Can This Be the K-12 Edtech Marketplace That Finally Succeeds?

In 2012, First Book, a nonprofit that provides affordable learning materials to kids in need, approached the publishers of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and asked: Can you make a bilingual version of the popular children’s book? At the time, the publisher sold English and Spanish versions separately.

As part of its pitch, First Book made an offer that the publisher couldn’t refuse: It promised to buy 30,000 copies of the bilingual version. To date, it has purchased more than 100,000 copies (and the publisher has sold many more in retail stores).

That First Book can sway publishers to produce new materials speaks to the growing influence of its community of 430,000 teachers, tutors and social workers who serve students from low-income backgrounds. Founded in 1992, the organization regularly surveys its network about what materials they want and shares this information with publishers.

That’s how First Book first learned about the demand for a bilingual version of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” says Jane Robinson, its chief strategy and financial officer. And the fact that the publisher obliged marked a “breakthrough point where we realized that we actually have power in the market.”

Now First Book wants to apply this model—where teachers drive demand for educational materials and shape the market—to the market for digital learning products. To do that, it is partnering with Games and Learning, a for-profit company, to build a new marketplace for online educational materials, particularly games.

“Our goal is to create a trusted source where parents and teachers can find, buy and adopt quality digital content for their kids,” says Michelle Miller, CEO of Games and Learning.

Last week, the company received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation and Research program to put that idea to the test. The award, worth nearly $250,000, will support the development of an online destination where teachers in First Book’s community can find, test, use and provide feedback on educational games.

For the first phase of grant, which concludes in March 2020, Games and Learning will build a new channel for web-based educational games in First Book’s existing marketplace, where teachers currently spend more than $20 million each year, mostly on print books. This prototype will function less as a fully functional marketplace, and more as a test to see how teachers use the platform. So far, more than two dozen developers, including Filament Games, Schell Games and codeSpark, have committed to making their wares available for the pilot.

The pilot will also explore whether the platform can provide an effective feedback loop where teachers offer suggestions for product improvements that Games and Learning can pass on to developers who may make changes as they see fit, Robinson adds.

That line of communication is a key component of this project, says Mark DeLoura, the chief technology officer of Games and Learning. Getting that feedback can help developers avoid the disappointment of building products that nobody wants to try or buy.

“I want more game developers to think about educational content, but they have to know that it’s not a financial risk,” says DeLoura, a former gaming industry executive who also previously served as a digital media advisor to The White House under the Obama Administration. “They have to make money so they can sustain themselves. But they also need to talk to teachers to know what they want.”

If the pilot goes well, Games and Learning plans to seek additional funding to making its marketplace platform publicly available outside of the First Book community. The plan is to get developers of all digital learning products on the platform (not just games), and take a revenue share of all transactions that occur.

Creating a one-stop shop where teachers can find, use and purchase digital content has proven to be an elusive Holy Grail for the education industry. Generic app stores offered by Apple and Google can be difficult to navigate, even within their education sub-category. Efforts that launched with fanfare this decade—from publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tech giants like Amazon, and other nonprofits like GlassLab—have fizzled.

One of the hurdles for new marketplaces is getting a critical mass of people to use them, says Nicole Neal, who serves on the board of directors for Games and Learning and is also the co-founder of Noodle Markets, a procurement platform for K-12 school supplies. “For most marketplace platforms that start from the ground, one of the biggest issues is distribution. Who’s going to use it?”

Having access to First Book’s built-in audience of 430,000 educators could give this latest effort an advantage, she adds. And many of them have expressed a desire for digital tools. In a survey of this community conducted in June, more than half of the respondents said they use online learning tools every day, and nearly 80 percent said they use games, apps and digital books at least several times a week.

Games and Learning traces its origin to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the research arm of the Sesame Workshop. In 2012, the Center received a $1.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to create the Games and Learning Publishing Council, of which Games and Learning was a part. It was originally a media publication that covered educational games, but in 2018 it was spun out as a for-profit operation to build this marketplace. (The media side continues to operate as a nonprofit.)