Pearson’s move to ‘digital first’: Perspective from a key Pearson executive (Part I)

On July 24th, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Corey of Pearson by phone for about an hour regarding the recent announcement that Pearson will move to a digital first strategy for its textbook business. Paul is the Senior VP of Global Content Strategy for Pearson, and thus plays a key role in developing and implementing plans like the digital first strategy. Paul also has primary responsibility for Pearson’s relationships with authors, so I was especially appreciative of the chance to hear his thoughts on how the new direction might affect authors.*

I started the conversation by asking Paul about the principal reason for Pearson to shift its focus to a digital-first strategy. He responded with three specific rationales for the move, not necessarily in order of importance:

  1. To recapture revenue lost to the secondary market (i.e., the used book market);
  2. To do our part to reduce the costs of higher education, widely cited as unsustainable, and particularly to address the sticker shock commonly experienced by new students;
  3. To adapt to the generational shift as newer students entering the market expecting more services and capabilities from their products. Those students grew up in the digital age and are accustomed to a subscription model for content, and other products, and in return they expect resources to support their productivity and connectivity.

One brief line in the Pearson announcement causing some head-scratching among TAA authors was buried right after the use of the term ‘digital first’ to describe how the shift will affect revisions: “…and updated on an ongoing basis driven by developments in the field of study, new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, and Pearson’s own efficacy research.”That sounds good, but what exactly will it mean for authors? Most textbooks are currently updated on a three-year schedule, which allows an author to plan the time and gather a lot of significant changes into a new edition that might be sharply different from earlier ones, depending on how dynamic the field is. But if updates are made on an ongoing basishow will authors be brought into the process? What timing will be involved?

Many instructors, not to mention students, will not be happy if the ground shifts underneath their feet as the semester progresses. Some revisions can be much more complicated than simply changing the words on the page, because they may also require changing test bank questions, glossaries, chapter summaries, end-of-chapter problems/questions, and other ancillaries. Updates are not necessarily trivial for the author or for the person who has to make the revisions to the digital content.

I raised this area of concern with Paul. He acknowledged that some logistical details have yet to be worked out and asserted that Pearson is committed to partner closely with authors in the revision process, even as it evolves to an as-needed effort. Prior to the announcement Pearson reached out to authors who confirmed that the ability to update on a faster schedule could be of significant value for their readers.

He cited two iconic textbooks in biology and economics whose authors Pearson had consulted. Biology is a famously dynamic field, particularly in nascent areas such as gene editing, where changes and discoveries often happen more quickly than a new edition can be printed and distributed. A Campbell Biology co-author, Lisa Urry, indicated she still wants texts validated by peer review but having to redo the whole text compromises her ability to get to market faster with significant changes. Ongoing revisions might be a better way to address the problem. Read Inside Higher Ed’s article, “Pearson’s Next Chapter”.

Glenn Hubbard’s field of economics, on the other hand, mainly employs a stable, not to say unchanging, canon of principles and methods. But there is a need to provide relevant examples, drawn from current news, to bring home those principles to students. Hubbard also sees the ability to rapidly deploy new technological advances to support the pedagogy of the textbooks as a significant advantage of continuous revision, say by adding podcasts to bring the material to life.

Paul further noted that pedagogical advances in many fields continue apace. He believes Pearson needs to be able to change approaches based on faculty feedback and student performance. Analyzing data collected from monitoring student use and performance can lead to fresh insight. Implementing changes based on this insight can improve learning outcomes.

He noted that three factors will drive the revision process:

  • World events and new knowledge – These may happen much more rapidly than three-year revision cycles, and educational materials need to be able to quickly reflect changes in culture, politics, and language, as well as developments in a given field, much more quickly;
  • Insights – As the publisher hears from students and teachers, or analyzes the results of its own efficacy studies, it would like to be able to incorporate the most helpful pedagogic changes into the textbook without waiting for a new edition; and
  • Technological advances – When a new functional capability becomes available – for example, advances in ease of use or adaptive algorithms – there would be no need to wait to deploy it.

Importantly, Paul also noted: “This doesn’t mean we throw out schedules. Each product will still need a plan; we are working through plans by discipline and by product, and will work with our authors” to ensure their schedules will be accommodated in an orderly fashion. He also assured me “authors will be central figures in the revision process,” and stated that Pearson understands the author to be “the central value-creator” for the content in their courseware, and they don’t see that role diminishing.

Paul’s words and tone struck me as earnest, but it must be acknowledged that there is a long road ahead for Pearson as it implements a digital first strategy for titles in the U.S. higher education market. If authors are to be key players in future Pearson successes, they need to be included in the thinking early and kept informed throughout the process. TAA urges Pearson and authors to be in frequent contact during this process. And this, of course, applies to all authors and publishers undergoing or contemplating similar shifts.

*This article is the first of two. In this piece we mainly discuss Pearson’s strategic goals in moving to a digital first approach and the opportunities and logistical challenges of implementing dramatic changes to the revision process for textbook publishing. Part two will cover in greater depth the financial and royalty implications of the strategic shift that Pearson has announced.

Please note that these articles are not a transcript of my conversation with Paul. I have tried to be careful, when ascribing views and positions to Paul or to Pearson, to ensure that these are fair characterizations of his views. Items in quotations were confirmed accurate by Paul. Even so, this was one conversation. I would urge readers to email your own contacts at Pearson directly to further your dialogue and learn more about their take on this important change in textbook publishing.

For a legal perspective, read Pearson’s ‘digital first’ announcement: A legal perspective
For an introduction to Pearson’s ‘digital first’ announcement, read Pearson announces move to digital-first


Michael SpinellaMichael Spinella is Executive Director of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA). He can be reached at Michael.Spinella@TAAonline.net.