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Pearson's Gabriel says digitization can't be an evolutionary change
[November 28, 2012]

Pearson's Gabriel says digitization can't be an evolutionary change

NEW DELHI, Nov 29, 2012 (Mint - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Pearson Plc's India operations include schools, coaching institutions, publishing and test assessments. Technology, particularly the Internet and mobile devices are the biggest disruptors for businesses like Pearson's, and Max Gabriel, chief technology officer (CTO) of Pearson India, is the man responsible for keeping the company up to date. While earlier innovations such as smartboards met with a lukewarm response in India, Gabriel says the company's new tablet, the MX Touch platform, will help bring digitization to India's schools, and help change the nature of the education system. In an interview, Gabriel spoke about how technology is disrupting the industry and how Pearson can use it to stay relevant in changing times. Edited excerpts: Education is one of the biggest opportunities for technology to bring change, and aside from Aakash (the low-cost tablet developed by Datawind Ltd for India), we've also got companies such as Micromax Informatics Ltd and HCL Technologies Ltd making tablets focused on education. What's different about the MX Touch The MX Touch is a step forward for us in bringing personalized learning. This is because the devices are going to be connected to the cloud, and so all the content becomes available in one place, and can be made available and updated very easily.

What makes it different from other platforms is that those have all been made by hardware companies, and they've put content on the tablet and called it a day. I'm not saying that they haven't made good hardware, but we have a depth of content, and we've also re-imagined it in a way that is fully suited to digital.

The user experience can't be a gimmick. You can't just put a book on a tablet -- the content has to be redesigned to make sense in the new environment, and designed in a way that includes tracking, assessment and usage data, so that we can actually help the students in a way that a printed book can't.

Can you explain how digital should be different For example, when you say tracking and usage data, what does that mean You have to come up with new solutions -- to add something more than what print already offers. Otherwise, you're not creating something that justifies the spend involved. Children are much more at home with technology than our generation, and these digital natives already know about Wikipedia and Google. So you need to give them something more than that. One example is a game called Poptropica that we developed. They need much more interactivity before they're convinced that you're offering value on digital, and as a publisher too, the interactivity offered by something like this gives you a chance to get a lot of really valuable feedback, which you normally don't get.

Digitization can't be an evolutionary change -- it has to be fully transformative, built around new solutions from the ground up. And assessments are the key advantage of digitization -- you can track, analyse and identify trends for early intervention, forming a baseline. So in a school itself, you can quickly track what sections of the text are resonating well -- you can see which parts the students are having difficulty with and form a baseline around that, and since all this data gets tracked through a cloud-based solution, you can do this not just within the school, but around the country you can see, students in this region aren't doing as well as students from that region. So why is that What parts are giving these particular students difficulty and how are those students handling the difficult parts By connecting all this data today, the opportunity is to bring about large-scale transformation in India.

So you're not planning on selling directly to students Is it going to be through schools All of our content is made in partnership with schools and parents to understand what their expectations are, and also with children, to get a good sense of how they're going to use the hardware and make the most of it. We've already started to work with partner schools to deploy, and while we will be selling our hardware directly as well, our main focus is to work with institutions because if only a few students in the class have access to something like this, then the full experience doesn't come. It's only when there is sharing and synergy that you get better tracking, better assessments and better data, and that's something that works best when the institutions are on board and incorporate the technology into the student's education.

We've already started to deploy in some parts of the North-East, where the school year starts in January, and we'll roll out more in the rest of the country with the school year as well.

Smartboards was another technology Pearson was involved in at the school level. Do you think that had much impact in India Yes and no. There are around 100,000 installations in India, and around 20% of that was Pearson. Where the institution has a clear plan, and an understanding of how the technology can help, there are significant gains, and much greater engagement. Where it's done to meet a bullet point on a list, obviously, it does not work. Unfortunately, a lot of the work in the segment has been the latter type and that's why technology gets a little bit of a bad name at times. I think that with MX Touch, because it's a lot simpler to understand, and because a lot of the features are there in the students' hands, and kids are more likely to experiment and learn how technology works, we'll see a better response.

You mentioned Wikipedia and Google. Web content is easy to find and mostly free. How is this affecting publishers like Pearson Free isn't going to replace paid but it's going to grow in parallel. The two can't be in competition, because then neither will flourish. Instead, the publishers need to recognize that free is here to stay, and need to start offering up a portion of their own content for free as well. Freemium (when a digital offering such as software, media, games or web services is provided free of charge, but a premium is charged for advanced features and functionality) is going to be a big part of everyone's future, where a part of the content is free, and if there is enough value in that for the user, then there's the paid version which adds more -- more information, more features, more access. Open and paid will co-exist, and some of the high quality free stuff is going to become paid because they have costs to meet as well, and what we are seeing is that there is a real demand from customers for quality paid content. But quality is the key word.

___ (c)2012 the Mint (New Delhi) Visit the Mint (New Delhi) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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