Educational Publishers React to COVID-19

March 27, 2020 | Volume 51, Number 7

Editors’ Note: Because change in the COVID-19 pandemic is happening so quickly and continuously, Educational Marketer and Electronic Education Report are sharing news free about the virus-related changes in the K-12 and higher education markets and the companies that serve those markets. We will continue to post updates as we get them. Help us do this by asking us questions and sharing your insight.

Back in January, EM wrote about the unsettledness in the K-12 and higher education instructional materials industry that reflected the disruption in the school and college markets in the U.S. as technology continued to push back at tradition.

As COVID-19 swept across the country and into the lexicon, uncertainty became the word of 2020. The following is an initial look at how some companies have begun to assess and address the new environment in K-12 and higher education.

Situation: States increasingly are closing school and college buildings and moving instruction online to students, but there is no clear uniformity in program development/delivery or about how long this will last.

By mid-March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested that the state’s K-12 schools might not open before summer vacation. As of March 24, Los Angeles Unified School District schools were closed until May 1. On March 25, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said schools would be closed until April 6 with a chance for closure through the end of the school year. Virginia schools were ordered closed through the end of the school year. Florida schools are shuttered until at least April 15 and will extend their educational calendars through June 30. From Connecticut to Florida and beyond, state public colleges and universities will have online classes only for the rest of the semester.

Action Plans: Almost every provider of instructional resources and services is providing materials and services free online. Following is a sampling of both offerings and ways companies are changing their business conduct.

Pearson: On March 23, Pearson said it expected to take a £25-30 million EBIT hit as it closes most of its VUE testing centers in the world (scheduled to reopen mid-April). Cancelled Pearson-run school testing in the U.S. is expected to result in an additional £15 million EBIT cut. Pearson Test of English, UK Qualifications, Brazilian language schools and South African colleges are also likely to suffer a negative—but as-yet unquantified—impact. The company also suspended its £350 million share buyback. 

Pearson said it had seen a recent spike in online searches for virtual schools in the U.S. and “rapidly growing interest” for its Global Online Learning assets. Rising unemployment bodes well for college enrollment trends, the company believes. Pearson increased its forecasts for Global Online Learning and North American courseware but cut EPS guidance for 2020 by 15% on pressure in Assessment and International. The company expects normalization in Global Assessment in 2021. Offering changes include:

  • In U.S., free online courseware, teaching platform and training for 100,000 students, for state-level partners of Connections Academy. Reopened enrollment in many Connections Academy schools for the current academic year.
  • For U.S., Canada higher education, accelerated launch of Pearson Advance program, a catalog of short, online courses for students needing to upskill/reskill quickly to earn credentials and “micro” master’s degrees at a fraction of the cost.
  • Providing access to Pearson’s e-book library for the rest of the term at no additional cost for higher ed students in the U.S., U.K. and Canada who are already using Pearson courseware.
  • Providing free access to the Aida Calculus app until June.
  • Providing free on-demand webinars, office hours with Pearson digital learning experts and tip sheets for higher education faculty who need help transitioning to online courses.
  • Providing course discounts for Pearson’s Unbound, which offers pathways to high quality degree programs at lower costs. 

Cengage: The company is offering free access to its digital learning materials and platforms, as well as other resources, in both higher education and K-12.

In higher education, the company is addressing the affordability issue for students with its free offer, Cengage CEO Michael Hansen told EM. “Only a fraction of students is buying everything they need for a course.” Hansen said about 30% of students are true fully-online/day-one access, while 70% make do in a variety of ways. “Let’s remove the barriers,” Hansen said.

In terms of the traditional spring sales season in higher education, where companies seek commitments from instructors to use their materials, Hansen said business as usual has been suspended. “There is a very small minority of professors who at this point are engaging in discussion of what materials will I need in the fall,” Hansen said. “In an abrupt and distinct shift, our salesforce has turned into a customer-service provider overnight.”

Going forward? Cengage is working on various scenarios, but Hansen has no expectation that college enrollment will go up. Two questions remain: How much will enrollment go down? How much online education can institutions/instructors really execute?

McGraw-Hill Education: In higher education, the company is providing free access, training and support for its Connect and ALEKS digital learning platforms for the spring 2020 term. MHE is responding to the needs of instructors and students already using its print titles and who need to move to digital quickly and to instructors who are not using MHE titles but still need to find digital solutions quickly, an MHE spokesperson told EM.

MHE said it had suspended its “regularly scheduled programming” in terms of the spring sales season to shift focus to providing assistance to instructors transitioning their already in-progress courses.

In K-12, MHE said market approaches are mixed with some districts wrapping up their review/adoption process and others extending the review or pilot until after teachers return. “Purchasing timetables continue to be very fluid, as well, and vary from state to state and district to district,” the company said.

The biggest change is that communication with districts now is virtual, not face-to-face.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: With the altered purchasing process, HMH “is focused first and foremost on providing the support our customers need to help them continue to teach and learn remotely,” a company spokesperson told EM. “Our immediate work is rooted in how customers can use their current programs and offerings to the fullest extent to enable remote learning.” 

Among its initiatives are extending digital licenses, initiating liberal permissions for delivery in different formats and extended tech support offerings and hours, including extensions through the summer. Among the changes:

  • HMH is offering use of its personalized learning platforms (Waggle, Writable and Amira) at no additional charge.
  • Its professional services have shifted to virtual delivery. 
  • Resources extended to educators and school leaders include a special webinar series presented by HMH’s International Center for Leadership in Education and the School Superintendents Association. 
  • HMH is donating 65,000 books to First Book and Save the Children to support children without access to the internet and quality books at home. 
  • HMHM Books & Media is granting open permission to educators and librarians to use books remotely for virtual storytelling and read-aloud activities.

Scholastic: Scholastic no longer is affirming its guidance for fiscal 2020, which ends May 31, because of the disruption from the pandemic and the closing of schools in its biggest market North America. The company has frozen all spending not directly tied to short-term revenue generation, reduced inventory purchasing and labor costs, and temporarily closed its warehouse and distribution centers in high-impact regions. 

The company also temporarily closed up to half of its book fair branches and reduced or eliminated book-clubs promotions. Scholastic anticipates lost and/or postponed revenue in education in the remainder of its fiscal year.

Cambium Learning Group: Cambium is providing free access to materials to anyone who needs it. “Many of our products work really well at home,” said John Jorgenson, Cambium’s chief marketing officer. The company is providing materials to anyone who needs it, the company focus is on schools trying to establish a virtual distance learning program. 

Jorgenson said the sales process is continuing for all the company’s business units. . CLG is making presentations (virtually) and purchase orders are being submitted. 

Great Minds: In March, Great Minds made available a free series of videos with math, English language arts, and science lessons from its curricula and free access to additional Eureka Math resources. 

OpenStax: While OpenStax already provides free open-source online textbooks, it has collected information from 28 of its online homework providers offering free digital access to courseware, homework help and more during this period. OpenStax’s own online homework offerings, OpenStax Tutor and Rover by OpenStax, are now free through the end of the semester.

OpenStax said March 20 that in the previous week:

  • 27,024 new accounts were created; 
  • 1,212 faculty new to OpenStax have access to free faculty-only resources through the website;
  • 25,812 students can now highlight, take notes and create study guides from free OpenStax books. 
  • Faculty and students at 127 institutions said they're now using OpenStax, adding to the 7,600 institutions that were already using one or more OpenStax textbooks. 

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