Why Free Is Not the Future of Digital Content in Education

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AS CHIEF CONTENT Officer of a learning company, people frequently ask me: “Won’t all of your content eventually be free? After all, when technology enters the market, free is right behind it.”

Then they’ll point to something like the music industry, where annual revenues have declined more than $20 billion from their peak over a decade ago and album sales recently hit their lowest point on record.

For $9.99 a month — less than the price of a single CD a decade ago — listeners can stream as much ad-free music as they want on Spotify, the service that made headlines in 2013 when it revealed the average payout to artists each time their songs are streamed is less than a penny. (Sorry Swifties, you now have to go to YouTube to get your “Shake It Off” fix.)

The downward price pressure exerted on the music industry (or the news business, or movies) by the digital revolution is unmistakable. But going digital will affect different industries in different ways based on market dynamics and other factors.

With music, there are characteristics about the way the user consumes the content – i.e. songs – that help explain why technology has put so much downward pressure on pricing.

For starters, the use of technology does not make me like the song itself more. It doesn’t improve songs in a way that would lead me to assign additional value to them. If, like me, you’re not an audiophile with an ear for the nuances of vinyl recordings, the songs are the same songs, however you play them. I appreciate the convenience of not having to cart CDs around, but in reality, the impact of this new digital use pattern on my lifestyle is minimal.

Contrast that with gaming: The video game industry has thrived in recent years. That’s partly because video games provide a social experience – a service – that cannot be pirated. And technology has catalyzed this shift.

Primary and secondary education presents another case where technology fundamentally changes the way content is experienced. Just imagine: I am a teacher. I am responsible for ensuring that my students succeed in an educational process that will equip them with the knowledge and skills that are critical for their future success.

There are 30 different learning styles in my classroom and I have to reach them all. I have to be certain the resources I put in front of my students are engaging. I need a solution that allows me to understand how well they are doing, and adjust the materials they use based on their individual proficiency levels and learning progressions.

Technology helps me do this. As students engage with the content, the content learns more about the students and it also becomes “smarter”. A digital engine compares students’ responses to those of all other users. Equipped with that data, this adaptive learning system doesn’t just show that a student answered incorrectly. It knows why she did, and uses those insights to create a customized learning path.

In doing so, technology helps solves a big problem that has always confronted teachers: students learn at different paces. Advanced students can get bored and struggling students can give up. Now, as a teacher, I can put content in front of each learner that is personalized to his or her needs. It’s something teachers have been doing through the ages, but technology brings it to the next level of adaptivity.

You get the picture. In this case, technology is making educational content better. It is increasing its value. It is now able to solve a long-existing challenge. It is enabling content to do things that it could not do before. And the stakes could not be higher.

The quality of educational content has a marked impact on student achievement. If we do not get educational content right, students are less likely to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers. Teachers, families and schools need to know that the content they are using is effective, aligned to standards, and will drive student achievement.

Digital-age technology is showing up in classrooms across the United States. But that doesn’t mean that “free is right behind it.” High-quality content, delivered through smart digital platforms, makes it possible for teachers to work with their students in ways they never could have imagined before. And given what’s at stake, that’s something worth investing in.


Mary Cullinane is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s first Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs. She began her career as a classroom teacher and spent a decade as an educator, Director of Technology and administrator. She then went on to spearhead Microsoft′s education-related innovation programs and initiatives worldwide, including its national 1:1 access programs and the School of the Future in Philadelphia. At HMH, she is leading the transformation of the company’s global content development function in support of its mission to change people’s lives by foster passionate, curious learners.

This article originally appeared in WIRED magazine.

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