July 31, 2006
History Without Books Gets a Test in Schools
By Jeffrey Goldfarb
LONDON -- School children fond of chanting "No more pencils, no more books" may finally have their wish.
What began as a long-shot attempt last year by Pearson Plc to sell California educators digital materials to teach history and politics, collectively known in U.S. schools as social studies, has become reality in what could be the first large-scale step to eliminate books from classrooms.
Pearson, the world's biggest publisher of educational materials, disclosed on Monday with its half-year results that about half the state's elementary school students will learn about the American Revolutionary War and Thomas Jefferson using an interactive computer program.
The company also said its success in California, where about 1.5 million students aged 5-11 will use the program in classrooms this year, has led it to plan the same approach in additional states and with more subjects.
"Digital development costs us less and takes less time," Pearson Chief Executive Marjorie Scardino said. "We're speeding up how we're rolling out those kinds of programs."
London-based Pearson estimated it cost about half as much to develop as a textbook with supplemental materials, and added that it had about a 41 percent market share.
"We're experimenting with the program and the price," Chief Financial Officer Robin Freestone said, adding that Pearson gave California a discount compared with a book-based proposal. "It's a major breakthrough, though. We managed to launch something for schools that didn't need a book."
The company said the California contract was valued at about $70 million, leaving some analysts guarded in their optimism about Pearson finding broader scale for digital curricula. While they saw some advantages for Pearson, they also found little that was technologically dazzling in the materials.
"All of their competitors are going to have to answer to this now," said one media analyst, who asked not to be named because of bank rules restricting public comments.
"Pearson have got the first-mover advantage, but I doubt there's any technical advantage. It can probably be replicated fairly easily."
Pearson's 2005 sales derived from schools, its biggest division, were about 1.3 billion pounds ($2.43 billion).
The California social studies contract was a longshot for Pearson, which had not even been planning to bid because of the strict guidelines the state puts on submissions for the subject.
"We didn't think we could find a return," Scardino said.
Instead, it opted to cull existing materials into a digital offering that included online homework assignments. It sent state officials a laptop computer instead of a pile of books in April 2005, and won state approval in November.
"Most schools have a big fat textbook on the table that doesn't really entice students any more," Scardino said.
Pearson's multimedia product, created by its Scott Foresman unit, enables teachers to tailor lessons to individual students, includes video clips and is able to read aloud all of the lessons in English and Spanish.
"History and social science comes to life with exciting text, vibrant media clips and activities," said Cheryl McConaughey, assistant superintendent at the Lamont School District near Bakersfield, California, in a statement supplied by Pearson. It was the first district to buy the materials.
"Our teachers are thrilled with virtually all aspects of the program."