Machine Learning for Student Learners: Pearson attacks digitization in education

“Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” From a principal’s publication, 1815.

This quote [1] seems outrageous now, but our children’s schooling will also look unfathomably different from ours. Digitization has changed the way we work and it will also change the way students learn.

Pearson finds itself at the center of the transition from textbooks to digital learning tools. Digitization presents new opportunities that Pearson, the world’s largest educational content company, is well-positioned to take. But it hasn’t been all good news – last year, Pearson’s stock dropped substantially due in part to slowing textbook sales.[2][3] Pearson is addressing digitization head on; its top 2016 strategic growth priority is “digital & services.”

Products and Services
Digital Content
Selling textbooks is no longer a viable business model – school districts and universities are shopping for digital learning tools that integrate content and interactive assessments. Pearson shifted to producing these products and distributing them through their own channels and through other companies’ platforms.[4]

Personalized Learning
Personalized learning is “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests…to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery…”[5] Personalized learning doesn’t necessarily require technology, but computers make it significantly easier for teachers to track student learning and find the right content for individual students. Pearson has made strides into personalized learning with products like Revel, an interactive platform for college students,[6] and K-12 personalized learning curricula.[7] Pearson also announced a partnership with IBM to use the Watson technology to build a digital tutor for college students.[8]

Assessment is a major revenue generator for Pearson and the fact that they have invested heavily in assessment has helped them weather declining textbook sales. [9] Many of us will recall going to take the GMAT at a Pearson VUE test center. In addition to test centers, Pearson creates and scores assessment for K-12 students, college students, and professionals.[10]

As schools collect more and more data through digital tools, Pearson is ramping up service offerings to help schools find insight in the data.[11]

Competitive Landscape
The most important result of digitization in the education space is the democratization of content. The internet has led to a proliferation of free quality educational content on the internet. Teachers can now access videos on Khan Academy, lesson plans on LearnZillion, and other teachers’ content through TeachersPayTeachers. When publisher material doesn’t work, teachers go elsewhere to find quality content. Currently, textbook procurement isn’t in the hands of teachers, but content democratization could be a long-term threat to Pearson in two ways: 1) teacher feedback will eventually make its way up to the people in charge of procurement and demand for subpar products will dry up. 2) Some education leaders, like the Gates Foundation, are pushing to put purchasing decision in teachers’ hands.[12] If this happens, Pearson will have to compete directly with new entrants who may not have relationships with procurement officers but can market directly to teachers.

Testing is also impacted by digitization. On one hand, test givers are getting smarter – companies like Coursera are pioneering biometrics and other tech-enabled methods to detect cheating. ProctorU combines low tech and high tech to offer virtual proctors who monitor students via webcam as they take tests online.[13] But the same technology that enables controls also empowers cheaters; we’ve seen the proliferation of new cheating methods alongside new educational models.[14] ,[15]

Pearson launched major efforts to adapt its business and operating models. Looking forward, they should:

  • Adapt test center offerings – With assessment as a core business, Pearson needs to be on the leading edge of testing technology. It’s possible that within the next decade, students will no longer need to go to test centers. Pearson should be actively developing or purchasing technology that makes it possible to take tests remotely while guaranteeing test integrity.
  • Leverage scale to maintain competitive position – Free online educational content will continue to come online; Pearson can use this content to their advantage. With the IBM Watson partnership, Pearson can leverage their content AND free content to provide the best possible educational material to each individual learner. For this to work, Pearson needs to move quickly to develop a tool that will effectively recommend the best of a broad pool of content to students.
  • Focus on efficacy to sell services and build evidence base for products – Since there is now more content available, there is an increased need to rank content by efficacy. Pearson should continue to develop rigorous but easy-to-implement analytical capabilities to test its products and demonstrate their effectiveness. This will both sell products and build additional revenue opportunities in providing data analysis services to schools. (800 words)
[1]Quote Investigator. 2012. Students Today Can’t Prepare Bark to Calculate Their Problems. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[2]Schweizer, Kristen. Bloomberg. 2015. Pearson’s Stock Slump Dwarfs FT, Economist Sale Proceeds. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]. Note that much of the drop in stock price could be attributed to the sale of the FT and Economist, but the decrease in stock price was over and above the value of those business units.
[3]Pearson. 2016. Pearson 2015 Annual Report. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[4]Ogg, Erica. Gigaom. 2012. Why textbooks of the future are not books. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[5]International Association for Online K-12 Learning. 2016. What is Personalized Learning? Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]
[6]Pearson. 2016. Revel. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[7]Pearson. 2016. Personalized Learning Curriculum. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]
[8]Straumsheim, Carl. Inside Higher Ed.. 2016. ‘Augmented Intelligence’ for Higher Ed. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[9]Pearson. 2016. Pearson 2015 Annual Report. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[10]Pearson. 2016. Pearson Assessments. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[11]Pearson. 2016. Pearson 2015 Annual Report. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[12]SRI International. 2016. Researching the Teacher Wallets Program. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[13]ProctorU. 2016. THE GLOBAL GO-TO for SECURE ONLINE TESTING. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[14]Abazorius, Abby. MIT News. 2016. Study identifies new cheating method in MOOCs. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].
[15]Goodman, Marc. Slate. 2016. You Can’t Replace Your Fingerprints. Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].


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Student comments on Machine Learning for Student Learners: Pearson attacks digitization in education

  1. Great post, Alex! It is very interesting to think about how today’s ed tech companies are changing the dynamics between teachers and content. Pearson does have many advantages as an incumbent in the industry – content, relationships with school districts, and scale, to name a few. However, as you pointed out, the internet is decentralizing both the creation and the distribution of teaching materials, and teachers are finding opportunities to not only source their own materials, but also to create their own and monetize it via platforms like TeachersPayTeachers. Digitization will also have huge implications on the way teaching is actually conducted in the classroom. The Khan Academy, for instance, evangelizes and enables the flipped classroom idea, fundamentally changing a teacher’s role in helping students learn. Would be really interesting to hear about what you think the challenges currently facing ed tech startups are.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Alex! Agree with Ann above. Very interesting to hear how technology/digitization is changing the landscape for large, traditional players in the education space. I have been interested to see how adoption of technology within the classroom has been slower than in many other industries. Do you think that Pearson’s response to the changing landscape will facilitate the incorporation of technology within the classroom?

  2. Alex,

    Very interesting post. I distinctly remember taking my GMAT at a Pearson testing center. I thought their role in this market was a good move. Digitized testing allowed for multiple testers to be proctored by 1-2 proctors. I also suspect that this segment is relatively secure – people taking the GMAT (or any other test offered by this group) is likely to not decrease given the relatively reliable state of college and grad schools applications in the US. According to USNews, (, there are more students considering college than in the past and there are a growing number of college-aged students (13% between 2000 to 2010). This allows for market continuance for Pearson. I agree with this recommendation.

    In terms of leveraging Pearson content with free content, I also agree. I think it is impossible to avoid free content (open-source content) that may be of higher quality than paid content. Thus, it’s to Pearson’s advantage to work with these providers. The issue I see here is how do you target which free-content providers to work with in this segmented market? For instance, Googling “Free SAT prep” ( offers pages of free content providers as well as a multitude of YouTube videos. How does Pearson target the parties to work with?

  3. Super interesting Alex. I’d never considered how learning materials could be democratized through digitization. Curriculum decisions more in the hands of teachers seems like a great way to modernize dated systems and approaches. A bit tangential, but I’m curious whether this will reach its full potential given the volume of formal testing that teachers are pressured to test to. Will they have the power to get creative and iterate when the pressures are so high to teach to the tests?

    I am excited that Pearson is being challenged by a more competitive landscape with these smaller players approaching education differently. While I agree with your recommendations for Pearson to pursue scale against these competitors, a denser market will surely raise the bar for modernizing education all around.

  4. Very interesting post Alex!! One point you brought up in your post that I thought was particularly relevant was the concept of “access” and how consumers today expect more access to content for free. We saw this a lot in Marketing, especially when it comes to the idea of having a “freemium” pricing model. Curious to get your thoughts on how Pearson and the textbook/publishing industry can potentially use the freemium model to provide greater access to consumers and what this could look like in practice. I know you had mentioned the IBM Watson partnership, but how would you think offering free content can lead to monetization and up selling for other (value add) services that Pearson can provide. Do players like Khan Academy and MOOCs imply that more content has to be free or is there still some value to be derive from premium content that Pearson can offer?

  5. I’m excited about the opportunity for more personalized learning through the tools Pearson has to offer. I do wonder, however, what the impact of extreme customization will have on the kinds of skills kids pick up at school. Non-testable skills like “grit” and empathy (although maybe Pearson can figure out a way to get after these ephemeral elements) may be harder to pick up when students aren’t collaborating around similar material. Part of the reason I assume the case method is set up around a core curriculum is to force our HBS class to collaborate on a shared set of problems. If each student in a classroom is working on something different and receiving Pearson’s personalized learning services, will they have the shared vocabulary to learn from each other?

  6. Super interesting and relevant post!

    A good friend of mine is actually working at a start up in SF that is developing and democratizing online curriculum content in exactly the way that you describe… aka Pearson’s competition. One of the things her company has emphasized (based off the developers’ own experiences as teachers) is that it is much more efficient and helpful for students to receive immediate feedback when they are making their way through traditional “textbook” exercises, rather than having to wait for someone to grade the problems.

    One area of opportunity I see for Pearson is to develop its own set of “tutorials” or lessons plans that can be triggered automatically when a student gets a question wrong. This way, the students’ misunderstanding of a concept is addressed right away, rather than building up and accelerating into other problems over time.

    Another thing I thought about while reading this was whether Pearson is at all worried about the threat from pirating/theft of its intellectual property because of digitization.

    Finally, I was wondering how Pearson’s assessment of the relative likeliness/unlikeliness of common core adoption affects its operating model and decisions.

  7. This is an awesome post, Alex!

    Education seems like one of the best industries where digitization can have an enormous positive impact. It seems like data can be combined with personalized learning– data can be used on a high level but also on an individualized basis to see how teachers and courses should adjust to tailor to specific students and divide them into groups of kids that learn the same way. I agree that Pearson will have some competitive pressures but I think at the same time, the fact that they are printing fewer physical copies means they will have more capital on hand and fewer upfront costs and be able to pivot midway to adjust their online products. Additionally, cheating is definitely an issue, but I believe and hope that it will only be a small number of kids who engage in that while the rest get more captured by learning via new online technologies!!

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