How F.A. Davis is Navigating STM’s Print-to-Digital Transition

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F.A. Davis

Quincy McDonald, Publisher at Philadelphia’s F.A. Davis, discusses the transition from print to digital in STM publishing industry and adapting to the emergence of distance education.

By Phuong Nguyen

Quincey McDonald

Quincey McDonald

Quincy McDonald is a publisher of F.A. Davis, a Philadelphia-based independent Nursing, Medicine, and Health Sciences publisher founded in 1879. F.A. Davis is dedicated to providing print, mobile, and web resources for students and professionals. Before becoming the publisher of F.A. Davis in 2008, Quincy was a Senior Editor at Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, the world’s largest nursing publisher, and later, Senior Editor at McGraw-Hill Education, where he was in charge of the nursing list and developing digital products. Ever since Quincy stepped foot into STM publishing in 2002, he has been dealing with the sector’s transition from print-to-digital.

I had a chance to talk with Quincy about the changes at F.A. Davis and in STM for the last 15 years, especially how it has been transitioning from print to digital to adapt with changes in the distance education sphere.

PP: From October 2002 – September 2005, you were Senior Editor with Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, where you wrote the initial standards for the proprietary Learning Management System and led the task force to create video publishing. Now at F.A. Davis, you constantly work on video publishing for mobile and online learning platforms. What are the differences between now and then?

Quincy: So a big part of what I do [at F.A. Davis] is trying to prepare learning materials for students and instructors in whatever way that they want to receive it. So I’m completely agnostic whether it’s print, digital or what type of digital it is. What I’m not agnostic about is trying to make sure that whatever I’m doing fits in, not just in the next year but for the next five years, for what my customers are going to be doing.

And the way things started even before Lippincott when I was an editor at Prentice Hall in Pearson is that it was the very beginning of online education using a software platform. So what they did largely before that were television-based courses or correspondence courses. There was a couple of different examples. One was you bought video cassettes, and they were shipped to your house, or there were several courses that collaboratively worked with either a local access channel or with PBS. PBS, for instance, had Destinos, which was a very popular Spanish course, 101 course that a lot of community colleges worked with for correspondence. That had limits, obviously. Number one is it was very expensive to ship materials to people, and number two is there was just a limited distance that you could do if you wanted to do your own course. And effectively we were trying to send it out via the satellite dish or local access network because the limit of your geography is wherever that video feed was. It also, for the most part, was synchronous learning, so everyone had to be watching the program at the same time. It was the direct feed, which was like me having a recording here and you seeing it on live TV. So if you’re someone that had a full-time job, and the program came on at 2:00 p.m, you would have an issue there. That was the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s kind of the first real push world, what we would now call distance education.

What changed when I was at Prentice Hall was that there were software platforms because what you really saw in right around 1994 to 1998 was the rise of the World Wide Web, when you started with Netscape, with the Internet Explorer. With that came different software applications that you could use to facilitate online education. The first one really in great use was WebCT. WebCT was a software platform created out of the University of British Columbia by faculty members. That was the first platform specifically built to hold an online course. So it has things like Chatroom and Bulletin Board and Testing mechanism and other things like that. What you’ve seen developed over time, first off, were proprietary learning management systems that schools would choose to use. They would purchase as an institution and used that for all of their online classes, and any content developed would have to fit into those platforms and be compatible with them. And then, not a ton of time later, was Blackboard. Blackboard would eventually buy WebCT. WebCT and Blackboard are by far the most used proprietary platforms in the higher education market.

So, to get to the point where the game early on really, when I was at Prentice Hall and then mainly to the same extent when I was at Lippincott, was when we were creating content for textbooks also in parallel creating contents that would fit into the learning management systems. What that meant was the value to the customer was that they wanted to do something online, but they had to create it inside the software platform, which they may or may not be comfortable with. And so it would take them hours to do their own tests in WebCT, to develop their own PowerPoint in WebCT and all the other things.

What we did as publishers and how we wanted business with digital publishing really was in creating content that could be easily ported into WebCT so that the instructors even if they didn’t want to use everything exactly the way we gave it to them or starting with the whole abundance of materials as opposed to starting from the scratch. And so those were called course cartridges. So really, the first major movement to digital publishing in terms of online course development was course cartridges.

We’ve made multimedia ancillaries for years. We’ve made videos by videotape and various procedure videos and other things like that as well, but very rarely had they needed it online because there was such a great bandwidth concern. And really, having the necessary bandwidth to stream that massive amount of videos is the fairly recent thing because the most likely people who want to take this education are those who have the time issue or those who have geography issue. In other words, they either can’t get to the school in the time classes are presenting or they don’t have access to schools close to them. And off to those folks in rural populations who, through the early 2000s, are using dial-up modems. And we still had folks that were using DSL. So there was the huge bandwidth issue.

We’ve seen generational advancement in these online learning courses in very short period of time. Every two years, it’s a new game in terms of access that normal people have to digitally distributed content. Now we are in a place where it’s less about just doing things in the right format. The services that we are providing has moved on from getting the Blackboard course set up and providing what we had that fit to the Blackboard to what you want to do with your online course, what type of assets you really appreciate, what type of interactions you want to have with your students, what type of interactions that you want them to have with each other. That is much more about the educational value of the asset as opposed to just “does it fit into this box.” So that’s the biggest change. Now you also have Moodle, Canvas and all sorts of open source technologies coming out. And large universities are even creating their own learning management systems, and publishers are creating learning management systems.

F.A. Davis

So is the Medical Language Lab developed by F.A. Davis an open source learning management system?

No, it is not. It’s a purely proprietary system with a fairly stable environment. What we have done is we have created the standard such that there is a lot of things you can attach to it, but the state we are seeing now in terms of open source is that a lot of universities are developing or have adopted their own learning management systems and they are to varying degrees of open source. What a lot of publishers are doing is that we are creating our own asset, which we can deliver to their learning management system, and provide the contents that they can upload to their environment, or creating our own environment which they can link to.

And a huge step forward in that is Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). This is a new software, a new service, that allows for functions like single sign-on between an institution’s learning management system and a piece of learning technology that exists outside of that firewall. So as a student, as opposed to signing in once then clicking on a hyperlink that brings them to another site and has you to sign in again LTI integration erode that for you. The other thing it does is it provides direct transmission of grades on an exterior site into an internal gradebook for the instructor, which is very helpful as well. We’ve had varying degrees of that, like we have on the Medical Language Lab, we do have LTI for some customers as well, and then for others, we have a simple download, where the entire gradebook is downloaded and you can upload it to your Blackboard and it integrates with that.

There’s a lot of that going on. What we are seeing new systems being developed like Tin Can. Those systems that allow instructors to have their learning management system effectively monitor blog posts that students do and other sorts of things outside of that firewall. There’s a lot more opportunities for an institution to have a lot of the benefits of open source without having everything they use be open source as a requirement. The hope for open source was that you didn’t have to just have a monolithic environment that you can only have certain things that work, but with LTI and other technologies that are coming up, that’s largely eroding as a challenge.

So LTI is the service that you provide to institutions like schools?

Yes. It’s basically a software package but it has to be managed based on the given institution and the software they use as their learning management system. So in other words, I can’t just hand you “Well, here is the LTI and it works for every single institution.” There are some manual adjustment that takes place depending upon the institution. That’s likely, as the technology keeps getting better, to become less of an obligation.

About the downloaded videos, do they need to be modified to adapt with various learning management systems?

Generally not. When you work with partners, for instance, like the Medical Language Lab, the video assets that are in there are all hosted by Vimeo. So if you can get to Vimeo, you can get to our materials, or at least you can play them.

So you use the other platform to host your materials?

We’ve done both, but it’s worked out much better if you have spent the money to develop the bandwidth to get the video to customers in a very accessible high quality way, we’re more likely to use you than to try to duplicate.

Then from 2005 to 2008, you built up the new nursing publishing program for McGraw-Hill Education, where you developed key technology components for new products. Can you share what were the key components and how those components were in lie with the technology development in STM at the time?

So the difference between my time at McGraw-Hill and my time in the other places is that at McGraw-Hill I was more focused on producing materials for professionals as opposed to students. So I started the nursing publishing program for professional nurses at McGraw-Hill and also all of our allied houses for professionals at McGraw-Hill Professional. My focus there wasn’t that much on developing online courses or online course materials as it was for providing access to my content in ways that professionals might use. And really at that time it was for the PDA and the smart phone. We did a series of quick references for nurses that were written by experts, mentor nurses and done in such a way is to teach novice nurses how to perform in certain environments. So we had printed books that were pocket size so they can stick in lab’s coats, but also with every purchase of that, they got a free downloadable version for their PDA or smart phone.

So the key component that you mentioned was how customers can have downloadable version to their PDA or smart phone?

The key thing for them is downloading, hopefully, and actually in that situation it’s not downloading it. It’s uploading it because we actually included many DVDs with it at that point, but now it would be downloading. That’s generally pretty easy. The issue is when you are reaching out to that market, being very conscientious of performance. And what I mean by performance is not the performance of the technology but how you perform your career, when you need to check your information. Also, there’re certain times when any of us needs information, when we want a quick answer limited to the specific to the decision point that we have to make, and other times when we want background information to more broadly understand all the aspects of that decision. And you have to really know when. So I’m doing a pocket guide, chances are you’re using pocket guide because quickly you want to refresh your memory or understand key items of content that help you make a decision now. You don’t sit back by a fire and read a pocket guide to expand your world of knowledge. It’s print Google. So for a PDA component, it has to function like that. It has to be very searchable and, in some way, inquiry-driven because you don’t start with knowledge at a properly constructed handbook. You start with where your knowledge runs out so you want to know, have in addition to organization by keyword and topic, you want to also be able to function in some way based on the inquiry. “What do I do with this situation?” “What is this?”

So in developing products for that market in really where the technology has advanced with things like up-to-date and all the main aggregators that aggregated all the textual material, the beginning of that game was who has the most stuff. The two biggest players in in medical are MD Consult at Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer’s Ovid. And those are huge databases. And it was a war about who had which books and legacy contents. And really it was almost the question of which library is better, but what’s transpired over time is that having the most content is not nearly as useful as having the most accessible content that’s easily located in the time the users want to be able to do it. So having 2,000 books is relatively useless if users can’t easily identify where the information they want. That’s where the digital publishing world has changed in medical reference, which is it’s gone strictly from who has the most stuff to who can take what they have and present it in such a way that it’s inquiry-driven. We have learning technology doing stuff for undergraduates, that’s less of the factor. Certainly, if you have an e-book, you want it to be searchable but because you’re guiding them through step-by-step tutorial process, largely we are deciding what it’s students look at first, second, third, fourth as opposed to the students driving that process because they don’t know enough to be able to organize the information in that way. We become a more time-sensitive society. The winner for reference technology is who gets me the answers the most quickly in a reliable way.

Is the search engine technology of those reference sites the same with Google search engine technology?

The technology of it is shockingly simple and simplistic as it always has been. The challenge is the human aspect of it, the tagging. You are getting more kind of automate tagging, semantic tagging, and XML has been a big help with that. That’s really the biggest challenge, and the thing that cost the most. The cost on that has gone down over time and more and more thing are automated but the markup is what really facilitates that the most.

Phuong Nguyen is currently working towards a M.A. in Publishing at Rosemont College, PA.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.