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Alix’s Pick for 2010: Higher Education — Turning a Painful Reality Into a Thriving Digital Business

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Rather than choosing a “best” of my own posts, I’ve taken a step back to examine what I’ve written this year, in search of an article or theme upon which to expand.

Surveying my 2010 contributions, main themes were innovation and new product creation — what’s next, who’s doing it, and how we get from here to there. I believe that thinking broadly about and seizing new opportunities will help us transform our business and thrive in the post-apocalyptic era of digital publishing.

With that in mind, I’ve chosen to expand on my most recent post, Higher Education: Turning a Painful Reality Into a Thriving Digital Business. Why?

  • I’m listening to comments. More than one reader was unclear about my hypothesis/connection between virtual learning and scholarly publishing.
  • I still believe that the connection exists and is potentially valuable.
  • If I’m not all wet, a recent announcement in K-12 virtual learning may laterally impact digital scholarly publishing.
  • I want us to be aware of activities in adjacent arenas in order to extract bits that help us anticipate new market needs and develop new, successful, and scalable digital products.

In Higher Education: Turning a Painful Reality Into a Thriving Digital Business, I provided an example in which a problem/opportunity, arising within the traditional knowledge-services economy, is solved by an entrepreneurial company that is better positioned to think and act innovatively than its predecessor, a traditional business that has long dominated the marketplace. The article focused on emerging alternatives in virtual learning — why they are needed, and who stands to gain.

A couple of readers asked why this is relevant.

Answer: Scholarly publishers are in the knowledge business. If we want to remain in business, we need to carve out roles for ourselves in the new, transformed knowledge economy. Changes to the mechanisms through which learning is acquired will have a lateral impact. And, we can begin preparing for this now.

Longstanding market definitions are breaking down. Rather than conceiving of ourselves strictly as participants in the publishing, higher education, or research sectors, it may be more useful to look at our activities in a larger context. Research, authorship, curation, teaching, and content sharing are all part of the fabric of an increasingly dynamic and scalable knowledge services continuum that is drawn together by commerce and scale.

Staying with this train of thought, it becomes clear that sea changes in adjacent knowledge economies will also influence on the ways in which we do business. The pace of change is opening up any number of new opportunities, but capitalizing on these will require us to grab onto early clues, anticipate trends, and expand the boundaries of our product development.

For example:

Earlier this month, former Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise announced the formation of a bipartisan Digital Learning Council composed of more than 50 leaders from education, government, philanthropy, business, technology, and think tanks assembled to develop a roadmap for supporting innovation and progress in K-12 digital education. Members of the Council include executives from leading technology firms—Apple, Cisco, Dell, Intel, Google, and Microsoft, and from education and publishing, BlackBoard, Houghton Mifflin, Pearson, Scholastic, and Sylvan Learning.

One of the Council’s first public activities has been to publish a paper on the “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning” that will serve as a structure for action in the education policy sphere.

10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning

  1. Student Eligibility: All students are digital learners.
  2. Student Access: All students have access to high quality digital content and online courses.
  3. Personalized Learning: All students can customize their education using digital content through approved provider.
  4. Advancement: Student progress based on demonstrated competency.
  5. Content: Digital content, instructional materials, and online and blended learning courses are high quality.
  6. Instruction: Digital instruction and teachers are high quality.
  7. Providers: All students have access to multiple high quality providers.
  8. Assessment and Accountability: Student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.
  9. Funding: Funding creates incentives for performance, options and innovation.
  10. Delivery: Infrastructure supports digital learning.

For the full report visit 10 Elements of High-Quality Digital Learning.

The Digital Learning Council will focus on removing barriers that inhibit innovation in K-12 digital education. However, make no mistake; its constituents have the ability to influence the entire educational technology landscape.

Reasons to anticipate that their efforts will ultimately impact the course of digital scholarly publishing:

  • Significant transformation in digital learning and educational technology will not be confined to or defined by traditional market boundaries—K-12, two-year, four-year, graduate, professional. Scalable technologies and commercial incentives virtually guarantee that what is embraced in one educational arena will quickly translate to the other.
  • Support for customized, technology-centered learning will advance the obsolescence of the traditional textbook model that many publishers have taken great pains to defend.
  • To the degree to which textbook publishers do not join the virtual learning movement, there will be new opportunities for scholarly publishers to downstream their content to virtual learning applications, in partnership with course delivery companies or open access platforms.

Connecting the dots, if I am a journal, reference, or textbook publisher:

  • I am concerned about competition and the diminution of traditional revenue streams.
  • I am seeking ways to diversify my activities, value, and income.
  • I have considered/will consider adapting my content for delivery in instructional settings and/or developing teaching/assessment tools for secondary through post-graduate education.
  • I should be learning more about companies that are already active in this space, like Wimba/Elluminate. [A 2009 list of 101 OpenCourseWare projects is available on The .Edu Toolbox here.]

The biggest brands in the course adoption space cross boundaries. They don’t specialize in K-12 to the exclusion of higher education but work in both. They are attuned to trends in digital learning globally and domestic education policy.  It’s probably not too early for us to be thinking broadly as well.

Borrowing from the “Wild West” cliché:

  • The Good: opportunities abound
  • The Bad: change is rarely comfortable
  • The Ugly: what happens if we defend our forts and resist without adapting

There is plenty that we can do to create our own futures and ensure future success. To begin …

  • Scan the horizon
  • Be alert to clues and opportunities that help define strategic opportunities
  • Free ourselves from traditional value, role, and sector definitions
  • Re-tool, develop more agile and flexible capabilities, explore new partnerships and business models

Happy holidays!

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About Alix Vance

Alexandra (Alix) Vance is Executive Director of GeoScienceWorld. She has been President of Architrave Consulting, Chief Operating Officer at The Center for Education Reform, Executive Director of Reference Publishing at CQ Press, and Vice President of Business Development at Ebook Library. She serves on the Editorial Board of Learned Publishing and has been a member of the Board of Directors of The Society for Scholarly Publishing and author of The Scholarly Kitchen. She is a painter, social worker, and mother of two.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Alix’s Pick for 2010: Higher Education — Turning a Painful Reality Into a Thriving Digital Business

  1. While I was director at Penn State Press, I tried to get the Press more involved with the distance-education division of the University known as the World Campus to explore how we might work fruitfully together, and while we had several discussions, no specific project ever materialized. I do continue to believe, however, that there is an important role for university presses to be playing in this arena. I’m not so sure there is in the K-12 arena, given the advanced nature of the scholarship that we publish, but it is worth pointing out that Project Muse has among its institutional subscribers some schools at the secondary level.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Dec 24, 2010, 1:58 pm
    • CQ Researcher is another one that scales successfully from secondary through postgraduate. It makes sense to me to think, increasingly, about structuring content so that it can be repackaged dynamically to meet scaling user needs/levels.

      Posted by Alexandra Vance | Dec 24, 2010, 6:59 pm
      • Indeed, my research on grade level stratification of science content has led to a simple concept, which I call Science News for Students. It is basically a document explaining a new result, but it is written to a specific grade level.

        Any given research result is relevant to perhaps 3 or 4 very different grade levels in the K-12 spectrum, but it has to be written differently for each relevant grade level, using their concepts. The key is to have a model of the concept progression of K-12 science education, which is what we have done.

        One could do the same thing with topical reviews, as opposed to individual results. How one makes money is another story, as usual.

        Posted by David Wojick | Dec 25, 2010, 7:22 am
        • My thinking is that these can be supplied as edocuments and courseware apps. The key is to supply them within platforms where teachers “shop” for components when building their lesson plans and to deliver content in formats that work in leading courseware environments.

          From a business model perspective, I recommend a freemium model: basic content at no charge; visual enhancements, interactive exercises, and testing tools commoditized. There’s also a social implication: teachers share the ways they’ve recombined apps. Provide reviews, recommendations, new development ideas.

          With flexible digital tools, there is a lot of creative opportunity!

          Posted by Alexandra Vance | Dec 25, 2010, 3:28 pm
          • Yours is a plausible scenario, but it depends on the growth of the platforms and courseware environments you refer to. This seems like betting on the revolution, which I am skeptical of as a business strategy.

            Right now the primary “courseware environment” is often a classroom projector attached to the teacher’s computer. That is my target market. Some teachers like to include science news, even though they are teaching concepts that are hundreds of years old, as most of K-12 science is.

            Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2010, 7:50 am
  2. The “revolution” (expansion of digital learning options in K12 education) is precisely what the DLC is organized to promote. Global competitiveness is an incentive. Countries having less traditional education infrastructure are hopping on the elearning bandwagon with strong results. U.S. companies like Tutor.com are growing by working within and outside the in-classroom margins. 

    Posted by Alix Vance | Dec 26, 2010, 5:08 pm

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