Interview with Sebastian Vos, Managing Director of Education at Elsevier

This article is cross-posted from, where I currently serve as editor-in-chief.

EdTech Times had the opportunity to speak with Sebastian Vos, Managing Director of Education at Elsevier.  Mr. Vos has spent the last decade helping Elsevier build their education technology portfolio as VP of e-Education and Senior VP of eSolutions before serving in his current role as Managing Director. We talked to Mr. Vos about the growing interest in education technology today, and how the traditional publishing market is making the transition to digital services.

ETT: What are the main drivers behind innovation in education technology today?

SV: We have the technology to look at data and move beyond just providing content or basic performance information to see whether students demonstrate competency. This is really driving us as a publisher to move from a model of providing content to a model where we look at outcomes.

At the same time, institutions are also struggling with how to teach to the same large cohort of students with fewer resources. The efficiency driver and effectiveness driver is something that can be balanced with data and adaptive learning.  Adaptive learning is a big change – it’s no longer ok to have “one size fits all” education, as everyone has a different style and speed of learning. These days, we need to look at how a program can adapt to meet a student’s method of learning.

Mobile and social media are also massive influencers in how students and teachers interact with content and with each other. Social media has created a more interactive learning environment, as the willingness of 18 to 22 year olds to share personal information has changed from the older generation.

ETT: How is the pace of innovation impacting the education publishing companies and market, in general, and how is Elsevier responding to this innovation?

SV: Right now, the big question is: how do you get the print-media mix right? It’s easy to say “go digital”, but we need to realize that print still has a tremendous amount of value. To make these decisions, we have to be closer to our customer base—not just our buyers, but also the person actually using the product. We understand professional workflows fairly well, but are learning more about student workflows, making sure we understand where content and tools will fit into a typical day.

We’re also spending more time looking at different devices and figuring out what their best uses are. For example, is it a “best use” to put together a 4-color human anatomy atlas for an iPhone?  We’re looking at our full portfolio and how to reshape it, moving away from product-specific and book-specific solutions and towards providing a more comprehensive solution, transforming us into a learning or education solutions company.

ETT: How does Elsevier support innovation in EdTech?

SV: We spend a lot of time with our customers to make sure we know what they’re doing and where we fit in. There are lots of cool little startups in the field as well, and we try to work with the companies doing innovative things when it makes business sense. There are new companies with new product models, some using a quasi-distro, quasi-content play—a very different model than a traditional competitor.  In medicine, we’re the biggest guys, so if you’re doing something in medicine, you will talk to us at some point. It’s harder to make a big company turn, so we are trying to find a balance of working with small nimble companies to make the changes. We want to own the medicine channel, but we really like what some of these companies are about. In the end, we have to ask ourselves; are we making our content more accessible and more useable?

Most of the innovation is happening in the US for lots of reasons, but the biggest reason is that the education system is the most open.  In Europe, the biggest challenge is nationally-based curriculum—it only changes every three to five years, which is a pretty slow process. Also, each country in Europe is adopting technology at differing rates.  Countries like Finland, Sweden and Norway are very digitally savvy—they want everything digital, and nothing in print anymore. While Northern Europe has adopted faster than Southern Europe, everyone is now trying to leverage technology for maximum benefit.

ETT: What are you most excited about in EdTech in the next few years?

SV: The main thing is that publishers have been far removed from the teaching and learning process for a long time. We dropped in a bunch of materials and the schools did what they wanted to do. We had no way of really helping teachers move students from novice to expert. As we move toward digital content and delivery, and as we get more data on time spent reading, taking quizzes and performance, we can take an active role in supporting how they are traveling that path in a way that we could never do before. We can look at particular scores, and we have the ability to take the analysis to the next level, such as knowing whether students are or reading assets or watching videos or other metrics to support score data.

Also exciting is the ability to provide learning nuggets when and where people want them, such as on the tablet or smartphone, as opposed to being structured and formal about delivery. The mobile modality is what people are going to learn from in the future.

ETT: Where do you see the biggest gaps in the education technology today?

SV: There is so much happening—look at how much VC money is being dumped into education! I think the most opportunity exists in high-involvement analytics.  Analytics that make it easy enough that faculty would want to use them,  Analytics that are useable and approachable to a student and doesn’t feel like “Big Brother”—even with their social sharing, they are not sure that they want everyone to know that they’re struggling in their classes!

There’s also got to be an option for personalized adaptive learning that is data-supported, data-driven, and safe for both student and instructor.

And, publishers get a bad rap—we do a lot of it to ourselves. But we can drive lots more innovation in education; we just have to be a little brave, in smart ways. By that I mean we have to be able to build upon what we do best.  The content we provide is invaluable, and now we need to look at the services we could provide to support it.  For example, let’s imagine the uses of education technology in a professional setting, like, how are doctors going to use information?  Maybe mobile access to a database, with information linked to a patient’s record—and then on top of that, a layer providing up-to-date research from journal, drug alerts, notifications from specialists, and so on. These use cases are really knowable, and we just have to get to know our users even better.

The endstate for education technology is unknown, because there isn’t just one answer. It’s about doing a lot of little things and learning.

EdTech Times would like to thank Sebastian Vos for his time and his thoughts!

Griff Resch contributed to the writing of this interview.

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