How Ruckus Media transformed eBooks for children and aims to revolutionize digital education

May 18, 2012

The Ruckus Media Group came to market in 2010 in the hope of creating interactive apps to educate and entertain young children on mobile devices, and has created a stir recently with its Reader iPad application, something which offers up an array of interactive eBooks so 3-8 year old children can have fun while learning.

To find out more behind the app and the future of eBooks in education, TabTimes sat down with Rick Richter, the co-founder and CEO of Ruckus Media.

Ruckus Media is trying to become its own education platform

The Ruckus Reader first caught the attention of TabTimes a few weeks ago when it launched on the App Store promising interactive eBooks for children from the likes of Hasbro, Crayola and SeaWorld, and – intriguingly – progress reports for parents, a unique feature to update parents on their child’s reading habits.

There’s certainly no doubt that the app has caught the attention of not only the press, but also consumers; four of the initial Ruckus Reader bookshelves hit the iTunes top ten chart for free iPad apps for books within days of launch, while overall Reader app downloads reached one million just two weeks’ after launch.

CEO Rick Richter explained how the Reader, far from being another consumer throw-away, is actually something built for education, and based on a freemium business model.

“What we’ve constructed here is an educational platform with integrated applications, with parent access so they can see how their child is doing.

“In our model, everything starts with free, which is unusual in the traditional publishing world, but this is how the customer will find us.”

In fact, there is more to this free model than what meets the eye, with Richter indicating that, as Reader allows branded icons to appear on your iPad home screen (and not that of Reader), advertising and marketing actually plays a key role. Some four billion ad impressions are reportedly expected to appear across mobile devices this year.

The Reader app: Interactive eBooks, with progress reports for parents

In a demo, Richter showed how the app serves up a series of title-specific bookshelves, which a parent can download for their children.

Within this bookshelf are free and subscription-based books, some of which incorporate more advanced interactive features like spelling games, and word recognition activities, while as many as four user accounts can be registered on one bookshelf.

These features are innovative enough, but there is no doubt that much of the app’s success also lies in the ability to feed results back to the parents.

As Richter explained to event attendees at the Sandbox Summit at MIT in April, this is a crucial part for parents, who – according to a national survey – express some guilt about entertaining their children with interactive content, even if is just for reading eBooks on digital devices. The Ruckus Reader app is designed to take away this guilt by showing how children are engaging with these eBooks.

The app’s ‘Reader Meter’ section allows parents to get a pretty visual indication of how their child is engaging with the content, and includes checks on how long kids’ are reading the content for, as well as measuring their word recognition, print awareness, alphabetic knowledge and story comprehension, all of which are measured against the US national curriculum.

As a further boost, these reports can also be viewed by interested third-parties (who are not Reader customers), while report snapshots can be emailed out to multiple recipients.

The eBook prices are not dissimilar to those you find on Amazon. Individual copies cost $3.99, but Richter said that most parents are instantly heading to the bookshelf where three related titles can be picked up for $3.99. Some are also opting for pay $24.99 for access to all books in a six-month period.

Publishing partnerships are underway, but the eBook price fixing cartel is an issue

As the company is still in its early days, only Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been firmed up as a new publisher, although Richter admits legal issues are still standing in the way of adding publishers.

“We expect other major announcements soon but it has been slightly complicated by the fact some of these guys have got knitting to sort out first [a reference to the on-going eBook price fixing allegations facing Apple and others). So there’s a slight lag there.”

Designs for the future: Access for middle grade students, a model for education?

At present, Reader is geared up for children aged 3 to 8, according to Richter, but he says the firm may cater to older, middle school children in the future, a move which might force them to re-design the entire app.

“Our focus now is on children from 3 to 8, but naturally we may migrate to older children over time. We started with this age group because it comes from my experience in kids’ book publishing and there are also a couple of things with this age group: The parent makes the purchase, and the brands are generally less fickle, so are evergreen in the area for many years. That allows us to have the confidence in building these brands.

“In a year’s time, we might program for the middle grade, but we might re-skin it for the older readers, because they’ll probably want their own experience.”

Richter added, in a separate interview, that the group could develop the Reader for education, with even the possibility of a teacher’s edition, 35 user accounts and portals for parents. “We’ve got a very positive response from educators, because everyone can see how a child can use it”.

iPad now, Kindle Fire later?

Reader is on the iPad at the moment, and Richter said that Ruckus Media wouldn’t be committed to Android as a whole, although a specific device – like the Kindle Fire – is a possibility.

“It’s most likely that we wouldn’t do a general Android development. We’re more likely to do a device specific version, because it’s a highly fragmented market, and development costs are usually high in the six figures. I think it’s more likely that we’ll partner with one device on a pre-load basis, and we’re in discussions now with certain device manufacturers.”


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