The future of content

Now for the hard part. Practically speaking, how do we create a digital learning environment that motivates students to learn?

We need look only as far as the Chinese buffet for an answer.

Among the many items in the Chinese buffet is a dish called Alaskan crab legs. Seafood devotees will tell you it’s delicious, but at thirty-plus dollars a pound, this Bering Sea fare is definitely not cheap.

The same buffet also offers up a Cantonese dish called beef chow fun. It is at the other end of the cost spectrum. So, if you eat two crab legs and some chow fun, you might wonder how the buffet can possibly be profitable. Aren’t you eating up the restaurant’s profits?

You’re not. That’s because the $24.95 the buffet charges each patron results in an aggregate revenue that is still greater than the cost of all the items in the buffet.

This same business model holds true when we apply it to digital learning. With a learning buffet that consists of a textbook — the Alaskan crab legs of the educational menu — as well as videos, games, essays and Web materials — the chow fun — the student gets precisely what the Chinese buffet patron gets: An array of offerings whose variety makes it possible to customize consumption.

And just as the actual buffet is profitable because most patrons are willing to sample the less expensive items on the menu too, the digital learning materials are economically feasible because most students are not going to read the textbook cover to cover. Indeed, professors typically assign only the chapters they deem relevant to their course. Most students will not have the time or inclination to read unassigned chapters. Their school, therefore, would not pay for unread portions of the textbook.

To our way of thinking, the buffet model would be advantageous for McGraw Hill — as well as for a software development community incentivized to produce the crab legs and chow fun of educational apps. And the biggest winner of all? The student, who will have an opportunity to choose from a variety of learning paths. If she doesn’t fully understand the textbook explanation of, say, the First Law of Thermodynamics, she can turn to an animation, video or game. Moreover, the algorithms underlying the buffet will remember what item on the menu ultimately succeeded in illuminating the subject matter for her. This data-based approach to education ensures that the next student who has to learn about thermodynamics will get a recommendation, a la Amazon or Netflix, as to what educational offering has been the preferred one.

Clearly, we have left the Kansas of textbook education for the Oz of diversified digital learning where we are calling this new taxonomy of offerings — as well as the template that contains it — a “card.”

At McGraw Hill, we think of the card as a single, customizable, editable set of educational materials with a variety of navigational capabilities, including zooming, search and version control, that also tracks the student’s learning preferences and habits. The card puts to rest the idea that information must be silo-ized into old-school categories such as biology, physics and calculus. Like the Internet, it is built on the premise that knowledge is multidisciplinary and acquired in a multitude of ways.

With its legacy as a textbook publisher, McGraw Hill is best positioned to contribute the textbook — an essential learning component — to the card. Yet to offer the widest array of content, we will need to engage the participation of the software development community. App developers will enter into the McGraw Hill digital ecosystem to create visualizations, animations, tracking methodologies, databases, readers, and other as-yet-to-be-configured learning tools and technologies. Because all developers would work on the same open platform, the cost of integration into the McGraw Hill roster, through partnership or acquisition, becomes eminently manageable.

While we are reluctant to hold out the card as an educational Theory of Everything, we are prepared to say that the card system will also go a long way to reducing the appeal of piracy. Selling Professor Chu’s Section A physics card to Student Joe in Professor Hartman’s Section B class won’t offer Joe any test or grade advantage because the professors’ cards are customized to their own classes. In any case, school systems and individual students will be able to access a deep catalog of offerings through an affordable subscription plan.

Cards will also equip our sales force with a catalog of offerings that it can take into the Impenetrable Forest of Doom. Its chief product will not be a 600-page textbook that daunts all but the most determined student, but the conviction that no single learning tool suits everyone. The only way to learn now is every possible way.

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