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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning (Part 2)

Posted on Saturday, Jan 4th 2014

Sramana Mitra: Alright. So I understand exactly where your position is now. Obviously, you’re at a very interesting point of the history of your industry. As the Chief Product Officer, you’re looking at the industry. As you said, you’re looking at the digital strategy. So talk to me about what other digital trends that you are observing or analyzing to derive your product strategy.

Jim Donohue: I think it’s more about what our product strategy is versus digital trends. It’s a really interesting time in the industry because you have a dichotomy right now. You have a group of professors who are critically important to us who are not as savvy, technically or digitally, as their students. You have the average professors, in their late 40s and 50s, comfortable with the computer but probably were not raised as that digital native and haven’t thought about their whole life of having digital access.

So, they’re trying to make a transition and we spend a lot of time, as an industry, trying to service them and to help them make that transition. For instance, at Cengage, we have a very comprehensive service group. Every time a faculty chooses to use our product, we actually set up some technology for them, especially if they don’t know how to themselves. We can actually even create course outlines for them that really match the technology we have. That’s one part of the market.

The other part of the market, I guess what I’m most excited and interested about, is the student user. Primarily, for years, our industry has focused on the instructor. What does the instructor need to teach the course? What test banks does he need? How does he ask questions? How does he use lecture notes? Because they were making the decisions, we as an industry, I think all of us are guilty of it, primarily ignored the student. The student was told what to buy. They did not really have an option and then they made a choice whether they were buying new, used or rental books.

What’s happened is that the student has made pretty substantial decisions, a lot of them, that unless there’s real added-value to this product, why would they buy a new book? Why wouldn’t they just buy a used book or rent a book? What have we done, as an industry, to create compelling, interesting products that really allow students to learn? I think that’s really where we’re falling down.

I think right now the big trend, something I’m really excited about, is that there’s a real shift in our industry away from how do we service the instructor to how does a student learn, how does learning fit into a student’s workflow, how does a student incorporate learning into their everyday life versus, “Here’s the book. Do what you’re told and be happy with it.” Students have really voted with their feet. There’re lots of sources on the internet to find information. It’s not very good. It’s not curated. It’s not particularly structured but it’s possible for them to, many times, not to have to use prescribed materials.

There is a lot of research being done on learning and the gaming industry, which has led us to ask, “Why are people addicted to games? Why do they really want to play a game?” It’s not really the fun element. It’s about the way people learn and the structure of the brain that allows you to be challenged, not challenged too much, but challenged. You master something, only you want to start over and that’s why games have 27 levels and people want to get to the next level. We’re starting to really look into that kind of brain science and learning science and incorporate it in what we’re doing. Of course, the only way you can do that is in a digital product.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning
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