LightSail Education: Transforming Education with the Power of Technology

Top 10 Leading Companies Empowering Innovation 2020

LightSail Education

Education and life-long-learning are a necessity for good employment opportunities and social well-being however, this is all predicated on sound foundational and advanced literacy skills. Among the standout organizations who have developed learning solutions for better education is LightSail Education who have passionately created the one of the world’s best literacy learning platforms.

In 2011 Steven Gittleson was invited to join, as a co-founder and CTO, a group of LightSail founders made up of social entrepreneurs, a literacy and reading specialist and business professionals from the K12 education sector. As a learning enthusiast, Steven took it on himself to contribute towards enhancing educational practices through technology with the help of a team of experienced educational leaders.

LightSail Education is committed to creating a world in which learners maximize their potential through literacy. Since 2012, the team has provided governments, districts, schools, and literacy intervention programs with a comprehensive, standards-aligned, literacy platform with multimodal learning functionality, which holistically assesses and nurtures each student on their reading and writing-to-learn journey, throughout elementary, middle, and high school. With a primary focus on schools and students, LightSail’s instructional and administrative tools balance the administrator’s and educator’s needs for ease-of-use, versatility, pedagogical rigor, and value with the student’s need for an engaging, motivational, content-rich and diverse literacy experience. In this interesting read, Steven shares the journey and progress of LightSail Education with a view to sharing the importance of literacy education.

The Foundation of an Educational Transformation

When Steven joined the team of LightSail Education, his role was to build a platform that would enable their goal of transforming the way children’s reading skills and comprehension skills developed with the aid of technology. Back then, any other solutions in the market, relied primarily on very dry nonfiction content and short passages. Children were not enthusiastic about such platforms once they got to the content. In other words, for children, online reading and literacy tools were boring. The team of LightSail Education knew that if they wanted to get the children reading, they had to make it interesting and engaging which could be accomplished by building large online libraries of fiction books that kids actually want to read. The pedagogical rigor integrated Metametrics’s Lexileframework, and their algorithm adapted the libraries, to the student’s reading level and interest. Thus, began LightSail Education’s mission as a profit-with-purpose company to “foster-a-love-of-reading”.

Overcoming Challenges

At the heart of what LightSail Education set out to achieve was a promising connection between great content (the books and children wanted to read), user friendly and reliable technology for students and teachers, and scalability. There were three critical factors that obstructed this purpose and slowed their initial growth; technical glitches, established publishing organizations making it difficult to collaborate with startups and having been forced to utilize third party Digital Rights Management (DRM) and encryption software by the publishing industry.

This resulted into loss of customers because they were forced to use this chain of 3rd party, poorly developed code, which caused their customers to experience instability on their platform. This combination of poorly evolved tech and the inertia in these large organizations that have been around for hundreds of years, was extremely challenging and detrimental to the growth of the organization. However, despite the challenges LightSail Education, thrived.

The company reached a milestone in 2018 when they invested millions of dollars in designing and developing their own proprietary, secure DRM, e-reading, and encryption solutions. The company was relentless about freeing themselves of 3rd party software and have built all these critical systems in house. Most importantly, their students and teachers are now enjoying a stable, seamless, and content rich user experience on any device. Working directly with publishers and not via aggregators, also means that their customers get the benefit of the best K12 and library commercial terms and a much wider choice of titles to select from.

Fast forward to 2020, they have great direct relationships with major publishing houses and who are eagerly embracing collaboration and partnership with LightSail Education and their technology.

The Exceptional Services of LightSail Education

LightSail provides students with more than 6,000 complementary Lexiled, authentic, high interest fiction and non-fiction English and Spanish books. Districts and schools can also select and purchase from more than 150,000 popular trade titles from the world’s leading publishers. The purchase takes place on LightSail’s integrated ecommerce platform. A key challenge for literacy education in this decade is that blended learning must be fluid, with students and teachers transitioning seamlessly between home-based virtual learning, school campus-based learning, and hybrid learning scenarios where class cohorts are split between home and school.

LightSail leads the way with built-in real time communication modules and features that support these exact scenarios. Tools such as real-time monitoring of student reading activity and a chat functionality between teacher and student maximize engagement without leaving the platform or necessitating the use of other communication tools like Zoom. Equity in education is of utmost importance to LightSail, and thus they have invested significant resources and innovation in providing additional tools for students with reading and learning challenges. Their Personalized Reader module was developed to assist struggling readers with access to LightSail’s rich texts. For students with ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, visual impairment, Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI), LightSail has 60 different tools to customize the e-reader and adapt it to each student’s needs.

They have more than 11 modules, including —  Adaptive Reading, Fluency Builder, Content Builder, Homework, Book Store, multiple Writing Modules, Personalized Reader, Vocabulary —  and a real-time Communications Module to enable full remote and hybrid learning. These modules incorporate over 200 features and 150 reporting data points for educators and administrators to evaluate and understand students’ progress. Their books feature more than 40,000 curriculum aligned questions, developed by very experienced US teachers and curriculum experts.

More recently, their services expanded to provide book publishers and content providers with an end-to-end encrypted, browser based, OEM educational e-reading ecosystem as-a-service. While LightSail is intuitive to use and requires no training to get started on the journey to meet and exceed literacy goals — they also offer professional development services and literacy instruction enrichment programs for educators.

What Makes LightSail Education Different

LightSail Education is unmatched by its competitors in both breadth and depth of their platform. LightSail has always sought to balance sound pedagogy with innovation and technology in its contributions to education. They have witnessed a phenomenal success of their cloud literacy platform with a cross-section of learners both in the USA and globally in the developed world. They believe in the potential for LightSail to contribute significantly to the UN Sustainable Development  Global Goals and their development imperatives in developing countries too, such as South Africa, Mexico, China,  India and Turkey. At a practical level, such learning environments require technology that can function in low or no internet situations. LightSail’s Literacy-in-a-Box innovation presents a significant, powerful, and increasingly urgent value proposition to the provision of life-changing literacy intervention, at scale, in connectivity and electricity challenged learning environments.

LightSail followed a trajectory, similar to other Ed-Tech startups in its early years, with a focus on integrating pedagogy with technology and driving district and school adoptions. “We had early wins amongst the New York Department of Education and are very proud of the impact we made.”, Steven, says. As with all startups, that initial period, also meant a focus from the leadership team on fundraising and building awareness through industry competitions and awards. LightSail Education was fortunate to have some key early philanthropic funding from the likes of the Bezos Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Scott Cook. This also gave them the opportunity to invest in building out their own graded reader imprint, Antares Reading and to recruit a team of leading academics and practitioners to create some 40,000 curriculum aligned assessment items across more than 10,000 of the most popular fiction titles from leading publishers.

Inspiring Insights Shared by a Successful Leader

At the tender age of 12, Steven wrote his first computer game in BASIC on a Commodore 20 and sold his first software program when he was 15. Ever since, Steven has been building software, on his own, as part of small and large teams. The scale and impact really transformed when he was entrusted with building software solutions. Because of the challenges Steven faced with dyslexia, he found that it was more effective and cheaper, for him to hire developers than to fix his mistakes. Over the past 25 years, Steven has been CTO and / or investor, in over ten startups. Although most of them have failed, as startups often do, Steven learnt priceless lessons from every experience. “It is those lessons I come to “visit” and utilize every single day at the helm of LightSail.”, Steven states.

Having written code since he was 12, Steven was one of those technology professionals who always thought that software rules the world. Since the beginning of his career, Steven saw technology as “the answer” to all questions and all challenges. His experience in educational technology, however, has been very humbling. The smartest decisions and most rewarding technological choices and developments he and his team have made, have been those that honored an approach that is student and educator centric. Seeing technology as simply the tool or enabler and listening closely to their education teams and user base, has been the real key to LightSail Education’s success and certainly changed Steven’s views on the importance and role of technology in education.

As the CEO of LightSail Education Steven juggles between multiple roles. However, they all fall into one of these three key focus areas: (1) take the company to profitability (2) drive innovation by being surrounded with people who wish to build great products for teachers- by- teachers. (3) Keeping customers happy.

LightSail Education is in the SaaS business, so there is a laser focus on renewing customers annually. For LightSail “happy” results from quality and abundant quality content, building products that get used with measurable and impactful learning outcomes, and amazing customer service. All this is fundamental to growing their Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR). This year their ARR is over 120% that is ­ testimony to the increasing and ongoing trust placed by educators and administrators in the learning literacy learning outcomes achieved by students using LightSail.

The Future Development of LightSail Education

In 2017 LightSail was in two countries outside the US, and less than 5% of revenue was from outside the US. Today they have distribution partners in more than 10 countries and around 20% of their revenue is from outside the US. “What we hear from both our existing and new customers and re-sellers, is that our expanded, 11 module platform, enables them to entrust additional literacy outcome focus areas to LightSail.”, says, Steven. This means, savings, sophistication, and ease of deployment across the literacy continuum for schools. They no longer have a requirement for multiple literacy and content vendors. LightSail is becoming their one-stop Literacy solution for in-class, at-home, and hybrid learning.

After two years of stealth development, LightSail Education is launching their family/consumer version, next month for children of 4-18 years. Named LightHouse, this literacy platform, will be available on a monthly subscription basis. To date, LightSail could only be sold to schools and districts. With their family version they took the best elements of LightSail, added several new modules specific to meeting homeschooling and family needs. LightHouse requires no training or administrator intervention to get up and running. They have formed content partnerships with renowned publishers. World Book, publishers of the most up-to-date and trusted commercial encyclopedia; and Learner Publishing Group, with several children’s and educational imprints of the highest-quality nonfiction and fiction content.

These content partnerships, assure LightHouse parents, and children that their content needs and pedagogical requirements are backed by more than a combined 150 years of publishing and literacy expertise in K-12 education. The value proposition for consumers will be significant with access to tens of thousands of books for a very affordable monthly subscription. In addition, Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, and many other publishers’ content will be available for purchase on the platform at competitive prices and all wrapped in their 7 layers of pedagogical support for every child.

“We are excited about 2021 and the growth we see coming from new literacy products we will be launching.”, Steven adds. LightSail Education sales and growth team are stepping off this new foundation and driving revenue growth, new customer acquisition and impressive renewal rates on a loyal customer base with a purpose to fulfill their vision to provide the best learning solutions.