Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s O’Callaghan Talks Tech

By Ian Quillen — September 17, 2010 2 min read
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My colleague Erik Robelen and I welcomed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt CEO Barry O’Callaghan to EdWeek Global Headquarters for a late-morning discussion today about where technology is taking educational publishing, and how his company and others are adapting.

Erik will also post on this topic over on the Curriculum Matters blog, but here are a couple of my interesting takeaways.

• O’Callaghan said education, and in turn educational publishing, is at a “tipping point” in the United States. The combination of budget constraints, increased technological capability, and continued unacceptable achievement on test scores nationally, he said, means all players are more willing than ever to overhaul the system, as displayed by the common-standards movement and the recent Race to the Top competition. For publishers, that means embracing digital platforms to provide cheaper content and more acutely targeting individual student needs.

This might not be particularly profound to most of you, but it’s still interesting to hear from a leader in an industry many think of as suffering from the technology boom.

When formulating a definition of what exactly the “tipping point,” is, O’Callaghan explained it this way: “If state and local budgets came back and were perfectly funded tomorrow morning, do I think things would step back to the way they used to be (with regards to reform and technology integration)? No, I don’t.”

• O’Callaghan said the publisher’s $100 million innovation fund, which was just announced Monday, is intended to function like a venture capital operation. There will be few guidelines other than that proposals be new ideas that can improve K-12 student achievement and individualize learning through technology integration. And while internal ideas will be considered, there is no recommendation of how many winning ideas be selected from within or outside the company.

HMH would own the winning ideas, O’Callaghan said, but innovators would benefit from a working agreement and supply of capital that eliminates several steps of the traditional start-up process. While the application procedure is still not finalized—a publisher spokesman said to expect those details within about four weeks—O’Callaghan also hinted at what the size and scope of a winning project would be.

“We don’t expect it to be two ideas for $50 million each,” he said. “We expect it to be $2- to $5-million ideas, with 20-50 ideas.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.