Cairneagle in Conversation with Alexander Broich, Cengage Unlimited

28th September 2021
Our latest Cairneagle in Conversation guest is Alexander Broich. Alexander is the President of Cengage Global Businesses, responsible for the international and English Language Learning divisions for one of the world’s largest educational publishers. The pandemic has impacted the way students and educators in all settings access and use educational resources, with publishers having to […]

Our latest Cairneagle in Conversation guest is Alexander Broich. Alexander is the President of Cengage Global Businesses, responsible for the international and English Language Learning divisions for one of the world’s largest educational publishers.

The pandemic has impacted the way students and educators in all settings access and use educational resources, with publishers having to respond to new demand trends. Cengage is often seen as being ahead of the curve, with its introduction of Cengage Unlimited, an ‘all-you-can-eat model’ for HE students in the US, in 2018, an unmatched innovation.

Rupert and Alexander had a stimulating conversation discussing these trends and looking ahead to what may lie in store for educational publishers in the future.

Watch the full interview or catch some of the highlights from the conversation below:

The Impact of Covid

Alexander expects there to be a significant permanent effect in the move to digital learning as a result of the pandemic. He stresses how there were existing tailwinds to the growth of digital learning pre-pandemic and how there are benefits to learners from the shift.

“If you think about a rock concert or cruise ship experience, the replacement in COVID was not great. So I expect people to go back on cruise ships and back to rock concerts. But if you are a professional nurse and you want to take a course which has to fit around your schedule, to sit in a classroom at a given time with a commute of an hour back and forth was not the greatest setting pre-COVID.”

Cengage Unlimited

Through the pandemic, Cengage as a company performed well, with overall only a 6% decline in revenues in 2020/21. Alexander stresses that Cengage’s US Higher Education division in fact grew last year.

One reason for this performance is their ‘Cengage Unlimited’ offering which offers American university students access to Cengage’s entire digital library on a subscription model. Alexander described how Cengage Unlimited has quickly acquired its first million subscribers and how other publishers haven’t followed Cengage’s lead yet.

“There was a fundamental shift [to digital] over a long time that accelerated through COVID, which allowed us to grow last year. Not because we have more enrolments [more students studying at university], enrolment actually declined as you would expect, but the sales from each class has increased. In a physical classroom setting, only a proportion of students end up acquiring learning materials. If you are at home, you need something.”

Comparing the Pace of Change in K12 and HE

Rupert challenged Alexander to compare the likely pace of change in the K12 and HE sectors over the coming years. He detailed how he expected to see change in both sectors but that the current K12 model was likely to be more resilient and see less flux. In HE, he flagged the growth of ‘Education for Employment’ models, where students are educated with a specific industry role in mind, as an example of major shifts occurring already.

“If you look at Higher Ed, what we currently see in the US, and elsewhere as well, is that there are more and more people who have doubts that the core model is fit for the future…. More and more people will look for something which is not necessarily degree bearing, but which prepares them for a specific job.”

Exciting ELT Tech

One of the areas within Cengage Alexander is responsible for is its English Language Learning business, which it operates under the National Geographic brand. It’s an exciting time for EdTech within language learning, which Duolingo recent listing on NASDAQ an example of how the sector is maturing.

Alexander highlighted that for many users and language learning institutions, the less glamourous technology applications which integrate learning platforms and the student / teacher experience were still very important. However, he also discussed the progress of AI software which now can now analyse, via voice recognition, open answers from students.

“We are working to give teachers and learners an integrated learning experience, integrated to the whole digital infrastructure of the institutions. That in itself is not glitzy, but it’s extremely important.”

First Fridays

As with all large companies, Cengage has had to rethink how it operates with more staff working remotely. One initiative that has attracted attention is the Cengage’s commitment to weekly all-company meetings, which they call First Fridays. These have included Ask Me Anything sessions with CEO Michael Hansen, or, as Alexander explains, inviting prominent academics in as guest speakers.

“As the name suggests, Frist Fridays was originally [an all-company meeting] on the first Friday of the month. It was a monthly forum to update the people of the company of the key topics.  But we quickly realised that during the pandemic, this one monthly general update wasn’t sufficient. So we made it weekly.. and we change different topics.”

Cairneagle in Conversation is our series where we talk to thought leaders from across the education space to understand the issues the sector is grappling with and how innovators are pushing boundaries.

We are a leading independent strategy and management consultancy focused on the education sector.

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