Ed-Tech Startup Leads HarperCollins Into ‘Nascent’ K-12 E-Book Market

By Benjamin Herold — November 19, 2013 4 min read
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Earlier this month, I wrote about an emerging trend in the world of ed tech: content publishers joining forces with startups that operate digital learning platforms so both can expand their reach.

Tuesday, a fascinating example of this new wave of partnerships was unveiled: New York-based HarperCollins Publishers, which bills itself as “the house of Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Thackery, Dickens, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and Margaret Wise Brown,” announced that it is teaming with seven-month old startup Curriculet to “reinvent how schools buy and teach books.”

The partnership will allow San Francisco-based Curriculet, a digital learning platform that lets teachers make readings interactive through embedded quizzes, videos, and the like, to offer an extensive backlist of titles by HarperCollins to schools for three- or 12-month purchases. The price point for those purchases was described by both companies as significantly lower than what it typically costs to buy either print or electronic books.

“The e-book market is nascent in K-12,” said HarperCollins Chief Digital Officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi in an interview. “We’re starting to experiment with new models, and we’re willing to talk to lots of different people and try to get as many sensible deals and exposure to our content as possible in this new channel.”

“Schools have been dying for publishers to offer products that don’t lock them in from year to year,” said Curriculet CEO Jason Singer, also in an interview. “This is a pretty radical direction for a publisher to go, and it’s born out of not just opening up a new channel, but delivering a tool that teachers need.”

Here’s how Curriculet—a company that was founded in July 2012, launched in March 2013 under the name Gobstopper, and has already attracted investment dollars from the likes of Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and others—works:

A teacher loads a text (for example, an e-book, or something self-created) onto the platform, which is browser-based and requires an Internet connection but can be used on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The teacher then highlights sections of the text and embeds questions, quizzes, or multimedia content (say, a video of themselves discussing an important point raised in the book) that will automatically pop up on to the student’s screen when she reaches that section.

On the back end, the Curriculet software captures data related to everything the student does—how many pages she reads, how much time she spends on each page, how she answers the questions, what level of mastery she showed on specific learning standards, and more.

And then the platform also allows teachers to share the layers they’ve added on a given text with other teachers and to browse through a library of other such “curriculets” that other teachers have already created, resulting in an online resource-sharing community.

“Now, we can take HarperCollins titles, make them available to teachers, and overnight the best teachers in the country can make them interactive and Common Core-aligned and available to used in other classrooms the next day,” said Singer.

The companies recently piloted the model in the Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, Calif. Singer said the results included 5,800 book purchases and revamping of the school day so that 1,600 students across six schools could spend 20 minutes each day reading on Curriculet.

In a press release announcing the partnership, Summit superintendent Diane Tavenner called the experience “revolutionary.”

“For the first time, Curriculet makes it affordable to put contemporary and engaging books in our students’ hands and makes it possible to measure their growth and engagement with every page they turn,” she said.

The pilot will be expanded to 250 additional schools this winter, with the hopes of making everything available to the public in Spring 2014. Schools will be able to sign up for a free version of Curriculet that includes basic functions and public-domain book titles. But to get access to the HarperCollins titles and the full complement of data tools, it will cost a $999 one-time fee, plus $3.99 per student, per year.

Each book will come at a cost, too, but HarperCollins’ Restivo-Alessi said she expects educators to find it a good deal.

“It’s quite compelling for a school because we’re allowing them to have a [lower] price point [to have access to the e-book] for a shorter amount of time,” she said.

And as for what this will all mean for students?

I asked Singer, a former English teacher who helped found two charter schools under the KIPP umbrella, if readers really want to be bombarded with quizzes and multimedia while they get lost in their James Baldwin or Virginia Woolf.

“If reading was this kind of sacrosanct experience that we’ve assumed it was for all this time, then 80 percent of kids who graduate from high school wouldn’t have given up on it as a lifelong passion,” he said.

“The reason struggling and reluctant readers give up is because reading is hard work, and we make it even harder based on the way [schools currently] buy books.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.