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At Publishers Conference, Differing Viewpoints on Changing Industry

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Whether it likes it or not, the education publishing industry—for decades relatively unchanged—suddenly has a lot to talk about. There are more stakeholders, more customers, more products, and, above all else, more uncertainty. Parents are becoming content consumers, teachers are becoming content creators, publishers are becoming technology companies, and electronic devices are becoming textbooks.

Discussion at this year's Content in Context conference, held over the past few days in Washington and hosted by the Association of Educational Publishers and the Association of American Publishers School Division, reflected those changes. But it also provided a clever way to get a snapshot of that complex industry landscape: Put an educator, a publishing executive, an investor, an entrepreneur, and a foundation official on a panel and fire some of the most pressing industry questions at them for an hour and a half. The topics roughly align with 15 trends (click on the audio presentation) the AEP identified in 2010 that would change the industry.

I attended the panel; here's how those various stakeholders feel about the insurgency of the Khan Academy, the practicality of open educational resources, and the pricing models for teachers, parents and students. (Comments in quotes are direct quotes; non-quotes are paraphrases.)

Is Khan Academy a game-changer?
"Game-changer" is one of those ubiquitous words that are difficult to define, but the group debated the merits of Khan Academy, the nonprofit, free video lesson tool that allows students to access curriculum from anywhere.

Brandt Redd, senior technology officer for education programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: What's game-changing is not the video themselves, which can be replicated very easily. Instead, "he meets you where you are. Within a few moments you can get the assistance that you need in a subject."

Andrew Hsu, founder of education gaming company Airy Labs: Most effective aspect of Khan is the pause button. Students can stop, rewind, and make sure they understand the material. Classrooms don't always allow that. But Khan Academy is constrained by not having more instructors creating videos.

Dan Caton, president at McGraw-Hill School Education: A lot of teachers aren't that great at lecturing. By providing video lectures, it allows those teachers more time to work with students in groups.

Can open educational resources (OER) meet quality and standards expectations?
Some comparisons were made between the education publishing and the music industries—that free digital content could reduce demand for proprietary content. But is the free stuff any good?

Caton: "Are people willing to put the energy into using them? OER will be with us for quite awhile but also fade in importance in the classroom, only because it will take so much time to aggregate them."

Brenda Overturf, president of literacy and professional development consulting firm, Literacy Perspective, LLC: "Unless it's obvious that it's there, it will sit there. It is difficult to find."

Redd: The publishing industry can take a cue from the open source community, which has been able to commercialize open resources, like the Apache software. "I see the line between traditional publishing and OER publishing getting blurry."

Hsu: "Creating content, in the long-term, is not going to be as effective a strategy as creating a framework to collect a lot of the good OER content already online."

Can "freemium" models work in K-12?
Many new education companies are using a "freemium" pricing model that offers both free and paid versions of content and technology.

Deborah Quazzo, founder and managing partners of GSV Advisors, an education investment firm: There is a lot of venture capital money banking on the conversion of a free model that can make money. "Everyone wants to get around the dreaded K-12 procurement process, and one way to get around it is to go straight to the user."

Caton: The industry has always offered "freemium"-type products, through pilot programs or free content offered after a sale.

Redd: Teachers can choose the free product but the larger budgets are two levels above them at the district level. It's a difficult transition to go from free to paid.

Will Common Core level the playing field?
Some panelists approached this question about the curriculum standards to be adopted in 46 states from the schools' perspective. Others took the industry perspective.

Overturf: Leveling the playing field will require an "unprecedented effort" in implementation and professional support for teachers and administrators. The difference in understanding from district to district is "mind-blowing."

Caton: The common standards will be hugely important, but short-lived. If implementation isn't successful, states will abandon the standards or they could change drastically. "In 5-6 years we'll be talking about something else."

Redd: The common standards will allow states to focus in on the highest quality instructional materials and share best practices.

Quazzo: "I do think it levels the playing field for publishers." They no longer have to develop 50 different products. That will allow smaller companies to compete.

Feel free to answer any of those questions on your own in the comments.

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