Cambridge, Mass., start-up BoomWriter Media, a content creation, delivery, and collaboration platform used in 5,000 schools in 80 countries, seems aptly named for a growing concern. In June, it added 400 schools to its roster and now has a presence in all 50 states. Next week its Online Storytellers Camp, presented in partnership with WGBH Boston, goes live with a tale begun by Jeff Kinney, which campers get to finish. The company is also partnering with Barnes & Noble to develop apps for the Nook. And it’s about to seek new funding after raising $940,000 over the past year.
Founded in 2010, BoomWriter grew out of a conversation between current CEO Chris Twyman, who also started the HR technology company Zapoint, and Ken Haynes, v-p of product development, who taught Twyman’s daughter at the Pierce School in Brookline, Mass. Twyman wanted to break down the writing process into smaller, more easily digestible pieces and allow people to work collaboratively. Haynes was looking for a way to bring more technology into the classroom. Together they developed, tested, and launched the platform with cofounder and CTO Ian Garland, who lives in England.
The concept behind BoomWriter is relatively straightforward. Teachers assign one of the company’s projects, like Suki’s Alligator, which was recently completed by students at Milton High School in Milton, Mass. The first chapter, or “story start,” will have already been written, sometimes by a celebrity like Jordan Knight, lead singer of New Kids on the Block, or by an author like Kinney, or, in the case of Suki’s Alligator, by a local Boston freelance writer. The remaining chapters are written collaboratively, one by one. Groups of students each submit their second chapters to their teacher, who then edits and posts them. The students vote anonymously on which entry they like the best, using BoomWriter software, and the winning chapter becomes chapter 2. The process is repeated until the book is finished.
Twyman said that in addition to making writing easier, even for reluctant writers, BoomWriter facilitates “flexible thinking,” explaining that it promotes not just writing collaboratively but taking the plot in a new direction with each chapter. And he sees applications for the platform beyond its utility for kids and college students. “You can apply the process to so many other areas,” he said, giving the examples of music and script writing.
“What kids really like are the projects,” said Haynes, who, as a special ed teacher, has found BoomWriter motivating for reluctant writers. Rather than kids losing interest if their chapter isn’t selected, the opposite occurs. They become more involved, particularly in the final chapter. Because BoomWriter can be used for argumentative writing as well as creative writing, it meets Common Core standards on several levels, including writing narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events, and using the Internet to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
BoomWriter is free to schools, but charges for private classes and camps offered to individuals online. Although the books are composed online, Twyman has found that “no one wants to gave an e-book to their grandmother.” So this year BoomWriter got involved with print-on-demand to make classroom projects available as finished books. In June, it shipped 2,000 paperback books with colorful covers and black-and-white interiors. Twyman plans to add illustrations soon.
Twyman and Haynes see this as the platform’s early stages. “I think we’ve tapped into a tiny part of what BoomWriter delivers,” Twyman said. In a statement published on the BoomWriter Web site, he notes what he sees as the advantages of working in BoomWriter: “No more trips to the cabin in the woods. No more working in isolation. No more antiquated all-or-nothing approach to creative writing.”
Not all authors agree with the BoomWriter approach, and Twyman acknowledges that some have declined to write starter chapters. However, the company is getting high marks from some in the education field, and was recently adopted by both the Boston and Chicago public school systems. In addition, BoomWriter received an EdTech Digest Cool Tool Award for 2013 for collaborative solution, and Twyman was a finalist for the Edupreneur Leadership Award. A patent for the BoomWriter writing and voting technology platform is currently pending.