Digital Education Watch: Conclusion

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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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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. 


Weekly Watch: Nov. 3 – Nov. 9, 2013

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Weekly Watch: November 3 – November 9, 2013


The last startup we’ll discuss creates its products for universities, not K-12 schools, but it’s important to note the advancements being made in surrounding markets in educational publishing. Boundless demonstrates a startup that is taking a different approach to infiltrate their market than the ones we’ve seen. BetterLesson, Clever, Lore and GoalBook all offer innovative services to teachers and students through online spaces. Boundless, however, offers innovative products and competes directly with the big textbook companies in their market, something we may see more companies attempt to do as schools look for new ways to incorporate technology in their classrooms.

Boundless is also a notable company to explore because of the perspective they take on the work they are doing in this industry. Boundless’ CEO Ariel Diaz talks at TEDxCambridge 2013 on how he believes we need to reshape, or essentially flip, the way we teach subjects in all classrooms:

According to the company’s website, Boundless was founded in 2011 ” to revolutionize the educational experience.” Since its inception, Boundless has raised almost $10 million to fund this revolution and thousands of students across the US are experimenting with Boundless instead of using their traditional college textbooks.

In comparison to the etextbooks that the big companies Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing, Boundless’ ebooks offer similar interactive features to help students learn and the company explains how it uses technology to make these features useful:

“Boundless Learning Technology, based on active recall and spaced repetition, prompts you with quizzes, flashcards, summarization and more at the optimal points during your reading to help you retain information.”

Boundless’ learning technology includes flashcards and quizzes, seen below,  built into textbooks that test students at optimal times in their reading to increase their memory and understanding of the content.  Students can also electronically highlight text and make notes.

Boundless' flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ flashcards and quizzes use technology to enhance educational content

Boundless’ products are also notably less expensive than the college textbooks they’re competing against. The cost of many of the print college textbooks on the market often exceeds $100 and the costs are still rising; Boundless’ textbooks, on the other hand, are offered at a steady, accessible $19.99.

Boundless has done such a good job of offering competitive, affordable products that three of the big educational publishers–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Cengage–sued the startup in April 2012 for copyright infringement and unfair competition, among other offenses. While the details haven’t been released, there were reports of a settlement. Regardless, the lawsuit didn’t stop Boundless from pushing forward with their innovative and affordable products.

We’ve seen that Pearson and McGraw-Hill are producing etextbooks and other digital products with similar technology and rivaling features, more K-12 schools may choose to take the path many college students are taking by choosing Boundless textbooks and look elsewhere for their educational content.

Macmillan Education

Last week’s post on GoalBook raised the question of how educational publishers are approaching digital products for students who need accommodations. The final big educational publisher we will look at, Macmillan Education, and their work to digitize their products sheds more light on this discussion. In contrast to the other big publishers we’ve examined–Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–Macmillan Education’s materials aren’t targeted to the general population of K-12 students or teachers. While Macmillan publishes curriculum development materials, their expertise is on English Language Learning materials. With their headquarters in Oxford, UK, they also have a concentrated focus on international markets.

Regardless of their focus, Macmillan shows the same dedication to advancing their materials with technology as the other big companies: on their website, they explain that their Digital Publishing Unit is “at the centre of our publishing plans.”

To answer the needs of their international market, Macmillan’s approach to technology must differ from some of the more advanced, all-encompassing and, most importantly, expensive products being developed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill. This is evident with Macmillan’s recent partnership with South African app company Snapplify. The two companies came together to produce an eBook app for South African schools, schools that don’t have the influx of technology in their classrooms as some of the American schools for which Pearson and McGraw-Hill create their products. In Macmillan SA’s eReader app, shown below, students can highlight text, look up words and take notes.

Macmillan SA's eReader app

Macmillan SA’s eReader app

Because the schools Macmillan is creating these products for don’t have the resources available to provide each student with tablets or even individual computers, any digital products they adopt must account for this and still be effective. To do this, Snapplify and Macmillan utilize cloud technology so students can access their personal learning materials and notes from any device when they log on with their unique credentials. In a press release, digital publisher at Macmillan SA Malcolm Seegers explains: “This is a perfect solution for emerging markets where not all students are handed an individual tablet, sometimes one device is shared among 5-10 learners.”

This describes not only international schools, but many US schools as well, and more companies need to follow Macmillan’s lead in trying to make technology accessible and innovative for these audiences.


In this blog’s post about the benefits of digital educational materials, I touched on how technology can allow for a more personalized learning experience for students. As we’ve looked at the big publishers in this segment, we’ve seen this to be a common goal of many of the products they are producing, with a few of the companies approaching this goal through a focus on data (McGraw-Hill Education recently acquired Key Curriculum and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt recently purchased Choice Solutions). While the idea of providing a more individualized educational experience to students is a philosophy that is gaining more attention as new digital products make it easier, individualized learning has been an established accommodation for students for almost four decades.

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was introduced to school systems in 1975 in order to provide students with disabilities and special needs an equal opportunity in the classroom. IEPs outline modifications for coursework that meet a student’s specific needs and must set measurable goals for him or her, among other things. These plans show a need for a certain kind of educational materials, but the main educational publishers seem to be limited in what they offer for IEP students.

In this blog’s introductory post, we identified four main markets within education publishing, and materials for students with special needs were addressed in one of them: English Language Learners (ELLs). When searching through the websites of the big players–Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–this market is evident: when they broke their products down by category, English Language Learners was commonly included. However, this market needs to address more students with special needs than just ELLs. The number of students with IEPs is rising; DC public schools, for example, reported a two-point percentage increase of their IEP students from 2008 to 2012, with more than 10,000 DC students currently on IEPs. While the big publishers are doing a lot to extend the philosophy of individualized education to the general population of students, they need to do more to enhance the experience of the students for whom these programs were originally designed.

As we’ve seen, when there is a void in the marketplace such as this, startups have the ability to thrive. This is where GoalBook comes in; named the ninth top education startup of 2012 by TeachThought, GoalBook aims to be the first online, social resource for special education teachers. GoalBook strives toward success for “ALL” students and the company uses technology specifically to do this by creating an online space for special education teachers to improve their instruction. GoalBook believes that “teachers are THE factor” in the success of a student with special needs and wants to help them “make their work more effective, research-based AND sustainable.”

On its main page for teachers, the GoalBook website highlights the following benefits it provides to special education instructors: Our IEP Goals are Better; Align IEPs to the Common Core with Ease; Personalize to the Needs of your Students; We Help you Write Goals AND Achieve Them; Discover the Right Goal, Fast (as shown below with their “Goal Finder” feature); and Best In-Class Professional Development for Districts.

GoalBook's Goal Wizard

GoalBook’s Goal Wizard helps teachers find the right goals for their students

Unlike some of the education startups we’ve explored that offer their resources for free, GoalBook charges rates for their services: $32.95 a month for teachers, $395 a year for a district/school premium membership and $575 a year for a district/school gold membership, which offers analytics dashboard, online professional development and one-to-one coaching for teachers.

While the big publishers approach digital material from the big picture, startups like GoalBook can address the needs of a smaller demographic of students, such as those with special needs.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Just as Pearson put Penguin in new hands and McGraw-Hill sold off the educational side of their business this past year, the third of the Big Three educational publishers has also experienced some recent business restructuring. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) filed with the SEC this past August to offer public shares of their company, and a little over a year before, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In Education Week’s article on how the Big Three are adapting with technology previously discussed here, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Executive Vice President of Content Development and Publishing Operation Bethlam Forsa discusses how the company aims to restructure learning with their digital products. Forsa explains that they are moving away from books and approaching content in more “modular” ways. She says “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.”

This approach is shown through their print products, such as their Every Day Counts math products that stress the importance of learning activities performed outside the classroom. The company has wisely taken note that tablets and apps allow this philosophy to be applied easier and more appearing to students than the CD-ROM they offer their Practice Counts math lessons on. HMH offers a variety of apps on multiple platforms, from iOS to Nook to Amazon Kids’ apps.

The company also offers a variety of eTextbooks that look more like apps than traditional books, shown below with their US Government eTextbook.

HMH's US Government eTextbook looks more like an app than a book.

HMH’s US Government eTextbook

As we’ve seen with Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is working to provide students with a more personalized learning experience through their digital products. Education Week’s article offers the company’s new Fuse math products as an example of the adaptive new materials HMH is creating. Forsa notes that future products will be “even more interactive,” with built-in assessments and features that adapt to a particular student’s best learning style. If he or she responds better to videos or games, educational material will adapt to provide them.

In order to better track students’ usage and educational needs, HMH is taking a route that the other big educational publishers are taking: a focus on data anlysis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recently acquired Marlborough-based company Choice Solutions Inc. Linda Zecher, chief executive at HMH, explains that the partnership will “allow us to provide a truly comprehensive learning solution based on rigorous instruction and scientific analysis.”

Regardless of the company’s past struggles, it’s clear technology is a main part of their restructure. As the company works to modulate their content into smaller bits and pieces, their apps and app-like materials will help restructure the way teachers and students approach education.


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As technology is incorporated into more products, the digital data behind it becomes more important and useful for content creators. In an article from this past September, Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives discusses how the new digital book publishing industry is all about data. In the article, CEO of Publishing Data Networks Sebastian Posth comments,

“Data analysis is a business requirement and a necessary means to deal with the digital change. The publishing industry needs to learn this lesson if it wants to survive.”

Educational publishers have taken note of data’s potential to enlighten their work because in educational publishing, data doesn’t just translate to finding out how people buy their materials; it translates to finding out how students learn. McGraw-Hill has dedicated their attention to managing and utilizing their data, shown in part with their purchase of Key Curriculum in 2012.

As digital products stream into classrooms, schools are faced with an influx of information about their students, courses and staff, and they need products and services to show them how to manage this information effectively. As new needs such as this are created in the digital educational marketplace, startups have the opportunity to dominate, which is exactly what Clever has demonstrated.
TeachThought named Clever the third top education startup of 2012. Launched in June 2012, Clever already had 2,000 school using its services by October 2012. A little over one year later, it now reaches 6,000. Clever’s Newsroom page shows how companies are noticing Clever’s benefits: Imagine Learning, DreamBox, My Big Campus, and have all signed deals with Clever in the past four months. Pearson’s PowerSchool is also among the Clever-supported applications.
Clever aims to remedy the new digital education systems that are emerging with Student Information Systems (SIS), which hold crucial data about students. Clever markets to both schools and developers and makes a call to the latter audience to use their services to make applications that “just work“. Clever offers developers samples of their API and open-source libraries.
To schools, Clever offers three simple selling points of their service: It has a Swift and Simple SetupSaves Time and Money, and is Technology You Can Trust. Clever notes the interoperability of their system: “With Clever, student data only needs to be entered once — from there, Clever syncs ongoing changes to all Clever-enabled applications.”
Both teacher testimonials on Clever’s main page highlight the value the company’s services have brought to their school’s assessments: Chief Information Officer of Springfield Public Schools in Massachusetts Paul Foster remarks that “Clever gets my teachers into the achievement network so they can use assessments to adjust instruction.” As assessment becomes more important and thus more present in classrooms, student data becomes even richer and services like Clever’s will become even more valuable.