Disrupting class?

Education publishers have a balancing act on their hands as they engage with the digital transition, as we explore in our Lead Story this week.

The pace of change, in UK classrooms at least, remains relatively gradual; no teacher will experiment recklessly with students’ exam results and, unlike in the US, many schools still make purchasing choices on an individual basis, making the market difficult for new ventures to break into. But edtech has been swelled by venture capital to a remarkable extent (globally $2.98bn last year, says investor database CB Insights); there has been an explosion of start-ups, bankrolled to try out new business models.

Investors may not get the return they are looking for, given that, unlike in the research field, education has remained stubbornly resistant to globalising—individual, local curricula remain crucial. But the level of engagement that some new ventures have achieved is striking. Teachers may be digitally unadventurous but their students are not.

Start-up Gojimo’s free revision app is claimed to have reached one in five GCSE and A-Level students last year, and founder George Burgess says that this year, the figure is looking more like one in three. That result has been achieved by marketing direct to students via Facebook and Instagram and being willing to give away free content in the expectation that the ability to monetise other products will follow. Burgess says Gojimo is now being approached by schools interested in its new, subscription-based tutor app, and he’s considering whether to adapt his business to pursue this.

Education publishers rightly reject any characterisation of them as dinosaurs, pointing out they have been involved with digital for years and, what’s more, running profitable businesses while doing so, rather than burning through investors’ seed money. They can also take heart from their trade cousins who, despite years of being told they are legacy publishers, look anything but. With many start-ups keen for acquisition or partnership, it would be easy to make a costly misstep: Colin Hughes, m.d. of Collins Learning, rejected 18 “overvalued” adaptive learning platforms before settling on German company Bettermarks’ white label option in his search for the right partner for Collins Learning maths.

But publishers also know how alert they must be to change. As Chris Bromley, group strategy director of Oxford University Press, points out, it is only a matter of time until digital natives become the teacher gatekeepers, and then the pace of transformation is likely to become much swifter.