Transcript: The Enormous School Library

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Interview with Jason Singer

For podcast release Monday, May 4, 2015

KENNEALLY: The explosive growth of the e-books marketplace has made available entire libraries of literature from around the world to anyone with a laptop, computer, tablet, or smartphone. Even as ever-younger children bring digital devices into classrooms though, the last frontier for e-reading is proving to be their teacher’s lessons plans. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Keanneally from Beyond the Book. Education, technology and entrepreneurship intersect in the person of Jason Singer, cofounder and CEO of San Francisco based Curriculet, an innovative e-reading platform for K to 12 grade teachers and pupils. Curriculet enables teachers to deliver customized common core aligned learning and to create and share digital curriculum and lesson materials. Curriculet also allows school districts nationwide to rent e-books at lower cost than purchasing print copies, expanding their libraries and making it possible for teachers to broaden reading lists. Jason Singer joins me now from his Bay Area office to tell us more. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Jason.

SINGER: Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to talk with you.

KENNEALLY: Well, we look forward to it because as I say at the top there, we certainly see throughout our lives children, older people, everyone carrying these digital devices and we hear that they have made their way into the classrooms. But what Curriculet is doing is really going beyond the device and actually providing the content for it and in very interesting and innovative ways. I’ll give you an opportunity if you could, Jason, to tell us a little bit more about how Curriculet works. As I understand, so far you’ve got about half a million teachers and students using the platform in something like 10,000 US schools.

SINGER: That’s right. As a point of reference, before founding Curriculet, I was actually a middle and a high school principal. Really the answer of Curriculet came because of how much and how deeply we struggle with igniting a passion for reading and in terms of independent reading and all of our students. I think that’s universal across the country for schools. At the core of what we do is this idea that you can take these interactive checkpoints, which I’d love the listeners to think of as feedback loops and place them inside the text.

So, for the first time while a student is reading, a question can pop up out of the text that really asks them to stop and think more deeply, to read more closely and heavily consider the text. In doing so, since those questions can be anchored to a skill or a standard, that it gives the teacher and the student feedback of immediately about how they’re progressing as they read. This really comes from this problem that we have about how we actually look at reading. I’m a former English teacher and guilty of this as well, but I think we often times think of reading as this bucolic romp through great literature, that that’s what reading is. And I think we miss often that for about 80% of the American population that would legitimately be described as either struggling or reluctant readers that it is something very, very different. Now I liken it more to quicksand than a bucolic romp.

So, these interactive checkpoints, these feedback loops help readers persist the text. They get eager to meet up with the next question and show themselves and show their teacher just how well they’re comprehending and mastering the text as they go.

KENNEALLY: Right. So, it’s really comprehension there. So, tell us a bit more about these checkpoints, these assessment items you’re talking about. Teachers can create their own. They can also use some sort of preloaded assessment items, preloaded checkpoints that Curriculet provides. They can be questions, quizzes of a kind, but they can also be non-text based. I understand you use video as well.

SINGER: That’s right. So, they can be questions that are both open ended and multiple choice and they can focus on comprehension or ask students to evaluate the text as well and think at a very high level, but the other types of checkpoints that we include are video and images. You can embed a Prezi or a Timetoast timeline or a text-based annotation as well. Interestingly enough, students can do to that, too. So, when students read the text, they’re allowed to annotate the text and they too can connect the text to videos or images, which is a mixed media that they’re very, very familiar with and intend to like to make big connections to.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Digitally reading seems to be the next frontier in the K to 12 learning experience. There’s always something new going on in public school classrooms, but it’s not just about the devices as I said at the opening, Jason Singer. It’s really about the content here and until recently, Curriculet had a great number of titles, but they were the classics and the public domain, but you’ve got some new arrangements, some new relationships with leading trade book publishers – Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster, that are greatly expanding the titles that you’re offering and really should make this curriculum that comes through the device that much more engaging for teachers and for students.

SINGER: That’s right. It really asks us to totally think differently about how we sell books to schools because schools desperately, especially in this digital age, need the publishers to think differently about how they sell books. It is absolutely daunting if you have a library of 10 to 20,000 volumes in your school to ever imagine converting that entire print-based library into something that’s digital, despite the fact that districts are investing millions of dollars in devices that they really have to leverage to the greatest extent.

Our book rental business fundamentally gives them an easy on ramp into that world of digital reading because we can offer our entire store as an on demand digital library to a school. Students or the school will only be charged when a school actually reads 10% or more of the book, which is exactly what happens for adults on sites like Amazon. What makes that a profound change for schools are two things. One is that they’re used to buying thousands of volumes that they put into their library that literally never get read, but give their library some breadth and depth and make it feel like a big room full of books, despite the fact that kids will never read them. More importantly what happens is the books that the students are most interesting in reading, there’s a limited number to select from. On our on-demand digital library what happens is that there’s an infinite supply of every book.

So, what we’re seeing that’s tremendously exciting is that books are for the first time going completely viral in a school. So, book rentals on our site range from 70 cents to 4.20 for the most popular front list titles and when a student selects them and starts reading it and starts talking about it to their friends, for the first time, anybody and everybody can just go into that library and grab a copy of that book. So, we’re seeing, and this is not an exaggeration, in schools of 2,000 kids, over 1300 of them renting the same book within a two week period and then hearing stories about teachers walking up and down hallways where kids are literally talking about books, where there is social pressure within the school for kids to be reading that book, as opposed to playing a video game or going on Facebook or those things. That is a fundamental re-plumbing that we think is going to drive a great deal more interest in reading and really raise the number of lifelong readers that are graduating from schools.

KENNEALLY: So, it’s the access to the content, but it’s also the conversation that gets generated that’s key to the success here.

SINGER: Teens today, their life – and for that matter, adults – but more so for teens, their life is virally dictated. Almost anything that they consume on some level has some viral quotient to it. That’s the truth with adults with reading. I read The Goldfinch because seven of my friends told me I had to, that it was a great book, but we can’t create that kind of dynamic currently within schools when libraries are buying in print. But with this new format, they can. I think this is a profound point for the publishers because when you think about it, I can’t think of any other business in America – I can’t think of any other industry in America where a separate institution that one could argue struggles at times to do its very best sets the market for that entire industry. Yet, that’s what we see with K through 12 education and the number of passionate lifelong readers that graduate those schools and then go in to the world of work and buy the books that the publishers are publishing. So really rethinking how we sell books in the public schools. How can we do this in a way that allows kids to get their hands on contemporary, exciting books that we’re publishing today that are relevant and meaningful to kids and make them want to find more books to read and develop very rich reading lives.

KENNEALLY: Indeed and the kinds of tales we’re talking about here, as I say, there are a lot of classics that would be in the public domain, but there are books which have become classics, but which are still relatively recently published. So, everything from the likes of Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies and My Antonia to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

SINGER: And The Uglies or Wonder or The Fault in Our Stars, all of those books that are even more recently extremely popular with kids are now on the platform.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s really interesting. It goes beyond books as well because you’ve also announced a partnership with USA Today that offers a year subscription to that national newspaper for teachers and for students and uses the same kind of e-reading platform that you use with books. You’ve got reading assignments and then assessment items within them. Tell us why access to something like a national newspaper is as important as being able to read The Fault in Our Stars.

SINGER: That’s a great question. We were really excited about the opportunity to partner with USA Today, and in fact Curriculet is the exclusive platform in K through 12 where you can find it. What we do is we curate six to eight articles a day. Those are articles that were in the paper yesterday that today are available on Curriculet to students. Each article has a leveled set of questions for elementary, middle, and high school level readers. There are lots of reasons why it’s essential for us to deliver that kind of content both to teachers and classrooms, but also to students because students are dying for things to read that are relevant and timely and give shape and meaning to the world around them. Teachers are dying for that kind of content to weave into their classroom and there is a renewed and very strong focus on informational texts.

What we recognize more than ever before is that when kids go into the world of work, when they exit schools and they go into their real life, that the predominant amount of reading that they do is focused on informational texts. So, this partnership with USA Today allows us to deliver that kind of content to kids. More importantly, I think this is important with the digital library as well as with USA Today is that on our platform, students have agency, that they can find what is meaningful and rich and exciting to them and begin their reading lives with content that they’ve chosen. What we know about reading is that when students have agency, when they can find what they like, and that they can feel successful reading it, that they in fact, fundamentally change their outlook on reading and dig into it and make it a rich part of their lives.

KENNEALLY: Well, Jason Singer if you can make book readers and newspapers readers of this coming generation of students, the publishers are going to owe you a lot.

SINGER: Well, we owe them a lot. I have to say that we’ve had a tremendous experience partnering with publishers as well as with USA Today. This is possible because everybody in this kind of ecosystem is really committed to kids finding a love for reading and figuring out ways to have more of their mindshare focused on reading than on Facebook or video games or any of those other options. It’s something we’ve been doing together and it’s a lot of fun and it’s a tremendous product. So, we really appreciate the opportunity to talk about it with you.

KENNEALLY: We enjoyed chatting with you as well. Jason Singer is cofounder and CEO of San Francisco-based Curriculet, an innovative reading platform – e-reading platform for K to 12 teachers and pupils. Jason Singer thanks for joining us today.

SINGER: Thank you and a rich reading life to all your listeners.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the World’s most sought after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow us on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com. Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. From all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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