Premium Content is Dead, Long Live Premium Content

With the shift from print to digital and the explosion of the new open education resources (OER) is there any place for premium content? It is becoming more common to hear, “Content is becoming a commodity.” With the shift from print to digital and with the explosion of open- and teacher-developed content, textbook publishers have experienced margin compression but there is still a market for quality instructional materials.
“The obituary for premium content has been prematurely written,” said Michael Golden, CEO of Educurious. “We should be wary of concluding that by stringing a few free learning objects, video lectures and lessons together, anyone can create a comprehensive curriculum, especially a student-centered innovative one.”
Let’s back up and look at twelve trends shaping the development of digital content:

  1. Mobile app explosion
  2. Organized open educational resources (Gooru Learning,,
  3. Adaptive content (Dreambox, Compass Learning, i-Ready, Knewton)
  4. Game-based content (Mangahigh, Woogi World, Wowzers)
  5. Electronic textbooks (Kno, Apple iBooks)
  6. Social learning (Edmodo, Grockit)
  7. Unbundling courseware into learning objects
  8. Rebundling content (Pearson’s GradPoint)
  9. Use of paradata (Kno, OpenStudy)
  10. Playlists (New Classrooms, Khan Academy)
  11. Multi-source UI with single sign on and reporting (Education Elements, Buzz, Desire2Learn); and
  12. Teacher created resources (TeachersPayTeachers, BetterLesson, WeAreTeachers, ShareMyLesson).

These trends suggest demand for engaging, adaptive, and mobile content. The introduction of Common Core State Standards is causing schools to seek standards-aligned content. Engaging, adaptive-aligned content is expensive to produce particularly multigrade sequences like K-8 math. As a result, there will continue to be demand for premium content.
While content revenue is under pressure, growth in “smart content” and content related services will more than offset the compression. Growth categories include the following:

  • Adaptive instruction: combination of adaptive assessment and targeted instruction
  • Content embedded assessment: simulations, games,
  • Analytics: learner profiles, recommendation engines
  • Evidence gathering systems: project-based learning and multimedia portfolios
  • Super gradebooks: competency-tracking and matriculation management systems
  • Achievement recognition systems: badges and other data visualization and reward systems; and
  • Professional development.

The problem is that districts and schools aren’t used to paying these services and they are not used to subscribing to premium content bundles. It will take a decade for the sector to shift from the seven-year textbook adoption cycles to subscription bundles for content and related services.
An important overlay to the shift from print to digital is the shift from cohorts to competency. “We need to provide curriculum that motivates and moves students along trajectories toward mastery built to the new Common Core and Next-Gen Science standards, based on learning sciences with appropriate scope and sequence, validated embedded continuous assessments and differentiated competency-based instructional interventions,” said Michael Golden.
Role of philanthropy. Given the expensive of developing new forms of rich content and the uncertainty around new business models, grant funding can be an important source of funding for nonprofit and private enterprise alike. Here are some quick facts:

  • PBS content has been developed under ED $72 million of Ready to Learn grants between 2005-10. The forward-leaning goal was to create “transmedia” relationship-based ecosystems spanning TV, web, and consumer products.
  • SimScientists is a five-year WestEd initiative funded by NSF to demonstrate the role simulations can play in middle school science learning and assessment (see this Getting Smart feature). Next, WestEd will try to commercialize the property.
  • ST Math from MIND Research Institute is a sequence of more than 900 visual math games.
  • Private and foundation capital funded Madcap Learning Systems, a rich multimedia social studies project in beta.
  • Educurious is piloting high school project-based ninth grade biology and English courses. The Gates Foundation funded project is led by Michael Golden a former Pearson and Microsoft executive who was also Deputy Secretary of Education in Pennsylvania.
  • The Gates Foundation has also formed a partnership with the Pearson Foundation to develop “cutting-edge learning resources” aligned with the Common Core standards. (Pearson, the company and not the foundation, will spend a significant amount developing this sequence; more on that in February.)

On the role of foundations in content development Stacey Childress said, “At Gates, we believes students and teachers deserve lots of high-quality, affordable options for content and tools that help them meet high expectations. We know a vibrant marketplace will include free and premium offerings from established and emerging providers, and we are working to help strengthen incentives for all types of innovators to meet the dynamic needs of schools, teachers, and students.”
The role of enterprise. The textbook publishers, becoming learning services companies, will continue to play an important role in premium content because they have the talent and resources to custom build engaging and adaptive sequences around new standards.
“Districts need a variety of content from multiple sources—they want to create and manage their own content combined with OER resources and premium commercial content within one extensible content and data management system,” explained Arthur VanderVeen, vice president for Compass Learning. “Forward-looking publishers recognize this and are working with next-generation platform providers to unbundle their standards-aligned content and make it available across platforms and learning environments.
“Content providers need to invest in making the shift from supplemental to core instruction,” said platform provider Anthony Kim. “This includes cloud-based infrastructure, effective web delivery capabilities and interoperability standards that remove the lock-in risk for decision-makers.”
A few examples of private investment in premium content include:

  • Pearson rolled out a K-12 digital curriculum in a Huntsville 1:1 program in September.
  • Curriculum Associates developed and adaptive instructional system, i-Ready, and an aligned print series, Ready Common Core.
  • Amplify is developing a tablet bundle (i.e., content, assessment, devices, platform).
  • Compass Learning partnered with NWEA to offer a comprehensive adaptive instructional system.
  • Dreambox is an adaptive K-5 math product sold to schools.

“We invest millions of dollars every year to create engaging, high-quality digital instructional content and assessments because we’ve seen that the quality of the instructional design and the level of engagement has an impact on student outcomes,” continued VanderVeen. “High quality digital content frees teachers to focus on their real value-add: helping students apply, deepen, and extend their learning through discussion, analysis, and collaborative problem solving activities.”
Business models. In a great blog, Rocketship Education’s John Danner outlined three edtech business models: subsidized growth (like the grant funded models mentioned above), grind it out (direct to school/district sales), and direct to consumer (business to consumer, b2c) — encouraging teacher, student and parent adoption.
“Freemium” offerings (a term coined by Fred Wilson) that provide a valuable free core offering with fee-based premium services are becoming more common in instructional services. Most freemium approaches are direct to teacher and rely on word of mouth. For example, MangaHigh, a sequence of middle grade math games is free for teachers–they can sign up students and see results for their class. The premium version allows teachers to set challenges and review reports for individual students and groups of students. LearnZillion is another example of freemium content–its 2000 Common Core lessons are free to teachers and parents with a premium version for districts.
Big expensive textbooks are a dying segment but premium content and related learning services are growth categories that will continue to receive private, foundation, and government investment–and help teachers boost student learning.
Edmodo, MangaHigh, and LearnZillion are portfolio companies of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner. Compass Learning, Curriculum Associates, and Pearson are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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