The last startup we’ll discuss creates its products for universities, not K-12 schools, but it’s important to note the advancements being made in surrounding markets in educational publishing. Boundless demonstrates a startup that is taking a different approach to infiltrate their market than the ones we’ve seen. BetterLesson, Clever, Lore and GoalBook all offer innovative services to teachers and students through online spaces. Boundless, however, offers innovative products and competes directly with the big textbook companies in their market, something we may see more companies attempt to do as schools look for new ways to incorporate technology in their classrooms.

Boundless is also a notable company to explore because of the perspective they take on the work they are doing in this industry. Boundless’ CEO Ariel Diaz talks at TEDxCambridge 2013 on how he believes we need to reshape, or essentially flip, the way we teach subjects in all classrooms:

According to the company’s website, Boundless was founded in 2011 ” to revolutionize the educational experience.” Since its inception, Boundless has raised almost $10 million to fund this revolution and thousands of students across the US are experimenting with Boundless instead of using their traditional college textbooks.

In comparison to the etextbooks that the big companies Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing, Boundless’ ebooks offer similar interactive features to help students learn and the company explains how it uses technology to make these features useful:

“Boundless Learning Technology, based on active recall and spaced repetition, prompts you with quizzes, flashcards, summarization and more at the optimal points during your reading to help you retain information.”

Boundless’ learning technology includes flashcards and quizzes, seen below,  built into textbooks that test students at optimal times in their reading to increase their memory and understanding of the content.  Students can also electronically highlight text and make notes.

Boundless' flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ products are also notably less expensive than the college textbooks they’re competing against. The cost of many of the print college textbooks on the market often exceeds $100 and the costs are still rising; Boundless’ textbooks, on the other hand, are offered at a steady, accessible $19.99.

Boundless has done such a good job of offering competitive, affordable products that three of the big educational publishers–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Cengage–sued the startup in April 2012 for copyright infringement and unfair competition, among other offenses. While the details haven’t been released, there were reports of a settlement. Regardless, the lawsuit didn’t stop Boundless from pushing forward with their innovative and affordable products.

We’ve seen that Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing etextbooks and other digital products with similar technology and rivaling features, more K-12 schools may choose to take the path many college students are taking by choosing Boundless textbooks and look elsewhere for their educational content.



In this blog’s post about the benefits of digital educational materials, I touched on how technology can allow for a more personalized learning experience for students. As we’ve looked at the big publishers in this segment, we’ve seen this to be a common goal of many of the products they are producing, with a few of the companies approaching this goal through a focus on data (McGraw-Hill Education recently acquired Key Curriculum and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt recently purchased Choice Solutions). While the idea of providing a more individualized educational experience to students is a philosophy that is gaining more attention as new digital products make it easier, individualized learning has been an established accommodation for students for almost four decades.

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was introduced to school systems in 1975 in order to provide students with disabilities and special needs an equal opportunity in the classroom. IEPs outline modifications for coursework that meet a student’s specific needs and must set measurable goals for him or her, among other things. These plans show a need for a certain kind of educational materials, but the main educational publishers seem to be limited in what they offer for IEP students.

In this blog’s introductory post, we identified four main markets within education publishing, and materials for students with special needs were addressed in one of them: English Language Learners (ELLs). When searching through the websites of the big players–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–this market is evident: when they broke their products down by category, English Language Learners was commonly included. However, this market needs to address more students with special needs than just ELLs. The number of students with IEPs is rising; DC public schools, for example, reported a two-point percentage increase of their IEP students from 2008 to 2012, with more than 10,000 DC students currently on IEPs. While the big publishers are doing a lot to extend the philosophy of individualized education to the general population of students, they need to do more to enhance the experience of the students for whom these programs were originally designed.

As we’ve seen, when there is a void in the marketplace such as this, startups have the ability to thrive. This is where GoalBook comes in; named the ninth top education startup of 2012 by TeachThought, GoalBook aims to be the first online, social resource for special education teachers. GoalBook strives toward success for “ALL” students and the company uses technology specifically to do this by creating an online space for special education teachers to improve their instruction. GoalBook believes that “teachers are THE factor” in the success of a student with special needs and wants to help them “make their work more effective, research-based AND sustainable.”

On its main page for teachers, the GoalBook website highlights the following benefits it provides to special education instructors: Our IEP Goals are Better; Align IEPs to the Common Core with Ease; Personalize to the Needs of your Students; We Help you Write Goals AND Achieve Them; Discover the Right Goal, Fast (as shown below with their “Goal Finder” feature); and Best In-Class Professional Development for Districts.

GoalBook's Goal Wizard

GoalBook’s Goal Wizard helps teachers find the right goals for their students

Unlike some of the education startups we’ve explored that offer their resources for free, GoalBook charges rates for their services: $32.95 a month for teachers, $395 a year for a district/school premium membership and $575 a year for a district/school gold membership, which offers analytics dashboard, online professional development and one-to-one coaching for teachers.

While the big publishers approach digital material from the big picture, startups like GoalBook can address the needs of a smaller demographic of students, such as those with special needs.


Teach Thought named BetterLesson the top education startup of 2012. BetterLesson was created in 2011 by teachers as a digital space where they could connect and communicate with each other to share ideas and resources. Teach Thought notes that the company had already raised more than $1.6 million by the end of 2012 with more than 250 teachers signing up each day.

BetterLesson’s altruistic efforts to help teachers and improve the system is evident in the testimonials of its team. Founder and CEO Alex Grodd writes that he started Better Lesson to “address the challenges he faced in the classroom”; Director of Product Development Yevy Spivak hopes that his work “will help more kids realize the value of education”; even Director of Engineering Grejdi Gjura aims to “change the world one line of code at a time”.

BetterLesson is using technology not to just enhance instructional material, as we’ve seen with Pearson and Scholastic, but to enhance instruction itself. The website’s main page summarizes the services it offers teachers:

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Since its inception, BetterLesson has already evolved from a site for teachers to share lessons to a more concentrated effort to improve the teaching system. BetterLesson recently partnered with the National Education Association (NEA) to develop a master teacher program, which selects educators who demonstrate exceptional and innovative teaching. The program collects their lessons and methods in order to share these best practices with teachers across the nation. Cofounder and VP of Operations Erin Osbourne explains,

“What we’re trying to do is frame a living breathing body of knowledge around effective teaching. We feel that’s been missing. When they get feedback that they’re not doing a great job — often they’re just told to read an article or go watch a video or take a webinar. We’re trying to give teachers access to the full richness of their instruction.”

NEA has dedicated $3.9 million to the program; these funds come in addition to the $3.5 million the start-up received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in late 2012 to develop a master teacher program that focuses on the new Common Core standards in 6-12 mathematics.

BettLesson’s efforts to share information among teachers so they can learn from one another is indicative of a recent push in schools for more group work and accountability. Teachers are encouraged to move away from operating as individuals and working toward becoming groups. For the past 10 years, for example, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has been working to create Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) where educators work “collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve”.

When discussing innovative digital communication tools with The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive of NewSchools Venture Fund Ted Mitchell notes BetterLesson’s use of videos and other tools to help educators “crowdsource” their teaching methods. This crowd comprises teachers across the nation and in creating this digital space for them to collaborative with each other, it encourages schools, districts, and even states to move away from operating on their own in an effort to create  standardized, nationalized teaching practices, a huge push of the new Common Core standards.

Free social networking companies such as Lore and Better Lesson address the financial limitations many schools face when addressing instructional issues and incorporating technology into the classroom. But it’s these companies that demonstrate how low-budget schools can still benefit from digital publishing, even if it’s not with Scholastic’s interactive white boards.


Pearson is not only the largest educational publisher in North America, but the largest publisher in the world. In 2012, Pearson reported total revenue of $9.16 billion. This summer, Pearson and Bertelsmann announced the merger of Penguin and Random House, leaving Pearson to focus its publishing energy on education, a segment it already dominates. According to Pearson’s own site, almost 50% of US schools use Pearson products.

As the leading publisher in this segment, it’s no surprise that Pearson is making huge progress with e-publishing, offering a wide variety of digital products that are designed to benefit both teachers and students and that can be accessed on computers, tablets, and mobile devices. The screenshot below from their “Digital & Mobile” products page shows the broad scope of products Pearson offers across various media:

Screenshot taken from on 6 Oct 2013

Pearson is approaching the shift to digital from a comprehensive perspective by developing technological products that penetrate each segment of the educational publishing market identified in this blog’s introductory postcontent; instructional support; platforms and administrative tools; and a special segment that includes advanced placement, special education, and English language learner materials. Pearson’s Digital Learning products shows how well technology can merge these four markets into one cohesive product that makes a more seamless learning experience for students and a far easier instructional experience for teachers.

Pearson’s Digital Learning products are featured on their Instructional Resources website (, and their product categories shows the breadth of content they cover: Reading/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, World Languages, AP® Honors & Electives, Art, Music, ELL, School Improvement Services, Professional Development, Career & Technical Education, and College & Career Readiness. But Pearson’s varied subject matter doesn’t just account for their success; the innovative digital products they are creating across these content areas prove their dedication to and talent in improving the learning experience.

When searching through Pearson’s Science products, a teacher has a variety of options to enhance the classroom for different students and budgets. Pearson continues to offer innovative, but more affordable, print products, such as their supplemental Oil Spill Case Study, a topical 32-page booklet that can be used alongside any Pearson program for grades 6-12; a class set of 25 bundle with one answer key is $54.97. Their featured iBook Science Textbook, Biology (National Edition), by Kenneth R. Miller, Ph.D. and Joseph S. Levine, Ph.D., is only $14.99 on iTunes.

Pearson also offers the teachers and schools that can afford it the most cutting-edge technology, including their multimedia Interactive Science Curriculum and Online Learning Exchanges. Their Interactive Science programs focus on three pathways of learning: reading, where students can engage the page by writing in their own workbooks; inquiry, where different levels of inquiry are scaffolded; and personalized technology, where students can go online, anytime. Below, a screenshot of the K-5 Interactive Science program’s brochure explains the online components of the curriculum.

Pearson_Interactive Science Program

These programs aren’t exactly $14.99 on iTunes, though; a kindergarten class set of 25 student editions, digital courseware with a 7-year student license and a single year big book flipchart costs $1,087.47. Their Online Learning Exchanges are just as impressive, but just as expensive; 6-year access to their Earth Science exchange for grades 6-8 costs $32.47 per student, per year.

To address the fact that many teachers can’t afford their products without spending their own money, Pearson regularly links to funding support resources on their site, from information about grants such as Race to the Top to an Educational Funding Blog. [*Blogger’s Note: However, in a fine example of what Seth Godin refers to as “broken” technology, if you attempt to “Ask a Funding Question,” you’ll receive this unfortunate error.] Pearson has dedicated its own energy as a company to research affordable learning as well: In May 2012, the company started the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) to help create and improve low-cost private schools across the world.

Pearson isn’t showing any signs of slowing their e-publishing development; in fact, they are dedicating more money and attention to technology in order to improve their products–and learning–in the future. This November, Pearson will host the virtual conference “A New Frontier: Re-imagining the Next Generation of Education 2013.”  At the end of this past July, Pearson announced an edtech partnership with 1776, “an incubator platform based in Washington, D.C.” Co-founder of 1776 Evan Burfield explains the implications the partnership has on the future of America’s education system and the companies that support it:

“America’s education system is at a crossroads and a forward-thinking approach is needed to solve many challenges, Pearson is using technology to invent new ways of learning; and by working with organizations like 1776 and our startups, Pearson’s experts not only provide insights around data and technical integration strategies, they can advise startups on effectively penetrating and scaling in the education market.”

Pearson’s broad coverage of content makes them an easy force to dominate the educational publishing market, but their shift from print-to-digital shows a conscientious effort to enhance the student’s and teacher’s experience.  As the massive force it is in the educational publishing industry, it’s no surprise that Pearson is making incredible digital advancements across all their products, but the way they’ve done it reveals that Pearson is concerned about more than just turning a profit, but with continuously improving the learning experience and, true to their slogan, always learning as a company.

Limitations in the Classroom

Most educators and publishers agree that technology has the potential to greatly improve a student’s classroom experience, and in my previous post, I explored the specific ways in which it can add value to learning. The conversation can’t stop at these benefits, though; before contemplating the best way to implement these new value-adds for students, we must first discuss the limitations and roadblocks of digital publishing in the classroom. Beth Bacon at Digital Book World explores some of these limitations, focusing on tablets in an article from earlier this year.

The market that K-12 educational publishing encompasses spans across the nation and includes many very different demographics. A good solution for one school or district may not be realistic or available to others for a variety of different reasons, but the main roadblocks that are slowing the shift from print-to-digital in educational materials are school budgets and funding.

Bacon touches on two other important concerns teachers have about this shift when discussing the top 3 problems with tablets in the classroom: input and making sure students are using tablets to learn, not to check Facebook or play Candy Crush. These are important issues, but I believe both offer an opportunity for publishers to improve their technology and make their products more user-friendly and applicable to the way teachers instruct and the way students learn. The second issue, monitoring use, should be a challenge to educational publishers: if they make their materials as engaging as the games, sites and apps students may get distracted with, students will have less of a reason to stray.

While these issues are important and should shape the way educational publishers are producing their digital materials, Bacon notes that a lack of funding is the biggest roadblock teachers face with technology:

“In a recent survey of more than 225 Kindergarten through grade-12 educators in the United States, 57% of responders selected ‘No budget to purchase applications/e-books’ as the biggest challenge in integrating tablets in their lessons.”

By Stuart Miles from

By Stuart Miles from

Funding will improve as educators realize the changing costs of advancing and updating education, as they optimistically noted at the 2013 Content in Context conference held this summer, but change won’t happen overnight and there will always be schools that continue to suffer with funds. Just because many schools still can’t, or may never be able to, afford the most cutting-edge technology such as tablets in their classrooms doesn’t mean technology can’t benefit these classrooms, though. Nor should publishers shy away from digitizing their materials; it means that publishers shouldn’t focus on one medium but aim to provide their content in a variety of formats that can reach the many different demographics that they need to reach. Just because a school can’t afford twenty Interactive White Boards or tablets in every classroom doesn’t mean they shouldn’t experience the benefits of technology, it means that they will experience them in different ways.

The Mooresville Graded School District in Mooresville, NC is one example of a district that has used technology to advance its educational despite facing tight budgets. In an article about the school district from American Legislator found on, John Stephenson explains how the district has used technology “not in the traditional sense” of offering online courses but by enhancing many of the fundamental concepts within their educational system, such as reaching and engaging their communities. The district is even using technology to maximize their budget by allowing administrations to find new ways to save costs.

Educational publishers need to create less expensive ways to reach districts in ways similar to how Moorseville has used technology. Publishers need to explore publishing their content in different formats in order to do this: produce and market expensive e-textbooks or e-readers for the schools that can afford it, but make a majority of the resources and content within these more expensive products available online or as computer programs for the schools that can’t afford it. This is why the shift from print-to-digital in educational publishing can’t be limited or concluded to one medium over another, but should include many different formats that can reach the many audiences within this varied market. In order to address these limitations and push past the roadblocks, educational publishers need to continue to engage with and talk to school boards and teachers across their market to see what will work best for their children, their curriculum, and their budgets.

The Added Value of Digital

Before delving into the discussions and advancements currently happening in the digital educational publishing segment, it’s important to first approach the big shift from print-to-digital from a larger perspective and to weigh both the benefits and limitations of it. This post will focus on the benefits, or the added value, that technology can offer educational publishing.

In Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, Brian O’Leary stresses the importance of thinking about context when publishers approach their content in his chapter “Context, Not Container.” O’Leary defines context as “tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata,” but the discussion of context also needs to encompass its more traditional definition: the environment in which the content will be used.

Considering context is crucial in the discussion of educational publishing and how to best produce the materials within the segment because the context is learning, a concept with large implications and surrounding factors. Thus, the discussion of how to add value to educational materials has a much larger discussion tied to it: how to add value to learning. The push to incorporate technology in learning is not recent; schools have been using online discussion boards and Interactive Whiteboards in the classroom, but the transition to digitize their materials hasn’t come full circle yet because print textbooks are still largely the primary focus. Publishers need to think about producing educational materials in a more streamlined way—supplemental materials and tools shouldn’t come from another company or even product line than the main content, they should be offered together as one. In my introductory post, we see that’s not the case: In their analysis of the educational publishing market, Consulting Services for Education Inc. (CS4Ed) describes four main, and divided, markets within publishing, and content and instructional support are two separate markets.

When shifting to digital, education publishers need to not only look at how to enhance the products they already produce with technology, they need to approach the shift from a more top-down perspective and analyze how technology can enhance the process in which they publish materials. As technology pushes publishing, and the rest of the world, into an era of abundance and not scarcity, publishers need to use this to their advantage. Educational publishers have more potential to benefit from this abundance than publishers within other segments because most teachers have to use additional resources to supplement their content in order to educate, engage, and assess students.

By Kromkrathog from

By Kromkrathog from

Adding Value to the Classroom

Mobile devices and tablets have already brought a vast world of information to the younger generation’s fingertips and it’s time teachers are able to bring a vast world of learning to their students.

In a post from this past July, Beth Bacon at Digital Book World discusses the rise of tablet use in the classroom and its impact on K-12 education. In a testament to the e-growth of the industry, Bacon cites research from the International Data Corporation that tablet shipments to schools grew 103% in the last year. She discusses 5 ways tablets will begin to change K-12 education:

  1. Personalized learning
  2. Creative interactivity
  3. Online learning
  4. Formative assessments
  5. Change

As we can see, these benefits are not merely superficial and their implications extend far beyond some of the digital bells-and-whistles that are being touted as value-add in other digital publishing segments. Instead of merely offering readers colorful images or the ability to highlight a world when they read, the added value digital publishing brings to educational materials is reshaping learning. As tablets allow for a more personalized learning, as Bacon explains, curriculum and syllabi need to be rethought. Is one generic lesson plan for a classroom of students applicable with tablets now? Possibly not. Rather than reciting lessons for a cohort of students, Bacon notes that teachers will be able to spend more time guiding and nurturing students as they learn in a way, and at a speed, with which they feel personally comfortable. Education will feel more intimate to students this way, and it will also become more efficient for teachers. Bacon notes:

“Interactive question-and-answer quizzes on individual tablets will lighten the teacher’s load of grading and assessing—freeing them up to use their time to work face-to-face with the kids who need their attention.”

The benefits Bacon outlines are not limited to tablets alone, but can be applied to all technologies and mediums being used to make the shift from print-to-digital in the classroom. These benefits are the new ways publishers can add value to the e-materials they produce. In an earlier post from February, however, Bacon plays her own opposition by raising a crucial point one can’t overlook when discussing education: budgets. While we can see that technology can greatly improve a student’s learning experience, in order to realistically determine how to best incorporate technology into educational materials, it’s also important to discuss its limitations, something my next post will explore in more detail.

Digital Education Watch: Introduction

Welcome to Digital Education Watch, a blog dedicated to researching, discussing and contemplating the current state and future of digital educational publishing. This blog focuses on K-12 education and how publishers are using technology to create more interactive and engaging learning materials for students.


By Kromkrathog from

The educational publishing segment is a rich one, both in the value it can provide to its audience as well as in monetary terms. At the end of 2012, SIIA valued the digital education market at $7.76 billion. SIIA Education Division Market and Policy Analyst Lindsay Harman notes how Consulting Services for Education Inc. (CS4Ed) analyzed the digital education market from the survey’s data:

The revenues and products were divided into four major market segments: content; instructional support; platforms and administrative tools; and a special segment that includes advanced placement, special education, and English language learner materials.

Educational publishing has a large market that includes teachers and students in all 50 states; as a result, there are many different needs and preferences to consider when publishing materials for this audience, as well as limitations. Realistically, many schools still can’t afford the technology that will be discussed on this site. The industry is also affected by the federal government and its laws and standards on state educational systems. This blog will explore some of the cultural and economic factors that come with this market and discuss how they are impacting the transition to e-publishing.

The “Big Three” leading publishers in the market are Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, but others such as Scholastic and Macmillan Education have a big presence. With an expanding digital market, startups like Boundless and Lore have joined these larger publishers in the race to advance the classroom with technology. This blog will not only watch companies like these that are using technology to enhance their materials in novel ways, it will also track the conversations publishers and educators are having about what more can be done. Over at Digital Book World, Beth Bacon has noticed this growing conversation as well and started a column earlier this year on DBW’s site dedicated to education.

In order to stay on top of the most recent developments in this industry, this blog will gather its research primarily from credible online sources, including general news sites as well as publishing news sites, such as Digital Book World, Publishers Weekly and Publishing Perspectives; it will also explore the websites of publishers within this segment in order to discuss their products. This blog will use scholarly research to analyze the advancements seen online, including Hugh McGuire and Brian O’Leary’s Book:  A Futurist’s Manifesto, and John B. Thompson’s Books in the Digital Age: The transformation of academic and higher education publishing in Britain and the United States. When possible, I will also use my own personal and professional experiences to provide commentary on important issues and trends.

The emerging digital educational publishing industry has the potential to greatly change the way students learn and use information, which will shape the way we use information as a society in the future. Exciting advancements are already being made in the industry and the future only holds more ground to break. This blog will be watching.