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Nelson’s new CEO looks to a digital future in education publishing

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Educational publishing March 2017

(Book and apple, icon 54: phone, Nancy: tablet, Vectors Market from the Noun Project)

When Steve Brown took over as president and CEO of Nelson Education last September, he set an ambitious three-month goal to transform Canada’s largest educational-publishing company – a goal he believes he has accomplished. “We’ve really, really changed in the last three months,” he says.

By “adding focus” to the company’s current direction rather than making a radical shift, Brown says he wants Nelson – which produces materials for the K–12 and post-secondary sectors as well as professional learning and business markets – to offer digital immersive-learning products that reflect a broader industry trend away from traditional print textbooks.

“We’re focused on new technologies and giving kids the choice to learn how they want to learn, because I ultimately don’t believe it’s the publisher or the teacher or the professor’s choice. I think it’s the consumer’s, and that’s the kids,” says Brown. “If they want to do that digitally, they can choose. And if they want to do it in a textbook we’re more than happy to do that. But I look at the market today and say, ‘You know what, they’re going to decide what the landscape is in the future, so we’d better listen.’”

Brown envisions platforms that could, for instance, see millions of students around the world reading the same digital book with the ability to tag notes on specific passages, or allow them to upload questions about a homework calculus problem. But building and selling these types of products required big changes at Nelson (which has dropped the “Education” from its public brand).

In November, Brown restructured his management team, and consolidated the K–12 and higher-education divisions, which resulted in 32 positions being eliminated in departments such as editorial, production, accounting, and marketing. Brown then brought on 15 to 16 new employees (with more planned) with varying digital expertise, including two movie-industry hires from Los Angeles. “Generally, if you were in editorial and copyright you would not be the same sort of person that I need to build digital architecture,” he says. “So yeah, I’d love to keep the people, but if they haven’t got the skill sets, I’m not doing the best thing for the company and the shareholder and the customer.”

Swail, executive director of the Canadian Publishers’ Council and former president and CEO of Nelson’s competitor, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, says the demand for digital materials has been a push and pull between publishers and the educational system. “I think publishers certainly see the opportunity and are therefore keen to take the offerings and products beyond the old-school traditional printed page and into a digital realm where the technology around things like assessment, adaptive learning, all of those kinds of opportunities are so much more available,” Swail says.

During his time in the industry, he observed more traction in the higher-ed market, and that it was a tougher sell in K–12, which doesn’t always have the same budgets or access to technology. “A lot of the work on the K–12 side was more developmental in nature, and there are still a lot of hurdles to broad-based implementation,” he says. “In K–12 it was really, really varied, by school, by jurisdiction, et cetera. So it was a much less consistent kind of market.”

K–12 also is a tough market to break into, especially for companies that aren’t large players like Nelson or McGraw-Hill. The Association of Canadian Publishers, which represents 135 independent publishers across the country, is finalizing a study on learning management that was originally intended to identify sales opportunities for delivering digital content to educational institutions. According to Kate Edwards, ACP’s executive director, the study became broader in its scope when it became clear this wasn’t a huge business for the organization’s members. “Some have developed interactive testing and digital supplementary resources that go along with core texts,” she says. “I think the larger educational publishers are more engaged on that side, but we are looking at other digital opportunities because school budgets are so stretched.”

The shift toward digital also serves another potentially vital purpose: it could help protect crippled publishers (and authors) from the fair-dealing provision in Canada’s copyright law, which has resulted in educational institutions photocopying and distributing to students an estimated 350-million pages annually of printed material without paying copyright holders. Swail believes subscription-based interactive services are “much harder to rip off, to put it bluntly. Unless you’re going to start hacking and jumping in behind firewalls … unless you want to really get evil about the criminal intent to steal more than by just pressing a photocopy button.”

Brown, a former CEO of Cinram, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of compact discs and DVDs, sees parallels to the music and movie industries, which were forced to scramble during the consumer shift toward online streaming and illegal downloading. “I went through it with music with the onslaught of Napster, and then copyright, in terms of the Internet and people stealing movies and the effect that has on content and on quality,” says Brown, who, despite the challenges, remains singular in his vision. “When I came in and I started changing the management team around, I said we only have one obligation and that’s to provide world-class educational product to the consumer. That’s our only mission. And until we reach that place – and I don’t know that anybody ever reaches world class – then our job’s not finished.”