Simi Valley Unified School District first tested Lightspeed’s Topcat instructional audio system at an elementary school serving deaf and hearing-impaired students, but quickly realized the system had much broader impact.
“There’s a tremendous benefit to all of our students,” said Jennifer Goldman, principal at Mountain View Elementary School.
Lightspeed’s Topcat system quickly won over teachers with improved audibility and less vocal strain, but its benefits took on greater urgency as districts began preparing for health measures to minimize transmission risks of COVID-19. Some of the most common measures, including the use of masks, social distancing and increased ventilation, have significant impact on audio quality.
Goldman and Simi Valley USD IT Director Philip Scrivano recently shared their experiences implementing Lightspeed instructional audio systems in the webcast series In Action: Instructional Audio in the Classroom during COVID and Beyond.
Within 18 months of testing, feedback from teachers was overwhelmingly supportive, making it Lightspeed’s Topcat system “the No. 1 requested item,” Scrivano said. The district added the technology to facility modernization plans, but the rollout relied on a variety of funding sources and was slated to take four to five years to implement in more than 900 classrooms across 30 school sites.
“It’s hard to get funding initially until (a system) gets a reputation,” he said.
That timeline changed once the pandemic hit. Funding for COVID-19 related measures made available through the 2020 CARES Act has allowed the district to immediately install the system universally across its schools.
“When we bring students back to the classroom, we’ll have Lightspeed in place,” Scrivano said.
Clearer audio drives attention, engagement
Scrivano, who is hearing impaired, said he had his own “aha” moment after his church got a system that connected to his hearing aids.
“Suddenly I had a personal mic to the choir and the priest and now I have to pay attention,” he joked.
Lightspeed’s Topcat system has similar impact in the classroom, Scrivano said, adding that the cumulative impact of enabling students to focus on learning, instead of struggling to hear over the course of a K-12 education represents significant educational benefits.
“When I walk into a classroom today… I have an equal ability to hear as every other student in the classroom. I pay more attention and I can relax and think a little bit more about the content versus what (the teacher) is saying.”
Goldman said the audio clarity is particularly important for students with auditory processing and attention issues often referred for special education.
“When kids have access to the full range of sounds in the classroom … it comes in loud and clear for them,” she said. “Having that teacher voice no matter where you are in the classroom, it really captures the students’ attention.”
More energy for teachers and students
Goldman said teacher adoption has been smooth, even among teachers who initially thought they wouldn’t need it.
“It saves a lot of teacher energy,” she said, adding that projecting all day to ensure your voice is loud enough is draining, and doesn’t result in clear sound.
Scrivano said teachers also report they can be more efficient, because when they answer a question for one student, the entire class can hear the answer.
“By the end of the day, they’ve talked about 50% less,” he said. “The teacher has more energy, they have more patience, but the main thing is that every student gets the benefit of that teacher.”
Goldman said the system has been particularly important for young learners trying to differentiate between soft phonetic sounds, such as in the word “sat.” Such sounds are difficult to distinguish, but even harder if a teacher happens to turn while speaking, either to write something on the board or point at something in the room, she added.
“You’re devoting so much cognitive energy just trying to hear the information,” Goldman said, adding that the pilot showed that “access to sound” meant “having full access to the sound inventory.”
Audio system helps ELL students move from silent to “on stage”
For ELL students, Goldman says the Topcat system ensures each student can hear teacher instruction clearly. But the benefits also extend to student interaction, helping ELL students move beyond the “silent phase” and become more comfortable speaking in the classroom, she said.
“When you had them one of the microphones...they get so excited and they want to talk,” Goldman said. “It’s like they’re on stage…and frankly, that plays out in all the classrooms with all the students. You give a kid a mic, forget it.”
Scrivano and Goldman said Simi Valley USD’s experience has taken on greater urgency as schools prepare to welcome students back to the classroom, and measures such as mask-wearing appear to be here to stay for the near future. That makes it even more crucial to ensure students access to clear auditory information.
“We talk about students with hearing disability, but it’s every single student in the classroom that benefits,” Scrivano said.