Should Educational Publishers Be Disruptors?
Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve never warmed to the idea that disruption is a good thing in business. I’m not a fan of companies that set out to disrupt the industries in which they operate (take that, Jeff Bezos and Elizabeth Holmes) and I am particularly skeptical about those that set out to disrupt education, especially in the K-12 segment.
Yes, I know our system of education is “broken” (another faddish conclusion that too many people accept uncritically), but the question of how much to disrupt it in order to fix it is a serious one. It’s an important issue for educational publishers in particular, since in formulating their strategies they need to have a point of view on whether they should improve their current offerings incrementally or instead need to take out a fresh piece of paper -- or the digital equivalent thereof -- and start over.
As a result, I’ve enjoyed some of the healthy dialog I’ve seen lately about companies that set out to disrupt the system by becoming the “Netflix of Education.” It’s particularly interesting to me that McGraw-Hill’s higher education division articulated this as a strategy more than four goal years ago since in my view McGraw-Hill’s K-12 division is an example of a company trying to improve education through evolutionary change.
McGraw-Hill’s ownership has changed hands in the years since Jay Chakrapani, then vice president and general manager of digital at McGraw-Hill Higher Education, told reporters that the company wants to be the Netflix of education, so the company’s strategy may have indeed changed since then. More recently, companies like Udemy and Australia-based D2L have expressed this same aspiration. The details change, but a key part of the concept is that by following students’ behavior as they learn online, tracking their progress through educational materials, and analyzing what they get right and what they don’t -- just as Netflix tracks what movies you watch and adjusts its recommendations accordingly -- a program provider can personalize each student’s educational experience and allow students to take control of their own learning.
I agree that personalized learning holds great promise for the future, but an article by Jay Lynch, Senior Academic Research Consultant for Course Design, Development, and Academic Research (CDDAR) at Pearson, reinforced my belief that educational technology works best as a tool to support, not replace, teachers. In his opinion piece, “Why We Don’t Need a ‘Netflix for Education,’” published last month by EdSurge, a respected organization that tracks educational technology and the investor community that surrounds it, Lynch makes the point that it’s risky to remove instructors from the educational equation.
Decades of research, he writes (and I’m quoting directly here), reveals that students:
- Are poor judges of the efficacy of their learning efforts
- Prefer instructional formats that produce inferior learning outcomes
- Make suboptimal decisions about when/where/how often to study
- Overestimate how much they will remember or how well they will perform
“Netflix is not looking out for your best interests or trying to help you grow,” says Lynch. “It will not push you to go read a book, even if it is better than the movie. It will not recommend you watch a movie that it doesn't have in its collection, even if you might like it more.”
But a teacher will.
All of which take me back to McGraw-Hill, which last month announced the launch of a new version of its core English language arts product called Wonders 2017, available to schools for the school year just getting under way. What is remarkable about Wonders 2017, in my view, is just how unremarkable it is.
McGraw-Hill’s press release announcing the launch describes it as “a comprehensive redesign of the company's established literacy and ELA literacy programs. . . combin[ing] the latest research-based instruction with new digital tools, helping students not only meet today's rigorous educational standards but succeed as they advance into higher grades.”
“Across all Wonders 2017,” it goes on to say, “a variety of research-based print and digital resources provide unmatched support for building strong literacy foundations, accessing complex texts, engaging in collaborative conversations, and writing in response to primary sources. Each solution features engaging multimedia resources, and a powerful data dashboard helps educators provide purposeful, personalized instruction and support for each student in real-time.”
So there’s a mix of print and digital resources here, and yes, there’s even a dashboard to help educators provide personalized instruction. But note that it’s the educators driving the car, not the students. And the heart of the new product is “literacy foundations” and complex texts, with writing and collaborative conversations as the follow-up activities students engage in after they “access” (which I think means read) those texts.
Sounds a lot like what we did in school decades ago.
McGraw-Hill Education now calls itself a “learning science company that delivers personalized learning experiences,” as opposed to being a publisher, so the company has obviously jumped onto the personalization bandwagon. That said, my takeaway from reading its description of Wonders 2017 is that the product’s digital layer is an enhancement of what came before -- but the heart and soul of the product hasn’t changed all that much.
Publishers and other content providers can emulate McGraw-Hill in serving the educational community by incorporating the best of learning science into their new products, or they can depart more radically from McGraw-Hill’s approach. Frankly, the jury is still out on whether evolutionary change or disruption will be a more successful strategy in the long run.
Still, notwithstanding its claim that it’s now a learning science company, I don’t think McGraw-Hill is out to disrupt anything -- and that’s fine with me.