Corner Office: Pearson’s Bethlam Forsa Shares Her Vision for Education’s Tech-Powered Future
This article was originally published in the Spring issue of Book Business. You can view the complete issue here.
Bethlam Forsa was born and raised in Addis, Ethiopia, where she says education can make a life-altering difference. Based on her upbringing, Forsa was determined to devote her life and expertise to a mission that shapes people's everyday lives. As president of Pearson's learning services, she's answering that call. Through the development of innovative learning technologies, Forsa aims to further the capacity she fervently believes education has to cause positive change in the world.
Forsa was understandably gratified when earlier this year Pearson, along with a number of U.S. organizations, launched Project Literacy, an initiative designed to ensure that by 2030 every child born will become a literate adult. It's formidable task considering that, as Forsa notes, there are 781 million illiterate adults in the world today. Pearson has also funded the Affordable Learning Fund, which helps improve access to quality education in developing countries. Forsa, a U.S. immigrant who has benefitted extensively from education and, largely as a result, places a premium on such efforts. "Pearson grapples with [educational related] issues every day and devises programs designed to make a massive difference on the global landscape."
Forsa sees great promise in the ability technology has to make education more effective and produce superior learning outcomes. "In our business, technology's an enabler because it enables you to touch and impact every child. It provides information and insight into where they're struggling and areas that need to be addressed. I think it's incredible."
Forsa oversees Pearson's learning services, which include curriculum, technology, and services for the K-12 market in the U.S. The group is focused on introducing more efficacy-based products, which take advantage of adaptive learning tools and assessment analytics to enable more personalized curriculum for each individual learner. These products are supported by services such as professional training for teachers in specific subjects like STEM, and consultation on classroom management software and curriculum realignment to meet community standards.
"Pearson has invested in the software business because we believe this approach will, over time, help our educators and learners reach their learning objectives more effectively and with greater personalization," says Forsa.
Forsa's optimism is tempered by the realities of implementing such technology among a diverse range of educational communities. "It's a journey. For example, we have products across the spectrum, but not everyone around the world has access to the type of technology infrastructure and devices required to deploy some forms of that software."
Managing the appropriate pace of transition is a big concern for Forsa and her team. "We are educator- and learner-focused and very attentive to understanding where schools are in the journey from print to digital. In many cases this means offering a suite of choices (software and non-software options) all the way to multi-year business models that allows states and districts to choose how quickly they wish to leverage the benefits of blended and all-digital offerings."
Forsa is nothing if not inspired by the potential of efficacy-based services to advance learning within the classroom. "I work with a team that wakes up every day excited about being in a position to help all learners succeed and enabling the many other stakeholders -- teachers, parents, district administrators, policy makers -- to address the challenges and opportunities ahead."
Here Forsa shares her vision for the future of educational publishing and how Pearson is managing internal and external changes needed to materialize this vision.
What do you think is the greatest promise of innovative technology in the education publishing space?
Number one: you can't fight change or technology -- you have to understand and use it. At Pearson, technology's truly an enabler to our world and we're seeing its transformational impact on education. For example, technology's enabled us to provide a one-to-one, personalized learning capability to a child, which has abetted the ability of schools to assess a child and understand his or her specific needs. In turn, that helps us prescribe activities best suited to them.
You can't do that without understanding and leveraging technology, and knowing both how to deploy it and create an organization around the skill sets required to live and thrive in a constantly changing world. The education landscape is changing tremendously and technology's a driver of that change. When you're in an industry undergoing massive change, you have to focus on how to continue to change yourself, and do it incredibly fast.
Why is this shift a positive step?
Here's a perfect example. We all grew up in a classroom where we were basically given a lesson one way. But you and I learned differently because we're different people. To accommodate that difference, we now can leverage technology to provide a child -- depending on the kind of learner he or she is—a set of curriculum presented in a way that more closely fits their learning style than mine. We're able to truly tailor the curriculum and provide an individualized learning platform for children.
How are you working with schools to adapt to new teaching and learning techniques?
Gone are the days when schools simply looked to Pearson for a textbook. Instead, schools want us to partner with them to provide solutions that will improve teaching in the classroom and ultimately student performance. We still provide printed materials, but more and more schools want us to meet their students where they are today, and that means digital delivery. Schools also desire support in implementing our instructional programs and in providing thought leadership to assist with teaching practices. These are critical areas where we provide support through services.
How is Pearson managing the transition to more software and services and what are some of these specific products?
The transition to software has been ongoing for some time dating back to the original provision of CDs many years ago, but digital delivery is now at a tipping point with the wide availability of devices and growing bandwidth. Most of our instructional offerings come with a rich array of digital instructional elements and classroom management software including: video, assessment, games, interactive learning experiences, student and teacher planning tools, and student progress reporting to name a few. In time we will see more and more software based instruction as print materials continue to fade from classrooms.
We offer several types of services. One example where we help teachers expand their expertise is the professional development and teacher training we provide around specific topics such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,) and support for English language learners. Another example is that we often receive customer requests to help align our curriculum programs with state and district standards. In the case of a digital program, this can result in options to re-sequence the teaching of different concepts based on the needs of individual schools and school districts.
We also have increasingly frequent conversations with schools and districts about how they can evaluate the implementation of their adopted instructional program to understand usage patterns across their district. Educators can review data that may show cases where their middle school math program, for example, is deployed inconsistently across their district classrooms. In some cases, we are working closely with districts to offer a collaborative assessment of what could be happening and approaches to getting back on track.
How are you trying to spur greater adoption of learning technology among teachers and students?
We see a wide range of tools and innovative practices in schools every day. We do our best to support anything that makes everyday teaching and learning more delightful and more effective. We are also contributing much more to industry standards efforts designed to lower the cost of integrating our programs with school information systems.
How have Pearson's investments in technology paid off?
Our technology investments have allowed us to leverage our knowledge of proven learning approaches and pedagogies in ways that were never possible working simply with the printed page. We continue to innovate in software and daily see the positive results of what's possible with digital offerings.
We are very excited about recent offerings such as iLit, a comprehensive digital reading intervention solution with a research-proven instructional model for grade 4-10 learners. It is specially designed to help readers who may be as much as 2-4 grade levels behind master essential skills and get back on track. Our educators who are using the software in the classroom rave about the results they are seeing and have let us know that our software is key to their student gains.
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