From the outside, at least, the greatest competitive threat to traditional education publishers would seem to be open educational resources (OER). Noncommercial OER is to instructional content what open-source code is to software.
But OER is just another facet of new education tactics, insists Hitchcock. "What we're seeing is more convergence," he said. Schools and teachers want ways to "weave them into a solution." To this he adds that because Pearson offers services for "every single element, except instruction, open source doesn't frighten us."
In fact, Pearson and the other big education publishers didn't always have this inclusive philosophy about OER, when they thought it was a competitor, says a former Pearson executive and now digital education strategist and analyst. There was a time when "all the big players thought the best they could do was lock it out," said Frank Catalano, a founding columnist at GeekWire and a Pearson senior VP from 2004 to 2008. "But this is a customer-driven business," Catalano continued. "Customers said flat out, "'We want to use these materials.'"
Catalano believes Pearson's biggest competition comes from its two main rivals, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which have narrowed Pearson's once-clear lead in digital products. "All of the big three have digital-savvy people at the helm now," Catalano said.
But Pearson senior executives tout their strengths. "We have more digital learners using Pearson products (over 11 million in 2012) than all of our content competitors combined," Jerome Grant, chief learning officer for Pearson Higher Education, said in an email interview. With the purchase of online program design and development, marketing and enrollment and technology company Embanet last fall, Grant said, "We are now able to truly partner with colleges and universities to provide content, technology, platform and services. We are the only learning company with these capabilities."
Hitchcock points out that helping schools keep pace with digital calls for a different approach to product development and deployment, one that is more dynamic and iterative. It also requires input from many groups, including student advisory boards. Building such "tight feedback loops" explains Pearson's recent outreach to constituents willing to share anonymized data, with the end goal of demonstrating the efficacy of teaching products and practices, Hitchcock said.
"Traditionally, a publisher sells a book," he says. "Now we're focused on the entire solution, helping the student be successful.
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