Friday, November 09, 2007

"Soft Launch" of Free-Reading.net

It wasn't clear to me yesterday whether the story behind Free-Reading.net and its lack of buzz up to this point was "um... we decided we didn't need this so we'll just put it on the web and see what happens" or something more strategic was going on. Well, as it turns out, as Dean Millot pointed out yesterday afternoon, there actually was a story in USA Today on Free-Reading.net this week indicating that Wireless Generation agrees with me that publicists are helpful even in the world of Web 2.0, and the promotion for the site is only now starting up.

Even more importantly:

But perhaps the most significant development is at the most elementary level. Last fall, a Florida textbook adoption committee approved Free-Reading, a remediation program for primary-school children that's believed to be the first free, open-source reading program for K-12 public schools. It's awaiting approval by Eric Smith, the state's incoming education commissioner, who could approve it by mid-December.

Florida is one of the top five textbook markets in the USA, so its move could lead to the development of other free materials that might someday challenge the dominance of a handful of big educational publishers.

Setting aside the question of whether or not these textbook approval processes are a good idea, this demonstrates that Wireless Generation is making a serious play. It also underscores a good reason why, as Doug Noon points out, the curriculum hews to the post-NCLB status quo on reading pedagogy. A little more on Wireless Generation's strategy:

Wireless Generation CEO Larry Berger, 39, says he hopes to make money from teacher training and technical support. "We probably will get involved in offering those services," he says.

Berger should know. Four years ago, he turned another free item, the DIBELS reading test, into a moneymaker by developing software that allows teachers to score the test on a handheld computer.

Regardless, the potential significance of Free-Reading.net getting on the approved list for Florida is huge. Somewhat depressingly, Millot's interpretation of this move is that it may be designed to trigger a buy-out:

All they need is for the big publishers to conclude (a big win for Free-Reading.net is) a nontrivial possibility. To the extent they do, they will try to buy the company - and that’s The Mouse that Roared scenario. The more the publishers believe Wireless Generation is a viable initial public offering opportunity, the more they will be willing to pay to avoid it.

This gets into why it is way too simplistic and shallow to say open source is about collaboration and community more than licenses. Because of the license, in this case, CC-by-sa, you're protected, even if Harcourt buys Wireless Generation next week and kills the program (well, assuming someone downloaded the content...). You don't have to rely on someone else's good faith or intentions.

A couple nits from the USA Today article. They write:

The California-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is funding K-12 open-source projects worldwide, including English-language training for native Chinese- and Spanish-speakers.

That's pretty generous, considering they haven't done shit for open source in K-12 schools in the US. If they can do nothing and still get namechecked, what's the motivation for doing anything? Also, where can I find this English-language training?

Also this:

Websites such as hippocampus.org offer free materials tied to high school textbooks, and several college-level open-source projects are trickling down to K-12 schools.

Here's the hippocampus.org license:

The content on this website is provided by the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education for personal enrichment and individual instructor use only. The use of this content by educational organizations or commercial vendors is prohibited.

In other words, useless.

e3

2 comments:

tdakins said...

Hi Tom,

I'm one of those questionable characters -- a publicist -- for the nonprofit Monterey Institute for Computers in Technology (MITE), the creator of HippoCampus and the National Repository of Online Courses(NROC). Your blog came up in my search today and I'm always thrilled to see the HippoCampus name being blogged -- so thank you for that!

I do take exception, of course, to your assessment of HippoCampus's usefulness. Despite the stern licensing language, the fact is that anyone can access every bit of content offered on HippoCampus.org for free, without even having to register a login.

Go to the site and see for yourself -- click on any course subject and drill down to your heart's content. It's awesome!

And you can do this because the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is generously supporting HippoCampus, NROC, and MITE (www.montereyinstitute) with a grant to ensure open access to quality educational materials.

School districts and other educational agencies can, and do (37 institutional members, including 18 state departments of education and virtual schools, boards of regents, and community college consortia), pay to license the NROC content so that they can house it on their own servers, fully customize it to their curricula, receive professional development support and training, and receive updates and new materials as they're developed.

Unfortunately, try as we might, we can't get around the reality that creating this content, housing it, providing training and support, and making it widely available does require funding.

The good news is that via the licensing agreements and the grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, you can freely access all of the learning materials on HippoCampus -- and I hope your readers do!

Thanks for listening,
Traci

Marc Dean Millot said...

Just to be clear, I didn't say Wireless wanted to be bought out. I said that if I were a betting man, I wouldn't put all my money on an IPO, leading to the firm toppling the publishers.

Were I a current investor in Wireless Generation however, I would want an exit that maximized my payout. The way I would get that is by pursuing business strategies that make me both more attractive as an acquisition, and poised for an IPO.

The "winner" in any negotiation is not the bigger party with more clout; it's the side with the best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

If Wireless Generation has a credible IPO offer, they are in a better position to bargain on acquisition.(In the past few years school improvement firms have not been in that position.)If they have companies running after them, they are in a better position to raise cash in the IPO.