‘Big Three’ Publishers Rethink K-12 Strategies

By Michelle R. Davis — February 06, 2013 9 min read
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Arizona’s Vail school district is the kind of customer that gives big textbook publishers pause.

The 12,000-student school district swapped out printed textbooks for digital material in 2006, but students aren’t using e-textbooks. Instead, the district collects instructional materials the way a teenager creates a song playlist, taking digital content from various places, often for free. Meanwhile, for a fee, the Vail district shares its electronic library of resources with 68 partner districts across the state.

“We are not beholden at all to the big textbook publishers,” says Superintendent Calvin Baker. “We used to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in the textbook cycle, but we don’t do that anymore.”

The push continues for school districts to move away from paper textbooks and toward digital curricula and e-textbooks. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged educators last year to move quickly to adopt digital textbooks and materials. Also last year, the Federal Communications Commission and the Education Department released a report, the “Digital Textbook Playbook,” which provided a blueprint for schools to make the shift.

Florida, for one, has already adopted legislation requiring districts to spend half their instructional-materials budgets on digital content by 2015-16, and other states are considering legislation promoting digital textbooks.

In this atmosphere, big textbook publishers must change their strategies and they must do it quickly, educators say, to provide schools with the innovative digital material they’re seeking. This flux is also occurring as districts in nearly all the states must consider their textbook needs in light of the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and math.


And how do the big textbook publishers today plan to meet the new demands? Interviews with officials of the “big three"—London-based Pearson, New York City-based McGraw-Hill Education, and Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—suggest they’re taking different approaches. They’re developing new products, and new methods for educators to use those products, that they hope will help them keep customers and expand their market shares by doing a better job meeting the needs of districts like Vail.

Pearson is moving aggressively into the digital-content market, says Luyen Chou, the chief product officer for K-12 technology at Pearson Education. In 2011, the company purchased SchoolNet, a New York City-based company that creates personalized education software, and where Chou was the chief product officer. More recently, Pearson invested $89 million in Nook Media, the Barnes & Noble e-reader subsidiary. The company generated a third of its sales from digital products and services in 2011.

Chou says Pearson’s strategy is to create a technology platform that allows for digital content to be distributed to educators. The platform will be content-neutral so the digital curricula it will share with Pearson customers may not necessarily have been created by Pearson content specialists, and it may even be free. Chou says there’s a new role for Pearson in curating and organizing electronic content and using its own experts to vouch for quality, particularly when it comes to open, or free, educational resources.

In addition, Pearson says it is trying to break away from the way digital content is being used now. “What we’ve done to date is use digital technology to still support a pretty traditional direct-instruction model,” Chou says. “We’re going to see our digital instructional content look less like glorified PDFs.”

That means embedded assessments, video-gaming strategies, interactivity, and student-collaboration tools built in, he says. The company is also developing a digital common-core basal curriculum, designed specifically for tablets. It’s Pearson’s first comprehensive curriculum created for tablets and the company may not even produce a print version. The curriculum will feature activity-based approaches, small group work, and hundreds of manipulatives and simulations.

“It will be born digital,” Chou says. “It’s very cool stuff.”

A pilot version will be released in 2013, he says.

Bite-Size Content

At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bethlam Forsa, the executive vice president of content development and publishing operations, says the company is working to break digital content into bite-size pieces. “Don’t refer to our curriculum as an e-textbook,” she says. “That has the connotation that it’s a book, … but this content is going to be highly modular.”

The company is aiming to slice and dice standards-based digital curricula into the smallest teachable units and offer them across any type of technology or device, she says. That content will be adaptive, she adds, and will have the ability to personalize technology for different types of learners with many options for a variety of learning styles.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has already headed in that direction with its Fuse math products, available as an app on the iPad, with assessments and interactivity built into the digital content. Future material will be even more adaptive, Forsa says.

That means that if a student is more of a visual learner, he or she can access the curricular material in better ways through video or graphics. If gaming seems to resonate with a student, those techniques will be accessible. New digital content and products will track where a student is in his or her learning progression and be able to prescribe the next step, Forsa says.

The company’s World History iBook, available for the iPad, is another indication of where the company is headed. It emphasizes multimedia, containing video, interactive diagrams, and maps built into the curriculum, Forsa says. In addition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is working on ways to promote digital curricula across subjects. A given learning object might satisfy a standard in social studies as well as one in language arts, for example.

“We’ve got to think of this in a holistic way,” says Forsa, “and a digital medium allows us to do that.”

Blending Print and Digital

But Stephen Laster, McGraw-Hill Education’s chief digital officer, says it’s important to recognize that many school districts still are not ready to go totally digital.

“Digital is clearly the future, but we’re in this blended world, where digital and print are really what our teachers are using today,” he says. “McGraw-Hill doesn’t think you should throw out the way education has been done and start from scratch.”

The company is not seeking to create a learning-management platform or get into the device business, Laster says. Instead, McGraw-Hill will focus on developing its own content, making it adaptive and personalized for students, and putting more effort into developing data dashboards to organize information for teachers.

The company last year acquired Key Curriculum, a math technology company based in Emeryville, Calif., in an effort to invest more heavily in the data that digital curricula can help collect about how students learn. McGraw-Hill is integrating its own digital offerings with those of Key Curriculum, featuring math-visualization software, data-analysis tools, and data-visualization applications.

Games and simulations will also play a larger role in McGraw-Hill’s digital content, building on the company’s current iBook textbooks, which feature built-in assessment “probes” to track student progress and help teachers determine how a student should review or move forward through the curriculum. New products will also be able to track a student’s time spent on tasks and have the ability to see how a student moves through the learning environment. The goal is to allow students to take a variety of paths through digital curricula based on their own learning styles.

Beyond those changes, McGraw-Hill is partnering with learning-management-system companies to provide content that aims to ensure that learning taking place outside of school through online learning is just as high quality as face-to-face instruction.

Educators say they’re looking forward to the more interactive, digital curricula and technological approaches the big textbook publishers are pursuing.

But they say the publishers need to change their business models to better meet the needs of K-12 schools.

“What we consider as a textbook is actually dead right now, though it might take a few years before the rest of the world realizes it,” says Jay McPhail, the director of instructional technology for the 44,000-student Riverside school district in California.

Publishers need to stop thinking of the majority of their offerings as proprietary, he says, and reconsider selling content as a large e-textbook package. The idea of offering a smaller learning object, or small chunks of curriculum, is more relevant, and digital content should give students the ability to rearrange that content according to their own learning styles, for example.

“The technology potential there is huge, but the big publishers can’t stay alive the way they’re structured now,” McPhail says.

‘Shaping Better Products’

Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services for the Florida Department of Education, says that as districts in her state transition to digital curricula, schools want to pull the very best content from multiple sources—some they might buy, the rest might be free.

“We’re moving away from one book per content area per grade per student,” she says. With digital capabilities already in development, Florida will be able to track what pieces of content are the most successful with students. Tools providing a rating for pieces of digital content will be visible on each teacher’s desktop, allowing the teacher to sort the material by standard and the best rating.

Tappen compares the process to that of the online retailer Amazon, which allows customers to rate and search products.

Tammy McGraw, the director of educational technology for the Virginia Department of Education, says one way for big textbook publishers to figure out what K-12 educators want and need is to work more closely with teachers and administrators.

Several years ago, as iPads were just starting to be used in schools, McGraw says, she approached the major publishers and asked them to think about how to deliver textbooks through a browser. Some publishers ended up partnering with the Virginia department to convert their print textbooks to apps, and both educators and publishers learned a lot about what students liked and didn’t, says McGraw, and about the difficulties in digitizing print textbooks.

Students, for example, didn’t like to use the browser on the iPad—they wanted the textbook to be accessible using an app. Students liked the interactive media and the electronic note-taking and highlighting features, and they loved to quiz themselves and do assessments on the fly. Many of those features ultimately became integrated into the products offered by the publishers, according to Tammy McGraw.

The process taught McGraw that textbook publishers play an important role, even in an age when a lot of digital curricula is free.

“Just because you have these tools that allow you to technically produce [curricula] doesn’t mean you do a great job putting it together,” she says.

But educators need to play a role and realize that each new technology development means a change for publishers. “We expect that right out of the gate they’re going to deliver something perfect,” McGraw says. “We have to do more to develop opportunities to give feedback to publishers, and we need to assume responsibilities for shaping better products.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Digital Shift


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