EdStartup 101: Idea

What is your idea?

My idea is to publish graded readers for ESL and EFL learners and teachers that make the best use of digital tools for production, reading and study, and distribution. Basically, I want to set up a digital publishing house/studio/cooperative/press to take advantage of trends in school-based BYOD, Extensive Reading (ER) in language learning, and adult lifelong learning. Surprisingly, almost nobody is doing this.

What problem does your idea solve?

I believe this will solve a whole slew of problems. Conventional printed-on-paper graded readers are very limited and limiting. I may be a little into the ELT weeds here, but stick with me.

Our entire collection of graded readers for hundreds of students fits on the second and third shelves on the right.

1. Waste: Paper books are wasteful for libraries and schools: not very durable, limited in distribution, students don’t return them. Extensive Reading programs often have to replace 10% of their library every year.

2. Cost: Most conventional readers cost 5-10 USD. If an active learner needs one a week, this is a significant cost. Digital readers (apps or ebooks) can be cheaper.

3. Gatekeepers: Mainstream publishers want a more limited catalog both in number of titles and content. There is not enough content for adults-mainly for children. There just aren’t enough books, styles, or voices. A lot of graded readers are just plain boring because they are designed to meet the lowest common denominator.

4. Inconvenient: Paper books fail to take advantage of people’s devices for reading anywhere anytime. They also give up on all kinds of support for learners like better dictionaries, linked learning tools, convenient audio, better image support, etc.

5. Fixed: Paper books can’t be customized to schools, cultures, learners’ native languages, or individuals. Rapid fixes/new editions not possible.

6. Shelf space: Publishers like large series of books (30 or more) so they can get a good profile on bookstore shelves. I’ve been told not worth publishing in smaller series because nobody will sell them.

7. Time to market: Education publishers are slow. Sometimes painfully slow.

8. Nobody is provides graded readers with a complete solution: attached study tools, assessments, and convenient multimedia.

How does your idea fix the problem?

A purely digital company can run cheaper, faster, and more flexibly than a large conventional publishing house. No inventory, no offices, no fixed salary costs, but also able to take advantage of a large pool of teachers who are often writing, but not often publishing. With my plan, I can take chances and get into niches that nobody else wants. Digital readers can be cheap, customizable, everywhere, and of every kind.

Why do you want to fix the problem?

Because I had this problem as a language learning program coordinator. I wasted so much money every year buying books for students to mangle or lose. They are produced to be destroyed quickly, and thus replaced. I still have the problem now as a teacher who has to force less effective books on students for lack of anything else. I’ve also experienced this on the other side as an author waiting forever for a book to come out in print and have it be compromised.

Also, I think it would be fun.

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12 responses to “EdStartup 101: Idea

  1. Ted, I’m still working on my Idea post, but I’m so glad to read this! If you have a chance, take a look at what we’ve been working on with extensive reading (in Latin, in our case) at the Tres Columnae Project, and specifically at our model of curated, but collaborative content creation. I’ll let you know when I’ve published my “Idea” post, too.

    • Looking forward to how you see collaboration working out. And, this is the first I’ve heard of ER in Latin. Back when I studied Latin in high school, we did a lot of translation.

      • Yes, Latin was very translation-focused for a very long time. There’s been a lot of positive change in the last few years, especially here in the United States. All of a sudden, people are asking for extensive reading materials and for places where students can create and share with each other. The key, for a lot of reluctant and perfectionistic teachers, is to make sure that the student-created materials (and the extensive readers) are as “error-free” as possible and that there’s a simple process for errors to be pointed out and quickly fixed.

        Many, many Latin teachers still think that skill-drill and grammatical explanation will lead to perfect, error-free products. It’s important to meet them where they are and to alleviate their concerns.

        I hope you’ll enjoy my “Idea” post for EdStartup when you have a chance to look at it. I’ll be talking more about the error/accuracy issue in subsequent sections of the course, since it’s directly relevant to “pain” and “solution” in particular.

  2. I like this for a number of reasons. First – it’s structured in such a way that it can easily “go viral” and non-linear. Although, there are plenty of self-publishing platforms and ideas out there, as you point out – none of them address the specific problem, so you are in a great position for this kind of no-overhead startup.

    This product is valuable even while there are limited contributors and users and only becomes more so as more people participate. As it starts to achieve scale, there is the potential for more services and support. You can imagine providing a student with feedback on how her reading is growing, and collecting insights based on how the student interacts with the book (how long she spends on a page, which words she looks up, etc.) There is the possibility of pioneering the payment models that make it possible for schools to purchase “site licenses” to content for a set of devices (including student-owned devices) for each year – perhaps the content on the devices “expires” the following September, or… There is the possibility for supporting virtual literature circles, friends recommendations and all those social platform services that engage and support collaboration.

    The product supports students as independent learners – able to use their own devices to find and read “just right” books and explore privately and/or with friends. There is the potential for students as contributors, not just consumers.

    • Thanks for all of the great ideas. Yes, there are plenty of e-publishing things going on. That’s not new at all. But, I just want to pursue this focus on extensive reading. Autonomy for learners here is key. There could be potential for all of those analytics and data etc. but I plan to just start small. Some enhanced ebooks first. If that goes well, maybe pursue more community aspects. The potential for language acquisition and reading research from reading time, dictionary lookups, where readers gave up could be great. More directly, could get feedback for revised editions in a way that paper cannot.

  3. I love this idea. as a Chinese teacher, I was always frustrate by the absence of graded readers, and when they dd start to appear, I had to get them from China – a real hassle – and I needed one printed copy for each student. Your idea solves several problems at once. You might consider adding the ability for teachers and/or students to create accounts, include assessments for understanding, and allow them to track their progress.

    • I bet getting a good supply of readers for Chinese ER would be tough. As someone learning Japanese, there were no graded readers at all until recently. There is now one very limited series and they are pricy. http://www.nihongo-ask.jp/tadoku/book.html I’ve actually talked with a few people about taking a chance on pooling some money to hire people to write more of them and see if we could make a go of publishing that. Even if it didn’t work well, we’d get the readers we want and need.

      Re: assessments and stuff, are you familiar with the MoodleReader Module? http://moodlereader.org/ I wonder if it could be adapted for Chinese?

      Tracking progress would be one of the best things to add. You know how discouraging it can be for learners if they don’t notice the progress they are making. Not many students are really diligent about tracking their ER on their own.

  4. I love the idea, I have been thinking about using iBooks to create free texts for schools. My personal belief is that textbooks are overpriced even for public schools that spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions in books every year.

    As a math teacher I am intrigued to see what you do with it!

    • I’ve experimented with writing and giving away some free ebooks. I could always continue to do that but it runs into a few problems:

      1. If I want to, I can get paid (not a lot, but something) by a commercial publisher for similar work. Many colleagues, too.

      2. We can only really produce high-quality work if we spend some money. Good copyediting, proofreading, and a little artwork doesn’t have to cost a lot, but it costs more than I can afford to give away for nothing. (Yes, collaborate, exchange labor, peer cooperation are all possible, but see point 1 above.) If I can’t make it at least self-sustaining, I can always go back to free distribution.

      3. Can I do free distribution and generate income to support the project some other way? Freemium? Free readers/paid for extra features? Take advertising? (I’d rather not.) Give the readers away, and charge for something else like assessment stuff for teachers to use? (Doubtful. I’d rather go the other way and give away all the assessment and other stuff to add value to the readers themselves and make them a “good buy”.)

      4. The other way is to essentially do the project on a free basis, but get paid some other way (Will doing it get me a better job? Workshop and speaking fees?)

      And, I agree. So many textbooks are highway robbery.

  5. I absolutely LOVE it when people solve their own problems with their startups. No one know the problem better than someone who’s lived through it. Eric Raymond, godfather of open sources software, said that “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.” The same is true for edstartups. Really looking forward to seeing this move ahead!

    • Thanks for dropping by, David. Starting from the itch seems a good way to go. It means my idea is relatively small, but that’s fine with me. Working on solving my own problems also means that even if I can’t make it successful as a business, I’ll at least get rid of something that bugs me. Not a bad payoff.

  6. Pingback: EdStartup 101: The Pain Test | Ted O'Neill

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