October 24, 2013
The paint was literally still drying and the door was completely off its hinges.
But Peter Cohen, president of Columbus-based McGraw-Hill School Education Group since April, was unfazed as he looked around his new office.
“When (the door) is installed, it will still be open,” Cohen said.
The new look of the office is consistent with the new look at the venerable textbook giant, which serves educational institutions ranging from preschool through high school as well as the assessment market.
For more than a century, McGraw-Hill wrote, printed and distributed textbooks. Cohen’s task is to help turn McGraw-Hill into a digitally focused, entrepreneurial business.
“The industry is moving very rapidly,” he said. “McGraw-Hill is in a unique position. We call it a 125-year-old startup because of the transformation taking place now. We talk of it as McGraw-Hill 2.0.”
Cohen is uniquely qualified for the job.
Before joining McGraw-Hill, he was chief executive of Pearson Education’s school division, a position he held since 2008. During that time, among other things, he was instrumental in Pearson’s shift from print to digital.
He touts the educational value of digital’s capabilities.
In the traditional model, students and teachers would work with a McGraw-Hill textbook in class. Students would take a test, and teachers would bring the tests home and grade them. Then, a week or so later, teachers would address whatever shortcomings were found through the tests.
“But in this new world of digital learning and response, we can offer online, immediate feedback,” Cohen said. “In real terms, if you write down that
two plus two equals five, it’s not a big problem if you were rushed and mistakenly wrote the wrong answer.
“But if you wrote that because you didn’t get the concept of two things added to another two things is four things, then you move into a different place. And instead of doing it a week or two after the test, you do it immediately.”
The move toward new Common Core state standards in math and English is accelerating the trend toward digital, he said.
“It’s a completely different business model,” Cohen said. “It’s important to say that this doesn’t replace teachers. But if I know, as a teacher, that a student is struggling, this enables me to immediately address the problem. This whole concept will fundamentally improve education in America.”
While the trend doesn’t replace teachers, does it mean that there will be a day when McGraw-Hill will no longer have a printed, bound product?
“Unequivocally, yes,” Cohen said. “The only question is picking the date. Every program we create today is built digitally first.”
The shift makes a lot of sense to Dan Shust, head of the innovation lab at Columbus-based marketing agency Resource.
“It’s very hard to find a reason why a textbook would need to be printed,” Shust said. “Think about the fact that textbooks are usually out of date as soon as they’re in print. Then there’s the interactivity, the note-taking capability, the linking to reference material so that kids can instantly look up a word — you’ve got to love that.”
“So he’s definitely right,” Shust said. “We might find it happens pretty quickly. The writing is definitely on the wall — or the tablet, as the case may be.”
But the transition might be a bit slower than many believe, said Michael Mark, who advises many schools transitioning from print to digital as CEO of Nelsonville-based EdMap.
Managing the change is key, he said.
“The human dynamic is pretty important: teaching people how to use it. A lot of teachers don’t get it. They’re threatened. I don’t think this is going to be a wave of change. It’s going to be a drip, drip, drip until people finally get it.”
Unlike some other print-based companies, the move into digital will mean at least as much work for McGraw-Hill’s operations in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio in the future, Cohen said. But the nature of the jobs will change as more effort is put into building interactive online products and away from physically printing and shipping books.
The Columbus operations employ nearly 1,000 people who are based in one office facility in the Polaris area and three distribution centers.
“We have plans to stay around (Columbus) indefinitely,” he said.