Digital Education Watch: Conclusion

Image by nirots from

Image by nirots from

While technology has, and will continue to, change trade, scholarly and other segments of publishing in exciting ways, its impact on educational publishing will change the way students learn and, consequently, the way our society will operate in the future. This blog chose to focus specifically on the K-12 educational publishing segment’s shift from print to digital because of the incredible influence this shift has on its audience and the publishing market as a whole.

The educational publishing segment has made exciting and innovative advancements with technology, advancements that the rest of the publishing world must adopt to fit the needs of their future readers. Publishers in this segment are creating interactive digital ebooks, apps and programs that engage and assess students, and they’re using technology and data in sophisticated ways to track individual learning styles and adapt to personal needs.

Over the past three months, Digital Education Watch has tracked significant events in the industry by looking specifically at which businesses are making exciting and innovative advancements with technology. We looked at five large educational publishers that have dominated the segment for awhile: Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic and Macmillan Education. These publishers still dominate the marketplace, and most of the innovative ebooks, apps and digital programs are coming from these five companies.

However, as technology disrupts this marketplace, new services  and products emerge. This blog has tracked four successful startups—Lore, BetterLesson, Clever and GoalBook—that offer teachers innovative online services. These services include social networking for the classroom and for lesson planning; data analysis and management; and online resources for special education teachers. The college textbook company Boundless shows how startups also have the opportunity to compete with the aforementioned big publishers in the textbook market as more schools move away from print materials and look to incorporate technology in new ways.

A common theme among the developments and conversations being made in the industry are the Common Core State Standards, one of the biggest influences in how our current educators are approaching their instruction. Last month at the Frankfurt Book Fair, John Wheeler, senior vice president of strategy, emerging technologies, and content solutions of SPi Global, a company that offers digital publishing solutions, discussed how the Common Core has reshaped the classroom and publishing segment around it. Wheeler explains, “We’re seeing a fairly wholesale move across the educational world from books and chapters to more of a learning outcome scenario. That’s one of the drivers of Common Core. They’re taking a good look at what needs to be taught, how can we guarantee that it’s being taught, and how can we assess that it’s been taught. It’s really caused our publishing partners to take a good, hard look from inception through delivery at how we’re producing content.”

While each of the big educational publishers are taking this good, hard look in different ways, there are several common themes and trends emerging among the digital products they are creating. While many schools are hesitant or can’t afford to completely abandon their print materials, the big educational publishers are quickly revolutionizing their products.  While McGraw-Hill Education aims to offer teachers a middle ground between print and digital, they are evolving their content into ebooks, apps and online learning programs at almost the same speed as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, companies who are digitizing their products with full force. As these publishers are using new digital containers, the content is being produced in smaller, more interactive chunks. Because of this new “bite-sized” content, apps are emerging as a favorable format; even the ebooks Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are producing resemble apps more than they do print textbooks.

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Image by kanate from

Another notable trend identified is a focus on personalized learning, one of the benefits discussed in this blog’s post about the added value of digital in the classroom. Startups like GoalBook were created to enhance IEPs with technology, while larger companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt aim to bring that personalized learning experience to all students by developing digital products that analyze and adapt to students’ learning styles. In order to achieve this, another trend has emerged among companies: a focus on data. All three big educational publishers are investing in data analytics: Pearson purchased Learning Catalytics™ in April 2013, McGraw-Hill Education bought Key Curriculum in 2012 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently acquired Choice Solutions Inc. Startups like Clever are also infiltrating the market by offering data analytics services and integrated products to schools and programmers.

After looking at how the dominating publishers are approaching digital products and exploring the services that the successful education startups are offering, my assessment of the educational publishing segment is that technology is acting as a disruptive innovation in the shift from print to digital and the industry is changing drastically as a result. Technology is disrupting companies’ business models and products and, because of this disruption, there is great potential for startups to compete successfully with the big players.

As technology and the Common Core standards alter curricula and lesson planning, teachers and schools will have more options to choose from when selecting their materials. As print textbooks are replaced with tablets and apps, less schools will automatically turn to Pearson and McGraw-Hill for their products and will begin to look elsewhere. I predict that more innovative, technological thinkers will create startups to infiltrate–and revolutionize–the educational publishing segment, and that the marketplace for educational materials will change dramatically. 



Teach Thought named BetterLesson the top education startup of 2012. BetterLesson was created in 2011 by teachers as a digital space where they could connect and communicate with each other to share ideas and resources. Teach Thought notes that the company had already raised more than $1.6 million by the end of 2012 with more than 250 teachers signing up each day.

BetterLesson’s altruistic efforts to help teachers and improve the system is evident in the testimonials of its team. Founder and CEO Alex Grodd writes that he started Better Lesson to “address the challenges he faced in the classroom”; Director of Product Development Yevy Spivak hopes that his work “will help more kids realize the value of education”; even Director of Engineering Grejdi Gjura aims to “change the world one line of code at a time”.

BetterLesson is using technology not to just enhance instructional material, as we’ve seen with Pearson and Scholastic, but to enhance instruction itself. The website’s main page summarizes the services it offers teachers:

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Better Lesson offers teachers a collaborative online community of resources and knowledge.

Since its inception, BetterLesson has already evolved from a site for teachers to share lessons to a more concentrated effort to improve the teaching system. BetterLesson recently partnered with the National Education Association (NEA) to develop a master teacher program, which selects educators who demonstrate exceptional and innovative teaching. The program collects their lessons and methods in order to share these best practices with teachers across the nation. Cofounder and VP of Operations Erin Osbourne explains,

“What we’re trying to do is frame a living breathing body of knowledge around effective teaching. We feel that’s been missing. When they get feedback that they’re not doing a great job — often they’re just told to read an article or go watch a video or take a webinar. We’re trying to give teachers access to the full richness of their instruction.”

NEA has dedicated $3.9 million to the program; these funds come in addition to the $3.5 million the start-up received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in late 2012 to develop a master teacher program that focuses on the new Common Core standards in 6-12 mathematics.

BettLesson’s efforts to share information among teachers so they can learn from one another is indicative of a recent push in schools for more group work and accountability. Teachers are encouraged to move away from operating as individuals and working toward becoming groups. For the past 10 years, for example, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has been working to create Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) where educators work “collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve”.

When discussing innovative digital communication tools with The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive of NewSchools Venture Fund Ted Mitchell notes BetterLesson’s use of videos and other tools to help educators “crowdsource” their teaching methods. This crowd comprises teachers across the nation and in creating this digital space for them to collaborative with each other, it encourages schools, districts, and even states to move away from operating on their own in an effort to create  standardized, nationalized teaching practices, a huge push of the new Common Core standards.

Free social networking companies such as Lore and Better Lesson address the financial limitations many schools face when addressing instructional issues and incorporating technology into the classroom. But it’s these companies that demonstrate how low-budget schools can still benefit from digital publishing, even if it’s not with Scholastic’s interactive white boards.

Companies to Watch

The integration of technology into educational publishing will not only affect the classroom, but the market this industry operates within. While the current industry is mainly dominated by the “big three” educational publishing companies–Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–the shift to digital gives smaller startups the opportunity to infiltrate the market; it also gives big companies that have dominated the digital market, such as Apple, the opportunity to expand their reach.

The Companies to Watch section of this blog will look at what the major publishers are doing–and what they aren’t doing–to move into the digital world. The section will also look at smaller educational companies that are doing innovative things with e-publishing. Some of the startups discussed don’t publish education materials in the traditional sense, such as textbooks, but are using technology to advance the classroom with supplemental tools and platforms. As we saw in the previous post–Limitations in the Classroom–we can’t think of the educational publishing market in the narrow terms of just textbooks and books, but most also take into account supplemental, instructional and administrative tools and platforms for teachers and students.

The Digital Watch List

The big players

  1. Pearson
  2. McGraw-Hill Education
  3. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  4. Scholastic
  5. Macmillan Education

Startups to Watch

  1. Lore
  2. Boundless
  3. Clever
  4. BetterLesson
  5. GoalBook

Which company is making the most interesting advancements in digital publishing? Which company has had the most success in e-publishing? Do smaller startups really have a chance? This section will explore these questions and more.