak at all. The Injini Child Development Game Suite is a collection of engaging games for young children with developmental delays.

However, with little focus on what has been considered a non-commercial niche market, it is more common that mainstream products--particularly those designed for preschoolers--prove helpful in meeting special needs. For example, Kimochis teaches kids about emotional intelligence and has proven useful to students on the autism spectrum. Ned the Neuron teaching kids about neuroscience and helps them understand themselves and others.

App Fund. Almost seven million US students (age 3 to 21) have identified special needs. Expenditures have doubled as a percentage of spending over the last 15 years, now over 20% of the roughly $600 billion total spent on K-12 education. The feds contribute $12 billion.

A Fordham report suggests the nation can save $10 billion if districts just budget the same way. But the report didn't even consider the digital learning revolution occurring. Continued progress from primary research combined with the potential of customized learning appears to have transformative potential for special education.

Leading venture funds have launched funds focused on iPad apps for entertainment. Given the identified potential to meet special needs it may be time for a Special Ed App Fund.

Some learning disability categories are small but low cost mobile apps makes it much easier to aggregate global demand. In categories like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), individual students have specific challenges and respond differently to stimulation. That makes it useful to be able to individually tune an app, but it may also drive up development costs. The combo of higher cost and niche segments has slowed innovation.

A fund that combined philanthropic and venture capital could be just the bill. If foundations and donors extracted some of the risk, I think we'd see more entrepreneurs and investors turn their attention to meeting special needs. Heading in that direction, the Department's research arm, IES developed the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Program Manager Edward Metz pointed me to several example:

More reasons for optimism. There are so many great folks that have devoted themselves to building great tools for kids with special needs. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, Sacha's
brother) directors the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge. Sesame is in on the act.Feel Electric teaches kids how to modulate their emotions with a DARPA-funded version for military families.

Lisa, my new friend at HenryNate, is encouraged that in the last few months she was able to replace a $7000 single purpose device (that she had to fight for a year to get) with an iPad app available for $299.

The customized learning revolution is clearly benefiting high achievers, but the biggest impact may be in the learning opportunities created for student with special needs. It is finally becoming possible to finetune learning experiences, build resilience and self-reliance, and power effective communication.

Federal special education policy may also provide a force for digital education in public education's mainstream, argues Dean Millot, Managing Partner for K-12 at the investment consulting firm Good Harbor Partners. Under the Response to Intervention option, school districts are incentivized to meet the needs of special education students with the same digital technologies that offer mainstream students individualized learning. By this means, the Individual Education Program mandated by law for special needs students could evolve to a standard of individualized learning for every student.

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