In an earlier interview with EdTech Digest, BookheadEd Learning CEO Robert Romano (pictured, above right) described StudySync as a web-delivered academic tool created for teachers that uses a variety of technologies, social interaction, and multimedia to connect students to the great ideas of mankind. Here, Jay King (pictured, left), co-founder and COO of BookheadEd, expands on that idea and, in this in-depth and insightful discussion, tells how students can get connected to the great ideas. His thoughts are worth a look, and so is StudySync. Jay King and StudySync will be at FETC, January 23-25. Look for them in Booth 1138. You can also find StudySync at TCEA, February 6-10. Enjoy!
Victor: So, getting right to it: how do those connections work?
Jay: We provide access to text excerpts from hundreds of authors spanning a broad spectrum of genres, subjects, style and content. We believe that students should be exposed to this expansive body of work—both classic and contemporary—because knowledge is cumulative and books are the foundation of society, culture, human nature and the growth of mankind. So many different authors have brought to the table ideas and insights that are critical for us to evolve. By providing access to literally hundreds of texts across all subject areas and by engaging students with those texts through a variety of media, students are able to discover, explore, and discuss all kinds of literature— fiction, non-fiction, poetry, speeches, historical documents—in a way they have never been able to before. Using technology they are familiar with and drawn to, we incorporate text, audio, video and imagery to engage students to access countless ideas and to communicate about them in a thoughtful way.
Victor: Now that the school year is in full swing, what are you seeing—in terms of technology adoption and acceptance—in classrooms where StudySync is active? What technologies are most attractive to educators and their students this semester?
Jay: What has had the greatest impact this semester on my perception of the edtech landscape is the much more concerted effort to incorporate technology into the curriculum. Technology always felt more of an adjunct to the curriculum in the past. Now, we’re seeing technology accessed throughout the course of the day to handle a multitude of tasks, all in conjunction with the day’s curriculum. That’s exciting, because that’s how we operate in the professional world and schools are really shifting strongly in that direction. From what we hear on the floors of the education conferences, we see broader adoption of tablet and mobile computing into the curriculum.
Victor: Are schools and school districts becoming more receptive to technology as a catalyst for learning in the classroom? If that’s the case, is the pace picking up as you’d like it to, or are there still some significant challenges ahead? If so, what are they?
Jay: Wow. I should have heard this question before answering the last. Yes, yes, yes, and this is the education market; nothing moves quickly in a progressive direction. It’s the classic—and overused—saying that the genie is out of the bottle. Students are coming to school with their technology, often in the form of cellphones. More and more forward-looking teachers and administrators are seeing that as an opportunity rather than a threat. And, of course, there are some potential cost savings implications now, with textbooks often being seen as the more expensive alternative. More content is available for the technology that has already made its way into schools, like our content through StudySync. But high quality digital content for schools continues to be a bit of a challenge. Print continues to loom large. For us, the desire—need, really—for effective and engaging educational content is an opportunity. Teachers see StudySync and their eyes light up.
Victor: The New York Times recently gave front-page coverage to a claim that technology in schools was, in essence, being oversold. What’s your take on that report?
Jay: I don’t think it matters, ultimately. No doubt there has been an over-exuberance to adopt technology and mistakes have been made, both cost-wise and implementation-wise. But this is natural in the beginning stages of a revolution (at least a revolution for schools). Eventually the cost of adopting both hardware and software will drop, the integration and training will expand, and it won’t be long before we wondered what it was like before technology was so integral to education.
Victor: What milestones has StudySync achieved since we last spoke? Where are you as an organization vs. this time last year?
Jay: We have now sold into a number of schools, including private schools, traditional public schools, and charter schools. Our user numbers are growing. We’ve expanded into the middle school market, with library items and video lessons designed specifically for middle schools. We’ve added a number of new features, including the ability of students to annotate their work, the inclusion of audio readings for our texts, and closed captioning. These additions help StudySync become even more accessible for a variety of learners. And our efforts are steadily gaining recognition within the education community. This school semester alone, we’ve won awards from EdTech Digest, District Administration and ComputED Gazette. That kind of validation is both gratifying and invaluable.
Victor: What new products are on the horizon for the company?
Jay: When people ask us what’s so special about our technology, we remind them that we are a content company first and foremost. We make the best and most engaging reading, writing and critical thinking content in the marketplace. We sell it on a technology platform that we developed and think is wonderful, but now we’re going to take our content out for a spin and make it available on other platforms (social networks, ereaders, lms’s, etc.). As for our existing platform, we are optimizing our StudySync web application for mobile and tablet delivery.
Victor: It’s early, but how is the Kindle Fire being received, thus far? What other platforms are making their mark in the classroom? What should we be looking for during the next 12 to 18 months?
Jay: There was a lot of excitement regarding the Kindle Fire, primarily based on Amazon’s reputation and the pricetag. Although I have yet to play with the product, the general response has been poor. That said, Amazon isn’t going to pack up and leave the party, and the price has everyone envisioning a day when the tablet will be just another indispensable tool in every student’s backpack. The iPad remains the talk of the town. But there are other players that I believe will close the gap. I’ve played with the Galaxy Tab and the HTC Flyer, and both are very capable devices. The difference between the iPad and the competition is not like color tv vs. black-and-white. From a hardware standpoint, tablets seem to be dominating the discussion. On the software front, the talk is around free/open learning management systems (LMS’s). Pearson just released one. There’s Edmodo, Moodle, Canvas, as well as others. We see this as a golden opportunity for StudySync, and as a way to distribute our content via these platforms.
Victor: You announced an expansion into middle schools at ISTE last June. How’s that going? What balance do you see between middle and high school usage? How do your offerings differ, for the two environments?
Jay: As I mentioned above, the middle school market is very important to us, from both a business and an educational standpoint. It’s crucial for students in middle school to be able to begin to more critically analyze and discuss texts, to write more clearly and thoughtfully, and to collaborate with peers as well as review their work. These skills, perhaps first introduced and practiced in middle school, lay the groundwork for how students will approach reading, writing and collaborating in high school and college and beyond. Our approach for middle school and high school is similar in that StudySync is built to engage students in reading and writing across the curriculum. Of course, the texts we choose for the two audiences are different, as are the video lessons; our middle school lessons include age-appropriate characters and discussions for middle school students. And at NCTE in November, we underscored our commitment to middle schools, announcing more than a dozen new video titles aimed at that population.
Victor: Texting is the bane of so many teachers—it’s generally viewed as a major league distraction. What’s your view of mobile devices in the classroom? What’s the appropriate role?
Jay: I can’t imagine not having my mobile device with me while I work, so I feel classrooms should allow them as well. I think we should treat middle school and high school kids like adults and prepare them for the professional workplace. Mobile devices can be a distraction in the workplace as well and we all need to learn from experience how to optimize the use of those devices in our productive lives. Mobile devices have a real opportunity to shine, to be that great educational asset, by incorporating both the tool—the platform—and the content in a single package. We’re doing that with StudySync. So, instead of just texting his or her buddy, a student can actually complete a reading assignment, or even a writing assignment—have you seen how well these kids type on these devices?
Victor: How important is collaboration to your curriculum, and how does it work, in practice?
Jay: Collaboration is key to not only our curriculum, but to learning itself. Collaboration works with StudySync, in practice, in a couple of ways. One is in the peer review process. Students are able to peer review each other’s work. The process is anonymous to the students, but transparent to the teacher. This enables students to read each other’s ideas, to build on them, to critique them. It allows for broader discussion in the classroom, as do our video lessons, which model both analysis and collaboration.
Victor: Sticking with collaboration and social learning, doesn’t working in groups give a free pass to students who need to develop greater initiative on their own?
Jay: There is a lot of learning that is, of course, self-initiated, and that is true with StudySync. Students are often asked to read a text and write and essay about that text— on their own. Collaboration or discussion may happen before or after, but a student’s writing is just that—his or her own writing. But working in groups is key to building ideas, to building our collective knowledge base. We do it every day in our working life.
Victor: StudySync produces its own videos. How does that process work? Are these scripted? What lessons do you showcase, and what do students think of them?
Jay: The StudySync process for producing videos mimics the process and quality one would expect from network television. We initially start with a text excerpt and a lesson plan chosen by our educators who then work directly with our scriptwriters. Our videos are scripted and are done so to make sure that key points of view, varied interpretations, important phrases, and author’s thinking are covered, collaborated and discussed in each 6 to 10-minute edited video. Our videos are shot in a studio that we built from scratch. Our technical production team from cinematography to sound to editing is top notch. Our director is an award-winner and our actors are all professionally trained and very talented. Students have been overwhelmingly positive in response to our videos. I like to consider the videos a modern day lecture. Instead of a unilateral presentation by someone to a passive audience, the videos model engaging academic discussion which we believe is more effective in transferring and building knowledge.
Victor: What’s the biggest single reason teachers and school districts bring StudySync in? What factor typically proves decisive?
Jay: Right now, one of our biggest strengths is our tie to the Common Core. Teachers, schools, and districts are looking for ways to meet the goals of the Common Core, and StudySync can help in a number of ways. First, StudySync provides a way to students to be engaged in a variety of texts (both fiction and non-fiction) across all disciplines and to learn how to extract meaning from those texts. This is fundamental to the goals of the Common Core. Our library is built largely from the Core’s Appendix B. We provide hundreds of texts from which teachers can build lessons, and our writing prompts, combined with online essay writing and peer review, help build lessons that engage all different types of writing—essay, narrative and nonfiction.
Victor: Flipping that around, what’s the biggest obstacle in winning over teachers/administrators/school boards?
Jay: The biggest obstacle we find is not one of money, but of time. Teachers have a lot on their plates. They have a lot of demands on them. Implementing anything new in the classroom takes time. Once we can get teachers to see that—in the end—StudySync might actually save them time because it enables teachers to efficiently build lessons and assess student work, then we are good. But the initial time investment, although small, is probably our biggest hurdle.
Victor: Since StudySync is so focused on improving processes like critical thinking skills, what have you found is the best way to measure student performance?
Jay: We look at a number of factors and we are in the process of documenting some of the success we are hearing about anecdotally. One is student engagement. This may sound like a softer factor, but it isn’t. If students are not engaged, if they are not reading, if they are not doing their assignments, if they are not listening in class, then they are not learning. That’s why looking at how to engage students was key to building our product. Another is student analysis. Is the analysis teachers are seeing in student writing and in classroom discussion getting better? Are they asking better questions, giving more thoughtful responses? Another is comprehension. Are students reading more difficult texts? Are they responding to writing prompts in a way that shows they understand what they are reading? Are they branching out of their comfort zone?
Victor: What are your thoughts on what the future holds for education and technology?
Jay: The “future” of education and technology will ultimately mimic the “present” of the professional world and technology. Technology will be integral to a student’s learning experience and productivity, and to a teacher’s management and delivery of curriculum, just as it is integral in every pursuit beyond the classroom.
Victor: Thanks, Jay! Interesting discussion, and great insights. Much appreciated.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. For an EdTech Digest Awards Program entry form, write to: [email protected]