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(July 2009) — When most students take a leave of absence from school, they might be expected to travel or take it easy. Not Olin students. When a group of six Oliners decided to take a year off together between their sophomore and junior years, they wanted to accomplish something significant during their time away from campus.
"All six of us decided to take this year off with the idea that we wanted to do something interesting and something around here and something entrepreneurial," said Evan Morikawa, spokesperson for the group.
As the year progressed, that general idea blossomed into Alight Learning, a company that is developing free software capable of creating a virtual learning environment for middle school teachers, students and parents to collaborate and share resources online.
It took time to get there, though. "There was no great epiphany 'ah hah' moment where we said 'this is what we're going to build,' said Morikawa, who lived with Olin classmates Ellen Chisa, Marco Morales, Christina Nguyen, Alisha Olsen and Andy Pethan in a rented house in Waltham, Mass., during the year away from Olin.
Instead, the business developed incrementally, as the group built on a common interest in education and used tools they had learned at Olin to refine their ideas.
"We had all just taken User Oriented Collaborative Design, so we were like, 'let's go design something people would be interested in using,'" said Morikawa, referring to the Olin course that teaches students to deeply explore user needs before designing products.
Olin's innovative learning environment and emphasis on team-based project work also helped. "The pedagogies Olin tries to teach and its perspectives on education definitely gave us an advantage going into this space," said Morikawa.
The budding entrepreneurs decided to focus on middle schools, because they felt they were a critical, yet underserved, juncture in K - 12 education. Through a process that included everything from cold calling to attending educational conferences to aggressive development of contacts, the team arranged meetings at local middle schools to gain input.
From these meetings, a common set of problems and needs began to emerge. Educators wanted to be able to personalize education, while sharing resources and accessing research into utilizing "21st Century skills" in the classroom. Slowly, the idea of creating a web-based software product that was easy and fun to use began to take shape.
As Morikawa describes it, Alight Learning's software will answer a number of needs not currently served by existing products, which tend to be glorified databases for grades, attendance and other administrative statistics, and which cost a lot to install and maintain.
In contrast, Alight Learning's product will be free to teachers, and will not require an extensive IT network to maintain. Rather than being a web-based repository for assignments and syllabi, Alight's software focuses on real-time interactions and learning through the Internet. As Morikawa envisions it, students can be working on the same documents and websites at the same time, while getting continuous feedback from teachers. Plagiarism is prevented by extensive document tracking that can tell who has worked on a document over time.
Another advantage of Alight's product is that, where other systems focus on serving one school at a time, Alight's software enables collaboration among all users of the system. Students at a school in the Boston area working on a paper on the Renaissance, for example, could access resources on the topic from users across the country. Teachers could benefit as well from sharing lesson plans with other teachers focusing on the same subject matter.
The company plans to make money by offering access to local tutoring services, developing educational partners and selling additional features to schools.
"The revolution we're trying to demonstrate here is that everyone's learning the same thing and everyone should benefit from each other," said Morikawa.
The company, which recently incorporated in Delaware, has taken on extra employees-mostly programmers-over the summer, with a goal of producing a pilot of the software ready for teacher testing this fall. The company is currently based in the Foundry, Olin's student-run business incubator.
"Since everyone's on this system, everyone's essentially a contributor to this global bank of knowledge-the more people use it, the smarter it becomes and the better recommendations it can give people on lessons and resources," said Morikawa.
For more information on Alight Learning, visit http://www.alightlearning.com/