The Data Innovation Conundrum in Higher Education

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Clancy Marshall and Mat MacInnis

Clancy Marshall and Mat MacInnis

By Jeffrey Yamaguchi

In the last several years, education publishers have been struggling to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing marketplace, hobbled all the while by precipitously declining textbook sales. Where are the innovative solutions coming from, and how is the industry figuring out which ideas to fund, build, and bring to market?

At the heart of BISG’s Higher Ed Conference 2015: Adapt, Learn, Innovate, Tuesday in New York City was this issue: how are publishers leveraging data to develop and deliver innovative educational products as the industry moves beyond textbook publishing and into the development of adaptive learning platforms and other types of digital content delivery.

Key opportunity: There is a considerable amount of data available to publishers, providing insights into all manner of innovative platform, content, and delivery initiatives.

Major challenges: Are the larger, established publishers able to properly curate and leverage the overwhelming amount of data into actionable ideas, and, if they do, will the established publishing culture greenlight risky innovative projects supported by that data analysis?

The half-day program focused on recent data on student book buying habits; the innovation impediments at larger companies; and the complexity of leveraging the overwhelming amount of data now available to facilitate product development and decision-making. Sprinkled throughout the program were three pitches from edtech start-up founders, vying for the conference title of “Most Promising New Product” and providing solutions for how publishers can tap into this new educational market.

The wishful-thinking, but nonetheless likely effective strategy to move riskier projects forward, according to Inkling Founder and CEO Matt MacInnis — “Fire your finance department” — the “beancounters” who determine which projects will be funded based on a variety of spreadsheet generated factors.

However, instead of seeing the path to initiating innovative projects opened and sped up, Clancy Marshall, Vice President Global Core Platforms at Pearson, noted that publishers are “kind of doing the reverse — we’re actually layering on additional levels to insure that our investments make sense.”

Additionally, as pointed out by presenter Jason Lorgan, stores director at the University of California, Davis who is working with academic publishers to bring inclusive digital course materials, many students are simply forgoing the buying or renting of course materials altogether, given the high costs, short-term need, and the fact that course materials are now “recommended,” as opposed to what in the not too distant past used to be “required.”

“Access is a real issue right now,” said Lorgan. “There are a lot of students coming to class without their materials.”

While the BISG report “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education, Volume 5” disclosed the behavior of 1600 surveyed students, what was missing was the actual voice of the students themselves — i.e. the end user. As many other panelists pointed to behavior or data points based on surveys, Yariv Alpher, Executive Director, Market Research, Kaplan Test Prep, noted that it’s hard to know if students want all the things they say they do when they’re asked in a hypothetical, non-paying context. Why not just say they want it all — both print AND digital materials in a bundle, for example — if it’s offered up as an option as a checkmark on a survey?

A live variation on an informal focus group with a sampling of students answering questions about how they go about obtaining their course reading materials, what they like and dislike about adaptive learning platforms, whether they still want print books or not, among other lines of inquiry, would have been a fascinating and likely very illuminating addition to the program.

It’s one thing to hear data such as this, as pointed about by BISG research and information project manager Nadine Vassalo (from the BISG’s latest survey on Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education):

“If a student has taken a course using an integrated learning system, they are more likely to report that, in general, they would prefer digital materials, as opposed to print.”

But as Sesha Bolisetty, VP of Content Management, Wiley Global Education, pointed out in the keynote conversation, sometimes it’s just about going to the campuses and talking directly  to the students and teachers.

“It might not be a very scientific way of collecting data, but it’s amazing how much information comes through those non-scientific channels but still has significant influence on our processes both in product development as well as content development,” said Bolisetty.

Best representing outside voices at the conference were the 5-minute pitch presentations from the three start-up founders. All different, but sharing the common threads of cloud-based curation of content and open data.

Josh Mullineaux, Chief Product Officer of panOpen, showcased the company’s efforts to deliver free, peer-reviewed, and curated open source textbooks — that can be further customized by users — to the education market.

Mads Holmen, founder and CEO of Bibblio, explained how his company curates and delivers learning material based on a client’s needs, highlighting all the interesting things going on in the video space as it relates to education.

And Harshil Parikh, founder of Tuva, spoke of the ascendant need for tools (beyond excel) to make sense of and leverage data, and how his company is working to fill that gap in the education space, K-12 and beyond.

The winner of the edtech start-up “Most Promising New Product” contest? It was a three-way tie, based on the conference-friendly, crowd-clap response voting system. This was encouraging, and exactly the right move for an industry that is in need of new ideas and increased innovation that can be delivered by fast-moving operations unencumbered by layer upon layer of bureaucracy — why pick one start-up with a good idea when you can tap into all three?

Certainly all three pitches were good, but perhaps being indecisive about picking a winner put an exclamation point on the challenges publishers face as they work to meet the digital needs of a rapidly evolving, start-up filled marketplace, and an even faster-moving higher ed student body.

Jeffrey Yamaguchi is a writer, marketer, and educator focused on digital publishing and the edtech space. Follow him on Twitter @jeffyamaguchi.

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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.