Four Digital Publishing Questions for Linda Zecher

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Linda Zecher edtech elearning education publishingThe Digital Book World Conference + Expo, kicking off on January 13, 2015 is packed with an incredible amount of information and ideas about the digital publishing landscape at a time of remarkable transformations. To help attendees make the most out of those three days, Digital Book World is sitting down with conference speakers to help lay the groundwork for conversations that will take place at the conference and continue for many weeks and months afterward.

This is the twelfth installment in our “Digital Publishing Questions” blog series, featuring Linda Zecher, President and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What do you think has been the most newsworthy event in the past year around publishing and digital change?

Speaking from the perspective of our core business—educational content—I think 2014 has been defined by the unprecedented pace of digital change. I’ve often said that the shift to digital in K-12 would be like a dimmer switch, not an on/off button. But in 2014, the rapid increase in schools incorporating technology and digital learning tools has been remarkable.

Some states and districts are really leading the transition. For example, 70% of the HMH math curriculum adopted in Texas this year was digital content. We’re also seeing more fluidity between informal and formal learning environments as content becomes more mobile and more flexible.

This digital transition is not without challenges, but the collective enthusiasm about new modes of content delivery is exciting. It isn’t a single event, but it’s the most newsworthy trend in my book.

What are you anticipating as the big change we will see in 2015?

From an education perspective, I’m anticipating a growing focus on personalized learning. It has become a buzzword for a reason! Every student is different, and with more sophisticated adaptive software and smart, safe use of data, content can adapt in real time, depending on the needs and degrees of relevance to the learner. Not only does the learner benefit with focused support, but educators and parents can spot the need for intervention (or advanced placement) earlier.

I think we’re also going to see changes in how content is accessed and a shift toward more of a ‘software as a service’ model—so, for example, subscription-style delivery, in which providers can continually offer fresh, updated content on-demand. Within this model, students won’t be saddled with older editions of books that still list Pluto as a planet or George W. Bush as President.

What is the most important thing publishers need to accomplish in 2015?

I believe we need to put our focus on making content smarter. Content can no longer be static; we need to harness technology in order to make it more accessible, interactive and adaptive. By creating smarter content, we can adapt the user experience to individual styles, paces and levels of understanding. The possibilities are endless, but for us it’s not about technology for technology’s sake. It’s about how we use that technology to create environments that are rich, engaging and more effective.

Are there any companies (start-up or otherwise) now flying below the radar that you think may break out in 2015?

There are a lot of innovative companies out there with great ideas, and there is fertile ground for creativity and originality, but breaking out in this market is tough. There are so many start-ups out there with one exciting feature or piece of functionality, but K-12 is a complex industry, and many companies simply don’t have the core content they need to be successful.

The companies that I think will rise above in 2015 will focus on the technologies that will fundamentally change the way content is consumed, for example by making content smarter, applying game theory to make content more engaging, etc. Those will be key elements of our focus in 2015, along with leveraging our iconic characters and assets to create digital learning experiences for the home. To catalyze this shift, we recently launched HMH Labs, our own internal incubation engine focused on experimentation and rapid prototyping of new ideas.

Linda Zecher is President and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She’ll be speaking with Publishers Lunch founder Michael Cader at Digital Book World 2015 in a conversation titled, “Leading Change: A CEO’s View of the K-12 Market, Technology and Transforming the Publishing Business,” considering the current and future states of technological innovation in divergent parts of the publishing world, both in the education market and beyond.



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