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David Levin, CEO, McGraw-Hill Education, US

Education publishing giant, McGraw-Hill Education, has a presence in over 135 countries and is now incorporating new technology and online learning into its scope. President and CEO, David Levin, tells The PIE about the company’s renewed focus on learning outcomes, and its shift into digital after 125 years of operation.

The PIE: What has changed at McGraw-Hill Education over the last few years?

"To come to a teacher or instructor who has done 15 years of onstage lecturing and say flip the classroom... well, that’s pretty daunting"

DL: McGraw-Hill Education has been independent for three years now after having been spun out of The McGraw Hill Companies. Since then, we have become a focused education business. It’s been a really exciting time because we could take all the good things from 125 plus years of educational publishing and think about what would be relevant for the future.

The wonderful thing about going through a transition is that you can make a lot of changes quickly. So these last three years have been characterised by exactly that, a lot of change, and we have chosen some quite discrete things to focus on. The first of them is what defines us. I think if you step back and say what defines a publishing company, there are a variety of concepts you could pick such as the quality of its content and the authority of the authors who write for it.

“The wonderful thing about going through a transition is that you can make a lot of changes quickly”

That’s not going to cut it in the digital age that we are entering but if you harness some of those assets around content and pedagogy and pair them with software that can track and measure students’ comprehension levels, you can suddenly say, actually we can be all about learning outcomes.

The PIE: So how have you gone about this?

DL: Building a digital culture in a traditional publisher is difficult. We have gone about it in a very distinct way. In the last three years we have built a strong technology team of almost 500 people and we spent $180m last year on building digital learning solutions and software, and we are doing that in the way a tech firm would build it, as opposed to a publisher.

We have created it so it is open and can exist as part of the educational ecosystem. That is very different from being a publisher and you say one size fits all. We have made some important strategic acquisitions of technology. We have built two development labs, one in Boston, one in Seattle. We have made our software available to anybody who wants to use it with their own content.

We have publishers who are using it to power their educational content, we also have other institutions, businesses that have started to use it with their content, and that’s exciting. We are doing this with a development philosophy that is pretty different, some valuable technology acquisitions, a couple of development centres and this singular orientation that it’s got to be about learning outcomes.

The PIE: Why is now a good time to expand from the traditional publishing arm?

DL: First of all, the business had been running for a long time inside of a bigger parent company and was no longer innovating. It really was in some sense the stereotype of what all the publishers used to be, because they didn’t do anything dramatically new. The business was sold because it was under performing and because people felt it had no prospects.

“The reality is that the name has tremendous resonance in the education world”

The group that bought it had a different view and every single member of the management team is new. We all thought, wow there is actually something here that we could really do radically differently. The reality is that the name has tremendous resonance in the education world and we could make new investments and create a really successful business.

The PIE: From your perspective, what were your priorities for the company when you started in your position?

DL: One part was getting us to look in and another was to look out. The inward side was showing and sharing with people a different vision, aligning them, and that is just the same as the conversation on the outside. People have got to know you are authentic and care about the mission, you have got something valuable to add and that you can address the question of culture.

If you had seen our previous office in Maidenhead, it actually could have been the set of the TV programme The Office, but that would be very typical of a traditional publishing house, little boxy offices and everybody scurrying around. Now we are in a very different place.

We have set up a wonderful online community for everyone at McGraw-Hill. It allows people to create their own groups, it allows people to openly share ideas and questions and communicate incredibly quickly. Three years ago there was a sterile intranet where there would be the occasional Human Resources update announcing the latest holiday schedule and healthcare benefits and people would look at it when they had to. Now we have a vibrant online space and it is full of people shouting about their successes, trumpeting this thing went right or putting out research because they are proud of it.

The PIE: What have you drawn from previous roles you had before working here?

DL: I have spent the last 20 years either working in or running software companies, technology companies or media companies. I used to run a software business called Symbian, which developed the operating system for the first Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson smartphones, I ran a hardware company that made handheld organisers, and then I ran a media company that had a lot of magazines and did staged events.

“I haven’t yet met a teacher who isn’t keen on their students learning”

I just feel this opportunity occurred at a time in my life when I thought it was a tremendous chance to be involved with something very worthwhile. How can we help improve education? At the same time, it is such a great business challenge  when a company is considered broken and you can be involved with really cutting edge software and development and build something great out of it

The PIE: How do you ensure you’re keeping up in terms of harnessing technology to reach students?

DL: I don’t think the problem is keeping up. I think the problem is making new learning technology digestible, scalable and usable. In education, the issue is how do you get lots of teachers and university professors to suddenly do everything differently? Often, this is much harder than reaching the kids.

The PIE: What do you do to help educators to be open to this kind of technology?

DL: I think, as with any new thing, if you just throw a piece of technology into a school or into a section in a university, it is going to have limited effect. So the question is, how do you effectively roll out new technology and then how do you help the individual who uses it get more and more confident with these new learning tools?

I haven’t yet met a teacher who isn’t keen on their students learning. They all want to help their students learn. But we have to help the teachers first. Some of this is done by building confidence in using new software in the classroom. Some of it is by showing them the first easy big wins that they can make with their students and showing them that if they see success the second year they use it, they can start to do things differently. And by the third year they are doing really wonderful radical things with amazing results.

To come to a teacher or instructor in a higher ed environment who has done 15 years of onstage lecturing and say flip the classroom… well, that’s pretty daunting. If, however, over the course of a couple of years, the teacher can begin to see the way the data in new software programs can influence the effectiveness of their instruction, they can begin to modify their lecture courses.

“Technology is helping students learn better and educators teach more effectively”

They begin to add their own material and can easily adapt their courses to the learning levels of their students. By the time they are in year three, they will be ready to look for better and better models and that is really important. I think they want this, but what they are scared to do is say that the technology is taking over. On the contrary, the technology is enabling them to become better teachers.

The PIE: I am interested in how this technology changes interaction between the students and teachers.

DL: A huge amount. We use the term “small data” to talk about how technology can help educators.  Contrary to big data, we refer to small data as an individual piece of information that is of great value. So we will break a course up into individual learning objectives and provide comprehension assessments at multiple points during the course, rather than just once or twice in the middle or at the end of the course.

Without this new type of learning software and small data, a teacher looking into a room of blank faces sees just blank faces. They could be blank because it is 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they just had lunch, or they could be blank because they have no clue about what the teacher is saying.

Our software determines whether the student knows a fact or not. And this is critical information for the teacher, because if the student hasn’t grasped a concept, for the first time ever, the teacher can see this through this piece of small data.

It can be as simple as this one knows that, that one doesn’t. And it can be as powerful as knowing whether a lot of students are struggling with the subject, so the instructor can change the lesson plan. In short, technology is helping students learn better and educators teach more effectively.

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