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Learning in Stages

Stages LearningStages Learning Materials, a company that publishes photographic flash cards and posters to teach basic language and communication skills to individuals with autism and related disorders, has one philosophy: “Learning happens in stages — you learn to crawl before you walk, and learn to walk before you run.” And the company’s growth has developed in much the same way.

Founded by Angela Nelson, Ed.M.’13, in 1997 when she was an undergraduate studying behavioral psychology at UCLA, Stages began with Nelson spending countless hours making handmade notecards and materials for each student’s program. Now, 17 years later, Stages Learning Materials products can be found in the majority of autism and speech therapy programs across the country.

Beginning to work in the autism field, Nelson says, was all about “being in the right place at the right time in history.” As an undergraduate psychology major, a class presentation on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) — a type of therapy that uses repeated exposure to visual materials to condition responses and associations — in relation to autism led her to realize that the top clinic in the world working on this was right there at UCLA. Nelson signed up for a class in ABA the next semester and quickly developed a passion for the work.

“In psychology it is very unusual that you can really get ‘hands on’ unless you have a master’s or a Ph.D. However, because the field was so new, there were very few individuals specializing in this area, so the opportunities were amazing,” Nelson says. “Before graduation I found myself flying all over the country – and even to Greece – doing lectures and workshops explaining principles of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. … The experience truly shaped my career, offering a chance to develop confidence and competence, while making a lasting difference in the lives of children and their families.”

Recently, Nelson’s company has expanded into the tech world with the launch of the Language Builder app for the iPad. Recognizing the need to explore the options her product had in this new tech-savvy world, Nelson made the difficult decision to leave Stages for a year to enroll in HGSE’s Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) Program. The transition was not easy.

“The first few weeks, I sat in the back of class, arms crossed, listening to the ideas of fellow students, thinking, ‘That will never work. They have no real-world experience,’” Nelson remembers. “Then it hit me, these are the brightest educational minds in the country. Their ideas will work. Almost all of them! I am the problem! My challenge was to open my mind to new ways of thinking, explore these ideas, and then apply them to my project.”

At its core, Language Builder is designed to present visual materials used in ABA therapy. While the Language Builder app is presenting the same visual material as the Language Builder cards, Nelson believes the value of the app comes in looking beyond the content.

“The portability of the iPad significantly expands the scope, pace, and environment of the learning opportunities,” she explains. “Therapies previously limited to sitting at a table can now be carried out anywhere. Mobility and a less structured setting have the potential to enhance generalization and facilitate transfer.”

Beyond this, the app also includes six ABA-based activities with highly customizable settings, allowing students to choose from multiple speech and text commands, target and distracter words, and even card positions. Furthermore, users can choose from an expansive image library, purchase word packs, upload their own content, or share content with other users. And this is just the first version.

“After the app is released, the first thing I will do is start on version two,” she says. “It’s been challenging to realize I cannot get every component of the program in the first release, and in fact that I shouldn’t! I need to get the app into the hands of the users, see how it works for them, and then iterate.”

The app, which was launched mid-March sold 140 copies in the first four days. While Nelson is pleased with these numbers, she continues to look forward. She plans on submitting a Small Business Innovation Research grant to the Institute of Educational Sciences to request funding to build a cloud-based communication portal portion of Language Builder that will connect parents and teachers around their child’s education and therapy programs.

“We have an amazing opportunity now to develop bigger and better tech-based products, with the power to really transform how we teach children with autism, as well as typically developing children,” she says.


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