Do Print Books Have a Future in Tomorrow’s Classroom?
In my last post, I wrote about an agreement McGraw-Hill Education has reached with a supplier of Open Educational Resources (OER) that will make hundreds of thousands of digital assets available to educators and students within McGraw-Hill’s learning platform. What was notable about this deal is that McGraw-Hill’s customers will have to pay for access to the OER assets, which are available elsewhere free of charge.
The point I made was that in this case, the publisher’s value-add is less that it is making content available to customers than that it is presenting the content tagged and organized in a way that it is useful to them. In the age of OER, I wrote, curation -- not content -- is king.
The blog post included comments from Christine Willig, president of McGraw-Hill’s K-12 Education Group, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. What Willig said about the role of curated OER was interesting enough by itself, but what was perhaps even more interesting was what she had to say about the future of books in the classroom.
For context’s sake, we should mention that McGraw-Hill, generally identified as one of the “Big 3” K-12 publishers (the other two being Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) no longer calls itself a publisher. Rather, it refers to itself as a “learning science company.” It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while Willig believes books will always have a role in literacy instruction, she also says they will have to coexist with other media that have capabilities books simply cannot match.
"Books in our education space are a funny thing,” says Willig. “I think there is a place for print [in the classroom], and a place for ebooks. Our research is showing a strong proclivity for maintaining a blended approach to the world.”
Print, she notes, can’t complete with certain aspects of the digital experience, which in Willig’s view changes not just the role of content but its very definition. “What is content?” she says. “That is a fundamental question. If all it is a flat experience of a page of long-form reading, the value is starting to shift… When content is delivered within a higher-value proposition built around data -- with a recommendation engine, remediation, all the things that data can inform -- it’s a different story.”
What Willig is describing is at the heart of what makes McGraw-Hill a learning science company. A big buzzword in education circles these days is “adaptive learning,” the ability of a so-called learning object to adapt to student behavior -- to what an individual student is and isn’t getting at any given time -- and to deliver a customized experience in response.
From where we sit, no publisher -- or learning science company, for that matter -- has cracked the code on adaptive learning, which has yet to realize the potential heralded by its proponents. But McGraw-Hill and others are obviously making progress. Willig clearly believes her company is rising to the challenge and will emerge as one of the winners in this space.
As an example, she points to ALEKS, her company’s adaptive math engine, and poses the question: “Is it curriculum or assessment? It's actually kind of both. When you merge the pieces together, you move beyond the flat page… A robust element of assessment and data, with adaptive capabilities, can help a teacher really drive student performance.
“I'm not talking about a book here,” she says.
I don’t want to make it sound like Willig is overstating the case against the value of books in classrooms. The youngest students will continue to learn to read using trade books and other printed materials, she says, and older students will keep reading novels. “But when there is value wrapped around digital content -- all the stuff I’ve mentioned -- the technology becomes purposeful in its own way, and print will too.”
In this scenario, trade publishers used to selling hard-copy books into schools for classroom use won’t see their business disappear, but they are likely to see it shrink, especially at the middle and high school level. The silver lining? They may well see increases in their sales of licensed content, sold in smaller “chunks” to be used within the kind of digital products Willig described -- with assessments and other adaptive tools wrapped around them.