Todd Brekhus has a good look at what’s working and what’s next for literacy.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As president of Capstone Digital Solutions, creators of myON reader, Todd Brekhus has been a leader in technology-enhanced literacy solutions to the benefit of millions of children. Before joining Capstone, Todd held a variety of executive positions, including Vice President and CMO of PLATO Learning, President and COO of Learning Elements, and Education Program Director for MCI WorldCom, where he helped build and implement the Marco Polo program. He also spent eight years in education as a teacher, department chair, and Technology Director and currently serves on the Board of the Educational Division of The Software Information Industry Association. A graduate of Concordia College, Todd completed graduate studies at John Hopkins University. Recently named 2013 Visionary of the Year by EdTech Digest, Todd examines the future of literacy and technology in this in-depth interview, revealing his thoughts on what it takes to build a virtual backpack, capture the imagination of millions of students and change the face of learning and discovery — with some interesting examples along the way.
Victor: How do you see technology, in particular the edtech solutions offered by Capstone Digital, spearheading literacy initiatives across the country?
Todd: Personalization, content and access should be driving not only literacy but all areas of education. The statistics are staggering; for example, 66 percent of America’s students who do not read by the end of third grade end up in prison or on welfare. Through innovation and collaboration, technology can provide a renewed vision of literacy. Through our efforts in building myON reader, we are transforming how students can access books, grow their reading skills and track their reading growth. There is unlimited access for a student because of technology; you can read online and offline (through myON app) and teachers have metrics that monitor their progress.
Victor: myON Reader was created under your leadership at Capstone Digital, could you share with me how you took this vision and made it a reality?
Todd: Capstone is currently the largest library book publisher in the world, publishing on average over 1,100 books a year. When I joined Capstone, they asked me to create a new digital division of the company and create a strategic vision for digital products. The introduction into the digital arena began with PebbleGo, an online database for PreK-3 and Capstone Interactive Library for K-8 with 200 digital titles. We knew from early adoptions that digital products from a proven content publisher could take off in the market. Based on my background in developing personalized curriculum and an awesome development team, the vision we created was to ultimately give students unlimited access to thousands of books, personalized to their interests and reading level and give educators metrics to track reading growth by students, class, grade and district. Basically, we wanted to give every student a virtual backpack of their very own to access anywhere there is Internet connection. myON reader was launched in January 2011 and now has over 2,800 schools using myON and more than 1.75 million students reading on myON reader.
Victor: Through myON Reader, Capstone Digital has offered some fantastic programs to districts, like the Summer Reading Program. Can you share what districts are saying about this?
Todd: myON reader is more than just an ebook, and more than a reading program. It’s a program designed to capture the imaginations of students, to encourage students at all levels to read and to build their confidence as a learner. In 2012, we launched our inaugural summer reading program to current schools with myON reader and provided over 1,000 schools access to myON reader over the summer. The response and results were overwhelmingly positive.
Of the 1.5 million students on the program, we had over 46,000 read at least one book and 27,000 students that read over 10 books or more. School districts were able to accurately measure reading over the summer, and of those 27,000 students that read 10 books or more, we reduced the summer slide. But even more significant is that students in Summer School programs saw up to a 40 percent reading growth (based on Lexile levels) in just six short weeks. In Miami-Dade Public Schools, students that read over 10 hours increased their reading levels 35 percent in less than six weeks.
Districts are amazed by these results. Parents of students that traditionally struggled in reading are now reading more and becoming more confident in their abilities. We even have parents, who are non-English speaking, reading with their children by leveraging the audio and highlighting capabilities.
Victor: One of the most intriguing programs that you are offering, Read on myON, also known as the Community Reading Project, has taken root in a number of large urban areas of the country. Can you shed some light on how you brought all these moving parts together?
Todd: It’s no secret that school districts are really struggling with funding. And it’s no secret that community organizations want to help but just really don’t know how to get involved. As the eighth-largest school district in the country, Hillsborough County Public Schools was introduced to myON reader in 2011. During the first six months of the implementation, educators were amazed by student’s usage and soon the enthusiasm for the program grew and the interest was district wide.
Hillsborough County Public Schools, under the exceptional leadership of Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, helped to facilitate such a community wide reading program. As a board member of The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, they were constantly asked by community organizations how they could help the district to make the most impact. Organizations ranging from the Rotary Club and their effort to give books to fourth grade students (some of whom had never owned a book before, ever), to the United Way, who helped pave the way for a book to be delivered every day on a child’s birthday until they were five years of age, to the Tampa Bay Housing Authority — were all a part of the Hillsborough Children’s Board whose mission is to provide all types of services for all families in Hillsborough County. With the growing success of myON reader, it was only fitting to bring all of the community organizations together through the Children’s Board to help, plan and design a community wide reading program.
On January 30, 2012, in conjunction with the Hillsborough County Public Schools and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and the countless partners, the proposal was signed and the “Read on myON” Project began. The main goal of the Read on myON Project for all organizations is to provide each child equitable access to thousands of enhanced digital books to encourage reading, increase literacy rates and promote reading throughout the community. We have a dedicated project manager in Hillsborough County who oversees all operational elements to the program to include training, partner meetings, event planning (literacy events, summer reading programs, etc).
This has been the most unique implementation that I have ever been associated with and the collaborative effort of putting the children of Hillsborough first, rather than the lack of budgets, and breaking down barriers was unbelievable. Based on the success of this program, we have been able to share and replicate it in several communities. We have several community reading programs that are being created, and are in the process of being implemented.
Victor: What kind of response have you been hearing from the communities that have implemented Read on myON? In particular, some of the successes you have seen come out of Hillsboro county and their schools?
Todd: We are fortunate to have a great partnership in Hillsborough County and we were honored that Superintendent Elia presented the Read on myON story at a District Administration Leadership Summit in Florida in October of 2012. She shared that from February 2012 to October 2012 her district read over 21 Years (184,376 Hours) of reading and over 1 million books (students actually opened over 2,789,288 books), impressive numbers to say the least. Even more impressive was 34 percent of the students increased their Lexile scores over 100 points. (We have a link on our website of her presentation.)
Victor: Alright — congratulations on all that success, Todd! Now, on to broader questions: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Todd: I just returned from the UK and the BETT show. I was amazed with the hardware and connected tools for one to one learning. I think we are in an amazing time when finally the power of the technology can meet the complexities of teaching and learning to truly transform what education is really all about.
However, education is political — just look at the School Board process. Politicians are the ultimate decision makers in education. At the same time, parents care about their child’s education and will do a lot to make it better. Education technology vendors and implementers have to do a better job of showing parents and politicians the value and benefit that effective education technology solutions can bring to their child’s learning experience. For example, with myON reader we are able to provide thousands of digital books to every child’s home for less than the price of one hard cover book. When a parent calculates how much print books would cost they see this is a game changer and something tangible that parents and decision makers can understand.
Victor: Technology and education seem to go great together. What is your approach to a guiding philosophy as far as technology transforming education, technology enhancing the educational experience — and your thoughts on technology and education in general these days?
Todd: I have had the incredible fortune to be part of this industry since the early 1980’s when I had my first summer job at 14 years old setting up the first Apple 2 computer lab in Bloomington, MN. I had the great fun, setting up the computers with kids about 3-4 years younger than me. We turned that into the most incredible learning and discovery experience. In many ways during the early days of education technology schools throughout the country had computers drop in on them. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s it was all about the hardware and the devices. When I helped build the MarcoPolo (now Thinkfinity) website, we assisted teachers with the instructional approaches to educational technology. Now products and services, like our myON reader product, are becoming part of the mobile, one to one fabric of education. It is not just a bright, shiny object or cool tool, now edtech is becoming a strategic part of the teaching and learning process. In many ways, you cannot do Common Core or innovative, data-driven instruction or personalized learning without the proper tools. I am excited to see where our product and solutions will go in this new way of doing education—and happy to help accelerate the exciting changes ahead.
Victor: Where do you see technology in education headed in the next few years? What major and minor trends do you see in the area, and what are some interesting trends you have seen in your travels across the country?
Todd: I am really excited about curriculum-embedded assessments, personalized learning, and data that are presented to students for their own self growth. Obviously, this is a big hint of some of the research and development strategies I am working on. I believe if assessments become more authentic and embedded into the learning process, and kids can see their own progress (i.e. easy reporting to show growth), and algorithms get smarter about serving up teacher and student personalized learning paths, we have an exciting time ahead. With our myON reader platform, we have over 60 million student data points that are making our engine smarter. We are making our reporting and personalized engine even better to improve learning.
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