Pearson Goes ‘Digital-First’ in College. What Does That Mean for K-12?

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Pearson recently announced it will leap into “digital first” production of all of its college materials, rather than creating them in print, hitting the accelerator on a shift that has been playing out across the education publishing space for years.

In the K-12 market, demand for digital materials has increased over time, albeit much faster in some school districts than others. Earlier this year, Pearson largely abandoned the pre-college instructional materials business, selling off its assets in that area for $250 million.

But it’s worth looking at what the mammoth company’s break from print on college campuses portends for curriculum producers in K-12 who are making their own decisions about the print-vs.-digital makeup of their portfolios.

Pearson says it has been readying itself for the transition for years. The company has 1,500 active titles in higher education, and nearly all of them have a digital component, such as an e-book or digital features. Beginning in 2020, Pearson will focus on regularly updating its digital materials, and stop refreshing its print versions on a regular revision cycle.

What might this mean for K-12 publishers? For answers, EdWeek Market Brief turned to Jay Diskey, a consultant who is the former executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ PreK-12 Learning Group. Diskey now works with both K-12 and higher education companies, as well as associations and organizations on policy and communications.

What might Pearson’s digital-first move signal for what we’ll see playing out in the K-12 publishing space over the next few years?

It depends on what grade we’re talking about. I can see the Pearson model having more of an impact in secondary education, especially in grades 9-12. A lot of different digital and print course materials are already being used in secondary, simply because, one, teachers in those grades get to concentrate more on a couple subjects. And also, teachers at those grade levels have been more inclined to develop their own materials—this is even before open educational resources came along.

With secondary education, students are clearly very experienced using digital apps and devices. Whereas with younger students, they may be getting more adept at using [digital], but not nearly as much.

How would differences in the overall digital landscape in college, as opposed to K-12, affect vendors’ thinking on moving away from print?

In K-12, the shift into digital is a district-by-district story. There are schools that are nearly all digital, and there are some that have hardly touched digital. And there are still a lot of devices being purchased [through 1-to-1 programs or bring-your-own-device efforts]. So going fully digital at the K-12 level, that’s a factor that still makes it difficult.

The infrastructure at the college level is different. Wi-Fi is provided throughout campuses, students show up with their own devices. A shift into digital-first is easier because of that.

Having said all that, there’s been a market shift to digital in the K-12 sector. So while Pearson’s announcement doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning in the short term for K-12, in the long term, it’s another indication that this is the shape of things to come.

So many content-producers might be worried about moving too quickly into digital, and essentially getting ahead of the market?

Indeed. One of my [clients who produces] supplemental curriculum, they’re constantly saying, “Thank God we didn’t make the leap too early.” They’ve just gradually nudged into digital. They’re basically serving K-6, and they still see a lot of demand for print.

At the college level, there’s still a strong interest in print. A little more than one-quarter of college students still want print, though it is declining. [Diskey points to a newly released survey by the National Association of College Stores.] Many of these are college students who were recently in high school. You can extrapolate that the preferences of these college students [are similar to] preferences high school students have now.

What kind of internal transformation have K-12 publishers been forced to make, if they’re putting a new focus on digital more than print?

I remember 6-8 years ago, a senior person at McGraw-Hill told me, “You know we used to hire X amount of editors every year. Now, most of our hiring is software engineers.” Today, it involves hiring software engineers, digital security specialists, staff or consultants dealing with student privacy, and all sorts of back-office operations.

It’s a major switch. There are a lot of different skills sets and professional credentials involved.

And it’s one of the reasons that K-12 publishing industry has struggled in recent years since the recession. The industry got hit with a number of serious issues and threats all in the space of a couple of years. There was the recession. The shift to Common Core. The shift to digital. There were concerns about student privacy, and piracy, and the growth of open educational resources. It’s changed the industry in a number of ways.

But you see companies prospering in this environment, straddling the print and digital market?

I’ve seen a number of smaller companies, specialty companies, thrive in this environment. As long as they can field good marketing and sales initiatives, they can move around the country and find out which districts are good to sell into with print and digital.

This is an aside, but I’m always amazed at the number of purely digital companies, OER-focused companies, that have to offer print on-demand services. It’s just one more indication that in the K-12 world, there’s still a demand for a mix of formats. There’s that demand in the college market, though it’s more into digital.

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