Accelerating Literacy

Personalized libraries, embedded assessments, and built-in motivation with Gideon Stein.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Gideon Stein of LightSail EducationAn adaptive reading platform that helps students, classrooms, and school districts exceed their literacy goals – all while fostering a love of reading. Sounds like a good idea. And that’s exactly what Gideon Stein works on improving every day. “Students using LightSail gain access to personalized libraries filled with thousands of engaging, just-right texts from which to choose,” explains Gideon. “They’ve told us their favorites are Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Divergent series for the last two years running.” The platform embeds assessments and progress monitoring in the text in a natural way. Students answer multiple-choice, written-response, and Cloze assessments throughout each text. As student

Success is having millions of kids around the globe reading 30 minutes a day – whether that’s on LightSail or even physical books. We’re focused on promoting literacy in any form.

ability grows, LightSail tracks achievement and updates the selections in each reader’s library – that way, students are always reading just right texts.

Where does the name LightSail come from?

LightSail logoGideon: A “lightsail” is a solar sail propelled by light, used to power space exploration. We see the name as a metaphor for propelling kids through literacy and enlightenment, without boundaries. There’s an acceleration factor to it too – unlike fuel powered ships, a lightsail can gain speed as it travels. It’s similar with LightSail, where the more kids read, the more they learn and the faster they grow.

Since launching in 2013, your company has seen a number of significant milestones – expanding availability across platforms, entering new school districts, adding new content to the library. What has been the catalyst for this?

Gideon: We’ve achieved a series of events that will allow LightSail to reach millions more students, expand its content library and grow our footprint. LightSail now counts more than 250,000 students at 700 districts and schools using its technology in the classroom, including the New York City Department of Education, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, and Boston Public Schools. That is an increase of 400 percent since this time last year.

There are two central catalysts for our growth. First, the efficacy of the product – it works. LightSail has a proven impact on developing readers. Not only do we hear that regular feedback from teachers, it is also supported in a new study from Johns Hopkins University that found students reading as little as 30 minutes a day on LightSail saw 2.7 times their expected gains.

Additionally, we can’t succeed without access. LightSail has more free and affordable content across multiple platforms than ever before. LightSail is now available on all the devices preferred by school districts: Chromebooks, Apple iPads and Android tablets.

We’re also constantly expanding our library. This spring we added daily content from The Washington Post. That significantly expands our library with articles about everything from current events to science and social studies. Students using LightSail also have access to KidsPost content, regular news section written for students in grades 3-8. All Washington Post content comes complete with LightSail’s embedded assessments.

And to help with our sustainability we are raising the necessary capital to support our growth. This spring LightSail closed on a Series B round of $11 million that was led by Scott Cook, the co-founder and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Intuit. The Bezos Family Foundation also joined existing investors in the round.

There is a continuous evaluation of edtech in the classroom generally. You’ve recently released results of an independent study of middle school students that shows the platform can help reverse summer slide. What are the findings?

Gideon: We are really excited about this. A team from Johns Hopkins University conducted research that found based on Lexile growth, students who read on LightSail over the summer for 30 minutes or more, returned to school at a reading level projected for November versus where we typically expect to see them lose ground. This is a meaningful gain of five to eight months over the devastating ‘summer slide’ scenario.

The researchers studied 280 New York City Middle School students, 17 teachers and five coaches from New York City’s Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI) over seven weeks who participated in LightSail’s SummerSail program. They evaluated the technology’s impact on student learning, impact on reader identity, and perceptions of the technology.

The study found that students who read on LightSail for even 15 minutes per day showed growth in their Lexile scores – countering summer slide in a meaningful way.

Also telling – the demographics of the student cohort studied are 91.7 percent minority, with 88.8 percent eligible for free/ reduced lunch and 12.7 percent are English Language Learners (ELL).

You’ve said your mission is for young people to love reading—what does success look like to you?

Gideon: Success is having millions of kids around the globe reading 30 minutes a day – whether that’s on LightSail or even physical books. We’re focused on promoting literacy in any form.

More than 80 percent of the kids reading on LightSail are characterized as “at risk.” We are incredibly proud of reaching that demographic, and we see it holding as we’ve started to expand internationally – across continents.

You’ve been engaged in other education ventures before this—how did that experience inform your decision to create the platform?

Gideon: I’ve been a technology entrepreneur for nearly 20 years. I founded a software company in the late 1990s and sold in 2005, at which point I got involved in education philanthropy. Driven by a desire to close the achievement gap, I served on a number of board for schools, education reform organizations and other nonprofits. Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of great work and a lot of things that haven’t panned out. My focus with LightSail was to take the best practices and use technology to deliver them cost-effectively at scale. Given that literacy is the foundation on which all learning rests (try doing math or science without being able to read), I decided to create LightSail and find creative ways to get it into kids’ hands.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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