Finding Excellence in Educational Digital Publishing

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Innovation, design, usability, content, consistency and excellence are all key elements of successful digital publishing projects, and educational digital publishing is no exception.

The 2014 Digital Book Awards (formerly known as the Publishing Innovation Awards) are now open for nominations. If you’re involved with some excellent digital work going on in the education space, consider entering the Digital Book Awards today.

IW.2010To gain a bit of insight into the current state of digital educational media, DBW reached out to Ira Wolfman, president and chief consultant at POE Communications: Educational Content Development and Print-to-Digital Transformation.

Wolfman has spent his “career creating groundbreaking media for children, parents, and teachers across digital and print platforms.”

As he explains: “I launched my consulting business, POE Communications, last year (2012), after I had spent more than 20 years directing content development at Weekly Reader and at the publishing division of Sesame Workshop.

“My team at POE consists of 20 editors, designers, and web producers, all of them with extensive experience in the education and multimedia fields. Over the past year, we’ve worked with the children’s media company Highlights for Children, the reading-comprehension website, and Woodburn Press, a publisher of study-skills advice materials, among others. We specialize in creating content that excites students while helping teachers meet their educational goals. Our key focus of late has been to develop engaging material that meets the stringent new Common Core standards.

“At Weekly Reader from 2004-2012, I oversaw the transformation of what had been a sleepy 100-year-old school-magazine publishing company into a leader in digital innovation. Among the many exciting new products we developed were web-based WR Digital Editions (multimedia versions of the magazines with video, audio, and interactivity); Classroom NewsBreaks (digital lesson plans on breaking news stories, delivered within 24 hours to thousands of teachers); and WR e-issues (themed websites on a wide range of subjects from Shakespeare to the U.S. Constitution to climate change).

“I believe our efforts remade the classroom magazine publishing business.”

From his vantage point, Wolfman answered DBW’s questions about educational digital publishing today.

Deanna Utroske: What innovations have you been seeing lately?

Ira Wolfman: For the past few years, those of us who create educational content have been challenged to transform learning by bringing multimedia into the mix. However, a lot of what was being produced consisted of throwing in videos and adding multiple-choice quizzes with sound effects.

But now we’ve learned more about combining multimedia with content in ways that really enhance the learning. That’s crucial! In addition, I’ve found that the best developers today are not just focusing on the students’ interests – they also understand how important it is to make the material easy for teachers to work with.

DU: Share some examples of great K-12 educational digital publishing that you’ve seen in recent months.

IW: I was impressed with two Golden Lamp award winners at the Content in Context conference in DC in June.
Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 2.32.39 PM
I’ve always loved history, so a well-written book with photographs was enough to capture my interest. But McGraw Hill’s Networks: A Social Studies Learning System should be able to [engage] students for whom history is an uninspiring journey through names and places.

This digital resource – teamed with print – brings to life the stories of the past through a vast storehouse of interactive resources. Reading about World War I’s intensity is one thing, but experiencing it through videos, political cartoons, photos, interactive maps, and illustrations is that much more powerful.

This program also offers a smart Teacher Lesson Center, where instructors can organize and customize lessons, and work out assessments, with relative ease.

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 2.48.53 PMOn the younger end, I saw a lot to like in the National Wildlife Federation’s winning iPad app, Ranger Rick’s Tree House. It’s a clever application that offers young children intuitive ways to explore animal videos, multilevel games, jokes, and crafts. It turns the appealing children’s magazine into a frequently refreshed, playful multimedia experience.

The content in both of these cases is excellent, age-appropriate and engaging. But what’s even more important is that the user – teacher and student, parent and child – can navigate these programs without confusion.

DU: What important digital developments are coming soon to educational publishing?

You know, when we began working on digital content at Weekly Reader seven or eight years ago, we focused on the Interactive Whiteboards at the front of the classroom. Schools had invested a lot of money in those boards, and we saw a great opportunity to provide teachers with tools to improve what they could present on those boards. We also thought about kids working in class on computers or at home. But we didn’t give much thought to mobile.

Now, of course, many high school students bring powerful computing devices to class in their pockets. Schools haven’t figured out how to work with smart phones yet, but I don’t doubt that in the coming years we’re going to have to build more and more mobile learning experiences for use inside and outside the classroom.

The other area that seems enormously promising – though it’s unclear when we will see breakthrough applications for the classroom – is 3-D technology. 3-D is already extremely important in so many aspects of our lives; medical imaging and computer-assisted design are two obvious examples. How can we tap into this technology to expand learning from the youngest grades up? I know there are people out there working on this question, and I am confident that when it arrives in a meaningful way, it will transform learning.

DU: How can publishers, authors, developers, and digital service providers prepare for or shape the coming digital innovations in the K-12 educational space?

Schools are going through transformational times, just as media companies and technology companies are. Some things are radically changed: For example, I believe many schools are wholeheartedly embracing the ways the web makes it possible for students to communicate with, and collaborate with, others around the world. Schools are finding exciting ways to unleash students’ creativity – and teachers are hungry for smart tech that helps them do just that.

At the same time, our teachers are under fire in so many ways. The high-stakes testing fever in our nation today puts enormous pressure on them to use only what they know will work. It creates an atmosphere that I think inhibits the sprit of innovation and experimentation that we know is crucial to 21st century success.

I’d say this has a couple of important implications for developers:

(1) We need to listen to teachers. Understand what they are tasked with, where their needs are, how technology can best serve them and their students. Taking the time to listen and think about what we hear can mean that we develop something more useful, more in tune with their needs.

(2) Content and technology developers need to be rigorous about building in learning – not just engagement – and about testing the efficacy of what we create before we offer it for sale. If administrators and teachers know that there is some solid research that supports the claims a product makes, everyone wins.

DU: Any other thoughts?

IW: It’s a thrilling time to be working in educational publishing. Over the past year, I’ve attended a number of meet-ups of New York City’s EdTech group. I’ve found the topics stimulating and the energy in the room – from the 200 or so young EdTech pros present – electrifying. All of us in the educational world have been given the challenge, and the opportunity, of reinventing learning formats while dedicating ourselves to producing content of the highest quality. It’s a daunting challenge – but achieving it? I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling.

The Digital Book Awards celebrate innovation in educational apps and ebook publishing. Submit your nominations today!

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