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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning (Part 3)

Posted on Sunday, Jan 5th 2014

Sramana Mitra: I’d like to double-click down further on each of these categories. Since you’re on the roll with the student-led learning piece, explain to me how you go to market with that. Looks like your instructor-focused business is through reps but the student-focused business is a consumer business? Is that correct?

Jim Donohue: It’s sort of both. Let me explain. Instructors are still making these decisions but what they use to make their decisions is based on what made their lives easier, to be honest. Instructors generally care very deeply about their students but there was nothing to evaluate the effectiveness of one learning material over another. So, we still market directly to the professor but now we can go in and say what the Holy Grail is, what we’re all working on in this industry is quantifying learning.

When you use this approach, 22% of the time your students will perform better on tests. You’ll have a 5% or 10% better retention rate which is a big issue for colleges as students are dropping out because they feel overwhelmed. If you use this material or this approach, you can improve your learning rate, you can improve your retention rate, and you can improve your outcomes.

Last week, for instance, I was out at a college campus in the South and was talking to a group of Economics professors. We have a product called Aplia and what it does is that it graduates learning, right out of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the questions become harder and harder as you progress through the course. Because students master a concept when they’re challenged more. One of the professors was quite annoyed that the questions seemed to be very hard for her students and she had lots of complaints about it.

But because of the way we built Aplia, you can actually measure the retention rate, and the knowledge-based gain compared to previous years. Even though it’s harder for the students, there’s a 22% better retention rate and a better success rate on mastering the concepts. These are the kinds of Learning Science or Neuroscience research being done at Harvard by Schefter, the Bjork Institue in UCLA. We’re really looking at how we learn and trying to take that science and incorporate it into how we structure our product.

So, our go-to market strategy is still talking to professors right now. We’re saying to them, “You can have better outcomes.” That’s become really important. As you know in the elementary school market, outcomes are everything right now. Common core, how do we measure the effectiveness of our teaching, how are we preparing students and we see that outcome measurement creeping into the higher education market and we think we’re pretty much prepared to be there.

But step two is direct-to-student marketing. We’re really interested in that because students make choices. What they want to know is, once again, how can you measure what’s effective. So, we’re looking at developing a whole series of learning tools that are not tied to particular texts at all. They’re really tied to a course. If you’re taking Econ 101, you may not be using our books but if you use our digital study material, we can guarantee you that on the core concepts taught in this class, you will improve your test scores, you will improve your knowledge retention and you’ll do it in a faster and a more effective way.

We’re doing some pilots of those at a university and are very happy with the initial results. The book is immaterial to them. By using the study guides, they understand what the core concepts are. They’re absorbing them much better and they’re doing it at a much faster rate.


This segment is part 3 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Jim Donohue, Chief Product Officer, Cengage Learning
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