McGraw-Hill: Build education tech, and we’ll buy you

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or better yet, acquire ‘em. As competition heats up in the educational technology space, that seems to be the thinking at publishing giant McGraw-Hill’s higher education division.
During a presentation for reporters Tuesday about adaptive learning and e-books, Brian Kibby, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, frequently referenced the startups angling to bring technology into college classrooms across the country. But instead of taking a territorial position, the longtime leader in educational content took an open-arms approach.
“I encourage startups in this space because I’d like to acquire you and partner with you,” he said. “So please join this space.”
When asked about how the company will compete with startups offering free or more affordable content (such as Coursera, Boundless, Akemos, and others), he said “the more ideas that come into this space, the better off the student is going to be.”  Ultimately, the companies that succeed are the ones that can prove their value by improving student performance, he added.
As for players that are resistant to new and different models? “I think they’re a little foolish,” he said. “I think they need to try anything and be a little bold.”
As higher education costs continue to climb, and new technologies open up access and more affordable options, incumbent companies like McGraw-Hill are under pressure to maintain their leadership and relevance. The company’s adaptive learning platform LearnSmart, which it launched in 2008, is one of its leading-edge tools. It also provides digital lecture and homework tools for students and professors, and backed e-book startup Inkling.
Following general technology trends regarding mobile and broadband adoption, Kibby estimated that the use of adaptive-learning technology will accelerate in the next 15 months and be ubiquitous on college campuses in the next 36 months.
Noting the rise of “big data,” Jay Chakrapani, vice president and general manager of digital at McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said during the presentation that the company wants to be the “Netflix of education.”
Just like Netflix gets better at personalizing suggestions for consumers as it gathers more data, LearnSmart also improves its personalization capabilities for students. As of April 2012, the company said, more than 800,000 students have answered almost 750 million questions. Every second, students answer about 17 LearnSmart questions, or about 1.5 million every day.
For now, Kibby said, the company offers LearnSmart programs for every major course category at the university (which is about 40, according to its website). But, eventually, he said they want to expand globally and to K-12 schools. As it scales, it will likely face mounting competition from other learning startups like NY-based Knewton and others.