Sora, OverDrive Education’s K–12 student reading app, is marking its first birthday with some impressive stats, as well as ed tech honors. The app is now available in 23,000 schools nationwide, an increase of 5,000 schools since its launch in September 2018, and in that same time frame there have been 5.5 million total Sora checkouts. Earlier this year, Sora was selected as one of AASL’s Best Apps for Teaching and Learning 2019, and last month the app was named among Time magazine’s 100 best inventions of 2019. In June, AASL awarded OverDrive Education the Association’s Crystal Apple Award, honoring an individual or group who has made a significant impact on school libraries and learners.

According to OverDrive, Sora set records for student usage in its inaugural year. Educators who implemented the app in the classroom during the 2018–2019 school year noted that students using it nearly doubled the amount of time they spent reading. And for students who activated the feature to connect Sora to their local public libraries, as opposed to accessing only their schools’ digital offerings, e-book and audiobook reading increased more than 240%.

Brian Potash, head of school growth for OverDrive Education, says that Sora’s strong performance dovetails with several other trends in the ed tech arena. “There are a few things happening here,” he explains. “One is the impact that devices are having on schools, and how much technology is becoming part of the daily lives of students.” He notes that most schools in the U.S. now have either some formal device initiative, or a bring-your-own-device policy. This type of access to technology has prompted “a shift in focus, in both spending and usage, toward digital content in schools,” Potash says.

New data that supports these trends was released earlier this year in the “2019 K–12 Digital Content Report,” a study cosponsored by OverDrive Education and ASCD (a nonprofit association of education administrators) and conducted by Readex Research, focusing on current digital content usage habits in schools and plans for future incorporation. The results reflect the responses of 1,491 school administrators across the country.

Ninety-two percent of the survey’s respondents are currently using “digital content, e-books, or audiobooks for instructional content or for independent, student-choice reading” at their schools. Related to that finding, the use of digital content in the classroom is 15% higher than in 2016. When it comes to school purchases of digital content, on average, respondents are allocating 38% of their total materials budget to digital content vs. print for classroom instruction; and 31% of the library/media materials budget is allocated to digital content vs. print. Not surprisingly, 80% of the administrators surveyed said that their teachers most often use digital content for teaching English and language arts. Though 99% of respondents said they saw at least one benefit in using digital content over print, roughly the same number, 95%, listed a variety of concerns about shifting from digital to print. The most mentioned issue in this area was “equity concerns about lack of internet access at home.”

Potash points out that Sora’s solid first-year results mirror the revelations of the “Digital Content Report.” “We’re seeing the schools that have transitioned from our classic OverDrive app to Sora are reading one more book than they had in the previous year,” he says. “That type of incremental increase is having an impact on student reading habits and time spent reading. We found in the 2018–2019 school year that the average time active users spent reading went from about an hour a month to more than two hours per month toward the end of the year. Students are accessing more books and spending more time engaging with those materials.”

Sora’s Start

As a provider of digital materials, OverDrive has had a sizable footprint in the public library space for some time. Consequently, Potash notes that the idea for Sora was percolating for a while. “As OverDrive started to partner more and more with schools, we realized that e-books and audiobooks in the school setting is a very different experience and presents many different needs,” he says. “Sora was born out of the need not only to provide students with the easiest user experience for accessing these types of materials, but to provide the tools that students and educators require.” In addition, Potash says, the app can provide “the insight that the district might need to understand how students are using and interacting with materials, so they can track progress throughout the year.”

Sora was launched in addition to the classic OverDrive app, which Potash says the company will continue to support, noting that schools have the choice of which product they’d like to use. Though the Sora app itself is free, schools or districts that decide to adopt it can work with an in-house team of licensed librarians and educators at OverDrive Education to tailor a digital collection with materials from the company’s extensive catalogue. Schools and districts can choose from a variety of pricing strategies, and OverDrive offers technical support and training in addition to collection development help. Sora is compatible with Google Classroom and contains such tools as dyslexic font, a multilingual interface, readalongs, gamification for student achievements, and the ability for students to “communicate upstream and downstream with educators and other students,” Potash says.

One of the most innovative features of Sora allows students to add access to their local public libraries’ digital collections. In November, this functionality was upgraded so that the app can display public libraries’ content according to each student’s assigned audience level—juvenile, young adult (users can view and borrow YA or juvenile titles), or general/adult (which allows users to view and borrow adult, YA, and juvenile titles). Potash is especially enthusiastic about the public library feature, because it allows schools or districts with limited or even nonexistent budgets for digital materials to access them at no charge. He notes that a big focus for OverDrive Education in 2020 is to “make sure that all schools across the globe know they can do this for free—through the public library.”

Looking to the Future

When asked about Sora’s competition in the ed tech space, Potash offers a response that he admits may sound “a little cheeky”: “I think a big competitor that still dominates the space is print books. The world that we are [introducing to schools contains] the tools, the accessibility, and inclusivity that digital provides, and the insights.”

As an example, Potash points out some advantages of using a digital title for an assignment as opposed to print. “If a class does a novel study using a paperback book, a student can’t quickly put the text into dyslexic font,” he says. “Also, a teacher doesn’t know if a student ever opens the book or how often they are looking up words or taking notes.”

Though Potash’s business is developing and supporting efforts to deliver OverDrive’s digital content and tools to schools, he emphasizes a bigger picture as he looks ahead. “We support reading in all of its modes,” he says. “We’re not looking to replace print books or saying that the future is 100% digital, because print plays a very important role in engaging with students and with teachers and districts. We know that digital is a part of providing differentiation, to allow students to engage in another way.”