LOS ANGELES - "Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high." Remember those lyrics from the once-popular children's show "Reading Rainbow?" Well, it's back. But this time, on your iPad.
Last week, "Reading Rainbow" host, executive producer and actor LeVar Burton, launched the "Reading Rainbow" app through his for-profit company RR Kidz Inc. Burton says he hopes the app will have the same impact on a new, more "digitally-native" generation as the show had on kids in the '80s.
The app, like the show, is aimed at children ages 3-9, who are just learning how to read. Like the show, Burton plays host, this time calling himself "Curator in Chief." He, along with digital animations named Jane and Austin, guides children on a hot-air balloon ride through the chosen story.
"The child will be able to navigate islands in a hot air balloon … a metaphor for a journey, a literal way to transport yourself from one place to another," Burton said. "The islands are themed and a child can go to these islands and find videos as well as books. "Reading Rainbow" was famous for giving you a backstage tour, giving you an experience that was based in the real world that was related to the literature and the featured book in every show, and so the video field trips are a key component."
The free app contains 150 books and 16 video field trips. However, to gain the full experiences parents will have to shell out $9.99 per month. That's pretty pricey, considering the original program was free and widely available on PBS. Burton acknowledged the issue, but hopes that the education system can help bridge the gap.
"We are aware that there are a lot of folks out there who don't own iPads and can't afford the $9.99 subscription price. We will be working, in the fullness of time, with schools, teachers and school districts all over the country," he said. "One of my goals is to make this technology, in general, universally accessible to kids. We have the ability as well as the knowledge to literally transform the way we educate our children in the United States … I think that with this technology, putting a tablet computer in every child's hands should be our agenda."
Burton isn't alone in this belief. Last February, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged schools to embrace digital textbooks in the next five years. In May, Burton met Duncan during the annual Reading is Fundamental's "Gift of Reading" gala.
"I was able to demonstrate to him the app and he was very complimentary." Burton said, "I know I got his buy-in that it's going to take a public/private partnership to get it done. Government just can't bear the complete and total burden and the responsibility. … Entrepreneurs need to get involved and make education a way for them to give back."
In the not-too-distant future, many schools may be equipped with handheld devices, and companies like Burton's will be right there to deliver content. Content that Burton hopes will reinsert what he believes has been lost in the education process — the art of storytelling.
"When we can insert storytelling into the learning process, there's less resistance; there's no barrier for the learner," Burton said. "The receptivity is there in terms of a child's desire to absorb information from the story. It's just a brilliant delivery system for teaching."
Does it work? Mauri Dufour, a literacy education specialist and kindergarten teacher at Washburn Elementary School in Maine, believes technology is a great help in terms of educating kids. Dufour said the iPad in particular "transforms learning" and is a "game-changer."
"The iPad with different apps gives flexibility … keeping kids engaged at whatever level they are at."
Dufour is one of five teachers in the country chosen to pilot the use of iPad 2.0 in the classroom. She is also one of the authors of a yearlong study, currently the only one of its kind in the country, touting the benefits of iPad use and literacy amongst kindergarten students.
"I had kindergarten kids, within 6-8 weeks, had learned more than half of their letters and it wasn't just in my class, but they were able to transfer that knowledge to other classrooms," Dufour said. "It's really powerful, especially with beginning word work."
Dufour, like Burton, believes that kids not only need to be taught how to read but why reading is important. "Stories tell kids that there's a process and not just words on a page," she said. "There's a beginning, middle and end."
Dufour got a chance to look at Burton's app, and she believes it is "an app that children would be engaged in, and it had proper modeling of beginning reading fluency and intonation."
It remains to be seen whether the "Reading Rainbow" app will make similar waves for a new generation on the iPad as the TV show did or whether Burton's dream of having his app available to schools throughout the country will pan out. What is certain, is that handheld technology is poised to make an impact on how children are educated in school.