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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning (Part 5)

Posted on Tuesday, Jan 7th 2014

Sramana Mitra: My observation, one of the trends in the industry today is education and this is not just higher education, it’s all levels of education, is shifting from a sage-on-stage model to a guide-on-the-side model, right? It sounds like your digital strategy is pretty much aligned with that shift, yes?

Jim Donohue: It is. For instance, we’re really going to flip classrooms. We’re really interested in that additional help that we can give the student and how we can use that student’s progress by developing algorithms that measure that progress as a way to inform students what they need to do to. Exactly, guide them on the side. That really is where education is going.

I think the days of a professor standing on the stage and rattling on is not enough. Students expect more because they are bombarded in their daily lives by a lot more help than they traditionally got. When I was in the university, I had no internet. I just had a book and a professor and I had professors who used to read from their books! That was really useful, as you can imagine! You know, I can read!

They demand more now because there’s so much more for them to access. They want someone to guide them through the materials they have, to make sure materials help them learn, master, build their confidence, and they want to be exposed to a wide variety of resources, the whole thing about visual learning. Students learn differently today from when I did because they have been raised in a very different world. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that our industry faces. We have one world teaching and another world that is learning.

People say to me, “Students have no money.” I have three college-age nephews and nieces, they all have a $90 a month cell phone plan because we have created products that they need to have and they find the money to pay for it. I don’t want to create products that make people pay for things but I want to provide useful products so that students make the decision that that product is worth paying for because it’s demonstrably better and it provides a better outcome for them.

Sramana Mitra: Are your products optional/elective products or are they compulsory products as recommended by the instructors?

Jim Donohue: We have a mix of everything. We provide core materials that are required by professors and the only way they’re optional is that the student may decide to buy a used book or rent a book but they have to have it to pass the course. We’re continuously developing a whole new suite of products that might be optional from the professor’s side, but the student will not think they’re optional. They will think they are must-have products.

A classic example is in the Basic Chemistry 101 course. 60% of the students who take Chemistry 101 at a 4-year school have no interest in Chemistry. They’re taking it because they want to be med students or engineers and yet almost all the materials in Chemistry 101 are positioned as if you’re a student who’s taking this class to become a chemist.

We’re launching a brand new product that will be out at the end of next year. It will have the same set of problems so the professor does not have to grade them differently, but every product will be based on what your goal is in taking this Chemistry class. You’ll go in the first day to your computer and say, “I’m a pre-med. I’m interested in the Health Science world.” Another person would say, “I’m a Chemical Engineer or I’m a Civil Engineer.” And we will adjust those questions. They will have the same answers but are put in a context to make them relevant to the student and really personalize that learning.

Why is this important to me? Professors tell us the number one issue they have is students don’t see why their course is relevant and particularly in those first two years where we all take a bunch of general education requirements. Why is political science relevant to me? Why is literature relevant to me? Our goal is to explain to students why through relating it to what they’re doing.

 

This segment is part 5 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning
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