In the wake of a global pandemic, we’ve had to suddenly flip a switch to digital learning, which is very new to many students and teachers. But digital education is not new, and educational publishers have for years been innovating with digital learning tools and platforms. Can you talk about the shift that was underway in education publishing learning before Covid-19?

Yes, even before Covid-19 there was so much exciting digital change happening, and at such a quick pace. At Macmillan Learning, virtually all of our internal research points directly at exploring what, how, and why students learn. We seek to answer questions about what makes education difficult for some students so we can better understand how we can help them succeed. And we look closely at the big challenges for instructors in that learning path, so we can help them drive more successful outcomes. In that sense, technology has been instrumental in helping us get better data with which to address these important questions, and steer us to where we can best be of use. We see our role as helping students realize their potential, and in that sense, our responsibility has evolved from publishing textbooks to supporting the larger ecosystem of learning.

As you say, the education sector has been evolving in the digital age, but how prepared were you to accommodate this sudden, drastic shift in the learning environment prompted by this crisis? Is remote and digital learning ready for prime time?

We were prepared for a gradual shift that we thought would continue over the next few years and we have been moving toward digital-first and digital-only options for some time. But, as you point out, the timeline has unexpectedly changed. After the stay at home orders began, the first thing we needed to do was act quickly to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of students who had suddenly lost access to their textbooks and were now relying on digital learning platforms. So we opted to offer our digital learning software, iClicker, and our e-books free of charge to students in need. And we also provided a great amount of training and support to instructors who needed to get up and running overnight.

But, I’d also say that the sudden transition to a virtual classroom environment necessitated by Covid-19 is not really an accurate reflection of what a true digital learning experience could look like. Remember, most of the instructors out there are using teaching methods they have never used before. Typically instructors who teach virtually have time to plan out the alignment of their learning pathways ahead of time. And doing that makes an incredible difference in students’ ability to learn and retain information. So while there are definitely more instructors now using digital, out of necessity, I think the full potential of digital learning hasn’t yet been fully explored.

Any early insights you can share from the last two months of pandemic-driven remote learning?

Again, I think it’s important to note that the education happening during these stay-at-home orders is not a necessarily an accurate reflection of online learning. But, yes, we have learned a lot from the last two months, and it appears to confirm much of what we had already suspected.

For example, one insight that I think is true for both K-12 and Higher Ed is how critical engagement is to student success. There is a lot of research to back that up, of course, and the research from our Achieve learning platform had already demonstrated to us the importance of changing the paradigm from passive to active learning. But what we’ve seen since the crisis began is that engagement is even more critical in a wholly digital environment, where students might feel insecure or unsure about the experience, and where it can be easy to just passively watch videos or click your way through information. Students need a sense of support and collaboration to be successful, and that can be hard when you’re not in the same physical space.

The Covid-19 crisis has also offered an important reminder that students from underrepresented communities are even more vulnerable, and it is critical that we do not lose these students during this shutdown. Access to effective digital tools at an affordable price, has always been a goal of ours, and seeing the impact this crisis has had on the economy, on unemployment, and on available time for education has only underscored the importance of that path.

And, the crisis has reminded us about the importance of strong customer service and having teams working in constant partnership with educators. When schools first started closing, we were swamped with instructor requests for help, ranging from “how do I set up my online course right now?” to the desire for access to experts, authors, peers, and learning researchers. Our training efforts had to quadruple overnight. These are areas that will continue to support as we move forward.

In terms of your research, as you were developing Macmillan's Learning Achieve platform you took a somewhat novel approach and directly involved the people who would be using the platform to help shape the product. Why?

Again, it goes back to engagement. One thing we know is that better engagement leads to stronger learning and better retention, so it was important for us to create a platform that supported engagement. So, yes, we took the unusual approach of investigating Achieve’s effectiveness while it was still in beta, and even in alpha. Instructors and students are the ones who are ultimately using the product, so we needed to better understand directly from them what worked within the system, and why, or what didn’t. We learned a lot, and it made Achieve, and us, much, much stronger.

What we’ve seen since the crisis began is that engagement is even more critical in a wholly digital environment, where students might feel insecure or unsure about the experience, and where it can be easy to just passively watch videos or click your way through information.

Were there any findings from that feedback that particularly surprised you, or stood out?

There were two areas of research that really surprised me. The first is the importance and impact of the pre-class and post-class assignments, especially as a connected, aligned arc. A great example of this is that we now support students with a series of exercises and tools to use before class—like chemistry videos from Tyler DeWitt, for example. And then we connect the results of those assignments with suggested in-class work, and the use of an engagement tool like iClicker, which then further connects to a suggested homework assignment.

What we learned is that the learning experience is more effective when you connect in-class engagement within the whole assignment journey of the course. So much of the discussion about efficacy tends to center on in-class activity, but the research showed us that the work done in and out of class, when done deliberately together, makes an incredible difference in learning outcomes, as much as a full letter grade difference for some students. We also saw real evidence that students who are better prepared for class are more enthusiastic learners. We’d seen this again and again in our classroom visits and in our student learning labs. But now we can also track what specific actions in the platform lead to successful outcomes for students, and we’re working on sharing best practices around this.

That leads to my next question—not only did you seek direct feedback on Achieve, you’re widely sharing that feedback rather than treating it as internal, proprietary research. What motivated that decision?

We really feel like we are part of a larger learning community, and we are hoping that by sharing our data, we can help advance learning as a whole. We want to be sure it’s clear to educators how and why we built the platform the way we did, and also to encourage a discussion around how we can improve. But ultimately, our goal is the same as those of the instructors and institutions we work with—we want to see students succeed. Ideally, this means Macmillan Learning not only gets a chance to understand and implement the most current learning research in our tools, but also to contribute to the broader research on learning going forward. That is really exciting to me.

In recent years, we’ve heard a number of educational publishers concede that pricing has been a problem and even that the ability to raise prices in fact obscured deficiencies in the learning sector. Research now suggests that prices for learning materials are coming down, and with the shift to digital, are things are now headed in the right direction?

I believe that they are. College is an expensive investment, and in many cases learning materials are a cost that hits after tuition and housing costs, so students feel the burden more acutely. The good news is that for the past four years, students have paid less and less for their books and supplies. And, as an industry, we have been focused on creating high-quality affordable learning tools, so there are more options than ever before.

At Macmillan Learning, we have long prided ourselves on offering prices lower than our competitors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more to help address the issue. We’re committed to exploring ways to offer better value, which goes back to the goal of student success, and we think our prices reflect that thinking. But the conversation around affordable quality learning materials is ongoing. I like that we’ve had an open dialogue about it, and we are committed to finding ways to support students’ educational journey.

I have to ask about the rise of OERs (open educational resources). My sense is that OERs were once considered a threat to educational publishers, but now they are part of the ecosystem. How does Macmillan Learning view OERs?

We’re fundamentally in favor of instructors being able to create their own materials. We have an entire division (Hayden-McNeil Curriculum Solutions) that supports the creation of original content by instructors, who retain all the rights to make that content available to others. And we have played a part in exploring how publishers can support OERs as well, exploring ways that open licensing can be supported by complementary services or digital tools. We believe these can be invaluable resources.

And, finally, with such an intense focus on digital these days, what does the future of the physical textbook look like?

Even amid a pandemic that is very much shifting to learning online, I believe the textbook will survive. As long as students and instructors want them, we will offer them. If a student finds that the best way for them to study is to hold a printed book, I don’t see why we wouldn’t support that.

That said, the world of learning tools has become so much more than just a printed chapter, and I don’t think of a reading experience in isolation, but as part of a complementary experience with other learning tools that offer a broader, more flexible, and more effective learning experience for students. It’s a false dichotomy to frame this as a choice between print and digital. It’s better to think about what experiences a student finds optimal for learning. Our job is to supply instructors and students with the content and tools in the formats best serve them in achieving their learning goals.