An Interview with Nick Gaehde, President of Lexia Learning

An Interview with Nick Gaehde, President of Lexia Learning
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With a spring semester turned upside down and a fresh fall semester upon us, there are still questions to be answered about the year ahead for teachers, administrators, students, and parents nationwide. In an interview with Bloomberg Radio, Nick Gaehde, President of Lexia Learning, discussed lessons learned from the abrupt spring pivot into remote learning, questions of accessibility for all, and how teachers and technology can work hand-in-hand as we enter into a hybrid learning environment this fall.

This interview aired on Bloomberg Radio September 1, 2020.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jason Kelly, Bloomberg Businessweek
Let’s have a conversation about education; top of mind to say the least, here on a day where after pushing it back, New York City Schools are headed toward in-person learning at least on a hybrid basis. But, underneath all of this is technology, and we want to understand how it all works.

We’re lucky to have Nick Gaehde, President of Lexia Learning, on the phone from Boston. Alright, Nick, very timely conversation here. First of all, help us understand what Lexia Learning does, so we have a good foundation for this conversation.

Nick Gaehde, Lexia Learning
Good afternoon, Jason. Thanks so much for having me on. What Lexia Learning does, and has done for the past 35 years, is develop technology to support students and educators in the classroom, as well as outside of the classroom when they're working in a remote environment.

Alix Steel, Bloomberg Businessweek
So, I’ll just speak anecdotally: I have a six-year-old. She's going to go into first grade. If she was going to be using your programs, etc. — how would she do that?

NG: She would use our programs to really practice and master her foundational literacy skills. So a student working in the classroom or at home would be presented with a very personalized path through that learning process, constantly adjusting to the needs of the individual student based upon the strengths and weaknesses that they show as they're working in the program. And at the same time, all of the information about that student is delivered back to the teacher in real-time, so they understand the instructional needs of every single student.

JK: So Nick, I'm going to be a little cynical here. And I don't know whether Alix will share my view of this or not, but I have teenagers. They, like everybody else, were sort of thrown into this remote learning world back in the spring. And to use a very technical term, I think for them and for lots and lots of people across the country, it was kind of a mess in many ways — and that is no one's fault because it was triage, to say the least. As you understand this business so much better than we do, what did we learn from the spring overall across this new modality of learning?

NG: I think you're right in saying that it was very challenging. I mean, the speed with which schools closed, and students and teachers and families had to adjust was really, really quick and I think created a lot of challenges across the board. If you have little kids at home, you understand what that meant in terms of supporting them as they were going online to learn. I think what we learned was, it's not as easy as making sure a student can log online, although for a significant number of students in the country, they don't have access to technology, they don't have access to the internet, and they don't have a learning guardian at home who can help them, especially in those young grades. So I think what we learned is the importance not just of the infrastructure, but also to make sure that there is someone who can help those young learners through the learning process.

AS: My daughter goes to public school in New York. We got the rundown yesterday of the idea that they're going to go for and what's going to be required of them when they're online. It seems like your programs have some kind of A.I., where they can kind of learn her as she's learning. But how do you do that when there's also a school curriculum involved that's going to have their own thing and their own process?

NG: One of the things we like to talk about is the combination of A.I. and H.I. Obviously, we all know what A.I. means. H.I., is human intelligence. We've always believed that technology does not replace the teacher or the educator. What it does is give them an incredibly valuable platform to understand the needs of the students that are working so hard, whether they are remote or in the classroom. If you think about an individual teacher looking out in that classroom of 25 students, and then you move that online, it's just a real challenge for teachers. And without technology and without the ability to deliver that kind of data to the teacher, they're in the dark. They can no longer walk around the school classroom and understand what the needs of those students are. So without technology, they have a very hard time understanding how to meet those students where they are.

JK: I know I speak for myself and I believe I speak for my co-host, Alix Steel — we've got more questions about this because we are talking about this around our respective dinner tables all the time with our kids, with our friends, and this is one of the most important things that we have to figure out — not to make too big a deal out of it — as a society. If we're going to get back to whatever feels like some semblance of normal, Alix, we’ve got to figure this out.

AS: Yeah. And I think also the importance of how to get to the kids that don't have the ability to have access to education. I have a friend who's a public school teacher deep in Brooklyn, and that is what she's most afraid of. She doesn't have technical capabilities, and also she's then responsible for these other kids that don't either.

JK: Exactly. So Nick, we were pelting you with questions, because clearly, we're very interested in this topic. One of the things that I know we want to talk about is something that Alix was talking about very eloquently, which is just this access question. So much of this does rely on technology being in the right hands and folks being able to use them in creating a really good and proper learning environment. How do we get there on this?

NG: I think we have to be flexible. And I think we have to make sure that wherever there are opportunities for learning, we enable that. As a company, we have worked very hard over a number of years to make sure that we can provide access to our programs on the broadest array of devices that we see being used in schools, and now that we see being used at home as students are moving back and forth. It is a challenge that we have to all address as a country, and I think some of that is actually being addressed at the federal level, but in our local communities and our schools it's something that we're going to continue to focus on. And for us at Lexia, which is a Rosetta Stone company, what we continue to do is think about how to lower the bar in terms of access to our products. 

AS: So how do you do that? Can you give me some concrete examples of how you would go into an underserved community to find a household that wouldn't have any devices and help them out?

NG: It's not so much going into households and helping those individual households out; it is making sure that we're working with the schools to understand how they're supporting their students. We've always tried to make sure that our programs work on the lowest-level devices and the lowest-level bandwidth so that access is available to most students. We know that if students don't work on those foundational skills, we see it during the summer and it's what we call the summer slide, that there's a learning gap that is created. But we also know that based on our research, we can close that learning gap. We've shown that we can close that learning gap with students working in our programs and educators looking at the data in a small time frame. So it's really a collaboration with school systems and educators and now parents as well.


JK: So Nick, one of the things we've talked a lot about at our house, and I can't speak for Alix's, but I know that lots of our friends have as well, is this notion of the hybrid model: you've got some students in the classroom, some kids learning remotely. Overlaying my own experience of being in a conference room when some people are on the video conference, it's not the same in many ways. How do you recommend students and teachers and educators and administrators think about this potential hybrid world that we're living in?

NG: Yeah, it's interesting. We've thought about that, again, for the last 35 years: what does technology do really well, and where does technology not actually address the needs of the student and that's something that the teacher needs to do. So we've been very careful to think about using technology where technology is the right solution, and not trying to mimic the role of the teacher. That's always been our philosophy.

AS: This might be an unfair question to ask you, but I'm just curious in talking to schools and teachers: What do you think school is going to look like this year? Realistically?

NG: I think you hit upon it. You said you were seeing that in Brooklyn, and I think we're seeing that across the country, that the hybrid model is what we're going to be facing. That creates challenges for teachers and students and parents, and it's going to be a very fluid model.

AS: Do you think it's also going to be the case where you'll start hybrid and then you'll have a little shut down for two weeks and go fully remote, and then go back to hybrid, then fully remote… are we in a world where education for little kids and even for high schoolers has to be that flexible?

NG: Yes, I think that is exactly right. I think that's what we're going to be seeing this fall. And the good part about technology is it actually can follow that student and follow that teacher, whether they're in the classroom or remote.

JK: How much do you worry, Nick, about the long-term implications of this? You know that there's going to be a sort of mini-generation, a little cohort that is going to be a little bit behind or they're not going to be able to grasp certain concepts depending on how old they are in this. Is that something that we're just going to have to deal with as a society?

NG: Well, I think schools are doing a good job of identifying the students who need the most support — those fragile student populations, whether they're emerging bilinguals or English language learners, or students who need special services — and prioritizing them in terms of when they're in the classroom. As we said, it's going to be a very flexible environment, but it's not new. Two-thirds of students in this country are non-proficient readers. And that was before the pandemic, and school closures.

AS: Is that what you think it's going to be? It's going to be reading that is going to suffer the most?

NG: I think reading is the foundation of all learning. If you look at how curriculum is delivered to students, about 85% of curriculum is delivered through text. So if you're not a proficient reader, you're going to struggle in all subject areas. And so you have to get that foundation in place in order for students to accelerate their learning in any subject or area.

JK: So who has to step up here, Nick? Is this the federal government? Is it local governments? Is it the private sector, even outside of edtech, that needs to be investing more heavily here? What are the potential solutions?

NG: I think it's across the board. I think everybody needs to step up, and step up in a collaborative way. I will say that the one thing that I think is coming out of this pandemic is an understanding of the value of the teacher and the school that maybe was overlooked before. 

AS: Yeah, apparently my friend who is a teacher was a little offended when I was like, “Oh my God, I never knew how hard your job was,” but I really never knew how hard her job was. 

JK: I think that is so true. And I don't think we ever thought about teachers as, essentially, frontline workers and essential workers, even though we should have. It's such a good point.

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful conversation Nick Gaehde, President of Lexia Learning. Maybe our eyes have been opened to some extent, Alix, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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