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

Much has been written—and often lamented—about the supposed effect of Web technology on the Millennial generation. These digital natives care to read only in short snippets, the stereotype goes; they get all their news from their Facebook friends, and rarely subscribe to newspapers, some of their elders complain.

Even if there’s evidence of such trends, can we assume that future generations will follow the same patterns? What if technology continues to advance and deepen, offering communication tools and content that shape the culture differently than the first consumer products did at the dawn of Web 2.0?

Educational technology advocates are trying to make that happen, and the increasing access that today’s youngsters have to mobile devices and school Web connections is making their job easier. More students are being exposed to online content at school that may broaden their tastes beyond the clickbait common to many consumer-oriented websites and apps.

Edtech companies such as New York-based Newsela are offering schools a new route to literacy instruction, enticing K-12 students to read newspaper and magazine articles by offering them multiple versions rewritten to match a variety of reading abilities. A child who can read even the most basic version of the story is able to join in a class discussion, and may also be inspired to explore the next versions up on the literacy ladder, the company says.

Newsela has caught on with teachers and grown its revenues to an extent that drew the support of seminal Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which recently led a $15 million Series B round for the company. The round also included Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Women’s Venture Capital Fund, and existing investors The Knight Foundation and Oakland, CA-based Owl Ventures. One of Kleiner Perkins’s founding partners, Brook Byers, is taking a seat on Newsela’s board.

Kleiner Perkins, well known for its high-tech and biotechnology investments for more than four decades, has been investing in edtech companies, such as Coursera, in recent years. Byers specializes in life sciences startups, but also has a long-term personal interest in improving education. In 1998, he and partner John Doerr joined with entrepreneur Kim Smith to create the non-profit New Schools Venture Fund, which supplied Newsela with some of its first funding more than a decade later. Byers first learned about Newsela at a New Schools edtech conference last year, when an enthusiastic fourth-grade teacher dragged him over to the startup’s exhibit.

Byers says he tracked Newsela for about nine months, peppering the co-founders with questions.

“I wanted to find one to just go big on, one I thought could have a massive impact on education,” Byers says. According to Newsela CEO Matthew Gross, Byers’s interest put Kleiner Perkins in the catbird seat to lead the Series B round.

Newsela presents a daily smorgasbord of articles culled from dozens of publications including the Washington Post, Associated Press, and Scientific American. The photo-studded selection is curated to capture the interest of youngsters. Teachers assign these readings as part of their classes in everything from social studies to math—subjects that often seem pretty dry to kids.

“They’re looking for ways to bring these topics to life and make them relevant,” Gross (pictured above) says.

In addition to light-hearted features about animals, sports, and the latest toys, Newsela stories have touched on what it’s like to be a teenager now in Syria, or to be homeless in the United States, says Newsela co-founder and chief product officer Dan Cogan-Drew.

“The issues we cover go straight to the heart of the real world as people live in it,” Cogan-Drew says.

Newsela’s founders were career professionals in education, well-wired in the non-profit sphere, who saw an opportunity to make progress faster in the for-profit arena.

Gross, a former Teach For America corps member in the South Bronx, had led the development of a website to help teachers in New York State implement the new Common Core standards while he served as the executive director of the Regents Research Fund. That’s a privately funded unit that supports the New York State educational system. Gross says he was aware that the challenges around literacy were causing “acute pain” in schools. But it was also deep concern about the shortcomings of his own child’s elementary school that spurred him to look for solutions as an entrepreneur. He felt that little was being done to help students who had fallen behind in their reading skills.

In a search for high-quality non-fiction that would captivate kids, Gross looked at the offerings of existing publishers. But what he found was “condescending and dumbed-down,” he says.

In 2012, Gross went to fellow Teach for America veteran Cogan-Drew with the idea of using news articles as the foundation for literacy instruction. Cogan-Drew is another education insider who has worked as digital learning director for a charter school network and also researched innovative teaching methods for a Gates Foundation project. He knew that schools were clamoring for help in improving reading fluency. The co-founders launched Newsela in June 2013.

In 2014, Newsela attracted the first investment made by Owl Ventures, a fund newly organized to concentrate on education startups. Owl co-founder Tory Patterson said says teacher response to the Newsela product was “unambiguously awesome.”

“They were building a very big, actively engaged audience very quickly,” Patterson says. At the time, the new Common Core standards called for a substantial increase in non-fiction reading in U.S. classrooms, and Newsela filled the gap. “Newsela was the first to deliver non-fiction news content,” he says.

For Cogan-Drew, literacy means much more than 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.

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

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