A Foot in Both Worlds

As an educational publisher ramps up online distribution, the lesson plan calls for the market to decide

Photo: Dave and Demetra Turnbull of Chalkboard Publishing Inc.

DEMETRA TURNBULL WAS a teacher some 20 years ago when she first began to notice something was lacking in her classroom materials—a little Canadian content.

Then, approximately 13 years ago, that revelation manifested itself in the creation of Chalkboard Publishing Inc., a company she launched to provide teachers—and eventually parents—with useful tools for teaching young minds.

“I wanted to provide practical, engaging, Canadian ­material for teachers. It always came from the perspective of, if I was in the classroom, what would I need and what would I like to see,” says Turnbull.

“At that time, there were a lot of supplementary materials that were needed,” she continues. “I used to describe them as practical, ready-to-go materials for the classroom, such as activities, worksheets, multi-use educational materials. It caught on.”

What she was creating caused such a buzz, recalls her husband, Dave Turnbull, other teachers would line up at the school photocopier to get their own copies of her teaching materials.

“We want to keep growing the paper business, but grow the online as well. The market will set where the demand is” ―Demetra Turnbull

Before long, Chalkboard Publishing began distribution of its materials—aimed at kids in kindergarten to grade six— at Scholar’s Choice, a retailer favoured by many teachers for materials and teaching aids.

From there, things blossomed quickly, and today the company distributes its workbooks across Canada at a variety of retailers and chains, such as Costco, Staples and Walmart.

But while the aim of helping students to become happier and more confident learners has always been paramount, the company switched its primary market focus from teachers to parents, giving them needed resources to help their children at home.

“If we’re able to provide easy-to-understand, practical, Canadian-curriculum-based materials for parents to use at home—so it’s not a mystery how to work with their children and is, at the same time, fun and engaging—then we’ve done our job,” says Demetra. “Time is a precious and everybody has stuff going on in their lives—working long hours, or in our family, it happened to be health issues.”

Dave, an investment banker and part-time faculty member at Ivey Business School, took on a greater role in Chalkboard some three years ago, largely after Demetra’s battle with breast cancer. He also expanded his role as the company started to move towards a greater online presence.

“The content is the same, the only thing that changes going online is how it’s distributed,” Dave says. “Instead of picking it up at a retail store, having physical paper—which is an expensive way to move the content—we now go directly to the consumer and they can print off as many copies as they want.”

Opting for a monthly subscription model, subscribers to the online platform also have access to all of the Chalkboard materials at any time.

As Demetra notes, even with an online subscription, when users are printing off exercises, kids still maintain a physical resource to utilize.

“There is still a place for kids to interact with paper because it gives them a sense of accomplishment when they complete something,” she explains. “They can show their individuality in the way they present their ideas. There’s a place for paper, but also for interactive learning. It’s about a combination of them both.”

While the online market is a relatively new area for Chalkboard, it has grown quickly. Online subscriptions now account for almost 30 per cent of the firm’s revenue.

Even so, the company remains committed to providing support to parents and teachers in whatever medium they prefer. “It’s 100 per cent important to keep up with physical books,” says Dave.

“We want to keep growing the paper business, but grow the online as well,” Demetra says. “I don’t know what that mix will look like, but it’s important to connect through retail stores and online. It’s keeping up with the needs of people today. Consumers like the convenience of being able to go back and get older materials, or if the need is to be more stimulated, they can go and get more. The market will set where the demand is.”  Sean Meyer