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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning (Part 8)

Posted on Friday, Jan 10th 2014

Sramana Mitra: How do you see films come into this picture? For example, one of the hit films of last year was Lincoln, right? It was a really well done American History film. How do you see something like that impacting the teaching of History, for instance?

Jim Donohue: It’s not just films. That sort of media-rich environment is what students expect because they have been raised on a media-rich environment. One of the deals we have is to have the entire UPI collection digitized. If you want to look at something that happened in World War II, you don’t have to read about it. You can actually see a treaty being signed. You are going to actually be there at the battle. We have digitized that content and it can all be incorporated.

It allows the student to understand the context for what he is reading. I always compare it with my experience of learning history. My father landed in Northern France in World War II when he was 18 years old. We went and spent a week there, and we walked the battlefield. Suddenly, it went from being thumping on a book to actually seeing my 18-year-old father in a life-or-death situation coming aboard, coming on the shore, seeing the bullets flying, understanding the horrifying situation that I could never have imagined reading from a book.

Sramana Mitra: That teaching, in fact, has huge potential, especially when it comes to literature, given the amount of multimedia material that has been produced. If you are studying Shakespeare, there are films and film versions of plays, tons of that kind of material. This was not part of the system of learning when we were in school.

Jim Donohue: Technology allows you to interact and incorporate, which is more than just watching a movie. You can do textual analysis. “Let’s look at Hamlet’s soliloquy. Let’s look at it and now let’s have Lawrence Olivier read it.” You can even stop and say, “Listen to the way he said this word. Look at the emphasis on this word.” It provides a context that goes way beyond the textbook.

It’s why e-books, in a way, have already become passé in higher education. They are really important in the research-based world. We do a lot of them for our research publisher but the basic e-book is yesterday’s news. It is not interactive enough and we are moving away from books model. We want to deliver an entire American History course to you with everything the student needs and which allows you and the student to measure the outcome. It will also help understand the historical context and what the students mastered in that 8- to 12-week period.

Sramana Mitra: At the very beginning of the interview, you said you were struggling with the business. What is the business situation right now?

Jim Donohue: We are at Chapter 11 and that’s not a big secret at all but this is heresy to say. In many ways, I feel that the Chapter 11 has allowed us to take debt off our balance sheet. It’s freed us up to really look at our business in a tough, hard way and decide how we can change. It really puts us, financially, on a sound footing going forward. For me, that’s really what it means in terms of where we are financially.

It’s a struggle. I spend a lot of my time reassuring authors, new authors, software houses that are working with us, and reassuring third-party partners. It’s all an open book, so people can see that things are going well and that we are moving very quickly, but it’s a distraction.

Sramana Mitra: Great. Nice talking with you.

This segment is part 8 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning
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