With Big Universe, District Discovers New Frontier for Engagement and Exploration
February 18, 2011—When Julie Bohnenkamp, director of technology at Center Grove Community School Corporation ten miles south of downtown Indianapolis, decided to invest in an online reading and writing tool called Big Universe, she thought she was onto something.
Her district had won a state grant aimed at improving literacy with tech-rich classrooms and as a result Bohnenkamp sought a content resource that would perfectly complement her district’s recent 1:1 computing initiative and 2,000 new machines. During her investigation, she discovered BigUniverse.com, an online reading and writing community for grades pre-K through 8 with a large library of online books, an online writing and publishing tool, a bookshelf-sharing feature, and many supporting tools such as reading logs and more. It appeared to be just the tool for anytime-anywhere reading and writing and would give her educators the necessary tools to differentiate instruction, teach balanced literacy and monitor student progress. “Big Universe is so flexible, with such a huge online library and with such a good writing feature, I had very high hopes for it,” says Bohnenkamp.
It was not long before she knew she was onto something.
Within minutes of observing one of the first classes in her elementary school pilot use Big Universe in acomputer lab, she saw some amazing things. One young boy immediately began selecting books on tanks and other military subjects. Bohnenkamp asked him about his choices and the student said, “My dad is away in Afghanistan.” She saw other male students selecting books on motorcycles and boats and female students gravitating towards fiction. Finally, she saw an ESL (English as a Second Language) student choosing audio books, “taking it upon himself to take out his earbuds and start listening as he followed along on the screen.”
“There was immediate differentiation,” says Bohnenkamp. “Each student was instantly and eagerly looking for books on subjects they were interested in. We were truly meeting them where they were at.”
Before the one-year pilot with one elementary school was finished, Big Universe founder and CEO Anil Hemrajani contacted Bohnenkamp with news that the school was the product’s biggest user. He wanted to know if he and some of his staff could come analyze how the school’s teachers and students were using Big Universe.
“Sometimes tools are embraced,” says Bohnenkamp, a veteran of both K–12 and higher education, “sometimes not.”
The keys to stellar success
There are several keys to Big Universe’s success believes Bohnenkamp. The students “like to make their own selection. The site is very visual. They can write their own stories and publish them for their friends and peers to see. And there’s a social networking aspect to it. They can make reading recommendations to their friends and see what their friends are reading.”
Bohnenkamp stresses the personalized selection that Big Universe offers students. “Students are put on the same playing field in that they can read what they’re comfortable with. There’s no embarrassment. They are in front of a computer, engaging with the book, without other students as audience to judge. It’s easy and it’s safe.”
Teachers appreciate that all the material is leveled by grade and there is a wide selection of science, social studies, language arts, math and fiction. Today, Big Universe has 24 publisher partners, nearly 3,000 online books and over 40,000 members from 153 countries. “It’s very easy to identify books that correlate to what teachers are teaching,” stresses Bohnenkamp.
Student-driven, not teacher-driven
Finally, explains Bohnenkamp, there is an aspect that students and teachers both like. “The beauty of Big Universe is that it’s not teacher-driven, but student-driven. Once in the site, students are free to explore. There is not a lot of labor for the teacher. There are features to bring the teacher in, but teachers don’t have to be an expert on it to start and for their students to begin using it effectively. The most difficult that Big Universe is going to get is logging on. It’s that easy and intuitive.”
Hemrajani, the CEO of Big Universe, states: “It has been amazing to see all the different ways schools like
Julie’s are using our product to further learning. We see it used in classrooms on interactive whiteboards and computers, in libraries and media labs for independent reading or writing workshops, and by reading andwriting specialists for differentiated instruction. And, of course, at home for reading and writing independently or along with the parents. I believe we start improving the world we live in by educating our children and my hope is that Big Universe will help reverse the problems of illiteracy, high drop-out rates and falling core-subject mastery.”
Expanding and engaging
This year, Center Grove Community School Corporation rolled Big Universe out to all five of their elementary schools. Teachers are incorporating the tool into their students’ computer lab and classroom time. Students can also access the site at home and Bohnenkamp plans to launch a summer reading program utilizing Big Universe. The district might expand Big Universe into the two middle schools for special education instruction. While it is too early to tell if Big Universe is impacting scores, she says “engagement is definitely up.”
For more information
If you would like additional information about Big Universe or if you would like to purchase Big Universe for your schools, please contact ENA Consortium Program Manager Kylie McGee at firstname.lastname@example.org or (615) 312-6083.