By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: Interesting! Assembling your own books – how are you doing that? What is the workflow for a teacher to assembling his or her own book?
PW: This for us is very new. What we do is have a consultant come in and work with teachers to work through the process. So, it’s somewhat driven by a technology consultant with a deep educational background because the idea of ‘assembling your own book’ is not completely ready for an individual teacher to just sit down and work into her own curriculum. That is a lot farther along on the higher education side, where there are organizations such as Blackboard that have been doing things like that for quite some time. It is a lot newer to the K-12 space.
SM: With the advent of the tablets, primarily the iPad, I see the entire movement, this shift toward applications, as an opportunity for content providers. You fall squarely in that category: Instead of having a textbook that costs $20, you could be building an application that does a much more interesting and compelling job of helping teachers to teach biology, right?
PW: Absolutely! When I spoke to you earlier, for example, about the science materials, it is an example of this. For the lower grades we have the ‘Curious George’ [the monkey Curious George is the protagonist of a series of children’s books that first appeared in 1939] applications, and we believe they help to engage more than traditional educational tools do. We have a lot of these applications available today. One of the challenges is creating a program, an educational program, that meets the standards and fulfills needs of the school districts in a regulatory sense, for lack of a different word.
SM: This feels like a different opportunity for entrepreneurs, especially content entrepreneurs who have interest and expertise in education, to develop applications for the K-12 industries and perhaps sell to you.
PW: It does, it definitely does. I would say that a possible challenge is that these technology-based solutions do need to have a common core or meet state standards for K-12 education. Also, they need to be measurable, especially with the focus on school districts’ accountability for the success of their students. So, the underlying pedagogy is difficult to maintain through multiple threads, if you will. The education industry will come to terms with it over time. It is one of those things that creates a challenge because you can easily envision what would be an appealing and engaging way to get your students involved. But when you start working on all of the other requirements, the regulatory requirements behind it, and even charting a student’s progress through his or her educational career perhaps across multiple school districts and multiple states, which is what we intend to do in the longitudinal studies, it becomes very difficult when these aren’t a part of a larger base system or at least an integrated system. But I think that is what is ideally suited for the enrichment or remedial exercises in K-12.
SM: Traditional book sales channels are changing quite a bit; is that correct? You have been selling books almost 200 years through retail channels, booksellers, and eventually Amazon and online sellers. But now that we are moving to other modes of business and technology, the cloud and others, I don’t think we are going to move there overnight or even within a year or two. But I certainly think that in this decade, we are going to see this movement from more static content to more dynamic, interactive, and rich content that is easily, efficiently, and, I suppose, more profitably distributed. What are your thoughts on that?
PW: Absolutely. We have been focusing on K-12 in that regard. We have another group that focuses on direct to consumer channels, which can be the student, parent, or teacher. There is certainly a huge opportunity there for what you are talking about. Our engagement is active in terms of reaching out to parents and saying, ‘Hey, if your kid is struggling with math, we have this application that could make them much stronger in their foundational math skills just by playing this game. By the way, we also assess how they doing, and we will track them and give you a report weekly of how often they use it, what their scores are, and things like that.’
SM: I see. Well, there are other aspects to consider as well. If it’s math for pre-algebra of whatever, could it be that granular and there could be a custom app to do precisely what you describe?
PW: Absolutely. That is where is our algebra program in California is headed.
There is also a tremendous amount of opportunity on the trade and reference side. Sales [of e-books] through Amazon and other online retailers have gone through the roof recently.
SM: Of course.