Textbook Publishers Push to Provide Full Digital-Learning Experience

March 03, 2014

The student experience is paramount to how people think about college. Many alumni still conjure lecture halls and well-landscaped lawns. But for those who have grown up in the online era, the student experience increasingly resides on a different quad: the glowing 13-inch screens of their laptops.

To the companies selling online learning tools to colleges, that quad is a battleground. Colleges have long enlisted the help of outside companies to build their digital classrooms. Now those companies are jockeying among themselves for greater control of the learning experience.

So far, the battle appears to be at a stalemate between companies that provide digital content for courses and those that provide the platforms on which that content is taught. No company has yet emerged as the Apple of higher education, the one-stop provider of everything. But several are trying.

These vendors have become central to how students experience college, even at residential institutions. Students still go to professors’ office hours, and they still go to parties and football games, but a significant proportion of their interactions—with classmates, instructors, and the college itself—are mediated by software from outside companies.

They might discuss ideas in virtual classrooms built by Blackboard or Desire2Learn. They might do problem sets on software designed by Pearson or Cengage Learning. When a student is stuck on a difficult concept, it may not be a teaching assistant who unsticks her. Instead, it may be a hint that appears on a screen, conjured by an algorithm. Many colleges legally designate technology companies as "school officials" because they figure so intimately into the lives of students.

Lately these companies have been making incursions into one another’s territory.

Flat World Education is one company that is trying to make "student experience," in the holistic sense, into a killer app. Flat World started, in 2007, as a publisher of inexpensive, print-on-demand textbooks. Then, in late 2012, the company hired Christopher Etesse, a former senior vice president at Blackboard, as CEO.

Under Mr. Etesse, whose background is technology, not textbooks, Flat World has broadened its focus. These days the company not only wants to sell textbooks to individual professors—it wants to sell the infrastructure for entire online programs to colleges.

In January, Flat World announced a partnership with Brandman University—the adult-education arm of Chapman University, in California—to create a new online bachelor’s-degree program in business administration. Under the deal, the company will supply textbooks for many of the courses in the business program. It will also provide the online platform on which Brandman’s instructors will teach those courses.

The Flat World chief says he wants to create a "unified user experience" for Brandman’s online business students. That means keeping things simple, with a single login and consistent design features.

"The students get to concentrate on learning," says Mr. Etesse, "rather than navigating through many different user interfaces." In other words, the new Flat World does not just sell an array of digital products. It sells continuity.

‘An Immersive Experience’

Continuity is a new concern for colleges. Historically, textbooks and classrooms have been distinct objects. Publishers sold textbooks. Colleges provided classrooms. Every textbook worked the same in every classroom. As parts of the student experience began to relocate to the computer screen, however, those lines started to blur.

Colleges initially turned to companies like Blackboard and others to provide learning-management platforms, which grew to become planners, gradebooks, and virtual classrooms rolled into one. The platform became a nexus for the digital parts of the student experience. For online students, the learning-management system was the main point of contact with the university.

Meanwhile, publishers were creating student experiences of their own. Rather than merely digitizing their textbooks, the major publishers built software platforms where students could do homework exercises and get real-time feedback.

"The textbook publishers wanted to create an immersive experience," says Michael Feldstein, co-founder of the consulting firm MindWires. "They wanted to own the whole screen for the learning experiences they were delivering."

In analog terms, this was akin to a publisher asking to build and manage on-campus classrooms tailored to the content of its textbooks. The battle for the 13-inch quad had begun.

The contenders brought different strengths to the battlefield.

The publishers were at the front lines of student learning. They were chaperoning delicate interactions between students and the concepts they were supposed to learn. Learning-management companies could only tell an instructor if a student had logged in to his algebra course; publishers could tell if the student understood quadratic equations.

In 2012, Mr. Feldstein was on the development team at MindTap, an online platform created by Cengage. "We were definitely hearing some faculty saying, ‘We would love you to bump out Blackboard or Desire2Learn,’" he says.

But MindTap and similar products, like the textbooks that inspired them, focus on particular topics. That specificity limited the publishers’ ability to supplant learning-management systems.

Blackboard serves a more general purpose, allowing college administrators to manage online education centrally. It also gives individual instructors additional space to present lessons and experiences not engineered by publishers.

That freedom is crucial to faculty members, says Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. As a general rule, professors have no interest in teaching courses out of a box.

"The idea of having one platform to rule them all is enticing," says Mr. Bruff, "but I haven’t seen anything that comes close enough to that to allow the kind of flexibility that faculty could want."

Fight to a Draw?

Flat World’s partnership with Brandman may probe the boundaries of how much of the student experience a college is willing to cede to a single company. But that collaboration will have plenty of limitations.

One important factor is the particular kind of experience Brandman wants to offer its online business students. Their degrees will be competency-based, a method that emphasizes assessment rather than instruction. Faculty members from the university will team up with designers from Flat World to create the courses, but after that, faculty roles will be peripheral by traditional standards. Brandman instructors will provide guidance only when students ask for it.

Among companies with roots in textbook publishing, Flat World is not the first to take a major role in shaping a university program. In 2012, Pearson, which sells both textbook content and learning-management systems, struck a similar deal with Northern Arizona University, whose regents had challenged it to offer new degree programs through "a well-coordinated and aligned system."

Pearson and Northern Arizona built three online, competency-based programs together, all of which use Pearson’s learning-management platform, LearningStudio. According to the company, about 80 percent of the courses in those programs also use MyLab & Mastering, interactive software that, like Cengage’s MindTap, is based on Pearson’s textbook content.

Still, experiments in single-sourcing remain confined to nontraditional programs aimed at adult students. Brandman and Northern Arizona still use Blackboard for their other academic programs, where professors assign books from a variety of publishers.

For the most part, it appears that publishers and learning-management companies have fought to a draw.

In recent years the two sides have negotiated technical specifications to ensure that their digital tools play nice with each other. And while border skirmishes continue—Blackboard recently announced plans to open a virtual bookstore—both sides have, for now, resigned themselves to sharing the student experience with their college clients, and each other.

"Everybody wants to control the ecosystem," says Chris Vento, who has worked on both sides, first as a senior vice president at Blackboard, then as a senior developer for MindTap (he’s now working for a data-oriented start-up called Intellify Learning).

"But there’s very few players who can actually rise to that occasion," says Mr. Vento. "And I’m not sure if the academic market really wants that."

Clarification (3/6/2014, 7:09 p.m.): Because of incomplete information supplied by Pearson, this article could lead readers to believe that 80 percent of the content of Northern Arizona's online, competency-based programs is based on Pearson's textbooks. While 80 percent of the courses use some measure of content of Pearson's, only 10 percent of the total course content in the programs is from the publishing company. The university says the courses "were built from scratch using mostly open-education resources, plus content our faculty developed, digital resources from our library, and materials from publishers—Pearson and others."