Can Edtech Turn Post-Millennials Into News Junkies? Newsela’s Trying

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being able to recognize words by sounding out individual letters. He defines literacy as “reading to learn.” One of the major reasons why students can’t learn from their reading is that they often lack the background knowledge to fully comprehend a written passage, he says. News editors assume they don’t need to explain the entire context of an event to their adult readers, but children need a version that’s simpler and more accessible, he says.

Newsela displays the original version of each article along with four rewritten versions that are each accompanied by their own quizzes to gauge student comprehension. The varying versions, at different reading levels, are created through a combination of computers and human editors.

Reading the stories is free for teachers, students, and parents. Newsela draws its revenues from schools and school districts that subscribe to a Pro version of the service that provides progress reports and other data to teachers and administrators.

Depending on the quiz results for each student, the software serves up the next article he or she reads at the appropriate level for that child. But the kids are free to open up versions lower or higher on the scale to help them better understand a word, or to get more details.

The quiz data shows teachers how their classes are doing overall, but it also tracks the successes and struggles of individual students. This might prompt the teacher to hand out some quiet praise, or tailor a small group lesson for students who’ve gotten stuck on the same concept.

Newsela doesn’t disclose its revenues, but Gross says the company is benefitting from decisions by school districts to allow individual schools more leeway in purchasing their educational materials. Schools buy more quickly than whole districts, and teachers lobby their own schools for products they already like to use. That change in buying patterns is making it easier for popular edtech companies to scale up.

“I wouldn’t have started Newsela if that trend wasn’t occurring,” Gross says. Newsela charges $4,000 to $7,000 per school, per school year—a price that fits within school discretionary budgets, he says.

With its user base and revenues growing, and new capital coming in, Newsela has been increasing its staff over the past year and now has 71 employees. The company is hiring both in New York and at its new Silicon Valley office in Palo Alto.

Byers and other investors see potential for Newsela not only in literacy instruction at U.S. schools, but also as a global resource for learning English as a second language, by kids and adults alike.

“One of the biggest desires in China is to learn English,” Byers says.

This year Newsela has added Newsela Espanol, where students can find an English language story alongside a Spanish equivalent and four other Spanish translations at lower reading levels. The feature can be a bridge to English literacy for Spanish-speaking students, and also for their parents, who can read along with their children and discuss the news with them, the company says.

Newsela’s competitors in online literacy instruction include San Francisco-based Curriculet, which hires teachers to enhance e-books with questions, annotations, and multi-media elements, and New York-based LightSail Education, which allows schools to build custom libraries from its online selections and to track student reading progress. Both offer access to book-length works of fiction and non-fiction.

Newsela’s current model doesn’t include a marketplace for book distributors or publishers. It pays news organizations for the use of their content—another way for cash-strapped newspapers and magazines to monetize their work. But Newsela doesn’t allow publishers to reach through to its student and teacher databases and make sales pitches, such as offers of low-cost introductory subscriptions. “The answer would be no,” Gross says. “But if we hear that a student is reading the Washington Post every day, nothing is more satisfying.”

It’s too early to tell, but edtech products might turn the upcoming classes of K-12 grads into life-long news junkies who read full-length, well-researched, and grammatically correct articles from the kinds of publications that have been struggling for an audience (and revenues) in recent years.

Gross not only thinks students will change, he thinks teachers will change—to become even more willing and able to use technology in the classroom than they are now. He’s keeping that in mind as he thinks about Newsela’s next improvements.

“We’re always building for tomorrow’s teachers,” Gross says.

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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