Insights from the CIC: Why Content in Context is King

Neal Goff, AEP Board President and President of Egremont Associates, LLC, opened AEP’s 2011 Content in Context conference and talked about why context matters when it comes to content and the effect the digital transition is having on the educational resource industry.

I have to admit that when I first heard the proposal to change the name of the AEP Summit, I was a skeptic. I thought that we were taking a big risk walking away from the brand equity we had established with the AEP Summit name. Frankly, I’m not sure I got what Content in Context meant. Now I do.

To illustrate the point I’d like to recount a conversation I had in a taxi about six weeks ago. I was on my way to an advisory board meeting, and I was sharing a cab from the airport with a fellow board member whom I hadn’t met before. We were trading publishing war stories and playing do-you-know, and our conversation inevitably turned toward all the changes happening in publishing, and toward digital transformation in particular. He made the observation one often hears from owners of intellectual property:  that it doesn’t matter what happens to formats and channels, because “content is king.”

I didn’t want to start an argument with someone I had barely just met, but I said I respectfully disagreed. Content alone doesn’t cut it anymore, I said. If you deliver instructional content with no teacher support – no lesson plans or standards correlations – it’s a problem. I warmed to the subject: you need professional development and assessment materials, I said.  In other words, I began to describe the context that makes the content valuable.

“You’re missing the point,” he said. “Everything you just mentioned IS content.”

And he was right.  Content is king. And context is king. But what’s really king is Content in Context.

Last year at this time, I listened with dread as my predecessor, Dan Caton of McGraw-Hill, made his speech at the opening of – dare I say – the first annual Content in Context conference. I say dread because as then-President-elect, I knew that I’d have to stand up here 12 months later. I doubted that I could be as entertaining as Dan was, nor did I think I could be as insightful…But I will cite a few data points to underline just how much the world has changed in those intervening last 12 months, and to give you a sense of how the context in which our industry operates has been changing.

  • At last year’s CIC conference, the iPad was only two months old; some 2 million units had been sold. In the next nine months, it sold 17 million more.
  • As of late last summer, 44% of K-12 educators said they had bought eBooks for personal or professional use. This statistic comes from a study that my firm fielded, with support from and MCH Strategic Data, back in September. About a third of the educators who had bought eBooks said they bought them for professional reasons, and another third said they bought them for both personal and professional use.
  • Since that time, everything I’ve read indicates that consumers are buying eBooks and eBook readers at more than double the year-earlier rate. So it’s a pretty good bet that if we replicated the study today, that 44% number would be considerably higher.

These statistics are important not just as signs of digital growth; they’re also a statement about growth in the use of devices that people can carry around with them. In fact, I think the proliferation of portable devices such as iPads and eReaders is one reason we’re hearing so much less discussion of one-to-one computing, with a laptop on every student’s desk, than we did a year ago. Instead, I’m hearing a lot more talk about how to allow students to take advantage of the computing power they bring to school with them – inside their cell phones.  Why buy a computer for every student when almost all of them come to school with a powerful computer in their pocket?  And these mobiles devices open up a whole new frontier of possibilities for content development – one that I think we can all agree educational publishers have barely begun to explore.

Last year, one topic that we discussed a lot at CIC – and that we are sure to continue discussing this year – is the proliferation of open educational resources, and the competitive threat that free content presents to publishers who have this quaint notion that their customers ought to pay them for what they produce.  Perhaps the most memorable phrase from Dan’s speech was one he said he didn’t make up, but which I think lots of people have come to associate with him:  free like a puppy, or free like a beer.

The idea was that there are different kinds of “free.” A free beer comes with no strings attached, but a free puppy needs to be fed, cared for, and cleaned up after.

There are lots of examples of content and services that are free like a puppy…Take a look at vast array of rich content available at MIT’s open courseware site:  it’s free, but if you want an MIT education, you’re still better off heading up to Cambridge.

Publishers can take comfort in knowing that the content they create is more like a beer than a puppy, and that avoiding “puppy-ness” is the best way to compete with free.

But therein lies a trap, I think – because more and more, there’s content out there that IS free like a beer.  To cite another data point:  I’m the board of an organization called the Urban Education Exchange, whose mission is to close the achievement gap in reading.  UEE developed a K-6 reading comprehension program it now calls ReadWorks, which it has been distributing for several years.  At first, it priced the program inexpensively – at about $1,000 per building – in hopes of making its real money on professional development.  But as a resource-strapped non-profit organization, it found that the revenue it was generating from curriculum sales was less than it was spending on sales administration. So, it decided to start giving the curriculum away instead.

A year ago UEE’s curriculum was in 300 schools and had 1487 registered users.  After it took down the pay wall its penetration grew to more than 5500 schools and with more than 16,000 registered users.  That’s user growth of more than 1,000 percent in less than 12 months.

And ReadWorks, I would submit, is free like a beer.

This is the context in which we are now operating.

With so much free content available I hope I won’t insult anybody if I suggest that among the challenges publishers face is  making sure that their content – even if people ARE paying for it – doesn’t have puppy-like qualities.

Another challenge that publishers face, of course – especially if they had their roots in print – is how to grow their digital revenue streams while keeping their more mature print-based businesses on a profitable path.  As Mike Shatzkin, who spoke here last year, has written about trade publishers – and this certainly applies to the K-12 segment – today’s publisher often has to manage two businesses at once:  a print-based business with an overhead base that can be sustained only if revenues stay above a certain level, and a high-tech start-up that requires both financial investment and an entrepreneurial mindset that, as often as not, is at odds with the corporate culture that spawned it.

Business literature is rife with stories about how difficult it is for managers of mature businesses to manage high-tech start-ups, but I think everyone in this room would agree that publishers have no choice but to give it a try.

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June 2011


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