Kate Worlock explains how publishers should approach the challenges and opportunities presented by the rise of edtech start-ups. Benedicte Page reports.
Benedicte Page How high does EdTech feature among publishers’ priorities?
Kate Worlock High, because it speaks to growth, which is obviously always a priority. And it speaks to competitive positioning: you don’t want to look like a player three or four years behind anyone else and struggling to get a product onto the market that’s a replica of a product by somebody else. But there is also a hint of caution. It’s not always clear that making an investment will have a brilliant return, so it’s a higher risk than, for example, reducing your edition cycle to two years rather than three or four to grow revenue from textbook sales.
BP What are the major challenges facing publishers?
KW Trying to build user understanding, and stickiness with institutional clients so your product becomes embedded in the workflow of the faculty and they have to renew [subsriptions]. Also, there are so many benefits to digital resources because you can track and analyse use, but there is also an assumption with any resource that it should be lower cost, as people are so used to getting things for free online and they translate that expectation into education.
That’s a big issue: academic and education budgets are particularly tight at the minute and there is a pain point for users taking a risk on a new EdTech product when they could spend the money on updating their reading scheme. That expectation has not been helped by the EdTech market where start-ups such as Edmodo and ClassDojo are trying that consumer technique of getting as widely used as possible [for free] and then finding a way to monetise.
BP How can publishers combat this?
KW A survey we took recently showed faculty members don’t often track return on investment on products they’ve bought, so it behoves publishers to work with them as partners, not buyers, and to show them how to use the data to deliver insight and value. This justifies the price point, helps stickiness and gives institutions a reason to move from print to digital. If digital doesn’t improve your results, why would you make the transition?
That’s where publishers can add value: they are not just publishers of books, but services and solutions suppliers working in partnership with their clients to support best practice usage.
BP How do you view the huge proliferation of EdTech start-ups?
KW It’s a marketplace of opportunities to be snapped up. We used to talk about disruption, but there are very few examples of companies in the education space who have come in and disrupted the market in the sense of cannibalising it. They might change the market—for example, [adaptive learning company] Knewton is disruptive because it forced publishers to rethink how they produce materials and how they can use technology to enhance what they are doing. But while Knewton is disruptive, it’s not cannibalising the market.
Another example is [schools start-up] Show My Homework. That is disruptive, because it changed the relationship between school, parent and student. It disrupts user habits and makes publishers rethink what access walls they have, what technology they need. If I were a publisher I would be watching all these players—Gojimo and so on—and looking at who is doing well, asking my customers who is doing well (and why) and watching out for who is floating to the top.
BP Is there the potential for EdTech to fundamentally transform the entire education process?
KW The challenge is that the education system will not change greatly until we see changes driven by shifts in the assessment system. If you look at the exam paper for, for example, French GCSEs, they are reasonably similar year to year. In fact, I would say there has been a backwards shift in the renewed focus on exams instead of coursework. Exams have changed less than education and if you don’t change the exams, why would people try a new system?
Skills such as creativity, collaboration and agile thinking are key 21st-century skills, but we are not currently assessing them. You will not see widescale, disruptive change to education until you see assessment change—and that is quite far down the track.