A Case of eBook Smarts

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Article ImageCOMPANY:  BENCHMARK EDUCATION

Benchmark Education Co. (BEC) is a sole-source provider of instructional materials and services for teachers and students in grades K–8. Over the past decade, the Pelham, N.Y.-based developer of research-based literacy and language skills solutions has focused on nonfiction subject matter for struggling readers and English-language learners, gifted students and those with learning disabilities, and "on-level" students whose reading skills are appropriate for their age bracket. Its product catalog also features professional development training resources for reading instructors. The company’s customer base includes more than 15,000 schools in the U.S., Canada, and Asia.
www.benchmarkeducation.com

BUSINESS CHALLENGE

BEC was established in January 1998 with the express purpose of helping every child "attain literacy—regardless of language proficiency and overall ability," says president Tom Reycraft. Its resources are designed around the five essential components of effective reading instruction identified by scientifically based research from Main Street Academix: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. They’re also designed to promote the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and Reading First, a federal grants program that focuses on putting proven methods of early reading instruction in classrooms. For years, BEC’s resources were only available in print. However, by 2006 the market demanded instructional materials that could be delivered in a variety of ways to a wide-ranging student population. In response, BEC decided to leverage the company’s existing content to deliver a broader range of tools to reach students with different learning styles.

VENDOR OF CHOICE: IMPELSYS

Founded in March 2001, Impelsys, Inc. develops software products and services that allow publishers to deliver and market electronic content. Its New York City headquarters and satellite facilities in Bangalore, India, service more than 50 clients, including Elsevier, McGraw-Hill, and Thomson Reuters. Core products include VirtualPages, an online book-presentation tool that helps publishers create new products using existing content, and iPlatform, an off-the-shelf solution that empowers publishers to monetize new and existing content, strengthen relationships with readers, and establish a profitable digital presence.
www.impelsys.com


THE PROBLEM IN DEPTH
Benchmark Education’s product catalog includes 1,800 content-rich books that are precisely and consistently leveled to meet the needs of students with varying literacy proficiencies (ranging from emergent to advanced fluent), as well as teaching guides and practice materials. Each product is designed to supplement schools’ core reading programs, helping students develop phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.

BEC had always produced its titles in a traditional print format, but market conditions ultimately persuaded the company to expand its offerings. "Within the education community, there’s a generally accepted approach to teaching called Universal Design for Learning, which is basically an [acknowledgment] that not everyone learns in the same way," Reycraft explains. In recent years, Fairfax County, Va., educators (and others with whom BEC consulted) had reported that standard teaching methods weren’t working in their increasingly diverse classrooms. Students for whom English is a second language, for example, now account for a large percentage of the student population in many communities, and for them, Reycraft says, "Learning to read is complicated by the need to learn the language too." Students with sight impairments and other learning disabilities were also struggling to process and retain the content BEC’s print books presented, making the texts less valuable as supplementary teaching tools.

These realizations convinced BEC that it "needed to develop materials that deliver the same information in a different format—one that would enhance the reading experience, as well as subject matter processing." And so, in early 2006, it began recording audio versions of some of its books, but even they had limitations. "When the books were printed on paper only, they had no functionality beyond that," says Sameer Shariff, CEO of Impelsys, the vendor BEC hired to diversify its product catalog. "The audio CDs offered recordings of someone reading the books, but there [wasn’t anything that enabled students to] look at the books, read along with them, and see each word highlighted as they read along. That’s where Impelsys and VirtualPages came in."

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