Scholars wary of technology 'over-promising and under-delivering'

McGraw-Hill Education chief executive says companies must work to allay ‘legitimate concerns’ of higher education staff

April 14, 2016
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Realising potential: educational technology companies need to allay fears if they are to maximise the potential of their products

A long history of “over-promising and under-delivering” has left universities with “legitimate concerns” about the value of educational technologies, a sector leader said.

David Levin, president and chief executive of US-based McGraw-Hill Education, told Times Higher Education that educational technology companies would have to allay these fears if they were to maximise the potential of their products.

Mr Levin has been tasked with overseeing McGraw-Hill’s transformation from textbook publisher to learning science company, focusing on adaptive technologies that track students’ progress, producing personalised learning paths for undergraduates and feedback for academics.

Last year, in higher education, it sold more digital resources than printed books in the US for the first time. But Mr Levin, the British former chief executive of magazine publisher and events company UBM, acknowledged that the pace of change could become even faster.

“There is a long history of people over-promising and under-delivering…What we are seeing is that there is a lot of confusion; there is a lot of apprehension,” Mr Levin said. “Frankly, because of the costs of technology, there is a lot of apprehension that people will invest in blind alleys and lack of interoperability.”

Mr Levin said that one of the most important things that educational technology companies could do was to build their products around common industry standards so that they can easily be integrated and exchanged. It is an approach that McGraw-Hill has signed up to, but many other firms have not.

Individual scholars also needed to be reassured about the reliability of services, said Mr Levin, who highlighted McGraw-Hill’s use of academics as consultants tasked with demonstrating the potential of its products.

“We are very pleased with the pace of transition and the results we are seeing. Would we like to see it happen faster? Absolutely, because we think there is so much more that would happen and we feel we are just scratching at the surface at the moment,” Mr Levin said. “The biggest barrier is legitimate concerns of institutions…and the legitimate concerns of individual faculty members.”

Mr Levin said that he did not think that the dominant model of textbook pricing, where a single copy of a print title can cost between $200 and $350 (£140 and £250), was sustainable. He highlighted McGraw-Hill’s decision to make 1,400 books available digitally through its adaptive products for a $100 licence, with subscribing students who then wanted a physical copy of a title able to obtain one for as little as $25.

But he said he thought it would be a “very long time” before the production of print textbooks ended, with many students still valuing them as a “reference manual”. Mr Levin added that, despite the growing availability of open access resources, he thought there was still a “huge amount of benefit” in the curation provided by a textbook.

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