I’m only seconds into a digital copy of T.S. Eliot’s famous ode to adolescence, The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, when my ears prickle uncomfortably. As I read—"Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky, / Like a patient etherised upon a table"—a soft rock track reminiscent of James Taylor begins to crescendo in the background. Eliot’s arch observations are drowned out by the acoustic guitar and its upbeat melody.
For a dose of relief I turn to YouTube, where I find a copy of an old recording that features Eliot himself reading the text, sans soundtrack. The strange and charmed rhymes, the brooding hint of menace, the nasal timbre of literary elitism: At once, the poem is restored. By the time Eliot intones, "Time yet for a hundred visions and revisions," I’m engrossed in the text, lost to the world.
And so it’s with a skeptical ear and eye that I return to Booktrack, which sells digital books that pair text with music and ambient sounds. Since its founding in 2010, Booktrack has grown its library of titles to 15,000 and raised $10 million from investors, including Silicon Valley kingmaker Peter Thiel. The success of audio book provider Audible, which sold to Amazon for $300 million, beckons.
And Booktrack is far from alone. Companies that aspire to transform old-fashioned reading into an interactive media experience are on the rise, and they are increasingly looking to schools as a promising market. Earlier this month, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought a library of over 700 interactive books and related technology assets from MeeGenius, an e-book subscription company focused on early readers. In July, Amazon signed an e-book contract worth $30 million with the New York City Department of Education, signaling its growing presence in K-12. Reading Rainbow parent company RRKidz plans to release a classroom edition of its digital library this year. And literacy apps like Learn With Homer have been courting schools and parents by commissioning academic studies that demonstrate their impact and provide a counterweight to the still-dominant narrative that disparages screen time.
But experts caution educators to consider whether technology solutions are simply screen-based versions of long-standing classroom strategies. "When you buy technology for schools, are you using it to digitize, or to create a new learning experience?" asks Rob Mancabelli, cofounder and CEO of BrightBytes, which provides 20,000 U.S. schools with data and research designed to improve their return on investment (or in the company's terms, "return on learning") in educational tools, resources, and professional training. "Over $10 billion is spent on technology every year in the U.S., and the majority of it does not benefit learning outcomes."
It's promising to see schools and app developers start to speak the same language around evidence, he says. But data on the effectiveness of multimedia reading experiences remains incomplete at best: "Every company in the e-reader market is looking for the silver bullet research that will allow them to make those claims."
Booktrack cofounder and CEO Paul Cameron recognized this challenge early on, and has commissioned two academic studies that are featured on the Booktrack website. The one specific to young readers, conducted by the University of Auckland, found that students using Booktrack spent more time reading the given text and answered the equivalent of one additional question out of 15 correctly, in comparison to their control-group peers. Satisfaction scores for the two groups were nearly identical.
Cameron defends Booktrack’s ability to boost engagement, and points to the app’s composition functionality as another source of value. "To create a soundtrack, they have to understand the context of the scene," he says.
After seeing teachers experiment with Booktrack's library in informal ways, Cameron invested in an educational version that has since made its way to over 12,000 classrooms, with more than half of that total footprint in the U.S. A new integration with Google Classroom, introduced this summer, aims to expand that reach. By the end of the year Booktrack Classroom will offer tiered pricing plans—paying $5 per student, for example, might give a teacher access to 150 titles.
Booktrack lesson contributor Amy Harter, an English teacher at Wisconsin’s Port Washington High School, has been using Booktrack for both reading comprehension and composition, assigning lessons that require students to create their own Booktrack experiences. She adopted the tool, she says, because of the way it individualizes the reading experience based on each student’s reading pace and engages them through multi-sensory storytelling. "Not to say that the written page is dead by any means, but I do think that because of the media diet, there is an elevated expectation from students that they're going to do a variety of things in the classroom," she says. "Teenagers have a limited attention span. It's usually pretty clear right away whether they're into it."
To keep them engaged, she experiments, she says, "with a lot of different tools."
Indeed, platforms like like Google Classroom are making it easier than ever before for teachers to experiment with digital tools and switch between apps during class. Clever, a San Francisco-based education startup that raised an additional $30 million last December, provides schools with a secure, universal login for the educational apps within its developer network. And this summer, Google Classroom paved the way for a similar user experience by making its functionality around student-teacher communication and assignment management available to approved developers. Companies like Booktrack benefit from those new platforms and integrations; teachers using both Google Classroom and Booktrack Classroom, for example, will be able to view and grade students’ Booktrack homework alongside assignments completed in Google Docs or other apps.
The lowered barrier to trying out new educational apps comes with potential trade-offs, however: Downloading the app takes seconds, but reading up on relevant research, if it exists, takes far longer. And the industrious educator who searches for "e-reader learning outcomes" will have a difficult time parsing the jargon that results. "Multimedia online novels, e-books, touchable TV, paratext, or technotext have all been used," Greg Toppo reports in The Atlantic. "Someone has even suggested ‘Franken-novel.’"
For his part, Cameron, who is also a parent, argues that he has seen the impact of e-reader experiences in his own home. "I’ve got a couple of young kids, and if I say, ‘Read this book, play this video game, or watch TV,’ the book really struggles," he says. "But if you bring something like [Booktrack] to them, it’s more the way they think these days."