Learning without books
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 30, 2007

Pearson's new innovation center is hub of company's push to develop paperless texts for Grades K-12

Annalyn Censky

A shift toward digital textbooks in kindergarten through high school not only is updating the way students learn. It's changing the business model for London-based Pearson, one of the world's largest publishers of school textbooks.

The essence of the company's expansion into digital products can be seen at the company's new innovation center in Chandler.

Pearson, which employs about 700 people in the Valley, already has gained a contract to supply 45 percent of California school districts with history textbooks.

These textbooks have no paper. They're online. By entering a password on the Internet, teachers, students and parents can access a digital textbook, which combines traditional print content with interactive audio features, animation, tutorials, games and videos.

With the big California contract, Pearson is hoping to capitalize on demand that can help boost its revenue as schools increasingly consider alternatives to traditional paperbound books and seek other methods to help students learn.

Pearson is developing the product at its Valley operations, which are moving from separate facilities in Mesa and Scottsdale to the Chandler office space on Monday. The company in September signed one of the biggest leases in Valley history in a 13-year, $50 million deal for Class A office space at West Ray Road and Loop 101.

Pearson now has approximately 3 million students and teachers registered to use one of its online school learning platforms in the United States, and the company's digital developers in Britain have big plans for their product.

The digital textbooks piloted in California were limited to social studies and history, but Pearson is developing textbooks for a math curriculum in Texas schools. It also plans to take the product nationwide. Language arts, history and science books are all in the works for schools across the country.

The product's success could mean more high-tech knowledge jobs for the Valley.

K-12 textbooks were a $6.2 billion industry in 2006. So for Pearson, a shift from print to digital means good things for the company's local operations. The innovation center added 60 to 70 high-tech jobs in the past year, said Andy Myers, senior vice president of digital development.

"We're definitely seeing a lot of success," Myers said. "The demand in California was three times what we expected it to be."

Pearson would not release the price range of the digital textbooks, but they're around the same cost of a print textbook, Myers said. The price differs from state-to-state depending on how the product is customized.

Demand for digital textbooks is on the rise because, unlike supplemental CD-ROMs publishers often include with textbooks, digital textbooks have the flexibility to adapt to different learning styles, said Marc Nelson, Pearson's director of user experience.

Teachers can tweak the format depending on a student's individual needs. For example, the content can be offered in Spanish. Or, for a student who might be behind, a teacher can create links to texts from earlier grade levels.

Jim Blackwell is an after-school program coordinator for Lamont School District in central California, where Pearson piloted its product in 2005. As a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the time, Blackwell used a hybrid method, combining the digital content with workbooks that students could write in.

"Essentially what you're doing is you're able to reach all types of learners," Blackwell said. "Reaching them verbally and visually, you're letting them control the material and go at their own pace. They stay engaged at all times."