Backed By Reed Hastings & More, Gobstopper Launches Its E-Reading Platform For Schools To Help Rethink Humanities Education

As the founder of two KIPP public charter prep schools, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at NewSchools Ventures and a former English teacher, Jason Singer is familiar with the starring role that technology is increasingly playing in the classroom. However, while the push to improve STEM education is alive and well, there’s a tendency to forget about the other side. When it comes to basic reading and writing skills, American high school and college students aren’t exactly making the grade.

A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, showed that only “one quarter of eighth and 12th graders are proficient in writing,” while the College Board found (in a separate study) that SAT reading and writing scores plummeted to record lows in the U.S. last year.

That’s why Singer has teamed up with Mauricio Alvarez — the former co-founder and CTO of ZangZing — and is today launching Gobstopper, an e-reading platform designed to help English teachers reinvent the way that they teach texts and assess reading comprehension.

Singer tells us that part of the reason for the disappointing performance of students on standardized reading and writing tests lies in assessment. It is still extremely difficult for teachers to assess students’ level of understanding and engagement when they’re involved in reading assignments, because, unlike Math, students can’t show their work and teachers can’t be there to force them to do their homework.

Sure, they can force them to write an essay on each chapter of an assigned book, but as NoRedInk founder (and high school English teacher) Jeff Scheur told us recently, English teachers already spend an inordinate amount of time reading and grading papers.

Teachers spend hours providing personalized feedback on papers, correcting grammar and so on, but students just flip to the end of the paper to see what grade they received. Over-focusing on testing, rote language learning and instruction via red ink to teach students better reading, writing and grammar doesn’t help students learn and teachers teach, in spite of how much schools rely on this process.

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So, with Gobstopper, Singer and Alvarez Gobstopper, have developed an online tool for teachers that aims to re-think reading assignments by creating an e-reading platform that allows teachers to insert the questions and quizzes they would normally put in worksheets directly into the text of the assigned reading material itself — online. Gobstopper enables teachers to attach a quiz to the end of a chapter, insert instructional or expositive video to explain trick concepts (within the text), while automatically grading students’ performance on these online assessments.

The idea is to create a scenario in which educators no longer have to rely on a paper-based model; in other words, no more having to photocopy, assign, collect and manually grade worksheets — a time-sink for teachers, especially as it provides a minimum level of insight into whether or not students are understanding key concepts.

To get Gobstopper off the ground, the co-founders have raised $425K in convertible debt from NewSchools Venture Fund, Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings and EdMentor’s Ron Beller and Jennifer Moses, among others. With this capital in tow, Gobstopper has been able to build its beta product (which officially launches today), organized pilots in six (non-Kipp) schools and a Common Core-aligned high school ELA curriculum, both of which will go live this fall.

Teachers today are fundamentally over-worked and underpaid — while the future of education remains unclear — that much, at least, is certain. They have to order books, do inventories, manage distribution, deal with loss and damage of reading materials, create, photocopy and distribute worksheets, create and grade quizzes, differentiate and personalize learning for students within a wide range of learning paths (and abilities) without much real data on students’ individual mastery, among others.

Gobstopper aims to help simplify teachers’ lives by providing them with a browser- and cloud-based e-reading platform that lets teachers layer texts with questions, quizzes and rich media, while attempting to close the feedback loop by driving daily instruction with meaningful data, differentiate learning for students and motivate and reward student mastery.

It does this by allowing teachers to teach free public domain texts (for free), receive immediate feedback on right and wrong answers through its analytics dashboard and allow students to access teacher explanations from the text and earn motivational badges for demonstrating mastery (a la Khan Academy). The work students complete on the platform works on any device (thanks to the cloud) and is automatically submitted to teachers for easy storage, reference and grading.

The best part, Singer explains, is that (at launch) users will be able to choose public domain books and create their own curriculet layer around those texts for titles that include Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Prince, The Raven, Walden and more.

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This means that, once students have signed up and teachers have assigned due dates to homework assignments, then those assignments automatically appear on a student’s dashboard and each morning teachers are two clicks away from viewing Common Core data they can use to support students’ learning process and drive instruction. Teachers can use one of Gobstopper’s curriculets as a foundation, modifying it as they see fit, or make their own, he says.

At launch, the platform will be free to use, but the founder says that, as the startup moves forward, it will look to potentially create an enterprise-grade, premium product for schools and districts for a fee. And perhaps offer a white-label-style tool for publishers to integrate into their texts, but that remains to be seen.

For more on Gobstopper, find it at home here.