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Dan Cogan-Drew co-founded Newsela, which takes news articles and other materials and rewrites them to be read by schoolchildren in the third grade or above. Not bad for someone who struggled with reading growing up.
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, the 7-year-old, venture-backed New York startup reached 90% of U.S. school districts. Now it is dealing with the upheaval: Most students are learning from home. That means Newsela, which uses freelance journalists and educators to churn out content that's so timely it's not yet available in textbooks, is pedaling fast to keep up. Since the company offered free access to its products and platform through the end of the school year, 25,000 new schools have signed up — bringing with them about 200,000 more teachers and 1 million additional students.
Protocol talked with Cogan-Drew, whose title is chief academic officer, about how Newsela is adapting and how online learning might change forever.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How is Newsela responding to this crisis?
This is what we were born to do, to unlock the reading world for everyone. When we made all our content and services available to anyone who wants it through the rest of the school year, that was a decision we made quickly and decisively — it was the right thing to do.
More than 25,000 schools have received licenses to our product by reaching out to us and telling us they want it. They needed high-quality instructional content that was authentic, engaging and aligned with their curriculum. They needed all this before coronavirus and remote learning, and that need has intensified.
We run office hours on Zoom, and we've added a lot of content. We're a highly responsive editorial machine that is always looking for the right, responsible way to present timely, relevant content to educators. Use of our mobile apps has more than doubled in the past two weeks. The number of articles teachers have assigned to students in those two weeks is up 40% compared with the same period last year.
How did the company serve schools before the COVID-19 crisis?
We've focused on teachers with a "freemium" model. Teachers of all subjects have been using Newsela to fill content gaps they find in their instruction. They were in a dilemma: stuck between a desire to engage their students in topics that are relevant and culturally responsive and the need to adhere with district standards.
A teacher shouldn't be concerned with, "Am I going to get in trouble for teaching this lesson?" This is true for any edtech product: How does it jibe with decisions that school districts have made? In schools, the solution has always been a textbook. But teachers have gone away from textbooks because they weren't meeting their needs.
What's your approach to content curation? What about potentially controversial or politically charged news?
We source content from a hundred different partners. We instructionalize content and reduce complexity for different reading levels, like an eighth-grader reading at a sixth-grade level. We have editors scanning the feed of the AP, the Guardian, McClatchy, The New York Times. We're looking for the right kind of lens for different students.
During this crisis, that's been: how video games are straining the Italian internet as coronavirus keeps kids at home; the best five games to play; a sporting event in an empty stadium; news that the Tokyo Summer Olympics has been postponed; or information about flattening the curve and understanding epidemiology.
It's not [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo vs. [President Donald] Trump — how does that help me as an educator? Instead it's the role of government in a democracy, the roles of governors vs. the president. We select it, then our editors turn it over to levelers whose job is to simplify text complexity. We have a team that can align it with the school districts' standards. We think, how could a teacher use this?
We have a landing page on COVID-19. We're looking for content that's accurate, empowering and responsible. We've had all too much experience with trauma in the lives of kids and educators, like school shootings and the Paradise fire, which we've covered in our materials. We don't always take the first thing that comes off the wires. We don't do clickbait. We don't use advertising. We're strictly looking for the best content that's available.
What about the digital divide? How can you reach students who have no broadband access?
This has been on our minds — not just now, not just recently.
We have mobile apps that allow for offline reading and assessments. Students can connect to Wi-Fi when it's available to get new assignments and upload what they've done. And all our articles are printable. Teachers in schools print them all the time. But bandwidth and data are a challenge for sure. Some school districts are distributing Chromebooks, others are printing out packets. It's complicated.
What additional challenges are educators and ed-tech companies facing right now?
I was a struggling reader in school. I wasn't reading at the same level as others. That's true for 64% of kids — they aren't reading at a level that will prepare them for college and a career. The sudden shift to online learning makes that much more pronounced.
This situation is drawing into stark relief a lot of the circumstances that families, learners and educators were already aware of in terms of inequities: devices, internet access, food insecurity, medical conditions, anything that was hampering the quality of students' learning experience. The differentiation challenges are enormous.
The bottom line is that coronavirus has just exposed and heightened all the circumstances that educators and families have been working to address all along. Everything is thrown wide open. Everyone's scrambling to do the right thing. For us, it's been a strain not on content operations but the technology and overprovisioning of our services. The patterns of usage are different: They start and end later.
The greatest concentration of need has been in onboarding. We need to support administrators. We're bringing on 25,000 schools with a broad array of experience, ability and availability. Some are saying: "I've never used Google Classroom, how do I work on that?" We've added staff and have been working around the clock. It's like we're in back-to-school mode. COVID has proven to be a third start to the school year. Our product team had a hackathon for all the things that needed immediate attention.
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What does all this mean for the future of online education?
The needs that were always there are that much more pronounced. The relevance of a product like ours is made obvious to a larger swath of the country's schools and educators. It's an important moment for us to be as easy to use, important, relevant and aligned as we have always been.
The memory of this will last a long time. There's a need for a remote-learning contingency. There will be a lasting impact on pedagogy and on companies like ours.
Levi Sumagaysay (@levisu) is a former Silicon Valley reporter at Protocol. Previously, she was a tech reporter at The San Jose Mercury News, where she covered everything from artificial intelligence to IPOs, tech culture, news about big tech, and more. Levi has edited or written technology news since the first dot-com boom, and was for a time the writer of Good Morning Silicon Valley, one of the earliest tech blogs/newsletters.