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McGraw-Hill’s new adaptive ebooks aim to adjust to students’ learning needs

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As publishing giants and tech companies attempt to remake the humble textbook in their own image, McGraw-Hill Education on Tuesday offered up its latest take on the learning platform of the future.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the education-focused division of the McGraw-Hill Companies (s MHP) unveiled the SmartBook, an adaptive ebook that adjusts the reading experience to each student’s pace and mastery level.

Content is still structured somewhat like a textbook but instead of asking students to read it thoroughly from start to finish, it coaches the student on how to read the material and quizzes them on various concepts as they move through each section. Depending on their responses, they’re guided along to different highlighted passages. McGraw-Hill said it expects to release SmartBooks at prices starting at $19.99 for about 90 courses later this Spring.

The program, which is available on computers and tablets, builds on the 12 billion data points on student learning collected from LearnSmart, McGraw-Hill’s adaptive learning platform, the company said. But where LearnSmart is more focused on reviewing material, SmartBook attempts to help students read more efficiently to better retain information.

“To revolutionize learning, you need to revolutionize reading,” said Brian Kibby, president of McGraw-Hill Education. “We’re focused on attacking graduation rates and getting results.”

From a demo, it does seem that the SmartBook aims to provide an adaptive reading experience that adjusts to students with a good deal of granularity, using dynamic text and voice instructions to literally talk them through the program and point out the areas on which they should focus.  But McGraw-Hill’s products are not the only adaptive learning platforms out there. A year ago, at CES, for example, publishing giant Pearson (s PLC) announced that adaptive learning company Knewton would power its digital offerings. Macmillan also offers an adaptive assessment tool in its PrepU program.

The program closely tracks student behavior and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the company may share that data with instructors to improve courses, which could raise privacy questions for students and parents. But the company has said that it takes data protection seriously.

With increasing options for digital content, including open content and self-authoring platforms, McGraw-Hill Education and other textbook publishers are attempting to set themselves apart with products that make textbooks more interactive and smarter. The digital textbook market is still a small piece of the overall textbook universe but it’s expected to become a driver of growth. Kibby has been especially bullish on digital textbooks, arguing that higher education should go totally digital by 2015.

In November, McGraw-Hill announced that it planned to sell its education arm to private equity firm Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion, but the deal has not yet closed.

4 Responses to “McGraw-Hill’s new adaptive ebooks aim to adjust to students’ learning needs”

  1. Considering how many high schools have implemented e-books in the last 2-3 years I’m puzzled by the lack of independent data showing that students are more successful with e-books.

    It may be too early to tell but to me that implies that either studies have not been completed (which I find hard to swallow) or they have not figured out a good way to interpret the data that would present e-book learning in a positive enough light.

    The data would be suspect regardless. But even if it was presented with a bunch of caveats (“We found them to be most effective for middle school students with red hair, that own a dog, during the last night of the full moon”) it would imply that they are at least a benefit to some groups of students.

    • I agree, data showing e-books are superior would be great. But I don’t expect data – at least not reliable data – in the short term or even the long term. First of all it’s extremely difficult to tease out the effects of curriculum of any kind from all the other influences on student achievement (when was the last time you saw a solid third-party research study on the efficacy of a textbook?). Secondly when one does research on curriculum, the effect sizes are almost always minimal and short-lived. Thirdly, it is far more likely that, at least in the short term, test scores will do DOWN, not up, since that’s the usual result of any change in curriculum, even switching from one conventional textbook to another. One reason for that is simply that teachers need time to learn to teach with the new material, and the lick-and-promise PD usually provided for a new curriculum doesn’t do it. That, to me, is the scary part of the pell-mell rush to “digital textbooks.” Schools are making huge changes in the fundamental means of instruction without a clue as to the outcomes.