Curriculet, which over the past four years built a platform where students can read digital books, articles and take quizzes, will be closing its doors this summer.
In an email sent to users on the afternoon of May 24, Jason Singer, CEO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based startup, announced that “Curriculet will be turning off the lights and shuttering our service on June 17th.”
A former teacher and principal, Singer reflected on why he started the company:
I was desperate to find a reading platform that deeply engaged my students, gave them agency to choose and read the books they love and to do so in community together. I wanted a platform that would provide my teachers with data they needed to personalize reading instruction and an intuitive interface to place their own assessments inside the texts they were teaching.
Founded in 2012 (then known as Gobstopper), Curriculet offered educators a library of digital texts—from books available in the public domain to licensed materials with publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and HarperCollins—along with current events articles from USA Today. The materials also came with “curriculets,” the company’s eponymous term for embedded quizzes, videos and other multimedia elements designed to offer students a richer reading experience and to give teachers data into how their pupils were progressing.
Curriculet initially operated on a rent-as-you-go model: schools could rent books for as little as 99 cents for each student for up to three months, or pay more to have access for an entire year. Over the past four years, more than 1.2 million teachers and students signed up to use the tool. But not enough of them were paying. Singer tells EdSurge in an interview that “we had struggled with whether or not we had a viable, vibrant business for the long term.”
In March 2016, the company tried a new course: it implemented a new pricing model where schools would pay $24.99 per student per year for unlimited access to its full digital library. It also rolled back some features that a small—but vocal—number of users loved, such as the ability to create custom curriculets, leading to mixed reactions from teachers. With this change Singer says he was hoping to get new paying customers—or potential buyers for the company.
Unfortunately, neither panned out. There was competition from not just other digital providers such as Renaissance Learning, but print publishers as well, Singer says. “One of the things we have learned is that you should never underestimate the difficulty of competing with analog [providers].”
Even in those rare cases where schools have enough bandwidth to support devices for every student, Singer adds that “you still need someone at the admin level who can help implement the tools across the network, and [those people are] hard to find. And then you need teachers who have the time, permission and training to use the tool in the classroom.” All these hurdles add up to “a space that is just not quite ready to utilize the technology,” he says.
What also concerned Singer was that districts will pay for tools that don’t end up being used with fidelity. Sometimes that money comes from services that students need. “If we know that our product isn’t being used with the frequency it should be, given the expense, I hate to see any resources wasted in this space.”
“At the end of the day,” Singer adds, “it’s about giving opportunities for kids, and right now there’s not a market for the product we’re built.” Singer says Curriculet users can export their data into an Excel spreadsheet until June 17, when the website will be taken down and all user data will be deleted.
In his note, Singer graciously referred users to check out two “competitors that we great respect” in ActivelyLearn and Newsela. He also suggested the Open eBooks app, developed by a partnership between New York Public Library, Digital Public Library of America and First Book, as a free alternative for teachers seeking digital reading materials.
Curriculet had raised $1.8 million from investors including NewSchools Venture Fund, Kapor Capital and Relay Ventures.
“We admire Jason and his team for pushing the envelope in on-demand digital reading,” wrote Jennifer Carolan, who supported the company while she managed NewSchools’ Seed Fund, in an email to EdSurge. She added: “But similar to other technology markets, not all great products are able to mature into viable businesses and unfortunately they weren’t able to get there. We owe them a debt of gratitude for moving the field forward and know their contributions will influence the eventual solution that will help make reading more accessible to millions of students in years to come.”