March 25, 2014

The other day, I made the mistake, or perhaps had the good fortune, of telling someone I met that I help my company design products for educators by collaborating with teachers and students in classrooms.

This guy fired back, “How could you possibly develop complex devices by working with educators and kids who know nothing about designing technology products?”

That forced me to analyze our design process in detail. And I realized that people might find it interesting (as this fellow did), because it’s different than what you’d expect.

But the fact of the matter is, almost 25 years ago when we started Lightspeed, thanks to our CEO Jerry Ramey, we began with a philosophy of going out into the marketplace and “discovering” what products we should create. The users are eager to tell and show us what they need.

Teachers & Students Shine the Light

We dubbed our in-the-field process “Lighthouse Projects,” because the work shines a light on the challenge spots, where insight in product design is most needed.

A great example of how this principle is still bearing fruit for our small part in helping education is our latest product, Flexcat. It was designed for small group (differentiated) learning from the ground up. And the ground was in the middle of working classrooms across America.

About half a dozen years ago, our VP of Marketing was in a classroom in Worcester, Massachusetts, showing teachers our product, Redcat, which distributes sound evenly to a whole classroom, so that every student hears their teacher’s every word.

“Great,” said the people at the Worcester Elementary School, “but we don’t teach that way. We do small group learning teach almost exclusively in small, differentiated groups. We have students working at vastly different learning levels and styles all We often teach Math, Science and Reading at the same time.” The principal added, “What we really need is a teacher at every desk.”

Sure enough, what we saw when we observed differentiated learning is a scenario many educators will recognize: classes where two, or even three teachers in a large room work hard to manage multiple groups. Sometimes even parent volunteers are added to observe, listen in on, and try to help answer questions or redirect the kids.

This was new to us, and it started a years-long journey of visiting classrooms, to brainstorm a product that would help reduce the load on teachers, and offer more immediate help for students to get access to instruction while providing true two-way communication. And that had to include strengthening students’ peer-to-peer learning within their individual groups. Can anyone say, “Common Core”?

A Teacher at Every Desk

For the Flexcat project, we constantly recited in our design teams the mantra: “What we really need is a teacher at every desk.” That became the call to action. If the product didn’t put “a teacher at every desk” we had not arrived.

Thankfully, after years of diligence, including by countless teachers and kids nationwide, when we proudly launched the latest version of Flexcat a couple of months ago, it was with the knowledge that the product does what educators asked for. Using Flexcat, the teacher can be teaching at one group and effortlessly listen in on any small group table at will, and speak to that table only. Students (at the teacher’s command) can also share their ideas with the whole room through the small listening-broadcasting boxes sitting on each desk.

As I spoke to the man I met who wanted me to defend my initial statement, I realized our process involves discovery interviews, suggesting solutions, putting up straw men to be knocked down, building prototypes and putting them in classrooms, iterating (teachers and students and IT directors giving us feedback), tweaking and improving and trying the ideas yet again.

Classrooms are our Proving Ground

We literally could not build products as successfully as we do without partner teachers and students, and without the original champions: the superintendents, principals and IT directors who believe in and support our cause to build the most useful products we — in collaboration — are capable of producing.

We have six or eight Lighthouse projects going on across the country right now. And we visit (in person or by phone and email) with them every week or so.

I finally told this guy I was talking to, “It’s like my other love: motorcycles. You don’t know if you’ve built a good one until track day when you get out and ride.” The classrooms are our proving ground.

I judge our success when I go out and sit in classrooms and see the reactions on the faces of kids while they’re using our products. When I see for myself their ah-ha moments, the progress they are making, and their smiles, those moments make my job the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

Tom Koller

Tom Koller

Tom Koller is one of the founders of Lightspeed Technologies and is our principal futurist. When talking about his division of the company he says, “I give all the credit for the success of our products to our engineers, all of whom are much smarter than I am.”

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