Pearson Giving Up On “Books” (perhaps in favor of MOOCs); Training Within and Without Universities

This is a “two-fer” post– at least it’s two different but related topics.

First, Pearson announced this week that they are abandoning publishing print textbooks and are moving toward digitally delivered materials. Here’s the Inside Higher Ed article on it. A lot of the comments on this article (I made a couple comments myself) are about how print books are “better” than digital ones, and also how Pearson’s goal is to undercut the used book market since in the U.S. publishers (and authors) don’t make any money from used books. Matt “Dean Dad” Reed has some good observations here, and I think Bryan Alexander’s tweets on this are also pretty accurate. I’ll add two other observations.

I think this is a sign that Pearson is circling the drain, and it reminds me of what happened in the world of big box bookstores. Borders is the poster child for this, and about 10 years ago, it was in the news locally because Ann Arbor is where they started and where they had their headquarters. They expanded like crazy, which (along with Barnes and Noble) drove a ton of independent bookstores out of business before they went out of business themselves. Obviously, Amazon was mostly responsible for Borders’ demise, but I’d also argue they grew too big/too fast, they were terribly managed, and they forgot what business they were in. Back in 2008, I blogged here about going to a goofy new “concept store” in Ann Arbor and I noted how most of the store seemed to be devoted to selling mainly book-related gadgets and doo-dads and to run a coffee shop. It felt like a desperate move to do something because they were no longer making money at the main thing they did for decades, which was sell books.

Sound familiar?

Now, I know Pearson et al will argue “no no, we are in the education business, we are in the knowledge distribution business” or some such thing. Joshua Kim has a commentary where he argues Pearson has made the right move and knows exactly what they’re doing. I just don’t think that’s true. It wasn’t true for Borders, and to mix my metaphors/analogies here a bit, it wasn’t true for a lot of newspapers including (and also local!) The Ann Arbor News which tried to briefly survive online. Plus Pearson is going to have to step up the quality of its digital offerings a lot to make it worthwhile.

One related silver lining is perhaps this is the beginning of the end for Pearson (and the other remaining big textbook publishers) and it will lead us into a new era of small textbook publishers or other custom published enterprises. Border’s collapse helped usher in the ongoing comeback of independent bookstores, and I can see something like that happening with textbooks too. (Fun fact/tangent: the award-winning Ann Arbor bookstore Literati opened about 18 or so months after Borders went under, and the shelves in that store came from the liquidation sale of fixtures and stuff from what was Borders).

Second and more relevant for my purposes here, Pearson might be trying to get into something akin to the MOOC business– or at least what has come after the original “MOOC Moment.” After all, MOOCs have always been quite similar to textbooks. I am far from the only person who has observed this, and I wrote about it in more detail in my chapter in Invasion of the MOOCs and in other places in More Than a Moment. Both MOOCs and textbooks are a lot of content on a topic written and assembled by a (reasonably) well-known expert in the field– of course, with a team of collaborators and editors behind them.

MOOCs failed as an alternative or competitor to traditional higher education in part because content scales but education doesn’t. However, the content of a MOOC-like textbook paired up with instructors in normal sized classes might be great. I can imagine how a textbook MOOC could be easily updated and also serve as a course portal hosting stuff like discussion boards, peer review spaces, and tests– or more likely, as a plugin/addition to an existing portal. I can also imagine ways in which the MOOC could be set up primarily for a single course or for a whole “program” (I’m thinking here of something analogous to a common textbook across many sections of first year writing), or even across different institutions.

But doing all this would cost money and I doubt Pearson (or any of the other big publishers) is nimble or digitally savvy enough to do this. I think the more likely scenario is Pearson will just serve up PDFs and/or the same crappy digital stuff they have now.

PS/Update on July 30: from IHE, “Publishers’ Pending Merger Faces Growing Opposition,” which is about efforts to stop the merger of the two other last big publishers standing in the textbook business, Cengage and McGraw Hill.

Shifting to topic #2 for this post: training within and without universities.

This came up in two slightly different ways recently. First there was another “Dean Dad” commentary, “‘White-Labeling,'” where Reed complained about the practice of traditional postsecondary institutions offering non-credit and extension courses in partnership with a third party.  Trace Urdan (who is an education industry analyst type) has a good Twitter thread where he responds to this, but basically, Reed is complaining about universities working with companies like Trilogy, which (as far as I can tell) mostly offer programs in partnership with universities that are technology bootcamps– that is, take this workshop/”course” and learn about coding, learn about data analytics, etc.

Also in the news at the same time (and kind of related) is the efforts by Amazon and Google to train their own workers, bypassing traditional universities, for-profit schools, and other options like LinkedIn Learning and all the various “mini-degrees” and certificates being offered by companies that used to be in the MOOC business. Here’s the news story from IHE, “Employers as Educators,” and here’s an article that includes several education pundits sharing their thoughts.  Amazon is going to spend $700 million to train its employees, and in doing so they are turning away from traditional postsecondary education. It’s not completely new and Amazon isn’t alone; as that first article says, “Other major tech corporations have joined Amazon in creating their own postsecondary pathways, perhaps most notably Google and IBM. For example, Google last year created a subsidized online IT support certificate program, which has enrolled 75,000 students.”

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

I mostly agree with Urdan that it’s not a bad idea for universities to team up with for-profit companies in the training business to offer these kinds of things as part of extension programs– as long as there is proper oversight. The problem is “proper oversight” too often doesn’t happen, which is kind of what has arguably happened in some cases with Online Program Management arrangements. In the last chapter of More Than a Moment, I write about the fuzzy line between the non-profit institution EMU and the for-profit OPM we’re working with, Academic Partnerships.

But there are two other things interesting about this relative to MOOCs. First off (and this is also something I discuss in the book), it’s not exactly a new thing for universities to offer “extension” courses that are a lot closer to “training” than “education,” and also for the definition of what counts as training and what counts as education to be debatable. A lot of the correspondence courses offered by traditional universities at the beginning of the 20th century were not for college credit or part of the regular college curriculum. In fact, one of the main complaints Abraham Flexner had about higher education in the US in his 1930 book Universities American English German was that institutions like the University of Chicago and Columbia University (then College) were debasing themselves by sponsoring correspondence courses in “non-academic” areas like “principles of advertising,” “newspaper practice,” and “business writing.” What is old is new again.

Perhaps more interesting– or potentially alarming– is the moves by companies like Amazon and Google to bypass higher education altogether. One of the (many) reasons why MOOCs failed as a replacement or competitor to conventional universities and colleges was because MOOC credentials and courses did not have value in the same way that a degree or certification from an accredited postsecondary institution has value. In other words, if Amazon or Google or IBM wanted to fill a position that required a college degree, a MOOC degree was simply not going to cut it.

Now, I think a traditional college degree is going to continue to trump an internally offered and sponsored training program for the foreseeable future, and the impression I get is most of the training Amazon, Google, IBM, and the like are doing is going to be to help current employees increase their skill sets and to cope with increased automation. I think we’re talking mostly about workers who probably didn’t need a college degree in the first place, and/or workers who are doing stuff like customer service, logistical work, fulfilling customer orders, etc. But what’s to stop one of these behemoth companies from taking this to the next logical level? I mean, if Google gets their internal training/education programs humming along well, it seems to me they could recruit promising high school students or college underclassmen, enroll them in their own Google training programs, and then bring them onboard. And if Google or Amazon do something like that and it works out, how long will it take for others to follow suit?

One of the things people used to say about MOOCs during the early, crazy, and overly-hyped days was MOOCs were a speeding train universities needed to jump on to avoid being run over. That turned out to be a false alarm. But if this trend of “we’ll just train our own workers, thanks a lot” trend catches on, well, that could be another train.

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