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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning (Part 7)

Posted on Thursday, Jan 9th 2014

Sramana Mitra: I was going to conclude the interview with a question about the approach of the professors. You started off by saying that it’s a non-digital native class that is teaching the courses and they are somewhat resistant to change. They are not as familiar with technology as their students are and so on and so forth.

The shift from being the lecturer to the guide-on-the-side using digital material is a major change in their modus operandi, right? It’s a complete mental model change. So my question to you, in terms of trends, since you see so many in your business, you see so many professors grappling with this change, how are they doing it? How are they dealing with it?

Jim Donohue: I split it into thirds. 30% of them are having no trouble whatsoever. They are completely adapting. They are excited, they want more, and they demand more from us. 30% of them are a little bit nervous and a lot of them are feeling pressure from the institution, from the administration above, who pressurizes them but maybe doesn’t give them the kind of support they need or perhaps isn’t as practical as how you’re going to scale it but they’re really, really keen.

I think a third of them, I don’t know. I could say honestly, it probably could get me in trouble, a third of them really care passionately about their students, really care passionately about learning but are really struggling and that’s where we reach out to them with our service programs and we say, “You know what, you are doing an intro marketing course and we have the complete digital solution for you. We will set it up for you. We will stick with you. We will use learning outcomes to design the course for you. We will walk you through the entire semester every step of the way.”

The uptake is amazing with the number of people who do it. We feel thrilled to be able to do that because that’s our core constituency but at the same time, I do see it changing and I think one of the things that’s happening is that universities —and the administration – are putting pressure because there are parents and students demanding return on investment. I am going to pay $43,000 a year, I ought to leave this institution with real skills that are tied to the real world. That’s what I think is compelling. What are the outcomes? What do I have to do to prepare my students to live in this world? It’s putting a lot of pressure on the faculty. I think all the publishing companies are doing a pretty good job at trying to support the professor and help them meet the trend but I think that for 30% of them, it’s a struggle and we do everything we can to help that group.

Sramana Mitra: What you said I find kind of encouraging. If it’s only 30% that’s struggling and the other 70% have (at least maybe 30-35% have) really made the transition, the other 30-35% will make the transition in the next five years. That’s actually not a bad situation.

Jim Donohue: I agree. I think it is better than you think. It’s funny because I come from the Health Science world where…[chuckle] Is there a hospital in the world that has electronic medical records? I don’t know, maybe somewhere. I found, across the board, 30% of the faculty, whether they are at a 4-year school or a 2-year school, they are OK with the technology. They are aggressive about it. They want more, more, and more. About 30% are saying, “I’m scared as hell. I’m not really sure I’m ready but you know what, I’m keen to give it a shot.”

Of course, part of it is based on what they’re teaching. If you’re teaching an Accounting course, no student can leave an Accounting course unless they know Excel. That’s got to be the basis of everything you do. More resistant I find are in the liberal arts courses where they’re really struggling with, “How do I make Western Civilization technology-driven?” Once you start saying to them, look at the kind of visual artifact you can create using technology you could never create before, they start to get it.

For instance, we have an agreement with Smithsonian Institution. We are digitizing the entire American experience collection. Everything is being digitized exclusively by us. It will be incorporated in all of our American history books. Suddenly, history professors are beginning to understand the interactive nature of that technology and what it allows.

A student can really understand history visually in a way that they could never understand from a book. Now, we see professors who were not so keen in the past are suddenly saying, “Tell me more. How do I do this? How do I work this?” It’s a slow change. I am actually feeling optimistic about it as you are. I think it’s much better than I thought it was going to be.

This segment is part 7 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning
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