Freemium companies walk a tightrope with their customers: The free features have to be attractive enough to draw users—but not so powerful that users don’t want to pay for the upgrade. And though all companies must inevitably earn revenue, any big changes to the free offerings will likely stir grumblings among customers—especially if they are no longer available.
Literacy startup Curriculet’s “free” days are coming to an end. Last week, the San Francisco company told users it is launching an “on-demand” digital library of books and news articles from publishing partners. Students will be able to use Curriculet’s library of more than 2,000 books, annotated with quizzes and other multimedia elements for free during the rest of this school year—but beginning in September, a per-student fee will kick in.
Curriculet’s email also outlined forthcoming “critical changes” that, to some teachers, looked like a list of free features that the company is phasing out.
Founded in 2012 by former high school principal, Jason Singer and engineer Mauricio Alvarez, Curriculet currently lets teachers create and embed questions, quizzes, annotations and other multimedia elements within digital reading materials. The company called these items “curriculets.” The idea was to use these elements to give teachers rich insights into how their students use reading materials. “Curriculet will allow teachers to dynamically reach their students from inside the texts they teach and become truly omniscient and omnipresent by giving them the ability to publish and place a ‘curriculet’—a layer of questions and rich media—on top of any epub, Word, or pdf document,” wrote Singer in 2012.
At launch, Curriculet allowed teachers to upload their own documents. By late 2013, Curriculet was working with publishers to build a library of e-books, which teachers could rent for 99 cents to $3.49 per title, for three months at a time.
Teachers embraced the platform: Since the company started, it has been used by 1.2 million teachers and students in more than 10,000 schools, according to Singer. Many have loved it. “The questions, annotations, and highlights that were pre-loaded, as well as ones that the teacher can provide, were not just a comprehension check—they were a way to bridge outside resources into a book,” Francisco Castillo-Fierro, Director of Blended Learning at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, tells EdSurge via email. The book rental model, he adds, makes it “really affordable for a class to read multiple novels in the year.”
That was exactly what Singer and his team hoped: that students could choose from a wide variety of books, all students would get to read books they love even if everyone wanted to read the same book at the same time—and that the curriculets would keep teachers on top of it all.
But Singer says that few teachers—roughly 10 percent, by his estimate—created their own curriculets. And over the past couple of years, his company has created standards-aligned materials for every available book. So by April 15, Curriculet plans to shut down teachers’ ability to upload their own materials or to devise their own curriculets. Any existing home-grown curriculets will become permanently “disabled and unavailable,” according to the FAQ.
Those changes triggered concern and dismay for some teachers. “I’m very surprised,” says Elizabeth Woodrum, a sixth-grade teacher at Twin Valley South Elementary who has been using Curriculet on a weekly basis for the past school year. “What impacts me the most is that I can’t create my own content. Essentially, I have no control.”
Gone, too, is the individual book rental service. In its place, the company is rolling out a digital library subscription that includes more than 2,000 books and 2,000 USA Today articles that come pre-populated with curriculets for different reading levels. The cost: $24.99 per student per year, who can read as much as they want. Another plan offers access to only articles for $4.99 per student per year. All the free features, however, will be gone, with the exception of titles in the public domain.
“The subscription model is definitely more of a commitment,” said Nicole Welsh, an English teacher at DC International School in Washington, DC, “so I think schools will need to carefully run pilots in order to ensure that it is the right tool for them.”
The price jump seemed costly to others. “What if our class doesn't need the whole library?” Castillo-Fierro asked. “What if schools can’t afford $25 a student?”
Moving from a rental to subscription model may make it easier for Curriculet to sell to schools, many of which have fixed budgets for technology purchases. With the book rental model, says Singer “you’re asking districts to pay by the read [and] asking them to make a projection of how much the students would read.” Administrators typically prefer a straightforward, flat rate.
Curriculet’s move to an annual subscription model also aligns its business closer to competitors such as LightSail, myON Reader, Accelerated Reader and Newsela, all of which offer tiered-level reading materials embedded with assessments.
This shift from offering a customizable reading tool to a digital library has the makings of a product pivot. But Singer doesn’t see it that way. “We’ve been working towards the launch of an on-demand library,” he tells EdSurge in an interview. “Our goal was that when we got to 2,000 titles with curriculets, that would be enough of a baseline to offer a dynamic on-demand library.”
Feedback from educators who piloted Curriculet’s new digital library in districts including Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Baltimore City Schools and Summit Public Schools in California have been positive, according to the company. The “vast majority” of teachers, Singer asserts, have preferred to use the curriculets built by his team. One of them is Welsh. “I have created curriculets of my own a few times,” she says, ”but the way that I have used them has become much easier since starting the on-demand library” last fall.
“The only way for teachers to truly personalize reading instruction is to give students agency and choice because reading is a very personal experience. It thrives on discovery, and what kids like is unique to every individual,” says Singer. “We’re giving [students] a choice of 2,000 titles, and we can tell them and teachers how much and how well they’re reading.”
Should empowering students come at the expense of teachers? “I’m all about student choice,” says Castillo-Fierro. But “it’s really helpful to have the teacher have some options, like assigning class novels or content creation.”