In depth with the leaders of an extraordinarily creative learning company.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
“My brother Evan and I have always been fascinated by the opportunity to use technology to tell new kinds of stories,” says Gregg Spiridellis, Founder and CEO with his brother of StoryBots, a universe of learning and fun featuring curriculum in the creative arts, academic pursuits, practical life, and pure play. “When we were young, single guys, we followed that passion and created the comedy brand JibJab. Many years later, as fathers, we saw the opportunity to use technology to create rich, engaging experiences that could not only capture our kids’ imaginations, but also teach them something.” They took JibJab’s world-class team of artists, writers, performers and technologists and partnered with experts in
We’re in a transformative time— technology is making access to amazing new tools and experiences that facilitate learning possible. On the other hand, there is a digital divide, with wealthier schools and educators having access that less fortunate schools don’t have.
the field of early childhood education and they set out, as Gregg tells it, “to create the equivalent of Sesame Street for today’s device-centric, connected kids.” To date, their apps have been installed 3.4 million times and their learning videos have been viewed over 300 million times online.
How did StoryBots evolve into a classroom product?
Gregg: While we had originally intended StoryBots to be for home use, we found that more and more teachers were using our content in their classrooms. We wanted to remove any cost barriers to teachers using our products, so we created the StoryBots Educator Network that granted free access to our entire content library. The network grew by word-of-mouth to the point that nearly 10,000 teachers signed up. With that kind of traction, we decided to invest more in building a product custom-tailored for classroom use, with an emphasis on interactive projection boards, classroom tools and more educational content.
Why is StoryBots Classroom free for educators?
Gregg: First, we believe strongly in the power of entertainment and technology to accelerate learning and help kids get ahead. By offering free access to early educators, we can make our content and activities available to all young learners. Beyond that, we’ve realized teachers are powerful advocates. If they find value in our products and recommend them to the parents of the students in their classes, we have the chance to earn the business of those parents with our premium content offerings at home.
What are the greatest challenges facing early education teachers?
Gregg: The pace of change that we have seen in the last decade is unprecedented – with higher expectations in the later grades, the trickle-down effect has put increased demands on young children to master foundational skills much sooner. But at the same time, there are so few resources available to help teachers reach those students who may be falling behind, and those that do exist are often low quality or don’t align with the curriculum teachers are using. We want to give those teachers access to content and tools that keep their kids engaged and learning.
How are teachers using StoryBots Classroom?
Gregg: Because StoryBots Classroom was developed for use on the interactive white board, it is great for whole class activities, but also works great for small group and one-on-one targeted instruction, too. The Group Builder feature allows teachers to deliver differentiated content to engage all learners, regardless of mastery level. And the content is designed specifically for use in pre K to 1st grade classrooms, so no matter what curriculum is dictated, StoryBots is the perfect complement.
What sets you apart from other interactive education content providers?
Gregg: We set out to entertain ourselves as much as our kids! That’s why we have hip hop outer space songs, rhythm and blues color songs, bluegrass number songs, and more. The biggest compliment we ever got was, “I listen to the ABC songs on the way to school with my kids and I keep listening after drop off!” Kids today are far more media savvy than ever before, and we are the only ones producing content for the category that really speaks to today’s kindergarteners.
In addition to the more sophisticated content offering, with our iconic Starring You® technology, StoryBots puts each child at the center of the experience – literally! Parents can simply add their child’s photo and they become the star of the show. For the same reason that JibJab has become such a huge success, kids love seeing themselves dancing and singing on-screen while also engaging with activities that help build their skills and instill in them a love of learning.
How has early education changed in the last decade?
Gregg: There was a study recently that examined this, and what they found is that only 29 percent of teachers believed that children should know the alphabet before they started kindergarten in 1998. By 2010, that number had jumped to 62 percent. So increased expectations aren’t just a perception, they are very real. And by raising that bar, more students are falling below it – something like 6 out of 10 kids are unprepared for kindergarten. This means that kindergarten teachers need ample resources to best reach all students – whether they are visual, tactile or auditory learners – and get them excited to master the foundational skills they need to be successful as they continue on to elementary school. We’re giving them one more arrow in their quiver to do the important work they need to do in the classroom.
Kindergarten teachers need ample resources to best reach all students – whether they are visual, tactile or auditory learners – and get them excited to master the foundational skills they need to be successful as they continue on to elementary school.
What’s next for StoryBots?
Gregg: While our recent focus has been on the classroom, we’re now shifting gears to build out a really robust home experience that will allow students to continue what they’re learning in school at home and on the go. We’ve already released our new all-in-one iPad app, and we’re working closely with teachers and education experts to develop an adaptive learning experience for our Math Skills activity. Both teachers and parents will see lots of new features and activities roll out over the next several months, and we have a few really exciting, big announcements still on the way. Stay tuned!
Your advice for teachers and administrators trying to balance increased expectations with developmentally appropriate activities for young learners?
Gregg: There is no rule that says learning can’t be educational and entertaining at the same time. In fact, we believe strongly that content and experiences that entertain are the best vehicles for delivering substantive learning. All children have the capacity to learn; our mission is to create things that get them excited.
Exciting times in education, your thoughts?
Gregg: We are in a transformative time—technology is making access to amazing new tools and experiences that facilitate learning possible. On the other hand, there’s a digital divide, with wealthier schools and educators having access that less fortunate schools don’t have. By making StoryBots Classroom available to teachers for free, we are hoping to do our part in bridging that digital divide.
What does technology do, really?
Gregg: We believe technology opens the doors to creating new and exciting learning experiences that were never before possible. By pairing great educators with world-class storytellers, artists and performers, we believe there is an opportunity to radically increase student engagement with learning subject matters. It’s an exciting time to be creating and building at the intersection of art, technology and education.
Final thoughts on edtech?
Gregg: There are so many resources out there being marketed as “educational” – I recently read an estimate that identified nearly 80,000 in the app store alone. But less than a third of those mention an underlying educational curriculum, which means teachers are forced to spend precious time sorting through resources that aren’t going to move the dial on student learning. All of our content features lessons designed by frontline teachers and child development Ph.Ds, and our educator users rave about the efficacy of StoryBots activities. And their students are begging to use StoryBots every day, which is probably the best endorsement we could receive.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]