In the mid-1990s, Pearson, which, to that point, had been a media conglomerate, set out to become the world’s largest publisher of textbooks. Within a decade, it bought up most of the most recognizable imprints—and most of those that it didn’t buy up have been bought up by its major competitor, McGraw-Hill. In the early 2000s, Pearson recognized the profit potential in standardized testing at the K-12 level and quickly became the world’s largest provider of standardized tests.
If nothing else, this massive corporation, which was founded in Victorian period in the U.K. as a construction company specializing in public works projects and transitioned into a major newspaper and periodical publisher in the interwar period before becoming a media conglomerate in the 1970s and 1980s and then, in very quick succession, a textbook publisher and a test provider in the 1990s and 2000s, has shown the ability to anticipate new opportunities for profit and to shift from one business sector to another without skipping a beat.
So now, as the writing is on the wall for conventional textbooks and standardized testing is being challenged from both the Far Right and the Left, Pearson has been transforming itself once again into the world’s largest “educational provider.” Although it has established its own online university, it has recognized the obvious limitations in that model—most notably that much of the value of a degree derives from the reputation of the institution at which the student has earned it. Indeed, the online for-profit universities not only have very little history and rely on an instructional model that has as many critics as proponents, but their business model has caused them to emphasize marketing over instruction and enrollment over completion to such a degree that almost any possibility that their degrees might have been taken seriously has largely vanished—along with large portions of their enrollments.
As a result, Pearson has focused on becoming an ever larger presence within existing institutions. And today it announced the launch of REVEL, “an immersive digital learning tool that replaces both the printed textbook and existing online learning tools for General Studies courses. REVEL is designed for the way today’s students learn, think and consume content. It aims to keep students engaged in their study materials and, in turn, get the most out of their courses.”
The promotional materials continue:
“Students attending class unprepared to engage in discussions, think critically and demonstrate a grasp of core concepts is one of the biggest challenges facing educators. These activities help foster what are commonly called 21st Century Skills that have become so vital to subsequent courses and ultimately, employers. This lack of preparation is often due to incomplete reading assignments, lack of effective practice and generally coming to class not fully prepared to do college-level work. For their part, students often say that for many of their courses, and particularly some of their elective courses, the study materials are passive, laborious and not reflective of how they interact with content.
“REVEL directly addresses these challenges by interweaving text-based reading material, interactive exercises, infographics, social features and video segments to provide an engaging experience that helps students take an active role in their learning. This design will increasingly draw upon principles of learning design and theory for cognitive load-balancing and retention. With REVEL, educators can track the time students spend on each reading assignment and their performance on assessments, thus providing a comprehensive view of students’ engagement and understanding prior to class. REVEL also provides a fully mobile experience, which enables students to read and interact with course material on their devices at anytime and anywhere.”
The promotional materials also include these data points:
“The product will be used by 12,000 students at 50 institutions in fall 2014, and the initial courses will include Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Sociology, and Public Speaking.”
“Pearson’s market-leading MyLab and Mastering products, which serve more than 11 million learners each year, will continue to innovate and advance as the best in-class online adaptive tutorial and assessment platform with rich data analytics, mobile features and demonstrated efficacy for students, faculty and institutions across the globe.”
If this doesn’t seem to you like a cause for concern, consider that Pearson and McGraw-Hill now provide all of the course content for Western Governors University, an institution without any faculty. Instead, if a student needs to demonstrate “competency” in some way beyond a standardized test, Pearson provides a “contracted evaluator” to look at the student’s work.
By the way, given the ongoing controversy over the accreditation of institutions such as the City College of San Francisco, one wonders how a “university” without any faculty has managed to remain fully accredited when it is clearly based in the same region covered by the accrediting agency.