The BookBrunch interview: John Donovan, md of VitalSource, on Brexit, and the next stage of the digital revolution in academic publishing

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Friday, 12 May 2017

John Donovan is a stalwart of higher education publishing, a sector that has embraced the rise of digital with perhaps more creativity and enthusiasm than any other in publishing. In his new role as managing director of VitalSource for EMEA and Asia-Pacific, he is keen to explore the breadth of inclusive learning, always keeping publishers and learning institutions at the heart of his work. Here we discuss the three digital epochs, how it feels to be in his new role, and what effect Brexit could have on higher education in the UK


Keeping publishers close
"This is my sixth week,” Donovan says brightly. “It's been a really exciting starting point: VitalSource is a tremendously innovative education technology company. I'm delighted to be part of the team and to be leading their international growth."

VitalSource is part of Ingram, the giant US publishing services business, and provides digital learning platforms to learning institutions round the world. It opened a UK arm 10 years ago. "VitalSource has grown up within the Ingram Content Group as an innovator. We have our own special wrapping, as it were, and within that we have managed to maintain our own personal relationships," Donovan explains. The company works closely with institutions to develop software that suits their needs.

To date, VitalSource has managed over 3,000 integrations into universities, including 80 in the UK. The UK universities include the University of Manchester and Warwick Business School Online, which commission software for various reasons, ranging from providing course support to integrating with an institution’s entire learning management systems. The "core offer" is a bookshelf platform enabling distribution of eTextbooks, but VitalSource also has various add-ons, including content management services, metrics, data, and, as of this year, an authoring tool.

Publishers as well as learning institutions are key to VitalSource’s model. "We have long-established relationships with our publishing partners and within our platform," says Donovan proudly. "We host over a million titles from close to 750 publishers - Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, as well as a host of other, non-academic publishers."

Brexit and higher education
Yet continuing digital integration with higher education in the UK is not without its challenges. "It's not only a challenge for us, but a challenge for the market as a whole," explains Donovan. "Specifically, there’s a lot of change facing the UK and the higher education market in particular. With the introduction of higher fees, there's a greater expectation around the student experience. What's positive about that is when that student experience is related to a strong and robust teaching and learning agenda at the university, it's a tremendous opportunity for us to present our technology and our service as a channel to enable these institutions to deploy a digital textbook strategy at scale."

It’s harder to put a positive spin on other issues, particularly those related to Brexit. "Some of the changes in relation to Brexit have still yet to play out," Donovan says carefully. "The question will be how that affects recruitment of EU and international students. On the opportunity side, it will be how British universities - which are world-class in their position - decide to deploy online learning, and be creative about how they deliver that internationally."

Donovan is keen to make clear that he’s not a "policy wonk", but having worked in higher education publishing for 25 years, his opinion certainly has weight. "I think the biggest challenge is one of funding. I'm sure you're aware that HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) no longer fund institutions the way they have in the past and, as a result, higher education institutions draw most of their funding through recruitment that is contingent upon attracting international students.

"So I'm sure they're concerned about the impact Brexit might have on their ability to attract those students, as that will affect the level of funding they can bring to their institutions. There may be pressure on the markets as a result."

In terms of how all this relates to VitalSource, Donovan says the question is whether or not Brexit will result in an acceleration of online programmes offered by British universities, in order to attract EU national students. "With the clouds on the horizon that Brexit might bring, institutions seem to be accelerating digital initiatives more and more. As a partner, we can help them scale and deliver online and digital textbooks programmes. We're a part of that solution and with the relationships we have, we would position ourselves so that we could help a university, not only to achieve their teaching and learning goals, but also to enable them to set up, deliver, and provide solutions around online delivery."

What's interesting here is that a digital model actually enables a far greater degree of access, not just at the universities themselves, but across socio-economic divides and internationally.

"If you think of the evolution of higher education from the elite universities, they were built for very exclusive access on a tutorial model, which is probably the most effective education you can have in the world, but it's not accessible to everyone."

With the building of the public university system, higher education opened up, but the seams in the traditional lecture model began to burst. "If you've got 600 students sitting in an introductory psychology programme and they've paid £9,000 in fees, and there's one lecturer standing up and delivering their course through Powerpoints, the question is whether that's an engaging experience. It can be, but you need to give a great performance!"

The issue becomes not simply one of accessibility, but of personalisation. With its digital model, VitalSource aims for a "more inclusive learning experience", providing equality of access.

"I don't think technology is designed to replace a face-to-face experience," Donovan clarifies, "but for me it's about finding a blend between them that creates a meaningful, high level experience that is accessible to all."

Still, digital makes the world smaller and more open for partnerships. "Digital connects the world in a different way," Donovan says. "Because of that, the flow of students from different parts of the world, and the real perception of British education being one of the world's leading education systems in the world, technology has enabled British education to be a significant export to the rest of the world."

Closing the digital literacy gap
Technology has also ushered in new teaching methodologies, not least ones that digital developments have enabled, particularly in the last decade: distance learning, online marking, collective note-taking in eTextbooks, and more.

Donovan has observed various stages of this shift in the past 25 years: from when he started out delivering print materials at Prentice Hall, to developing hybrid digital and print solutions at McGraw-Hill some years later. "Now we're in that phase where there's been a wholesale shift towards digital delivery," he says. "Initially it was quite binary - is it either or - but the debate has evolved and institutions are having much more intelligent conversations, talking about blended learning. They're asking questions such as whether technology is the new pedagogy, and how we deploy it."

The biggest driver of this change is the more ready availability of mobile digital devices. "The first iPad was in 2010. The generation that will have used that technology for five, six years or more, are now entering university, so their expectation about how they engage with social learning through digital content is very different. I think that's also accelerated the move to digital."

This move is not without its challenges for VitalSource. "Institutions are big and slow-moving," Donovan says. "Demographically, there's probably a digital literacy gap. But we can show the technology, and the beauty of our products is they're beautiful and intuitive. We can help lecturers and faculty take that first step towards delivery."

Donovan notes that digital in the higher education market can quite often be seen as an "arms race": which platform can have more bells and whistles? "The reality of those platforms is that there's only three or four features those universities use," he says. "But when you get caught up in that arms race a lot of those features become over-engineered. We're not in that arms race. We're a facilitator, and that's about aggregation. It's simple and clean, and it's about connectivity."

It's not just the content providers who are changing their mindsets, however: it's the publishers too. Where they have traditionally been seen as reluctant to embrace digital, they now look for software skills, at least as far as the higher education market is concerned. "There's definitely a new breed of publisher emerging," Donovan notes. "There has been for the last 15 years. The challenge is moving your base from a print to a digital product, and the question is whether the digital is developing fast enough to counteract the decline in print. It think they're beginning to see that now. They've reached the tipping point where the bulk of their revenue is coming from digital."

Platforms such as VitalSource have brought us a long way from the days when universities would just post a pdf online. "That was the first stage," says Donovan, an adherent of the theory that there have been three epochs of digital in higher education so far. "If you'd asked a student then if they preferred a pdf or a print product, they'd have said a print product, because the pdf is locked. They can't play around with it. During the second phase, user experience, design and reflowable text came into play. Moving from pdfs to html 5 and Epub3, to enable a much more interactive experience. That's when the needle began to move and students said the experience was on a par with print - and in some cases better. Now we're in the third phase, which is data."

Data which can be used to make the products and platforms better - and who knows, might one day even take us into an, as yet unimagined, fourth digital stage.

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