McGraw-Hill Education transitions to digital market

The education publishing giant has overhauled its approach and positioning to deliver a "hybrid" model of print and digital content, and tools to personalize student learning.

Don’t call McGraw-Hill Education a textbook company.

The New York-based education outfit, along with fellow “big three” publishing companies Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has had to completely overhaul and revamp the way it creates and delivers its tools to stay relevant in the digital age.

As the market becomes more fractured, with schools snatching up the latest edtech products and teachers creating their own digital tools and open educational resources, McGraw-Hill, which was founded in 1888, is refocusing its efforts on creating adaptive materials that can help personalize student learning.

In the last two years, it has acquired the ALEKS Corp., a Web-based assessment system that determines exactly what students know or don’t know in a course, and Area9 Aps, which developed the LearnSmart Advantage Suite, another adaptive technology tool that’s used in 1,100 college courses.


“I think it’s all part of this ecosystem called education,” Christine Willig, president of McGraw-Hill Education’s K-12 group, told StateScoop in an interview. “If a kid is going to learn better using one-third of the time McGraw-Hill resources, one-third of the time teacher-created materials and one-third of the time some OER … I celebrate that.”

Willig sat down with StateScoop during the Association of American Publisher’s Content in Context conference in Washington, D.C., this week, which focused heavily on the $8 billion-a-year industry’s transition from print to the burgeoning digital space. Below is an edited and condensed Q&A with Willig and Heath Morrison, senior vice president of government affairs and education policy.

StateScoop: Is this conference sort of like old vs. new companies?

Christine Willig: It can be. Even at McGraw-Hill, you notice “publisher” is not in our name in any way. It’s McGraw-Hill Education, and we are defining ourselves as a learning science company that’s serving the art of teaching. And all of our future-facing development is not around the book, it’s not about the e-book, because 100 years from now no one will even remember what the e-book was. In education, the things that we’re developing now with interactivity, engagement, driving teacher effectiveness, those things are the reason for educational technologies. Because they can be delivered through educational technology in a way that we can measure outcomes and determine where students are in their learning trajectory, and we can help them move along that trajectory. We are really overhauling our processes, our approaches, our staff. We’re investing heavily in our platform, our adaptive engines, our assessment tools.

We’re still developing print, just like newspapers still provide print; there’s a certain amount of our constituency who’s going to want that. And we’re also thinking carefully about what print means. There’s nothing wrong with print. It’s very flexible, functional, it’s easy to use, and when the electricity goes out, it will still work.


SS: Are schools buying textbooks as a back up, an alternative or still the primary means of learning?

Heath Morrison: It’s not a back up. It’s astonishing how many school districts simply don’t have the infrastructure. Even if they wanted to go one to one, if somehow you figure out the infrastructure and find a way to put a device in every child’s hand, then you’ve got huge professional development needs with teachers and have to convert all the materials you bought. So there’s lots of reasons why, in this time of turmoil, school districts still in the absence of knowing exactly the direction they’re going are saying, “We wanna put something in front of our students.” So that would be a textbook.

SS: What is most the popular McGraw-Hill product that schools can use with the infrastructure they have?

CW: From a sales standpoint alone, our most popular, ubiquitous program across the United States is Reading Wonders. It’s a K-5 reading program built entirely to the most contemporary standards. It has a vast digital array of components and you can experience it completely in a one-to-one environment, or experience it through print and the teacher interacting with the technology, or the student interacting with the technology.

That’s the goofy part of our work these days, that we have to do both [print and digital]. The most popular usage is hybrid — [schools] are using some print and some digital, because, A, they may not have the infrastructure and, B, they may not have the training. But teachers are getting more and more comfortable with using elements of the digital experience. It absolutely varies everywhere.


SS: Would the move to digital have been a natural progression, or do you find that newer, startup edtech companies are pushing you that way?

CW: I think there’s a natural tsunami of activity in our culture that’s going to push the digital envelope. I think that, although schools are in different phases of that, and because it’s not a straight consumer model where a household is deciding how well wired their house is and how many devices are in the home, it’s very different. Tools are only powerful if a school district can use them. In higher ed, we’re certainly seeing huge shifts to digital where lots of colleges require you to bring a device.

HM: It’s not until we have this world of digital natives who go through [education] schools, where that’s really all they’ve ever known is devices and technology, that you’ll really start to see the total shift in it. Because even when you get teachers that are technologically proficient, those old habits of teaching or being the sage on the stage is really challenging.

CW: I have seen teachers in their 50s really make radical change, and teachers in their 20s be resistant. I think it’s about building success and comfort. When teaching digitally is as natural as teaching from paper, then it’ll be fine. When it’s unnatural or awkward, all those elements get in the way of the transition. I think that all sectors of our economy deserve forces that are driving innovation, and if the world can use Google and replicate what we do and never have to buy any content or programs from McGraw-Hill, then we deserve to go out of business.

SS: Do you consider companies like Google and Apple competitors?


CW: Apple and Google have shown no interest in developing educational content, and we obviously have a lot of great pedagogy-driven educators who are thinking about educational content. I think there are aspects where there are crossovers around the engines and technologies, but for the most part those are people who are partners. And we’re totally device agnostic – we’re definitely not in the device business.

SS: Student data privacy has been a major topic around Washington and across the country in recent months. How do you balance protecting student data with tracking their growth and progress?

CW: Our intent for capturing data is about driving learning forward. Our intent for capturing data is never about advertising or pitching a product or selling it to anybody.

In order for edtech to grow beyond the e-book, we have to have data pouring off your exchange. Imagine a video game that didn’t capture data about how you were interacting with the game – it would get boring. You’d be stuck down here [motioning at a lower level] when, in fact, the beauty of video games is that they do this. And that’s what we want to do with learning too, so that’s our plans with the data.

We’re building out a lot of interactivity, a data layer with robust reporting for educators so they know where the kids are at. They’re not waiting to get a big summative test finding out half their kids failed. To have the data in your hands every day to drive your effectiveness as an educator. Even having data dashboards for students – because isn’t a game a lot more fun when you know you’re keeping score? The purpose is to help the student know where they need to grow and develop.


SS: What is the market going to look like a few years from now?

CW: Five years from now, we’re not going to be talking about the hybrid between print and digital. We’re going to be talking about a hybrid mix of “publisher-created materials” – which I would call highly curated, teacher-created materials, and some folks in the middle that might be OER providers or even student-created materials. If a student-created material works, why wouldn’t we use it?

I think our value only accelerates when we’re accelerating at student outcome. What’s the goal? The goal of school is to deliver at student outcomes. Right now that is defined by state standards, the Common Core. Our job is to make sure students get to those outcomes.

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