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Online Video Service Offers AP and College Admissions Test Aid

Video lessons aiming to help high schoolers succeed in AP-level courses and to give them an edge on college admissions tests are the main offerings of an online startup that debuted this week.

San Francisco-based Brightstorm Inc. has rolled out an initial set of 20 courses, each consisting of about 15 “episodes,” or instructional units of from 8 to 15 minutes long.

The courses, which cover a range of AP subjects as well as SAT- and ACT-Prep, are supplementary. They assume that students are taking the conventional course in a classroom or perhaps online.

But in each video course, a “rock star” teacher reveals his or her inside track to understanding the material, as well as useful tips and tricks.

The cost of this insight is $49 per course, for one year of access.

That makes Brightstorm pricey, especially for test-prep; consider that, to be fully prepped for the SAT or ACT, a student must take separate courses for math, writing, and critical reading.

Of course, many upper-middle-class and well-off families may not hesitate to pay $150 or more, along with all the other money they shell out to improve their child’s academic prospects.

Jeff Marshall, the chief executive officer, said in an interview with Digital Education that for now, Brightstorm is marketed to families, not schools, although schoolwide deals might be possible in the future.

Promoting Energetic Teachers

The Brightstorm videos do seem to make their subjects go down easy, with teachers as telegenic as any you find on national public television programming. The teachers range from young and spunky to motherly or wizened-and-wise types.

Teachers are active, too. Videos show them running around in city parks or eating pizza—a very handy prop for discussing fractions and geometry, apparently.

The video production values are professional, which Marshall says is one way the videos are superior to the free teacher-made videos you can find on YouTube and Teacher Tube.

Recruiting for Video

Brightstorm currently is recruiting more teachers to make videos--a part-time gig that usually takes place in the summer.

Applications are pouring in, Marshall said.

That fact illustrates an emerging feature of the digital education era: A lot of teachers want to get into video and digital technology, just as much as students do.

Marshall said Brightstorm will be a part-time career for some of the nation's finest teachers, who will reap both an initial fee as well as royalty payments from their videos.

Teachers' income from popular courses could be significant, eventually perhaps two or three times their regular teaching salaries, Marshall said.

One task these teachers do not have is to interact with students. Instead, students are encouraged to leave comments and questions for other students taking the same course. The site also is posting academic challenges and organizing other activities for students. Parents can also access their child's course.

Two of the three founders of Brightstorm are former teachers, and both men are using their professional contacts to recruit teachers, Marshall said.

Marshall taught in public schools in California and Arizona and helped start a school that uses an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum. Marshall is also a former board member and president of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nationwide school reform organization.

Chris F. Walsh, the chief learning officer, was a program director at WestEd, where he helped develop content for the U.S. Department of Education’s “Doing What Works” Web site. He was also the founding director of the Google Teacher Academy, a professional development program for K-12 educators, and he was a director of technology at the KIPP Foundation, a network of public charter schools.

The third co-founder is Bum Soo Kim, who serves as the chief operating officer. He was formerly a principal at KTB Ventures, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif. The firm is a subsidiary of KTB Securities Co. Ltd, based in Seoul, South Korea.

Broadband the Key

South Korea, incidentally, is one of 14 developed countries that have more broadband access to the Internet than the U.S. does, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Broadband (see my co-blogger Katie Ash's story in Digital Directions) is required to view Brightstorm's videos online, Marshall said, making it a precondition for the success of the new service.

Citing other data, Marshall said the share of U.S. families that have broadband access, through cable, satellite, or DSL service, has been increasing and recently crossed the 50 percent mark.

If the broadband trend continues, you can bet on seeing more video-intensive educational services like Brightstorm emerge in the coming years.

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