Education publishers face opportunities, challenges, and a huge amount of uncertainty in the K-12 market over the next few years. That was one of the clear themes that emerged on the opening day of a conference of school publishers, an event which kicked off here on Sunday.
Several factors are contributing to the state of flux: the coming demands of the Common Core State Standards; the emergence of free, or "open-education" resources that challenge commercial publishers; and the question about whether education content, or the technological platforms that deliver that content, will matter more in the time to come.
Speakers on the opening day of the "Content in Context" conference, staged by the Association of Educational Publishers and the Association of American Publishers' school division, turned to those questions repeatedly on Sunday. One of those presenters was Neal Goff, the president of Egremont Associates, a New York-based consulting firm who works with publishers and education technology companies, including startups.
School districts are devoting an increasing amount of their spending to digital products, Goff said. But the dilemma for publishers is knowing how much to invest in digital, when a big chunk of their revenue still comes from print products.
"Print still pays the bills," Goff said. Even as publishers invest more heavily in digital, he added, many of them are interested in "protecting [their] legacy costs."
Publishers also face major questions about how the common standards will affect their bottom line.
On the one hand, effective publishers have "a one-time opportunity to redesign curriculum from scratch," through the common standards, Goff said. Yet publishers are also cognizant that while states are adjusting to the standards, and preparing to implement new tests aligned to them, many states and districts haven't set aside specific funding to help schools and teachers prepare for those new academic expectations.
As a result, some publishers are "reticent" about creating new materials devoted to the standards, Goff said.
Publishers are also trying to gauge how the rise of free K-12 educational materials, often called "open- education resources," will affect their businesses.
Many education publishers today are assuming that school districts and other buyers of curriculum and other products will recognize the value of products that publishers have poured money into developing, and will be willing to pay more for products the industry believes is of higher quality. It's a shaky assumption, Goff said.
"I wouldn't bank on it," he said. "There has to be an answer [to open-education resources] that goes beyond, 'our stuff is better than their stuff.' "
After his presentation, Goff explained that publishers are likely to take an "if you can't beat-'em-join-'em" approach to open education resources. That would mean they would either create their own free materials, or partner with others designing those materials, and attempt to make money by offering to curate or organize them in ways that would make them more useful to educators.
Other questions on the horizon: Who will make districts' decisions about what kinds of technology they want to purchase? Will the myriad forms of technology flooding the K-12 market "democratize the decision-making" process, allowing teachers and others to make purchasing decisions? Or will the costs of technology lead to a more centralized process, left to administrators?
Many of the fledgling education companies seeking to break into the K-12 market today aspire to "disrupt" education, or break through academic or bureaucratic barriers, noted another speaker, Keith Bergstrom of the publisher Prestwick House. While this idea holds a lot of appeal for businesses of all sizes, it also fails to acknowledge a basic truth about many of the customers that ed companies are trying to serve.
Most educators "don't want their lives to be disrupted," Bergstrom said.
Many teachers would welcome a disruptive innovation that would make pieces of their work easier—such as grading homework assignments, he said. They're less likely to welcome innovations that clutter their already-hectic work environments.
"Their students change every year, and their challenges change," Bergstrom said. Publishers should focus on "helping teachers make the lives of students better," he said. "If we don't find ways to do that, they'll go around us."