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Scholastic is the world’s largest children’s book publisher, especially familiar to generations of parents and kids via its book clubs and fairs. Scholastic’s Media Group is also a leading producer of children’s and family film, TV, and interactive media. Its eReading platform, Storia, launched in 2012.
I spoke with Deborah Forte, President of Scholastic Media, about the company’s expertise in fostering digital reading, and how that translates to the mobile digital world. Our discussion included some of the issues identified in the Fred Rogers Center's Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children.
David Kleeman: What do you see as the essential elements of quality in children’s digital media, especially for a company with a long history in other platforms?
Deborah Forte: The producer has to be trusted and experienced with a knowledge of kid’s media. There should be a certain track record and connection to experts and research that informs your product or service. Have specific objectives: How do you want to affect kids—do you merely want to delight them, educate them or do you want to instill confidence and motivation, excitement and understanding?
DK: In a world of specific apps and stand-alone e-books, Scholastic opted to create a broad reading platform that works on different devices. Why?
DF: We wanted our books to be easily accessible on any device. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for children’s e-reading. The platform should scale to the age and stage of the child as well as the type of book. If you’re a five-year-old and you go to Storia and you’re reading a picture book, the functionality is different from if you’re eleven and you’re reading a chapter book.
We recognize that there are all different kinds of readers; people don’t all read the same way. There are some kids who read the book straight through and then they do the interactions. There are some kids who do the interactions as they go along. There are some kids who realize they can’t do the interactions because they haven’t read the book, so they read the book so they can do the activities. Reading is a deeply personal experience.
We designed our software so that it can be used in different ways, for different types of readers and books but all with the same goal of reinforcing reading skills and promoting reading engagement, reading confidence and reading motivation, then you have a menu of possibilities.
DK: How does that flexibility get expressed in Storia? How can a reading platform adapt to different children, choosing diverse content in a variety of contexts?
DF: If you’re only going to do exactly what print does, there’s not really a great reason to have digital.
For instance there’s a creativity tool that you can use when you’re reading a picture book. It will say, “In Harlem, this was happening outside of the window” and then, there’s a window frame—a box—and it will say, “Draw what you see outside your window.”
If a child is not a good reader or they don’t understand something, how can we help remove roadblocks with the software? With our pronunciation tool, if you don’t know a word and you’re struggling, you just click on it and you hear someone say that word, and…you get a definition linked to your reading level…all keyed to the age and stage of the child.
DK: You mentioned connecting with experts and conducting research. What kinds of features or choices did you make on the basis of those consultations and studies?
DF: We’ve learned a lot in terms of how to present interactivity, to engage the child and not to distract. We evolved a pedagogy based on the five key pillars of literacy, for all of our interactivity in Storia.
We don’t change the book—the book has its design integrity, something referred to as replica view. Someone spent a lot of time designing that book, for very specific reasons, and the book appears the way it was designed.
However, there are little tabs that you can click on, and then an overlay appears, related to what you were reading. You can put together a puzzle based on the sequence of events in the book, but only if you understand the sequence of the story. A number of the books, nonfiction particularly, have a video. We put it at the end because in our minds it was functioning sometimes as a reward, but a lot of teachers saw it and said, “Oh, you ought to put that first; it presents such great context.”
DK: How do you avoid the temptation to use all the “whiz-bang” possibilities of technology—a desire to entertain that, in the end, distracts?
DF: If you look at Storia, there are only three buttons, and when you are in the book you can click on interactive extras. That’s it. The fact that there’s an audio production tool behind the curtain, and a leveled dictionary—it’s completely invisible. That’s what good software design is—it’s elegant because you’re not seeing all of that; it’s just there when you need it.
DK: You produce stories for young children, but parents or early educators make the initial choices. What do they need most?
DF: Screens are part of people’s lives, and many of today’s parents want their children’s time with screens to give some sort of benefit as well as delight.
A big issue for them is curation which is completely absent when it comes to digital ecosystems, and that’s a problem for parents. As a busy parent, you don’t want to go through 2000 books [for all ages] when you have a first grader. You don’t want to go through all those product shots or app descriptions to figure out what’s going to be interesting and beneficial to a five-year-old who likes sports for instance.
DK: In closing, you’ve produced for almost every medium; are they more alike or different?
DF: I started at Viking-Penguin a long time ago in books, and have produced movies, TV shows, CD roms, video games, apps, websites, and audio titles. It’s usually about good storytelling and an engaging age-appropriate experience. What you learn is that there are tools available to you in each medium to help motivate, excite and involve children. At Scholastic, we hope that kids will learn something along the way.