From Consulting to Publishing: 4 Questions for Cengage Learning's William Rieders

William Rieders is Chief Strategy and Corporate Development Officer for Cengage Learning. Prior to joining Cengage Learning, William was a partner at The Parthenon Group, a consulting company with a robust practice in education. Moving from consulting to publishing gives William a perspective on higher ed that is different from those of us that make our living teaching and working within the walls of the university.

February 10, 2013

William Rieders is Chief Strategy and Corporate Development Officer for Cengage Learning. Prior to joining Cengage Learning, William was a partner at The Parthenon Group, a consulting company with a robust practice in education. Moving from consulting to publishing gives William a perspective on higher ed that is different from those of us that make our living teaching and working within the walls of the university.

The following is an e-mail interview (edited for length) that I conducted with William on his views on the opportunities and challenges for both publishing and higher ed:

Question 1: Why move from a partner at a great consulting company like the Parthenon Group to a big educational publisher? Consulting seems sort of glamorous .... and publishing - well maybe less so (please correct me if I'm wrong on either count). You must have seen some sort of opportunity with education publishing in general and Cengage in particular to make your mark in education. Can you describe your thinking and your goals?

I did indeed have a great consulting career, with a great company – The Parthenon Group. Leaving Parthenon was a difficult decision, but deciding to join the newly formed Cengage Learning was a fantastic opportunity. As one of the largest players in educational publishing, Cengage was in a unique position to participate in one of the most exciting industry transformations in recent history. 

We’re now participating full-force in the transition to digital (more than 90% of our titles are offered in ebook format); we were the first publisher to sell direct-to-student (via CengageBrain.com) and the first to offer buy-by-the-echapter options; we’re involved in MOOCs; we’ve launched MindTap, a first-of-its kind Personal Learning Experience (a complete new category of products); and we build these products in the way small, innovative tech startups develop software, by employing the cutting-edge development methodologies. The “traditional” publishing world is pretty non-traditional these days.

Question 2: I've been very interested in the Moody's report on higher education, which was basically very pessimistic about the long-running business model in the postsecondary industry. According to Moody's, a great many colleges will be in trouble as costs continue to rise but payers (students, parents, state legislators) will be unwilling or unable to cover tuition costs. What do you make of the Moody's report? Putting on your consultants hat, what would you advise higher ed leaders to respond?

In consultant “speak”, the Higher Education market is a classic cottage industry, under threat from numerous angles, and ultimately looking for ways to scale. However, a good consultant would start with an evaluation of the fundamental demand curve. What has not diminished is that there is still a benefit from acquiring further education. It is a fact that education drives a better standard of living – in other words, it is solving a problem worth solving. On the other hand, the industry must change – as with any good business, the “product” must improve, and the per unit costs must decline over time. 

At Cengage, we are aggressively focused on helping our customers on both of these dimensions. In fact, when we conceived of MindTap, one of the core principles was to improve learning outcomes.  In order to accomplish this, we are building analytics to help faculty better understand progress, we are integrating the syllabus directly into the learning solutions, and we are re-designing our approach to integrate content and technology to better engage students.

I see growth in new kinds of partnerships with the private sector. Colleges and universities are going to have to “off-load” more services than ever before to save costs, and better focus on their core value - engaging with students to influence more positive outcomes (mastery of subjects, critical thinking skills and employability). I see a growth in tech assistance services, course and curriculum design, and assessment. The more these administrative-type activities can be off-loaded from the professor or university, the more they can each focus on the needs of the students.

At Cengage Learning, we don’t just speculate on this trend; we’ve prepared for it. We offer a range of services for universities – our CourseCare service helps professors determine what technology is best for their class and how best to leverage it to advance learning. Service goes beyond tech support, it helps professors realize the potential of ed-tech. We also offer course design services (including online) for universities, as well as homework-grading and assessment tools on our MindTap platform.

Question 3: Cengage Learning does not seem to cut as wide of an attention swath as Pearson or McGraw-Hill in the education publishing world. For instance, Pearson has made a big splash buying EmbanetCompass and the rollout of OpenClass. McGraw-Hill bought Tegrity. What should we think of when we think of Cengage Learning? How big is Cengage Learning in terms of revenues, headcount, profits, market capitalization etc - and how does Cengage Learning compare to the other big educational publishers?

When people think of Cengage Learning, I hope they think of student engagement, superior service and MindTap. There are so many factors that can affect student outcomes but one area in which we really feel we can make a difference is student engagement. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that, the more actively engaged students are — with faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals. Students benefit from direct interaction with instructors and their own peers, and by providing professors with resources that enable them to spend more time interacting with students, and less time dealing with administrative duties, we hope to positively influence student engagement and outcomes. As institutions are held more accountable for graduation rates and outcomes for funding, our support in driving engagement and making a real impact will become more and more important.

In addition, through the research arm of our business, Gale, we are the largest provider of library reference materials, sourcing content from the most prestigious institutions around the world and bringing it online and into the hands of millions of students, faculty and researchers worldwide. Cengage Learning is unique in that we’re the only publisher that has the ability to bridge from the library to the classroom.

Cengage Learning is currently the number 2 higher education publisher, with nearly 5,500 employees in more than 20 countries. We have annual revenues of approximately $2 billion.

Question 4: Going back to Pearson's EmbanetCompass acquisition, it seems to me that the real future is in partnerships. Can you give us any glimpse into what Cengage Learning is doing now with partnering to develop, design, deliver, education services to students in collaboration with post-secondary institutions?

Sure, we are committed to investing in partnerships and see this as a key driver of future growth. For example, we have a robust, formalized partnership program which we call the MindShare Alliance Partner Program. We developed the program to provide a hub for encouraging growth and developing new partnerships which ultimately benefits our customers. We recognize that every company offers different strengths (some are the best at web-tutoring, or lecture capture etc.) and there’s a need for educators to harness all of those services in one place. Specifically, when we launched the MindTap platform, we had an influx of partners (Kaltura, NetTutor, WebAssign, etc.) developing MindApps, and they’ve reinforced the vital importance of partnerships. We also have partnerships with all of the leading LMS providers – Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodlerooms, Sakai so that MindTap can be accessed seamlessly through their services.

Some other recent high-profile partnerships that we’ve announced include our collaboration with edX and Harvard to provide our content and course development services. We’re looking to do more with MOOC providers – stay tuned on that.

Last year, we also announced an agreement with California State University (CSU), the largest university system in the country, to provide discounted eTextbooks to students as part of their Affordable Learning Solutions campaign. It was one of the largest digital resources contracts signed by a university system and allows more than 400,000 students on 23 campuses to access Cengage Learning eTextbooks at a substantial cost savings. We’ve done similar partnerships internationally as well. Plymouth University (UK) is offering all of its first-year Psychology students Cengage Learning digital textbooks. The 12 set texts are presented in a digital bundle that can be downloaded by each student for free. Students involved rated their degree a great value for the money and typically came to lectures better-prepared, because they all had access to the appropriate materials. At Plymouth just over half of the current first year students were aware of the eBook bundle before they applied, and nearly half of those thought it influenced their decision.

What would you want to ask William about Cengage, education publishing, or higher ed?


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