‘We Are All Living Today Through An Extraordinary Moment’

Wiley president Brian Napack talks technology, learning, and the future of publishing. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Brian Napack is President and CEO of John Wiley and Sons (Wiley), a research and learning company and one of the world’s leading publishers. He also serves on the board of Zero-To-Three, a science-based early childhood advocacy organization.

Prior to joining Wiley in 2017, Brian was a Senior Advisor at Providence Equity Partners, a leading investor in media, education, information, and communication. He has served as an active member on numerous boards including those of Blackboard Inc., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Burning Glass, Ascend Learning, Recorded Books, Ingram Industries, myON, EDMC, and Synergis Education.

Prior to joining Providence in 2012, Brian served as president of Macmillan, the global publisher, in the U.S. from 2006 to 2012. During his tenure, he oversaw businesses in education, consumer books, digital media and magazines and managed the growth of Macmillan’s digital businesses into substantial contributors to the company’s performance.

‘[Our] greatest asset – for 213 years – has been our consistent commitment to the advancement of knowledge. Over time, how we help learners, educators, universities, librarians, and corporations has evolved…’

Brian was a partner at L.E.K. Consulting, a global management consulting firm, serving as co-head of its Media and Entertainment practices and leading its Publishing and Education practices. He also founded and served as CEO of ThinkBox, an educational software company focused on the early childhood market. He worked for The Walt Disney Company where he founded Disney Educational Publishing and was a co-founder of Disney Interactive. He has also held senior roles at Simon & Schuster, the publishing company and at A.T. Kearney, a leading management consulting company.

Brian received a Master of Business Administration from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Middlebury College. 

In this far-ranging interview, Brian discusses his take on the state of education from a long view, from a shorter-term look, the evolution of the definition for “publishing” — what he’s most excited about, and where learning is headed into the future, including his thoughts on the year 2220.

You lead a centuries old organization — a rarity in today’s tech co world. How do you capture the best of the past to develop digital education, learning, assessment, and certification solutions to help universities, businesses and learners move between education and employment — to achieve their ambitions?

Brian: Wiley’s greatest asset – for 213 years – has been our consistent commitment to the advancement of knowledge. Over time, how we help learners, educators, universities, librarians, and corporations has evolved because the needs of the world have evolved – through the Industrial Revolution, world wars, the rise of technology and global pandemics. But against every backdrop, what Wiley does – the enablement of research and education – remains critical to moving the world forward.

In the 30 years or so of the edtech revolution, the pace of change has continued to accelerate. In that time, Wiley’s identity has migrated from being a developer of great content to being a source of tech-enabled content, platforms and services that together help learners achieve their goals in new and extremely powerful ways.

‘Wiley’s identity has migrated from being a developer of great content to being a source of tech-enabled content, platforms and services…’

Wiley’s success is defined by our ability to listen and adapt. The company’s past gives us a foundation of insight and experience on which to envision and build the future of education.

We find ourselves in a field that will seemingly never fade, learning is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Technology is the means by which we build a bridge to the future we envision. That said, both education and technology won’t ever really be going away, they’ll be here until the end of time. Thusly, will you be around in 200 years? (Wiley, I mean) It will be the Year 2220 — what will Wiley look like?  

With a long history like ours – Wiley is the sixth oldest company on the New York Stock Exchange – we tend to take the long view. While I can’t tell you what the world will be like 200 years from now, I can tell you that the fundamental needs of society will be the same. People will still need to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to achieve their goals, whatever they are in 2220. And Wiley will be there to help them.

Schools, universities and corporate L&D departments will continue to be critical sources of learning, but the “what, how and where” will keep changing. Learning will be ever more personal, ever more powerful, ever more outcome-oriented and, I expect, ever more affordable.  

From a practical perspective, there’s no question that technology will continue to evolve, and the tools that today we think of as advanced will look downright primitive. Approaches such as artificial intelligence, simulation, and disaggregation, driven by massive amounts of data, will dramatically increase education’s availability, speed and impact.

‘While I can’t tell you what the world will be like 200 years from now, I can tell you that the fundamental needs of society will be the same.’

Broadly speaking, what is the state of education today?

Prior to the pandemic, the education system had been in a state of slow, chronic crisis. Costs kept going up, but perceived outcomes for people were not improving. Therefore, there has been a growing skills gap where lots of people were “educated” but where millions of high-demand jobs remained open, and millions of capable people around the world remain un- and under-employed. Innovation and improvement were happening, but not moving far enough or fast enough.

But the pandemic seems to have shocked the system into action. Forced to jump-cut to virtual and hybrid learning, and faced with massive labor dislocation, everyone from university presidents and classroom teachers to CEOs and corporate heads of human resources are focused on innovating.

Trends that were evident before the pandemic have accelerated, and this is very good. The leverage of online learning and learning management tools are central to this. They are enabling robust distance and asynchronous learning; accelerating the atomization of learning and stackable credentials; enabling the personalization of learning at scale; and driving the tailoring of education to the skills and knowledge that are needed to success both in real jobs and across long careers. They are also, and this is critical, driving the cost of education down while increasing speed to completion. I believe that resistance has dropped and that we are well past the tipping point on the road to a higher ROI for society’s investment in education.

What are a few highlights about Wiley’s role in laying out the future of education?

Wiley is in a unique position because we sit at the center of the ecosystem that powers the achievement of personal goals and career success – Across our businesses, we help higher ed institutions and leading employers to envision and enable the future of education through our various businesses.

A great example is, mthree, a truly innovative business that works with some of the most well-known corporations around the world to help them literally build the labor force talent they need to compete and win. We do this by working with client companies to identify their specific talent needs – say 100 mobile developers for a development shop in Toronto. Then, mthree directly recruits, trains and places talent directly into jobs fully prepared with the exact, company-specific skills that they need to succeed.

‘…we sit at the center of the ecosystem that powers the achievement of personal goals and career success…’

Wiley’s mthree brings together all of our capabilities in education, quite literally, bridging the skill gap by connecting education to real career outcomes. And we do this using all of the great content, platforms and tech-enabled services skills we have developed working with leading universities and companies over the years.

With Wiley Education Services, we partner with universities worldwide to design and deliver powerful online degree programs in high-demand disciplines. Given the rapidly changing education and economic landscape, these data-driven, tech-enabled education services are essential drivers of success for our broad network of universities.

With our CrossKnowledge platform, we help the world’s leading corporations to build the workforces they need to compete by delivering engaging, high-impact digital learning that enables the success of their employees and teams.

What are some top of mind issues and challenges, from A.I. to AR/VR to the rise and continual maturing of digital (vs. paper), that stir your thoughts? What are the top areas in your estimate, that may be part of the future of publishing? 

The definition of the word “publishing” has evolved over the years. Publishing used to be about content – words printed on paper with some static illustrations. That era ended decades ago. While we still love books, publishing is now about clearing the way for learners to succeed. And we do that by delivering active, rich learning experiences that enable the efficient achievement of specific learning outcomes.

‘…publishing is now about clearing the way for learners to succeed. And we do that by delivering active, rich learning experiences…’

To be sure, technologies like AI and VR will play increasingly important roles in education. But, underneath it all, I think the potential use of data to drive broad success is most intriguing, and we are just at the beginning of this journey. From tailoring teaching and support for an individual student to fine-tuning an entire university to deliver maximum impact, to enhancing career development for workers with just-in-time learning, the aggregation and leverage of data will be the key.

Wiley has 40+ brands and imprints and an international network of instructors, students, editors, librarians, professionals, researchers, and leaders. What are some exciting areas within Wiley are you most focused on, and enthusiastic about that highlight the future direction of Wiley?

Across Wiley today, it is all about making research and education faster, cheaper and more impactful worldwide.

In research, we are finding ways to speed the validation and publication of critical scientific discoveries – such as promising COVID-19 therapies — and then making these discoveries widely and instantly available to the world. About half of the world’s research now flows through our distribution platforms, and we are now finding ways to use tech-enabled workflow and analytic tools to get that newly minted, mission-critical knowledge to those that can best use it to solve the world’s problems as fast as possible.

In education, I‘m particularly excited about our zyBooks courseware platform, which takes a hands-on-first approach to learning. With zyBooks, there is no book. Students, from the start, are creating and solving problems – they work, practice and then consume content as-needed to meet their personal needs. zyBooks students and teachers find this approach much more efficient. And, perhaps because it is so engaging, they achieve better outcomes. And we are seeing real results. What’s more, there is no book so the content is always up to date and we are able to deliver zyBooks at a significantly lower price-point.

‘About half of the world’s research now flows through our distribution platforms, and we are now finding ways to use tech-enabled workflow and analytic tools to get that newly minted, mission-critical knowledge to those that can best use it to solve the world’s problems as fast as possible.’

You’re no stranger to publishing, education and digital shifts: you led Macmillan from 2006-2012 during a time of great transition, you’ve also led similar efforts with other large companies — what keeps you interested in helming yet another venture forward, especially in these times?

We are all living today through an extraordinary moment. The world’s opportunities are huge, but the problems are manifesting. As far as we have come, we have more questions than ever — in the economy, in technology, in healthcare, in the environment, and in society at large. But at Wiley, we know where the solutions will come from. From a researcher at a bench looking for a cure for COVID-19; from an ambitious programmer, trying to develop a breakthrough technology; from a from working parent, studying at night to get a degree to get a better job.

Every day, the extraordinary Wiley team comes to work ready to innovate and execute on behalf of the world’s students and researchers. The opportunity to join this team and to help them achieve their ambitious mission got me here, and it keeps me energized every day.

‘We are all living today through an extraordinary moment. The world’s opportunities are huge, but the problems are manifesting. As far as we have come, we have more questions than ever…’

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning Wiley, education technology, the future of learning, or anything else for that matter?

In recent months, like many companies and organizations, we’ve been doing a lot of deep thinking on the topics of inequity and injustice. The evidence of systemic racism is undeniable and continues to mount every day. At Wiley, we’ve been discussing not only what we should do to respond to the moment, but also how we can use this moment and our collective outrage to drive long-overdue action.

We start with values that include a grounding belief that acts against any of us hurt all of us, and that acts that lift each of us up, lift all of us up.  With that, we are listening deeply to our colleagues and communities. We are evaluating how we operate as a company and how we work with our communities of students, researchers, authors, and partners. And we are putting together action plans to ensure that our company and our community are informed and driven to enact positive, lasting change.

At Wiley, we know that inequity and injustice is not someone else’s problem. It is our problem. We intend to be part of the solution, within our walls, in our industry, in our communities, and in society at large.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]

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