7 Questions for McGraw-Hill's Brian Kibby

Brian Kibby is president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education  This e-mail interview was inspired by his 8/3/12 IHE Views piece "Digital Deadline". 

What I found interesting is Kibby's willingness to make strong statements in print, namely that in 36 months higher ed should be completely digital.

October 21, 2012

Brian Kibby is president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education  This e-mail interview was inspired by his 8/3/12 IHE Views piece "Digital Deadline". 

What I found interesting is Kibby's willingness to make strong statements in print, namely that in 36 months higher ed should be completely digital.  Kibby writes:

"I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems."

I'd like to thank Brian for taking the time to answer the questions below, and I'd like to invite all of you to follow-up on these questions and ask Brian anything you'd like to know about McGraw-Hill Higher Education or the educational publishing business.

Question 1: Can you talk about the business pros and the business risks for McGraw-Hill and other large educational publishers if this transition from paper to digital is complete by 2015?

Answer 1: I can only speak for McGraw-Hill Education here, but from our perspective, the transition from print to digital can’t happen quickly enough. The first reason for this is that we’re totally prepared for such a switch. One hundred percent of our content is available in a digital format – and has been for some time. On top of that, we have a number of digital learning systems that provide an experience that goes far beyond what’s offered by e-books. From a business perspective, there isn’t too much of a change – most of our digital products generate revenue, so for us, going from print to digital will just substitute one line of revenue for another.

The second reason, and the one I’d like to emphasize, is that the type of digital learning experiences we offer really have the potential to improve student performance in a way that print materials simply don’t. This is great for students, obviously, and it’s also great for our company. McGraw-Hill LearnSmart, our super-adaptive learning program, has been shown to help students improve their academic performance by one full letter grade. Combining these types of platforms with our content is allowing us to help improve results and experiences for students, faculty and institutions, and in truth, it’s changing the way colleges and universities think of us. We’re now much more of a partner than we are a publisher. Our recent announcement with Western Governors University is a great example of this.

The third reason we stand to benefit is that we’ve expanded our business model beyond products. We offer an array of services that solve real problems in the market and that can generate revenue for us.

Question 2: Conversely, what are the benefits and risks for your business if this transition stalls?

Answer 2: As you know, I think the shift to digital is a forgone conclusion. But because we continue to develop the highest quality content – which we also make available in print – we’ll be well positioned regardless of where the market is.

The shift to digital represents a large business opportunity for us – I’ll be upfront about that. But the real reason I’m rooting for the shift to digital is because there are enormous problems in higher education – student debt and the skills gap to name two – and we have the tools to solve them. A colleague of mine has called this education’s Six Million Dollar Man moment – “We have the technology.” I want to see our students get the most out of their college education, and I truly believe that digital helps them do that. So if you want to talk about the risk of the digital transition stalling, it really lies with students, and that’s something I just can’t accept.

Question 3:  I have 2 kids, a 10th grader and an 8th grader. My 8th grader says that she learns better on paper, not on screens. I can relate, as anything longer than a couple of pages I tend to print-out. Do you see any downside for learners to a switch to all digital?

Answer 3: In any transition, there are going to be bumps along the way, but as technology improves, those bumps are going to become smaller and smaller and fewer and farther between. Right now, there are some trade-offs. Is it great to be able to spin a molecule on your finger as you’re reading about chemistry? Absolutely. Is it ideal to read a 500 page book on a backlit screen? Probably not. But technology is constantly improving. In 2007, nobody could imagine using a touchscreen on a device so critical to our daily lives as a phone. Now, we can’t get away from physical keyboards fast enough. We pay close attention to the feedback that students and instructors give us on the user experience of our digital products – we actually have a separate group of employees that focuses on nothing but that – and we take these growing pains seriously. I don’t see any true downside, though.

What’s interesting about the question is that it assumes that digital learning experiences will closely follow traditional learning experiences, just on a device instead of a piece of paper. And that’s really not the case. We’re talking about totally new, non-linear ways of learning. I’m not saying that all of the digital products we have on the market are at this point right now, but our goal is to create digital learning experiences that are radically different from what we have now. If we keep doing our job the way we know we can, the way we learn five years from now will look very little like the way we learned five years ago.

Question 4: It seems to me that in your position as president of McGraw-Hill higher education you have before you the very difficult task of leading an enormous change in how your company operates. For many many years the big educational publishes have made very good money with a model of printed books and digital add-ons.  You are saying that by 2015 that traditional educational publisher model will be as dead as Blockbuster video, as dead as the old record stores. How are you going to transform your corporate culture and lead your employees to embrace this change? And why should we expect that any big traditional publisher will be able to evolve to embrace this new digital world, as there are not many very good models in other industries of other legacy companies making similar transitions.

Answer 4: McGraw-Hill Education is a company with over 100 years of experience in education, so obviously it’s a place with some history. But the world and the needs of our customers have changed dramatically, as has the technology now available to help satisfy their demands. Our team has embraced this change whole heartedly. Our culture has become one where we have a passion for creative disruption, especially as it relates to what is important to our customers: improved results, retention, and the ability to become even more competitive in the marketplace.

We’re focused on technology now in a way that we’ve never been before, but we still have that deep respect for content, and I think that our employees really appreciate that.

With regard to other models/industries, I think we’ve had something of a late-mover advantage. A lot is made about how education has lagged behind other areas in adopting technology, and I won’t go into that but to say that the more gradual transition in our space gave us the chance to sit down and really figure out the best way to do digital from a business perspective. Newspapers had to make that choice back in the mid-90s, and the music industry had to face it in the early 2000s. Like everyone else, we needed to figure out how to get people to think about digital as something you pay for, and our answer to that was to make digital products that were worth paying for. I think we’ve been able to do that pretty successfully, and the market has responded well.

Question 5:  It is great to see the boss of McGraw-Hill education write a Views piece in Inside Higher Ed. But how come we don't see more of your McGraw-Hill people writing similar pieces?  In fact, in looking at the Inside Higher Ed site I don't see much evidence of McGraw-Hill higher ed people (or for that matter professionals that work for any of the big publishers) participating in the discussions and debates on the site.  Is it a value of yours for more of your colleagues to follow your lead and participate in social media and higher education news and community sites such as Inside Higher Ed?  What specific steps, training, and incentives are you providing to bring this about?

Answer 5: I’m 100% supportive of having more dialogue in education, not just from McGraw-Hill Education but across the board. Education is the most important issue in this country, period. All of us who care about it –parents, educators, institutions, students, learning companies, government – owe it to each other to make the debate loud and compelling enough for everyone to hear. I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me and from others at McGraw-Hill Education in the future. And with regard to social media, I think that my blog and Twitter presence show you just how much I believe in communicating through those channels.

Question 6:   I want to push the previous question a bit harder.  I speak with people who work for educational publishers at conferences about why they are not more "out there" in social media and communities like Inside Higher Ed, and I often hear the same response.  These professionals will say that communications need to be approved.  That their employers want to have consistent messaging.  That they have lots of thoughts, as you do, about how higher education is changing and the positive role that publishers can play - but that they have no incentives to add their own voice to the conversation.   Am I just talking to the wrong people?  Or do you think that there is a problem with employees of educational publishers (below the very top levels) believing that they have the support, backing, and training to follow your lead.

Answer 6: I’ll start off by saying that I encourage employees to be out there talking, reading, and listening about education and technology as much as possible. Like any company, we do have some guidelines, but in general I believe in the value of being out there speaking in clear, honest voices. And that doesn’t just apply to me. The goal here is to make sure that our students receive the best education possible, and that doesn’t happen with all of us working in isolation.

Question 7: Last question. How can we keep up this sort of dialogue?   What do you see as the best way forward for people who work in higher ed and publishing, colleges and software companies, non-profits and for-profits to find ways to have authentic and positive exchanges and opportunities to learn from each other?   Can you and your company provide any real leadership (and perhaps resources) to encourage this sort of dialogue?

Answer 7: One of the great things about working in education is that there are a number of different channels for discussing it. I’m always impressed by the commitment and savvy of educators in communicating – not just talking, but listening, too. We’re trying to do our part to match that commitment. In the spring, we conducted a Twitter chat about adaptive learning – something we hope will be the first of many. We also held a virtual roundtable for reporters – Josh, you were invited, I promise! – that was kind of a chance for us to talk about what we think is important and then a chance for you all to ask us anything that’s on your mind. In terms of what we can do to create more opportunities to continue the dialogue, we’re always open to ideas. In the true spirit of dialogue, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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Joshua Kim

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