Voice from the Industry
Using Technology to Make Timeless Texts Sing
Robert Romano, CEO, BookheadEd Learning — Friday, March 02, 2012
My daughter Alexandra, a high school junior, was prompted by an article she was reading about human evolution to ask me exactly how much our species has advanced over the past 10,000 years. It set me to wondering: what really are our evolutionary advantages? Physically we’re slighter and weaker than some earlier Homo sapiens. Not so convincingly, I suggested to her that what we lack in muscle and bone, we make up for in intelligence, our smaller cranial capacity notwithstanding. “Hmmm,” she said, thoughtfully. I knew the next question before she asked, “And what exactly is intelligence?”
In my finest father-knows-best tone, I told her it was the ability to understand and reason—to figure things out—a mental competence built upon the great compendium of ideas assembled over thousands of years. “Not bad,” I thought, feeling proud I’d maintained some semblance of infallible dad status. “So,” she said, and paused again, a sign that I was not out of trouble, “we’re really the same. We don’t have more intelligence than our ancestors. We just have the benefit of more knowledge, right?” Whose daughter is this, anyway? “Yes, that’d be correct,” I had to confess, coming by way of her elucidation to a profound educational moment in my own underdeveloped brain.
Upon further consideration (and ego aside), I had to admit that if you took away the accumulated knowledge, most of us would struggle to recall the process of making bronze tools, never mind how to smelt iron ore. Thankfully, that’s not likely to happen. Why not? Because about eight millennia ago, we made one of the greatest discoveries of all: the written word. Through it we developed the first texts, beginning the process of recording and storing ideas and knowledge for subsequent generations. And then, thanks to Gutenberg, this discovery was made accessible to the masses. And that was transformational.
Now we’re at a similar moment once again, a time when technology’s potential to cultivate and refine knowledge in new ways is just beginning to be understood. The effective progression of the ideas locked up in those texts requires human social interaction and collaboration. Remember those TA-guided study groups you had in college where you learned more in a long evening than you did the entire semester being lectured at (and got a date out of the deal as well)? Let’s bring that experience back. Let’s bring to life texts, both fiction and nonfiction, making them sing, socially exploring the concepts in those words, leveraging the power of digital and mobile technology. That’s the future. The ideas written down are timeless; what’s not is how we disseminate them, evolve them. That needs change. That’s where real opportunity lives. That’s the future of educational technology and publishing.
Yes, I’m talking about the future of books. And we all know how big the book biz is—like really BIG. And, no surprise, textbooks are going the way of the dinosaurs. Apple, being the innovator of all innovators, has recently provided a step in transforming the textbook, opening up the creation of textbooks beyond the cubicles of stodgy publishers to the creative minds of all. Amazon, the retail giant, is selling more eReader titles than paperback books. The publishing giant, Pearson, has just announced that their revenues through digital products have just exceeded print. Things are in motion. So where’s it all going? What’s this change mean for business? I suggest we look at the kids, look at today’s youth, look past the fleeting fashion trends to what they’re doing, what engages them, what inspires them. I’m so over whining parents complaining how their kids are not as engaged as we were in the good old days. In their young hands are machines that do more than the room-sized FORTRAN computer I used as an engineering student at Northeastern in the 1970s. They interact on a daily basis with information and people on a global basis, and they love it. They’re engaged. We just have to leverage what they find engaging.
It’s a fair question to ask if students today, with their fancy reading gadgets, are willing to sit and read Tolstoy, Aristotle, or Dickens. We do know that A Tale of Two Cities has sold some 200 million copies in its long lifetime (despite its main character’s short one). Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sold 110,000 copies last year and that doesn’t even include academic sales. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all 1,400 pages worth, still sells as many as 40,000 copies per year. These sales volumes indicate that these texts remain relevant. Except for blockbusters, a modern best-selling author would be thrilled to have that kind of volume. But to keep up with the next generation of readers, these texts need to adapt to survive, just like we’ve had to as humans. I don’t mean messing with the words of Jane, Leo, or Charles. I mean providing a means of relating those original texts to the dynamics of modern culture.
The classics have legs, as does timeless nonfiction. Digital or whatever, the words are still informing the way we think. New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, speaking of Elliot’s Middlemarch, stated “ … there’s nowhere better to go than a good novel to learn about what matters in life.” The best writing is about being human. And the fact that Amazon is selling three times the number of Kindles as hardcovers is a good sign. These devices are the latest incarnations of the printing press. Far from the death of the book, it represents the proliferation of reading, the further dissemination of ideas. And that, too, is just the beginning.
Consider what you do when you read a great book or trip over a great insight. You share it. You explore what it means with your peers, whether the fascinating implications of string theory from Brian Greene or a provocative nuance of human nature from Montaigne. Email, texts, Skype, whatever the means, people explore and negotiate ideas together. As my daughter helped me to conclude, the only thing that really has evolved over 10,000 years is knowledge. The business of selling books and educating today’s youth must incorporate the opportunities provided by the dynamic social nature of technology to be successful. Like our ancestor, the companies that adapt to new technologies for sharing ideas will thrive. The writing is on the cave wall. Read it.
Robert Romano is a successful entrepreneur who assembles top academic and creative talent to produce innovative, effective educational technology for today’s students.
In 1996, Romano teamed with renowned educator James Moffet to develop the award-winning EdVantage Software, which produced advanced language learning products for the classroom and home. EdVantage was sold to Riverdeep Interactive in 2001.
Romano unveiled his latest company, BookheadEd Learning, LLC, in January 2011 with the introduction of StudySync, a dynamic online learning curriculum. StudySync ( www.studysync.com ) combines broadcast-quality video, mobile communications and social networking to encourage middle and high school students to read more of classic and modern texts. Through its rich media library, StudySync promotes reading, writing, critical thinking, academic discourse and peer collaboration – all important for students to remain competitive in the 21 st Century.
A sought-after speaker, writer and industry thought leader, Romano is passionate about using the power of education and the potential of technology to inspire secondary students, their teachers and their parents. He is committed to assembling top academic and creative talent to produce innovative, effective educational technology for today's students. Romano holds an M.A. in literature and the teaching of writing.
Robert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.