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When Content Is No Longer the Product: Part 1

NextThought team — October 31, 2018



What do publishers – whose stock and trade has always been content – do when content is no longer the main product they are selling?

In other words, what are the possible futures for content publishers?


In this three-part series of posts, I’m going to explore what the education market looks like when content is no longer the primary product being sold.

Today, in the first post, I’ll lay the foundation for my thinking and discuss how a shift from product to practice/experience in education may impact traditional publishing in Higher Education.1 The second post will discuss the effect of this shift on universities and colleges, and in the third post I’ll reflect on the possible consequences for learning technology companies.

Personalized Learning (or Underpersonalized Teaching)

This notion of de-emphasizing traditional educational content packages – courses, textbooks, and their various product/technology expressions – has come to me again and again in recent weeks as I’ve thought about the topic of personalized learning. My focus on the subject has been driven by recent presentations and learning design workshops, as well as Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein’s outstanding summary of important issues and applications of personalized learning in Higher Education.

In particular, Phil and Michael point to three important takeaways from their research over the past three years at colleges and universities that have undertaken personalized learning projects:

1. In the institutional projects they studied, the highly commercialized term personalized learning would be more appropriately described as underpersonalized teaching, or promoting student success by “increasing meaningful personal contact.”

2. Technology can facilitate such underpersonalized teaching by “lowering classroom barriers to one-on-one teacher/student (and student/student) interactions.” In their observations, Phil and Michael report three primary technology-enabled strategies for achieving this goal: 1) moving content broadcast out of the classroom (flipped model); 2) turning homework time into contact time; and 3) providing tutoring.

3. Underpersonalized teaching (or personalized learning strategies, if you prefer) is not a product but rather a practice.

Wait a minute.

Education success through innovative practice rather than commoditized products?

Doesn’t that fly in the face of pretty much the entire last century of public education in the U.S. – K-12 and Higher Education?

As Bryan Alexander points out in the video below, our ability to scale education to date has been based largely on a willingness to identify and commoditize replicable and scalable products – buildings, curricula, teachers, students, and textbooks. (Bryan’s segment begins at 1:35).

Of course, just because you can commoditize and scale education this way does not mean you are actually engaging in effective teaching and learning strategies.

Such is the primary point made by Michael and Phil in another article on personalized learning. In fact, it seems that commoditized products (university courses, publisher content packages, adaptive learning technologies) are not the key element for success when it comes to underpersonalized teaching.

This is a lesson that is usually missed in the talk about successes with personalized learning products, but it’s always there if you read closely. Embedded in just about every efficacy press release or case study by Pearson, McGraw-Hill, or any of the other vendors is a story about course redesign and a quote from a faculty member about how he or she was able to do new things with their students because the software frees them up from certain tasks (like lecturing). And yet, the vast majority of faculty are not trained in designing and teaching courses like these. Schools are spending literally millions of dollars to not only license software products but also to build computer labs where students take software-centric classes. We are not seeing the same level of investment in the professional development of faculty as teachers and course designers. And yet, skilled teachers seem to be a critical success factor for personalized learning.

Shifting from Instructional Product to Instructional Practice

Real learning success is first and foremost about creating different kinds of learning environments and experiences. It’s about redesigning courses and emphasizing instructional practice over instructional product. In large part, achieving learning success is about shifting our discussions from what to how.

Not surprisingly, such a shift could have significant impact on publishers and institutions alike, as both have consistently prioritized product over practice as a way to scale education in a cost-effective and profitable manner. After all, most of the structures we have developed to standardize and scale education – our modern versions of curricula, courses, programs, degrees, and learning materials – are actually content products. They are standardized, commoditized packages that reinforce each other and allow us to scale the system.

How does one commercialize instructional practice? How can one facilitate improved learning in a way that is dynamic, networked, and experiential?

5 Steps to Creating Association E-Learning Strategies

Implications, Challenges, and Opportunities for Traditional Publishers

Focusing first on traditional publishers, the questions for future product modeling are – how does one commercialize instructional practice? How can one facilitate improved learning in a way that is dynamic, networked, and experiential?

Major publishers, at least, have already laid the foundation for this transition via their heavy investments in adaptive assessment and learning technologies. These platforms provide a useful underpinning for designing commoditized yet meaningful learning solutions that emphasize instructional practice.2 In addition to these companies’ current platform capabilities, I can also imagine future evolutions of their solutions emphasizing and delivering:

  • AI and smart content systems (just-in-time content delivery and location-based sensitivity)
  • Personal and social learning networks
  • Gamification and game-based instruction and learning
  • Evidence-based learning frameworks
  • Flexible and intelligent pedagogical pathways for guiding (coaching) effective instruction
  • Real-time and adaptive instructional support
  • Discipline-specific instructional frameworks
  • Professional development libraries (non-product specific)3

Note that these projected solutions transcend any specific technology or platform, and prioritize instructional practice and learning experience over specific content packages. In fact, such solutions portend a different kind of future for publishers, one that is increasingly content-agnostic, or at least one that focuses much less on author brands and royalty content. It is a future in which solutions are designed to improve instructional practice, and to support a variety of disparate content sources – publisher, open, instructor-generated.


There are obviously a number of challenges with such a shift.4

First, the publishing industry has not yet weaned itself entirely from its legacy content business models. Whether we call them textbooks or “products,” publishers continue to follow a tried-and-true content business path by promoting author-branded products that are driven by royalty-incentivized content. Unfortunately, this model ultimately translates to a continued proliferation of content silos, inefficiencies in content management and, most important, a lack of strategic product coordination and vision within different disciplines. It also makes it extremely difficult for Higher Education publishers to develop and own their own content which, in turn, limits the speed with which they can implement new solutions.

Understandably, these business models are difficult to transform because they are so deeply intertwined with existing financial and organizational structures, as well as sales and marketing. Accounting remains tied to ISBN or core content products, which means internal revenue streams, P&L ownership, and a certain amount of organizational control remain in the hands of content-based product teams. Also, while author-branded products are problematic for future product strategies, many of these brands currently generate significant revenue.5

Another challenge is that the continued adherence to legacy content models effectively relegates promising learning technologies to a supporting role for legacy products that were imagined in a static, pre-Internet world. I’m impressed with several of the new publisher digital learning platforms, but for the most part they remain mere extensions of another, more central content product model – the “textbook.” In short, over the past three decades we have simply expanded the number and sophistication of the technology extensions related to the core content package. In general terms, this evolution can be expressed with the following progression: 1) textbook; 2) textbook + CD ROM; 3) textbook + CD ROM + companion website; 4) textbook + homework solution + companion website + e-book; 4) textbook + courseware + companion website + e-book; 5) textbook + integrated courseware + smartbook; 6) textbook + integrated courseware + smartbook + adaptive learning solution. With few exceptions, products remain tied to author-branded textbooks which are limited to specific courses within disciplines.

Perhaps an even bigger barrier to change is the mindset that has been inculcated in content product teams over the past three to four decades. This mindset might be expressed as, “Content teams are experts in developing and managing content while their royalty authors are experts in subject matter and pedagogy.” This mindset enabled traditional publishers to develop effective revenue models and prioritize the development and promotion of sales staff in their organizations, but it has left them extremely shallow when it comes to actual learning expertise within their product teams. This, according to the legacy mindset, is what the authors are “for.” It also leaves publishers in a weakened position with regards to remaining relevant in a market that priorities instructional practice.

In spite of these challenges, as well as the negative market attention related to the rising costs of learning materials, I find that there are still tremendous opportunities for traditional content publishers to lead the way in learning within Higher Education.6 

In particular, I believe major publishers, like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage can become global solutions providers that deliver products that are truly transformative when it comes to instructional practice. This transformation will likely necessitate a rather definitive evolution away from legacy content product models and will require that these companies:

Value learning expertise over content expertise – In order to navigate the shift from product to practice, to become true learning companies, traditional publishers will need to embrace their identity as learning solutions providers at a fundamental product level. This means developing new roles and new competencies within their product teams (what were previously editorial teams).7 It also means that these product teams will need to develop deep, internal expertise in learning design and pedagogy, and discontinue the practice of outsourcing these skills to their content authors. The transformation into learning experts will require new forms of research – sponsored and led by internal teams – that extend beyond the usual product marketing efforts.

Imagine flexible and dynamic learning products and product types – The shift to instructional practice also necessitates that traditional publishing companies rethink the textbook content model and its static, closed content design. In this next market phase, content will be but one element of new learning solutions, and there will no longer be a single prescribed form around which all solutions must orbit. New product models will necessarily be dynamic, networked, and embrace new forms of content aggregation and delivery. This evolution will also require an overhaul of content management and content intelligence strategies.

Move toward more simplified, focused product lists – A transition from textbook-specific and  content-centric product models opens up new possibilities for innovative learning solutions. Moving forward, publishers will be able to design new revenue models and improved product types based on internal learning design expertise and research. This transition will enable companies to move away from traditional author brands and author models and, in the process, greatly reduce the myriad of confusing products. For the customer, this shift will result in vastly simplified discipline product lists and a much improved brand experience.

Create company-owned or open content repositories by discipline – The royalty models of traditional Higher Education publishing have provided publishers with significant content holdings, but these content libraries are somewhat misleading from a business perspective. In general, companies only own the rights to most of their content as opposed to owning the actual content. This means they are not necessarily free to re-package content into new products or combine content from multiple existing products into new product products (at least not easily or quickly). This is an obvious barrier to new product innovation and to strategic modeling at course, discipline, and company levels. In the next market phase, companies will focus increasingly on building out repositories of company-owned, discipline content that provide the required flexibility they need to innovate more rapidly and reduce time-to-market for new products.

Develop a “lean startup” product mentality – Traditional publishing remains an industry with product launches measured in years as opposed to months. Long product cycles are effective for highly edited print products but are less valuable in a market focused on improving instructional practice. Successful companies will find a way to develop product teams that are innovative and that act like startups. This means an emphasis on research, continual qualitative market research, and rapid prototyping of ideas.

Build real faculty communities – One key to a transition from content-based products to learning solutions that emphasize instructional practice is the development of meaningful and engaging faculty communities. These will be vastly different than the typical textbook-based communities publishers have facilitated in the past. In fact, the primary purpose of these communities will not be to sell anything at all. Rather, they will exist as legitimate information and sharing hubs that attract instructors of all kinds, regardless of the learning products they currently use. These communities will play an essential role in redefining traditional publishers as learning companies that are genuinely committed to improved teaching and learning.

Obviously, this list of possible transformations is not comprehensive. Nor is it necessarily intended to be a roadmap for reinventing the publishing industry in Higher Education. Rather, it is simply a set of guideposts that could chart the trajectory of successful learning companies in a future Higher Education market where selling the best learning solution will likely not be about selling content packages of any kind.

The Association Professional's Guide to Moving Learning Online

1 I’m aware that the leading learning materials providers for Higher Education – Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill – now refer to themselves as learning companies rather than publishers. Since content packages in multiple forms remain their primary sales focus, however, and in order to differentiate them from pure educational technology companies, I’m referring to them in this post as traditional publishers.

2 As I point out later in this post, the acquisition and development of promising learning platforms does not automatically transform traditional publishers into learning companies, nor does it move them out of the textbook business. Textbooks remain the centerpiece of their product hubs and these new technologies, for now, function only as highly sophisticated extensions of their traditional content products.

3 This list is intended as a suggested set of possibilities, and also serves to highlight the evolving learning experience and skills that will be required of product teams.

4 Having spent two separate stints working for major textbook publishers, and also having worked closely with top textbook publishers as a vendor/partner, I am extremely familiar with product development processes and budgets, as well as with the financial models that frame many of their product, investment, and organizational decisions. Many of these processes and models have developed and been reinforced for decades, and it is no trivial matter to suggest their transformation. I understand, for example, that signing new authors is about generating new first-edition products, but it’s also about recruiting faculty partners who, hopefully, will be influential in gaining product adoptions.

5 Some author brands, now in their eleventh or twelfth editions, are major revenue producers and it’s difficult to imagine phasing these out and replacing them with new product models. A likely scenario for the transition away from author brands is that publishers will shift the role of new “authors” away from content creation and toward instructional practice and new pedagogical models for company content.

6 I make this statement from the perspective of a market analyst, without any judgment about whether such an outcome is desirable or not. The statement is also contingent on a number of strategic and organizational changes I believe must occur within traditional publishers. Without these changes, I find it difficult to believe that these companies can provide the solutions that will establish them as valued learning leaders. Do I think such a transformation is likely? I’m not sure. Do I think it’s possible? Absolutely.

7 I know that major publishers have redefined their brands and have changed traditional roles like publisher and editor to “product managers.” This is certainly a good start, and is having some effect on the way employees see themselves. Changing titles, however, is still a far cry from transforming product teams and vision.

NextThought team
NextThought team

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