Britannica School: Winning Profile in Transformation and Perseverance

Although a longtime member of the PreK-12 Learning Group and winner of many Distinguished Achievement Awards, Encyclopaedia Britannica had never won a Golden Lamp award – until 2013. They did so with Britannica School, a completely digital product created and developed by the Britannica Digital Learning division, that blew the judges away with its comprehensiveness, classroom-friendly features, and ease of use.

Tom Panelas, Director, Communications, discusses the development process and the keys to Britannica School’s success.

The idea behind Britannica School . . .

Britannica School represents a thorough reimagining of our information solution for schools. For years we provided an excellent product in the form of Britannica Online School Edition, but Britannica School is a big leap forward with respect to our ability to serve the needs not only of the library and media lab, but today’s rapidly evolving classroom as well.  Among other things it’s specially designed to enable teachers to differentiate instruction and present all students with material that’s right for their reading level.

The product is also designed to work and display superbly on any device—PC, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. This is a rare benefit aimed at helping schools and classrooms in which students and teachers may be using different devices. Schools that encourage B.Y.O.D.—Bring Your Own Device—find this very valuable. No matter what machines kids bring to class, Britannica School works well on them.

The product development process . . .

It took about a year to design and create the product, though we drew on many of the assets present in our previous product, Britannica Online School Edition, which had been very successful. The process involved a lot of discussions with educators—a key component of all of our product-development efforts.

Several divisions of the company were involved throughout the process—Editorial, Product Development, and Sales and Marketing. Each of those divisions has education and curriculum specialists on staff, many of them former teachers, whose job it is to make sure that the product is designed to meet the needs of the classroom. Our product development group includes producers, programmers, designers, and user-experience (UX) specialists. And, of course, our editors were deeply involved as they are in all projects at Britannica. Educational product design is what we’re about today.

The challenge of having Britannica School work on any device . . .

There was a lot of “re-architecting” that had to be done to makeBritannica School work well on any device. That’s pretty cutting-edge work, and there’s no well-worn path to doing it. Our developers had to improvise and do a lot of inventing along the way, and as you can probably imagine there were some bumps in the road. But we did it! 

How Britannica School is used in the classroom . . .

Britannica School is used in a variety of ways: for instruction, research, reference, special projects, non-fiction reading, and especially for the Common Core State Standards. It’s also good for collaborative projects and learning 21st-century skills. It helps teachers engage students in learning to use different kinds of sources in a safe and reliable environment. Teachers have told us that it’s good for different learning styles: the multimedia and images draw in visual learners, for example.

The keys to Britannica School’s success . . .

One that should never be overlooked is the depth, quality, reliability, currency, and appropriateness of the content in Britannica School. This derives from an editorial process that represents the highest standards in educational publishing and is also very nimble: it’s updated continuously.

The overall design of the product is both attractive and easy to use, and it meets the needs of schools today with its alignment to all standards and the ease with which students can move smoothly to coverage of a topic at a different reading level—higher or lower—as needed.

And, of course, the fact that the product can be used on any device is a major factor in its success. 

What winning a Golden Lamp Award  means . . .

It’s a thrill to win the Golden Lamp Award. We’ve won the Distinguished Achievement Award a number of times, and that’s always very gratifying. As for the Golden Lamp, though, this is the first time we’ve won. It’s been a long road, and our experience going for the Golden Lamp has given us the ability to understand what a high standard it represents and what a great achievement it is to earn it.

Britannica’s belief in the future of new media and education . . .

Today, Britannica is very focused on the classroom, where the technology ecosystem is evolving rapidly and where we have a lot to offer. Whereas in the past printed textbooks may have been the main vehicle for communicating the curriculum, today the possibilities are much greater. With new media you can do much more than simply impart information: you can devise interactive and adaptive digital solutions that help the teacher teach the subject and make it more interesting and effective for student learning. Britannica comes to this task with several assets—a rigorous editorial regimen, a longstanding relationship with schools and teachers, an understanding of their challenges, and technological savvy. We have no preconceived notions or legacy products to defend in this area, so we are free to innovate, and we have with products like Britannica School and Britannica SmartMathPathways: Science is our newest product; it’s an inquiry-based program for middle-school students that aims to help them overcome common science misconceptions. We’ve gone way beyond our historical focus on reference and are designing new digital solutions for education. We’re going to do a lot more of it in the years ahead.

Read more about Britannica School.