Read My Links
Three thousand miles from Silicon Valley, in the northwest Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken, the New Economy is humming along inside a relic of the Old Economy, a tire factory that's been converted into an office complex. At the rear of the building, behind a set of swinging glass doors, down a hallway, and up a short flight of stairs are the Spartan, white-walled headquarters of BeyondBooks.com, a purveyor of online middle school and high school curricula. There's no sign, no receptionist, no art on the wall, just a cluster of cubicles under a ceiling of exposed pipes painted white. Within these work stations, a couple dozen techies in T-shirts and jeans quietly tickle computer keyboards, taking the occasional kitchen break to dig into an oversized communal pretzel barrel.
BeyondBooks.com President and CEO James Cassano sits in a conference room furnished with a table and a few purple chairs. Sporting weekend wear—short sleeves and khakis—that's only slightly dressier than the grunge look of his employees, Cassano peers through metal-rimmed glasses at a computer screen. At 54, he has the round face, ruddy complexion, and ready smile of success. Not long ago, Cassano was a high-flying executive in the world of pinstripes and plush office suites. Armed with a gold-plated MBA from the Wharton Business School, he had climbed the corporate ladder to its top rungs, socking away plenty of cash for retirement along the way.
In 1998, however, Cassano hung up his suit and bet some of that money on the launch of BeyondBooks.com. The company, he believes, is selling what teachers want: customized curriculum that sorts through the World Wide Web's clutter, packages the best information, and pipes it into schools via the Internet. "We're developing a totally new mechanism so teachers can use the Web like never before and explore subjects to the level and depth they want to," Cassano says, now on the edge of his seat. "We're really trying to revolutionize the way education is delivered in the classroom."
From his computer, Cassano pulls up a report and announces that last spring, 954 schools were signed up for a free trial of BeyondBooks.com. By late summer, that number had climbed to 2,400. Now in its third year, the company is making big plans. This fall, it will increase the number of its curriculum packages from five to 30, launch a $4 million marketing campaign, and, for the first time, charge schools for its curriculum. Not far from company headquarters, meanwhile, a New Jersey school is about to put the company's product to the ultimate test, ditching textbooks completely in favor of the online curriculum. In short, Cassano will learn a lot in the coming year about whether he can start an education revolution and make money at the same time.
If the answer is yes, this Internet upstart may signal big changes for the way kids learn. For years, America's textbook publishing industry has been under attack; its mammoth tomes, critics say, are expensive, perennially outdated, and deadly dull. Internet-based curriculum, meanwhile, offers an alternative whose strengths, at least in concept, answer the textbook's weaknesses.
But before BeyondBooks.com can take on the giants of textbook publishing, it has to weather the shakeout that almost daily is putting Internet companies out of business. The K-12 market is cluttered with online companies—including other curriculum providers—and each dreams of making a killing by putting the Internet to work for the nation's 100,000 schools. But for now, it's a race for survival, and in a remote warehouse in Conshohocken, there are 45 techies and educators heeding the sirens' song.
BeyondBooks.com is not Cassano's first foray into e-commerce. Early in his career, he did a brief stint as vice president of Safeguard Scientifics, a $3 billion-a-year Pennsylvania company that underwrites, develops, and operates high-tech ventures, including Internet infrastructure companies. And in the mid-1990s, he transformed a failing company into a dot-com Wunderkind. Named CEO of a struggling corporation that developed box office software for performing arts organizations such as the Boston Ballet, he moved it into the ticket-sales business. Then, after raising tens of millions of dollars from venture capitalists and institutional investors, he acquired one ticket company, merged with another, and took the firm online as Tickets.com, now one of the nation's largest ticket retailers. When the company relocated from New Jersey to California in February 1998, Cassano opted for early retirement and a pile of Tickets.com stock.
Beyondbooks.com emerged not from such wheeling and dealing but from Cassano's pro bono work. About a year before retiring, Cassano joined the board of directors of the Independence Hall Association, a Philadelphia nonprofit that publishes American history materials. The group wanted to expand online, and Cassano helped adapt its offerings to the hyped-up world of the Internet. The resulting Web site redesign was a hit; one of its most popular additions was a virtual tour of Betsy Ross' house and a biography that included details of her romantic life. Traffic grew from a few thousand hits in 1995 to 6 million in 1998—then six times the number recorded at the Museum of Modern Art's site, Cassano likes to note. The visitors, mostly young students and their parents, begged for more; quality, in-depth American history material was scarce, they complained.
Cassano heard similar grumbling about the Internet from others: His wife was a veteran secondary English teacher, and both his brothers had married schoolteachers. Meanwhile, he was working with a slew of scholars on the Web site, and he began thinking about how to use the Internet to give even more students direct access to U.S. history experts. "One thing that didn't exist was a way to bring true scholars into the classroom," Cassano explains. "And at Independence Hall, we were dealing with scholars editing the papers of Benjamin Franklin who were fascinating and could regale people with stories that make history live."
Cassano was also attracted to the idea of doing good while making a buck. His parents, who were first-generation Italian immigrants, had put a premium on his own schooling. "It was the time to start giving back to the things that had contributed to my success," he explains.
Eventually, Cassano decided to start a new company. "I had the [Tickets.com] stock," he explains. "If this didn't work, I had something I could fall back on. And it was time to take a risk." Together with eight other investors, Cassano fronted $500,000 for the startup and then tapped two fellow Independence Hall directors to help him get it off the ground: Jonathan Schmalzbach, a crossword puzzle master and computer game creator, and Doug Heller, a Web consultant with experience editing history books. On July 1, 1998, New Forum Publishers Inc. was founded and its first venture, BeyondBooks.com, was born.
The idea to make the infant company more than an Internet conduit between students and experts came from teachers. Eager to kick around his ideas with educators, Cassano called Lois Heist, social studies coordinator for the Tredyffrin-Easttown district in Pennsylvania, where his two grown children had gone to school. Heist was intrigued and arranged for Cassano to meet a couple dozen history teachers over several months.
Conestoga High teacher Richard Gusick remembers the first of these meetings well. It was early July, and he and a handful of other teachers had gathered for a curriculum workshop. In walked Cassano and Heller with a laptop and a nifty spiel about the company. Logging onto a mock Beyondbooks.com site, they surfed through links to experts, museums, and other resources on America from colonization through the Revolution.
Watching the demo, the teachers were impressed to see how the wild and woolly Internet could yield an orderly exploration of history from various points of view. "I think that multiple perspectives are important," Gusick says, "and there are only so many of those perspectives that a textbook on the whole of U.S. history is going to be able to include in one chapter on the taming of the West."
Gusick also came away convinced that Cassano and Heller had found a way to capture the interest of hard-to-reach kids. "They were trying to reach that student that just didn't get turned on by traditional classroom learning," he says. "They weren't really talking about it for an Advanced Placement student, but the student who gets missed somehow, who finds textbooks boring."
Though Gusick and the other teachers liked what they saw, they urged Cassano and Heller to do more. They complained that surfing the Internet to compile class material took too much time. Couldn't BeyondBooks.com come up with an Internet curriculum?
From this conversation and those that followed with other Tredyffrin-Easttown teachers, BeyondBooks.com fashioned the curriculum packages that it sells today. With each, teachers log onto the BeyondBooks.com Web site and drop in a password. The curriculum for all subjects is divided into roughly 12 segments, or what teachers might call units. Each segment begins with an introductory page with eye-catching artwork and pithy text. The opening page for an English literature segment, for example, features a photograph of original script from a 10th-century biblical poem accompanied by text written as if it were from the Middle Ages: "Welcome thou, fair gentles, to our program on Ballads and Moor Monsters." The page leads to chapters on alliteration, Chaucer, interpretations of Beowulf, and medieval attitudes toward life, among others.
Schmalzbach, the crossword puzzle master who is also BeyondBooks.com educational producer, says the company puts a premium on good writing. Each chapter includes a summary of the topic that's 400 to 800 words written by one of 40 East Coast educators on contract—K-12 teachers as well as community college and university professors. The emphasis, Schmalzbach says, is on storytelling. A chapter on the civil rights movement, for example, opens: "On a cold December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks quietly incited a revolution—by just sitting down. She was tired from shopping as she stepped onto the bus for the ride home ... ."
"This is not textbook language," Schmalzbach contends. "'She was tired from shopping'—I think this kind of writing has great resonance."
Chapters are also sprinkled with "go there" buttons that take students to primary sources, chat sessions with experts, archival photos and illustrations, and other Web sites. The links are vetted by BeyondBooks.com's "Web Wranglers," a dozen kids with newly minted degrees from college or graduate school who surf the Internet for complementary sites and rank them according to quality and currency. A chapter on the tobacco trade in 17th-century Virginia, for example, features links to a New York Public Library study of the industry's cultural influence, a letter from a colonial physician about the weed's medicinal benefits, and photos of a warehouse where the harvested plant was stored.
Such packaging of the Internet is exactly what teachers need, says Heist, now the Tredyffrin-Easttown curriculum director. "I think all of us are continually looking for ways to help kids access good information; the problem is determining what good information is. And that is a small part of the beauty of BeyondBooks.com."
Teachers in Tredyffrin-Easttown use the online curriculum, but only as a supplement to textbooks. And Cassano claims that's by design. "We're not trying to replace textbooks," he explains. "We're really trying to complement what teachers are using in the classroom."
Still, Cassano and his staff regard textbooks as their primary competition. And they should, given the potential advantages of online curriculum vs. paper-and- cloth texts. Textbooks, for example, are expensive; it costs up to $35 million to publish a new series, and schools pay as much as $76 a copy. Worse, the books become dated quickly. BeyondBooks.com, meanwhile, spends "in the low six figures" to develop a curriculum package, according to Cassano. Each is sold as an annual subscription for between $1 to $10 per student, depending on the package. When presidents change or new galaxies are discovered, BeyondBooks.com staff updates text with a few strokes of the keyboard.
Money and timeliness aside, online curriculum's content may pose the strongest challenge to textbooks. Stultifying prose is endemic to textbooks, according to critics. In a 1998 New York Times Review of Books essay that ripped the textbook industry, author Alexander Stille argued that publishers are "paralyzed" by the demands of the multicultural left and the conservative right. "Each paragraph," he wrote, "is a carefully negotiated compromise, making it virtually impossible for a textbook to have a distinctive voice, not to mention humor, moral outrage, or evocative prose."
Stille and others also blast publishers for tailoring texts to meet the demand of Texas and California, which together buy one-fifth of the nation's textbooks. Florida also gets publishers' top priority, as it's the third- largest state that adopts textbooks for all its schools.
BeyondBooks.com is guilty of some of the same geographic bias. Like the textbook publishers, it caters to states with big markets. Of 2,400 schools signed up for the curriculum's free trial, 700 are in Texas. And while the company plans to tailor its content to standards in every state, it has focused first on the Big Three: Texas, California, and Florida.
Still, the relatively cheap cost of producing Internet-based curriculum gives companies like BeyondBooks.com flexibility to meet the demands of all its customers, not just those in large markets. There's little to stop a company like BeyondBooks.com from selling regional or state-specific versions of its material—something that is prohibitively expensive for the textbook industry. And because links can be added ad infinitum, an Internet curriculum package can highlight multiple perspectives without shortchanging central themes.
Some teachers who have tested BeyondBooks.com's curriculum say it excels at exactly what textbooks fail to do. "Textbooks will take a historical fact, then, depending on the writers, give you their spin on it," says Rachmiel Tobesman, director of the Child Care Access Center of Maryland, a Baltimore- based resource and day-care center for children of broken homes. "BeyondBooks.com is not predigested for students. It uses primary documents, giving children a lot of the unfiltered stuff. It gets them thinking, What if ... ."
At Rosa International School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the BeyondBooks.com free trial went so well that 200 8th grade students will ditch textbooks completely this fall and use the company's U.S. history program as their official text. The range of BeyondBooks.com's curriculum impressed teachers, says principal Tammy McDonald. "We try to look at things in a larger scope; when studying the Depression, we look at similar events in other countries. Textbooks would limit our study because all they talk about is the United States."
McDonald, for one, is a BeyondBooks.com convert. "The flexibility, the open access to information, the ability for it to change over time and not be stagnant like a book, and the fact that kids can get it at home—it's incredible," she adds.
Of course, not everyone is ready to write off the textbook. Gilbert Sewall, director of the independent American Textbook Council, which critiques textbooks, contends that the cyber alternative so far is "a lot of promotion, ad copy, and hype." Sewall forecasts a turbulent market for Internet curriculum over the next decade. "But in the meantime," he adds, "3 million teachers are going to begin each school year and buy new textbooks if they can and use old ones if they must."
BeyondBooks.com itself is by no means a sure bet to survive the shakeout. The company's curriculum is cheap, but in poor, inner-city districts, the annual subscription could still be too pricey. Last year in Baltimore, for example, funding was so tight that kids were using textbooks that predated man's landing on the moon.
The company also may have trouble convincing teachers that its product is top-notch. Cassano's assembled a star-studded board of directors chaired by former Williams College president Harry Payne, but he's hired everyday teachers to write text, not the academic luminaries often favored by many big publishers. Nor are teachers guaranteed to love the curriculum's whiz-bang Internet features. When a BeyondBooks.com sales representative pitched the company's wares to Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, last spring, he made a hard sell for the curriculum's video and audio clips—the "live action stuff," recalls Bill Kennedy, co- principal of the upper school. Kennedy's response? "We might as well just show a movie or a video," he says. To make matters worse, a technical snafu ended the salesman's demo before it even started.
Kennedy concluded that he'd wait for Internet-based curriculum to work out its bugs. "I think it's an interesting idea," he explains, "and it does have potential. But it's a little half-baked right now."
Finally, BeyondBooks.com's business plan rests precariously on the availability of computers. The company offers strategies for teachers in classrooms with only one or two computers—assign kids group research projects, for example—but they seem gimmicky. The day may come when kids in America carry laptops in their backpacks. (After all, Texas recently considered doing away with books and outfitting each of its 4 million students with a computer.) But until then, the market for online curriculum is limited.
Meanwhile, the titans of textbook publishing are awakening to the threat—and potential—of companies such as BeyondBooks.com. The industry has been slow to adapt to the Internet, according to Peter Stokes, research director at Eduventures.com Inc., a Boston-based, education market research firm. But that's changing. A number of publishers—including Holt, Rinehart & Winston and Harcourt School Publishers—have signed up with the National Science Teachers Association's SciLinks program. In the margins of some of their textbooks, they publish codes that students and teachers plug into NSTA's Web page to link to sites featuring science news and experts.
As textbook publishers edge into e-commerce, BeyondBooks.com and other online curriculum companies may have to merge or partner with bigger companies to survive. This summer, Pearson Education, a mainline publishing house, bought stock in Classroom Connect, an established online provider of curriculum and teachers' professional development. More deals such as this one are likely, Stokes says. Textbook publishers enjoy considerable K-12 market penetration, but they've not yet focused on developing online content. "BeyondBooks.com is in the right place at the right time," Stokes says. "This is really the moment for content to be king."
In BeyondBooks.com's Conshohocken headquarters, workers are buoyant about the future. Some time next year, Cassano expects to land another round of investments. Soon after, he'll take the company public to raise even more money. Two years from now, he predicts, BeyondBooks.com will be charging all its customers. Though Cassano figures the company can break even with 2,000 schools subscribing at the $1-per-student level, he's betting the company will have snared 15,000 to 20,000 paying schools by then.
In August, the CEO spent much of the month on the road peddling his product. "It is a big year; we're really charged up," says the upbeat Cassano in a rare free moment. But then he pauses. Ultimately, the fate of his company will be decided in the classroom, he says. Forget the rosy Wall Street predictions and the fat-cat venture capitalists eager to sink money into online education ventures. His job is to get his product into the hands of teachers. The future, he has to convince them, is now.
Vol. 12, Issue 2, Pages 20-26Published in Print: October 1, 2000, as Read My Links