Can the Reading Rainbow Digital Revamp Boost Literacy?

This week, my Facebook feed was filled with photos of LeVar Burton. The actor is as famous for helping engage early readers as he is for portraying Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Kunta Kinte in ROOTS.

Burton announced a Kickstarter project this week to relaunch the beloved PBS program, "Reading Rainbow." If you were a child or a parent of a young child in the 80s or 90s, you probably know the "Reading Rainbow" theme song by heart. It's possible you even say "But you don't have to take my word for it" whenever you're recommending something (oh wait, maybe that's just me).

On the surface (or, uh, glancing at the thumbnail on Facebook), it looked like the campaign intended to bring the "Reading Rainbow" TV show back on the air. Digging a little deeper, however, the Kickstarter page reveals that the project is actually supporting the Reading Rainbow digital collection. The project has already doubled its ambitious goal of $1,000,000, and it promises to put Reading Rainbow in over 1,500 classrooms for free. Sounds awesome, right?

Digital-First Programs vs. Digital Divide       

Quite frankly, I'm torn. While I believe in the power of Reading Rainbow to raise literacy rates, a digital-first model makes me nervous. Librarians are already well aware of the digital divide and know the sobering Pew Internet stat that less than half of households earning under $30,000 have high-speed broadband Internet access.

The Washington Post ran a story today called "You might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter." While I think the title is a bit harsh, the author, Caitlin Dewey, makes some good points, particularly around digital inclusion. She points out that the digital Reading Rainbow will require high-speed Internet because it is video-centric. She also makes the good point that old Reading Rainbow episodes are already readily available for free on YouTube.  

The Project Could Go Anywhere

But is Dewey being overly cynical about a project that hasn't even launched yet? UNESCO conducted a study that found that mobile devices can open educational opportunities and raise literacy rates in developing countries. The study found that 62 percent of respondents enjoy reading even more after they started reading on mobile devices, such as e-readers or tablets. Will these statistics combine with Reading Rainbow's fun and engaging presentation to turn kids into readers?  

I sure hope so. I want to trust LeVar Burton and I want the Reading Rainbow project  to succeed. One of my friends, an elementary school teacher, has faith in the project. "Instilling a passion for reading is as important as how to read, and passion is not a strong point of phonics," she remarked.

I just hope that the kids who are left out of the digital divide can be a part of that passion too. What is your take on the Reading Rainbow project? Let us know in the comments. 

Image: Angie K


First off, as someone who grew up watching Reading Rainbow and nerding out on Star Trek: TNG, I've been avidly following the news about Burton's Kickstarter campaign. And there's a lot about the campaign that's wonderful and exciting. At minimum, it's interesting to see how effectively Burton has harnessed our collective nostalgia and his celebrity status to address an important issue. And he's raised a lot of money very quickly.  

But I also have concerns. In addition to the question of whether a "digital first" model will actually reach the kids that would benefit most from literacy programs, the campaign is also supporting the expansion of a paid for-profit service. As Burton says, When we reach $5,000,000, we'll be able to provide free access for over 7,500 CLASSROOMS.

So what about all the other classrooms? Or nonprofits that are doing literacy work? Might that 5 million dollars be better spent directly supporting nonprofit, library, and/or school literacy initiatives, rather than supporting a for-profit company (even if that for-profit company has the best of intentions and the noblest of goals and will provide free service to many classrooms)?