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Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

David Lindrum: CEO, Soomo Publishing

A version of this interview ran at edReformer.

Douglas Tell us a little bit about what your company is designed to achieve in the education sector.

David

Soomo is a publisher designed from the ground up to create what textbooks would be if they were invented today.

Textbooks are an ingenious, effective solution to the problems of college classrooms in the early 20th century, when thousands of instructors were independently going to great lengths to pull together such a collection of resources. Having one really good set bound and made available provided exceptional value to both instructors and students.

In the 21st century, we expect these tasks of exposition, homework and reference to be performed differently.

The best expositions in our current culture often include rich imagery, animated infographics or video, and adopt a tone more in keeping with Malcom Gladwell or a TED lecture than a typical textbook. Homework can be interactive allowing students to not only consume information but also respond to it, try it out, get immediate feedback and interact with peers. Reference today is expected to be searchable, comprehensive and very current.

In many ways, we are experiencing a return to the mid-20th century with more and more professors scouring the web to find resources which will supplement or replace their textbooks. They seek out images and video to help with exposition, often posted by journalists and public broadcasting. They pass around interactive resources, problem sets and simulations often created by other professors and non-profits, often grant-funded. And students use online databases such as wikipedia (with or without professor sanction) as the easiest way to get the facts on just about anything.

Soomo is designed to enable learning outside the classroom. We are somewhat unique in using contemporary tools and tone to do this and in giving attention to what works and what doesn’t to improve our titles semester over semester.

Douglas You’ve said before that you are scouting for professor-led companies because you think these are the people who are already focused on learning outcomes and outcomes that are explainable by statistics. Any chance of this kind of attitude trickling down to K12? If so, what best practices would teachers take on to be effective entrepreneurs in the curriculum market?

David When I hear of a new service or product my first two questions are, typically, “What do they do?” and “Who are they?” New entrants to this space tend to come from one of two sources: 1) teachers who created something for their students and believe that other professors might also find this useful or 2) companies that think this is a potentially lucrative space. Unsurprisingly, the best products come from the former group.

The best practices we would suggest to both teachers and entrepreneurs are that a successful offering often requires both parties. Educators tend to make the best products but flounder as very small organizations. These small companies typically have great products but huge blind spots around sales, marketing, finance, strategy and scaling. There are literally hundreds of great products and services in under-powered companies that will probably never make it.

Meanwhile, investors and entrepreneurs do best when the lean heavily on educators as they develop products. Many of these business leaders seem to be relying on their own ability to learn quickly and the experience they gained in some other market such as software, or direct marketing. As a result they underestimate the complexity and uniqueness of the market for learning resources and have great stories around very weak products.

We often say the future of publishing is partnering, because this approach has worked so well for us. The best developments I’ve been a part of over the past 20 years have always involved both educators who know the discipline and teaching challenges as well as professionals who know the technology and the art form. A successful company needs this blend.

Douglas What types of curriculum development have shown most promise in terms of effectiveness AND the bottom line?

David Sadly, the bottom line remains numbers-driven. Creating effective content in any discipline is a fairly straight-forward (and very enjoyable) endeavor. But if you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to create such a resource you won’t get the bottom line out of the red without lots of adoptions – especially if you’re trying to keep prices down. So big classes are the key to the bottom line.

Douglas You have talked about being a fan of Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen. Can you tell us what lessons you have learned from them?

David Christensen helped us understand why, in 15 years of trying, we failed to get traditional publishers to build these kinds of resources. He uses the word “ecosystem” to describe the network of abilities and dependencies, which characterize a paradigm. Everything in traditional publishing is built around the book, from how the market is analyzed, to the range of features considered and the process of product creation all the way down to how the rep learns a product and makes a call. Every process, metric, and assumption is built around print. Digital learning resources are truly disruptive.

As a result, if Christensen’s model from Innovators Dilemma holds up in this market, the new products must come from outsider organizations and will flourish first in fields that traditional publishers see as low-margin and undesirable.

The challenge for people betting millions of dollars on being this outsider is to invest at the right time – not too early before the market is ready and not too late after others have established their names. In Disrupting Class, Horn and Christensen outline a means of linearizing the s-curve of innovation to determine when to go full-throttle. We believe that time is now.

In short, we are investing millions of dollars on these three assumptions: traditional publishers are prevented from creating digital resources by ecosystems built around print, outsider organizations will lead the way and the time is now.

Douglas What outside disruptions do you think will be next in the for-profit education market, both in Higher Ed and in K12?

David The next big disruption will be webtexts. Not electronic copies of print texts, but web-native resources for learning. We’re betting everything on this.

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