Tech in EdTech

What Going Digital-First Really Means

August 05, 2021 Magic EdTech Season 1 Episode 4
Tech in EdTech
What Going Digital-First Really Means
Show Notes Transcript

In the 4th episode of Tech In EdTech, Craig Alexander, Pearson talks about “What Going Digital-First Really Means" with Eric Stano, Magic EdTech

Eric: Hi and welcome. This is Tech in EdTech, brought to you by Magic EdTech. I'm Eric Stanno. And in this podcast we discuss technology that powers EdTech and helps improve learning for all. Today we have with us Craig Alexander, Senior Vice President at Pearson. Pearson is a global superpower when it comes to education. Welcome, Craig. 

Craig: Welcome, Eric. 

Eric: Thank you back. So actually, let's just start off. You and I, for full disclosure for anyone who's listening, you and I know each other, I used to be at Pearson and worked alongside you. But, you know, we've only talked infrequently. How have you been over the last year? How's your health been? How's your family been during the last year of this pandemic?

Craig: We've done okay. I mean, obviously, the transition from working at home all the time has been a bit of an adjustment. I was travelling extensively around the world right before the pandemic hit and it went from, you know, feast to famine to not, you know, from travelling everywhere to often not leaving, you know, a mile from my house. You know, we've always done, we've got teams spread out everywhere. So we've always used technology to stay in touch, but have never had to depend on it so much.

Eric: Right, right. Well, if, if, if you need to know I'm envious of the surroundings that I've seen you on on video, because I'm trapped in 500 square feet in Manhattan. So you're one of the lucky ones when it comes at least to this space you have left to roam. But well, let's segue a little bit, because we're talking about technology and EdTech here. How did you first get into EdTech and into Pearson?

Craig: Yeah, so I have been in and out of the educational space for 25-years, I actually started at one of the original video game and EdTech companies called Sierra Online back in the 90s. They did the first educational products on CD ROM, and they go way back. And my career has been a mix of both Entertainment Software, video games, as well as educational software. Although, and I've worked at other game companies such as Electronic Arts, Activision, Warner Brothers, and Sierra and it kind of left the education side pretty early in my career. It had been it had been almost 20 years. But Pearson reached back and recruited me back in and given that I've always been very passionate about education. A lot of my family and extended family are educators. I jumped on the opportunity and I’ve been here for the last six years.

Eric: Very nice, very nice. Well, I've already signaled to the listeners that it's in something they likely know that Pearson is a global superpower when it comes to education. It is, if I remember correctly, from when I was there, the largest educational would have been formally called a publisher. I don't think Pearson goes by that necessarily any longer. But why don't you just take a minute to tell the folks a little bit about Pearson itself?

Craig: Yeah, we position us as world's leading Learning Company. In fact, that's the tagline for Pearson. You're right. Historically, our roots have been in educational publishing, particularly around textbooks, and a number of other businesses as well. But over the last five or six years, we've narrowed our focus and divested all of the remaining assets that weren't education related so for example, we did a lot of financial press. I mean, we had the Financial Times economist, magazine, Penguin Random House, etc. Those are all now been, like I said, divested and the company can focus now 100% of its energy in leading the educational publishing space, and I wouldn't I think the better term now is that we're made the transition more to a media company. And given especially this, this pivot from, you know, analogue textbooks to digital that's been going on for quite some time. In fact, part of the reason I was hired is because of my digital media background. So I was brought in to help drive that transformation. And back to your earlier question about the pandemic and what's been going on the last year, we've seen that transformation accelerate globally. Where it was well underway in the US, it's now it's now everywhere and likely permanent. 

Eric: Right. Right. Well, and along with the pandemic and all the changes that that wrought on education. I know that Pearson itself has changed a little bit just in the last several months with regard to its Focus. And that leads me to my next question of, you know, what would you characterize as the big problems your company is trying to solve right now? And as the second part of that question, how is technology helping you do that?

Craig: Yeah. So technology is critical to all the digital transformation that I talked about. Moving from a textbook publishing model to one that's highly digital, not only on the courseware side, but the online offerings, the assessment offerings, we do a lot of virtual learning, it's changed, completely transformed the company. And as I was saying, before, it's in effect, moved us moved us and our competitors into a different industry. And so I'd almost reverse the question and say what hasn't changed, right? Because we've had to completely alter our operating model, in order to be successful. But the good news is, is that we have, you know, some of the world's best content, not only are we the largest, but the depth of content is also there. And we're able to leverage that, because given our, you know, history, the company's been around for, you know, since the 1800s. So they're there's a lot here.

Eric: And you've recently shifted to more of a consumer focus. I'm curious about that, and how maybe that is informed by technology I can, I can sort of Intuit ways in which that that would happen. But I'm curious as to that particular strategic move. And again, the the technology implications that are part of that.

Craig: Yeah, it's the natural evolution, or think of it as a phase of this digital transformation. I mean, the simplest would say, oh, we'll just turn our textbooks into, you know, flat eBooks, but it's, it's far more than that. And so the move from discrete products to a services offering, from institutional channels to one that's a blend of that, and direct to consumer offerings that involve, you know, maybe short, more short, bite sized learning, that's where students and learners can, can consume content at their own pace, all part of the change that's underway to offer more flexibility and capabilities to our learners, given all the technological change that you just mentioned. And I can even drill down in specific areas of how it's impact, that our assessment business our narrative content our eBook business, etc., etc., it's, it's just formation. And like I said, it's no longer regional. So it's happening everywhere. And some of these companies have some of the some of the regions have flipped, even in the last year of being, you know, predominantly trailing print led businesses that are now digitally led. The one I was looking at the other day that it flipped in six months. And so you can imagine how corrupted that can be. And if you're not on top of it, and investing in the proper tools and tech, you're going to have trouble keeping up.

Eric: Right and Pearson from its roots in the 1800s was not always accustomed perhaps to moving at that kind of pace. That is that's truly a 21st century pace of movement. So that's amazing. 

Craig: And the other good news about it is, is that the media and the reason I described this as a media company is that we've got it's not all unknown. Most of the other media verticals have already made the transition. And you'll see it you know, in film and television and gaming, like I'd mentioned, in many other areas, amuse the music industry through this five or 10 years ago, they've all had to adapt to the new market realities and the new technologies and they're not always quite the same. And because each has its own attributes, and we're learning now, how to do this right for the education market, but if I were to put us on that spectrum, we're the we're the last industry - the last media industry - that's aggressively making this transformation.

Eric: Right. Right. That makes a lot of sense. Well, you've talked about how this has affected Pearson everywhere and how it's really a fundamental change in just about every way and speaking of things that have affected everything back to the pandemic for a second. Because digital learning during this last year went from being you know, a nice to have which is how often are when I was in higher ed at Pearson our instructors would characterize our media offerings, to a must have with people learning at home. What do you think are the good things that have emerged from that and what are maybe some of the not so good things that emerged for Pearson because of that situation?

[09:52 – 24:44]

Craig: Well, I think the good things are as the products are, are superior. The digital format is better. And if you can make the transition and pivot, we have a term internally we use called Digital first, where we focus on producing the digital content ahead of the kind of the static and narrative content, you end up with a product that's more interactive, it's more immersive, it's adaptive, it can be customized more easily and really set up to react to learner needs. So have, you know, if a topic is particularly difficult, and requires some, you know, the content to be slowed down and taught in a more simpler manner, we have adaptive systems. And they can do that. Similarly, if the, if the learner appears to be comprehension is high, then we can accelerate ahead. And these are the kinds of things and not to mention all the rich media. I mean, we produce enormous amounts of video simulations, interactive labs, formative and summative assessment content, all designed to create a media environment where the learner can interact with the product. And that's just something that you can't do with static print. So, I would say, you know, it's not a very controversial statement to say these products are just better.

Eric: And you mentioned adaptivity in there. And I remember from my days at Pearson, and then when I departed and went to a startup, which it’s bread and butter was adaptivity. I can remember that being a very big push. Clearly when students are learning from home, and are truly in a more individualised setting, adaptivity and its value can be thrown into even sharper relief. How do you think Pearson is doing along that trajectory? I know it's always aspirational to get better and better at diagnosing how, what a student knows and doesn't know and providing the best next steps to them. Do you have any thoughts on how Pearson is doing along that that spectrum?

Craig: We're doing okay. It's a lot of work. And it's highly iterative. And it's gonna take years, if not decades, to excel at. But, you know, like, as you know, and having been at Pearson for many years yourself, we've been on this journey for some time. And that's the I think that's one of the other advantages. You know, this is not new. Some of these digital supplements you talked about, you know, that were, you know, added to the textbook experiences have been around for 20 years. And I remember even when I was in college, a lot of this stuff.

Eric: Right, right. But, but that means you're a little bit younger than me, but thanks for that. 

Craig: But the scope of the, of the adaptivity, and the customization, and personalization, and all these things, interactivity, and so forth. It's just exponentially growing and figuring out how to take advantage of that new medium, and make it a superior learning experience, that's a that's a career long effort. And, you know, you sort of never perfect it. And you know, an answer to your question, I think we're doing a good job. But we have a lot of work to do, especially in the services space that I talked about. I'm really optimizing towards mobile, because mobile devices are so pervasive. I mean, when we first started, it was desktop laptop, you know, Windows Mac, you know, we're spending more and more of our time as consumers on Android and iOS devices. And its not just the phones. In any case, my tablets bigger than my laptop. I mean, it's a learning device.

Eric: Right and that's, that's true for students, too. I remember the days when the idea of a student learning on their phone was considered laughable. And now it strikes me, you can tell me because you're on that side of it, but it strikes me as virtually a price of entry to compete for students' attention and eyeballs.

Craig: Yeah, and certainly, yes. And it's, and you need to support all the platforms. The question is how you do it, because you're right, the form factor of a smartphone is not conducive for lots of activities. But I would put that's why I answered in the terms of operating systems, I mean, the fact that it's Android iOS, and we're getting away from for Packer because you can hook up a giant tablet to a keyboard and it's not much different than a Windows omachine other than the iOS and I assure you people are consuming eBooks on tablets, and but most of them don't want you to pick they want you to support all of them. And so we're working hard to do that. It's just there's a lot of technologies and it's a big it's a big integration problem, which is what our team does. We figure all that out.

Eric: Well, again, back to the changes of the last year. I'm curious as to how your product and tech Teams responded both to the imperative that was created by the pandemic, the strategic shift that Pearson engaged in by trying to have more of a direct-to-consumer arm. I'm curious as to how the product and tech teams both responded. And if there were any notable lessons that you saw?

Craig: Just the main lesson is an old business school term called the “innovator's dilemma'' where you're trying to keep the old business going and the new at the same time. 

Eric: I read that book.

Craig: Yeah, and it, you have to do both. Because oftentimes, the new technology takes a few years to hit scale and sort everything out. And so I thought we reacted pretty well. But you need a, you know, an agile development environment where you're, where you're focused on smaller incremental goals, but understanding the strategic objective overall of where you want to head to. And you can hire lots of people with diverse backgrounds that have been through this before, maybe not exactly from a higher ed or an education standpoint, but understand how to produce digital media. This is critical. And like I said, You know, I was my last job at Warner Brothers, this is not new, they had to go through all of this in the film and television space, who would thought that the theatre business would be virtually shut down. Right, suddenly, these streaming services make a heck of a lot more sense than maybe they did when they first first appeared. So you know, distribution and format, it's all about leveraging great content, and making it as high quality as possible. And I've been, you know, overall, pretty happy now, is it a big complicated exercise underneath, of course, building software and building technology is not easy. But it's working.

Eric: Right, well, that's, that's great. And, you know, as you as you said, you know, characterize education and I agree with you is, is often the last to adapt to technological transformation. And, you know, the pan pandemic precipitated, I think, a lot of change on that, that front, from this place, what direction do you see tech technology moving in relative to education? And how are you and your teams preparing for what, what, what comes next for you all?

Craig: I think it's the transitions. So I walked through earlier, but all the things that we've done to date, it's the the services, cloud based, highly iterative and interactive systems approach that's next, where the really becoming moving from a product to a services company. That's the next big challenge. And by the way, it affects business models, the whole commerce and monetization systems, this can get really complicated really quickly, and learning how to do this right to benefit the learner and allow them the flexibility and the freedom to consume and pay for the content as it's needed. And this is this is one of those universal issues that affects all sorts of media.

Eric: And given the scope of that given just the sheer precipitous climb that that takes to make changes on all of those fronts. Even now, I'm glad you reference the commerce side of it, which people in my position often don't think a great deal about. How is Pearson preparing for that? You know, what are what are sort of the actions you're laying down to get ready for all that has to change?

Craig: Well, it's packaging our portfolio of titles in such a way that it can be offered as a service, whether to institutions directly, through inclusive access program, or whether it's some direct-to-consumer offerings. I mean, that, in effect, the a lot of the changes that occurred in the media, the media or other media verticals need to occur here. And we're not only preparing for it, in many cases, we're already actively pursuing it. And in many cases, the learners and the institutions prefer it because it has a lot of advantages. The days of discrete a’la’carte purchasing as opposed to a service that you subscribe to, is where I think all of this is headed.

Eric: And very much in keeping it sounds like with the sort of the consumer emphasis that Pearson is developing, you know, subscription service to something like a Netflix is very consumer oriented and sounds like that's just part and parcel of Pearson's strategic change.

Craig: I agree, although I would remind that institutional partnerships are still extremely important. And so, you know, direct to consumer doesn't mean that you're ignoring all the academic institutions that you depend on to a doctor courseware and host your content. So in many cases, the instructor is as important as the learner. And all these kinds of principles apply to them as well. [Cross Talk] All the tools and the grading tools, and all the things that we offer to make the entire learning experience not only positive and beneficial for students, but for the, you know, the faculty as well.

Eric: All right, well, that's one of the things I always found intellectually challenging about being in education, you don't just simply focus on a product and a method of delivery. But you have to really be cognizant of the entire ecosystem in which you're operating your ultimate customers, the students, your partners in educating students, the instructors, your other partners in the institutions themselves. It's really, really got to triangulate precisely how you accomplish what you want to accomplish, which is educating students more and more effectively. And it's one of the things I always found really dynamic and interesting about the education space.

Craig: Yeah, I agree. And I think the change there is this, is some of it is going to, especially in higher ed, it's going to continue to be instructor led. But other things, you know, more skills training could be more self service. Learn at your own pace. It really depends on what it is, and really trying to move towards this lifelong learning model, where the higher ed or K 12 component of your education is just a part of the journey, right. And hopefully, we can be there for all phases of the journey. And we have been, I mean, we have all sorts of vocational training offerings. I mean, you're familiar with it as much as I am about the different types of educational experiences that we can deliver in a much more effective way, because of just all the, you know, the technology changes where, you know, these aren't necessarily new technologies, but they're a heck of a lot better than they used to be. 

Eric: Sure. Sure. Well, I really appreciate the time you're spending and it's always a pleasure for me just personally, to talk with you. I just have one last question for you here. And that's really, given your experience over the last several years, but in particular, in the last year, what advice would you have for your peers, as well as your customers?

Craig: I think the advice for both would be embrace the change. It can be disruptive and challenging in the short term, but in the long term, all parties are going to be better off. And we've seen it and we can demonstrate it with efficacy studies and all sorts of things. But the direction we're heading is the correct one. In fact, as a general rule at Pearson, I say this often is that I'm always so comfortable with our strategy, there's very little debate on that. It's all execution. And that can get a little complicated, but I have a pretty good idea of where we're heading. And we just need to, we just need to be successful at it.

Eric: Comfortable with strategy. I like that. It sounds like a nice place to be. And I've been there before.

Craig: Our vendor partners in magic and others are critical to this success. I mean, we have, we have as many vendors staff supporting Pearson on kind of a full-time equivalent basis, than than I have employees that this is this is a team sport, we're not going to do this on our own ... really appreciate every one of the reasons I want to do this podcast with you as I'm a big fan of Magic EdTech and a lot of our other preferred partners. Without them, we would not be successful.

Eric: Well, I appreciate you saying that. As I've said in many settings, talking to you and to the other folks at Pearson to me always feels like I'm going back home. So I was I was happy for this this conversation as well. Well, listen, Craig, hopefully now that the pandemic is receding a little bit here in the northeast, hopefully we'll be able to see one another in person and maybe grab a beer. But in the meantime, I'm appreciative for the time you're able to spend with me today and for doing this. So thank you so much. 

Craig: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, I need to get on the road. In fact, my son's going into his senior of high school and we got to go look at colleges. So I'm going to be doing the College Board thing. So not as my job.

Eric: You get to look at colleges in person. So changes afoot. That's a nice a nice step to take.

Craig: The website only goes so far. To see what's up. 

Eric: All right. Well, thank you again, Craig. It was really nice to speak with you today. 

Craig: Yeah, good talking to you again, Eric. 

Eric: Take care. 

Craig: Bye.