Thursday, May 29, 2014

The New Reading Rainbow: For Progress or For Profit?

Yesterday I learned of a new Kickstarter project to bring back Reading Rainbow, that beloved PBS show forever in the hearts of kids from the 80s and 90s. Bring back Reading Rainbow?? The theme song hasn't left my head since 1992! What amazing things this Internet can do!

My initial reaction was, and I quote myself:
Adapting this amazing message, outdated by 20th-century technology, for the 21st-century world? This sounds like brilliance. Take a look at the Kickstarter project video and see for yourself:

The mission of the new Reading Rainbow, as outlined in the above video, is three-fold:
  • Develop a web-enabled Reading Rainbow for the home
  • Create a classroom version with the tools our teachers need
  • Subsidize the cost so that the schools most in need can use Reading Rainbow FOR FREE

Initially, I hopped right on board and decided to download the existing Reading Rainbow iPad app onto my mom's iPad for my 3-year old nephew to browse to browse for myself. And while the platform is engaging and the books plentiful, my enthusiasm suddenly dropped with the presence of one very exclusive word...


And I discovered that the Reading Rainbow app is actually highly restricted unless you pay $9.99 a month. Suddenly, LeVar's claim that a web-enabled Reading Rainbow will expand access because "not everyone can afford a tablet" sounds almost fraudulent. Who, of that target audience you're addressing in your promotional video, the ones that "can't afford a tablet," can then justify a $10-a-month service fee?

Based on the goals listed above, it seems this cost will still exist on a web-version; but clever marketing, counting on nostalgic sentiment and employing selective omission, hopes you overlook this very basic fact: Reading Rainbow is no longer a free universal resource as it was during its days on public television; it's a for-profit enterprise. Through Kickstarter, we're funding the creation of material that will be sold for profit, somewhat under the guise this material will help every child everywhere, NO MATTER THEIR SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS. And when the aid to "schools most in need" covers only about 1,500 classrooms (as listed in the project description), the universality seems to come up short.

I support the enthusiasm for stories, books, and independent exploration Reading Rainbow has always shared to encourage kids to find interest in reading. However, I feel a bit conflicted by the new Reading Rainbow's tagline of "Every Child...Everywhere." Perhaps if the subscription model was directed at institutions, specifically, instead of individuals, it would feel more genuine—schools or libraries could then provide this resource to their students and users for free, just as is the case with hundreds of other for-profit database resources. Or perhaps it'd seem more forthright if the video and accompanying information clearly stated that all these resources aren't available without paying a subscription fee. Instead, I feel like the intent is admirable, but the access is still limited to the haves rather than have-nots who need it the most.

What do you think about the NEW Reading Rainbow? Bridging the technology and literacy gaps is one of the biggest challenges facing schools and libraries. Can Reading Rainbow help?


lena said...

I had some of the same reservations as you (I have no history with RR but I like the idea of it). Burton did an AMA yesterday where he addressed this. He's going to be using the extra money to make the subscription cost go away for those that cannot afford it.

Unfortunately, if he is going to do everything he promised in the video, he needs skilled programmers and those aren't cheap - a subscription model may be the only way to keep the dream alive without having to do another Kickstarter when they inevitably run out of money.

Kari said...

lena -- Thank you for sharing about the AMA. And I agree with you completely about the subscription model. The promotion for this fundraiser just never seemed very forthright about the fact that it IS now a product, and it felt a bit misleading to me. I wonder what the process will be for determining schools/individuals that will get this resource without cost.