"It's the interactivity of the Internet which actually offers the greatest opportunity"

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Chris Johnston talks to Peter Jovanovich, the man leading the world's largest educational publisher, about what the Net holds for the teaching profession

Many people only know about British media company Pearson because of Greg Dyke. He was head of its TV division - known for its game shows and soaps - before his controversial appointment as director-general of the BBC. So why am I braving the sleet of a freezing Friday afternoon to meet up with Pearson Education's chief executive Peter Jovanovich at its HQ in New Jersey, USA?

Half of Pearson's revenue is generated by its book publishing branch. And after the takeover of Simon and Schuster two years ago, Pearson Education became the world's largest educational publisher, a position further consolidated by last month's takeover of Dorling Kindersley. Consequently what the company thinks about the Internet matters, and who better to speak to about it than its chief executive.

What I didn't know was that the Pearson cavalry was in town. Majorie Scardino, its American chief executive, along with Richard Eyre, the ex-ITV chief who replaced Dyke, and representatives of the Penguin and Financial Times operations were there to address staff on Pearson's performance in the previous financial year. The Internet is very much a priority for all its divisions, whether it be the ft.com website, luring American game show viewers into playing along online or an agreement to supply America Online with educational content and online learning tools. Sir Dennis Stevenson, author of the report on which the National Grid for Learning is based, is also the chairman.

When we sit down in the deserted cafeteria after the show, I ask Jovanovich what impact he thinks the Internet is going to have on schools. He's convinced that it will allow communities of learning to develop, in which teachers, students and parents all participate. He also points to a revolution in learning materials. "It's not just a matter of putting printed content online," he explains. "We're talking about creating new kinds of content. A textbook can't react to its learner. It is the interactivity of the Internet which actually offers the greatest opportunity."

However, the man whose career in publishing began 28 years ago selling for Macmillan before taking over the helm of Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich from his father in 1989, is confident books will not disappear. But he says the way they look is changing in response to the growth of online materials. In fact, Pearson is moving to an integrated web-text publishing model, where websites and books are interdependent and learners need both to complete a course.

The limited speed of Internet access at home and in many schools puts a limit on how much audio, video and interactive content Pearson can put on its websites at the moment. But Jovanovich says that does not mea his company can sit back and wait until broadband becomes more widespread. It is more a question of designing specific materials that will work well no matter what the Internet connection is.

Unlike many people in the education world, Jovanovich can't imagine teachers being sidelined by Internet technology. "Instead of 'the sage on the stage', today's buzzwords are that teachers will become 'the guide on the side'," he says. "But if you have a well-trained human being who understands his or her subject, is good at motivating children and knows how to deal with their needs, why would you build a machine to do that? Why substitute artificial intelligence for real intelligence?" Another concept Jovanovich questions is the growing belief in teaching children how to find and evaluate information on the Internet in favour of more traditional learning. He says it's almost impossible for pupils to think critically without having some context. "I don't know how you can have criticism without understanding," he says.

Like most media and online companies, Pearson is facing the issue of how to make money from its online operations. Jovanovich says that for websites linked to books, the price includes some of the development cost and a password is used to gain access. However, for Web-only materials, subscription fees will be charged. The recently announced education network to be set up with America Online, which aims to be "the leading online learning portal", will be funded by individual subscriptions, school site licences and e-commerce, as well as advertising revenues in freely accessible areas.

Just as Jovanovich believes teachers are going to keep their place in the classroom, there is no question of authors, editors and designers involved in Pearson Education's business of creating "instructional narratives", as he puts it, losing their jobs because of the online push. "We're finding we have to hire a lot more people," he says, "because if you move to an integrated web-text model, you still have to create the book as well as the website and make them work together."

During the Nineties, Jovanovich's publishing pedigree was established. In 1991, two years after filling his father's shoes, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich was sold and he became head of MacmillanMcGraw-Hill School Publishing. He then joined Pearson as chairman and CEO of its Addison Wesley Longman division in 1997. Once there he oversaw the merger with Simon and Schuster's educational and professional businesses in late 1998 and also finds time to chair the Association of American Publishers.

But in case you still doubt Jovanovich's belief in the Internet's potential to radically change publishing and education, he makes a prediction that in just five years time more than half of Pearson Education's business will be interdependent web-text products.

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