Visionary Series – Ken Brooks, Wiley Interview

We sat down (virtually) with Ken Brooks, Chief Content Officer of Wiley, to discuss all things education. Here are a few clips of the interview as well as the transcript (edited lightly for clarity).

Ryan Eland: How has Covid 19 impacted your organization?

Ken Brooks: In the last three months, a lot’s changed at Wiley. First, we all had to vacate the offices and work from home. What I find interesting is when you think about the continuum of education as running from the university out to work, you get a lot of chatter about the work-skills gap. We got a first-hand taste of what it’s like to be remote, the same as our students. What I’m seeing is many of the skills that are necessary to work from home are the same kinds of skills that are necessary to be successful at distance learning. So when you look at soft skills, how do you focus when you’ve got all kinds of things going on in the background? How do you do video collaboration? How do you look at, say, the camera as opposed to the picture on the screen? All of these sorts of things you don’t really think about until you’re right in the middle of it and seeing how it works.

We also had an incredible influx of queries from universities and professors about how we could adapt our platform and make it available for them to finish the semester. We ended up coming up with some offers, use the platform for free through the end of the semester. Some of our authors are known for teaching. In fact one of our imprints is Jossey-Bass around education. So we were able to pull in people to develop webinars for professors and for students about how they could be successful in this new environment.

Proctoring is something else we’ve been turning our attention to. We began to work more extensively on the quality and quantity of all of our test banks to make sure that professors could give challenge questions and little quizzes to make sure students were paying attention.

And then we started to think about how do you work on social learning. Now, those are mostly included in LMSs, so I didn’t have to do a lot there, but discussion boards, video capture, and then supporting lab work in a lot of the STEM disciplines. So how do you do that? So those are the kinds of things that we’ve been working on, both short-term and long-term, so our product teams have been rolling out new developments all along here.

So those are some of the short-term things that we did. We have also begun to modify our platforms to really support distance learning.

Ryan Eland: What anxieties have clients come to you with in the past few months?

Ken Brooks: I think their biggest anxiety was their students are gone, how do they stay connected with them? How do they know that they’re engaged? They were pretty quickly able to implement Zoom classes and things like that. So you can tell if somebody’s showing up in class and if they’re paying attention, probably even better than in a real class. But the real issue is, is are they engaged with the material?

When you think about it, this is actually the flipped classroom. So the professor shouldn’t really be standing up there delivering material directly via video. What really happens and what many are doing is they’re recording their lectures, asking the students to watch those lectures, and then having the discussion face-to-face or intermediated via Zoom. I think that was the biggest thing.

And then how do they grade the papers? How do they make sure the students are really understanding? It’s a challenge, and it requires a level of discipline on the part of the student that most students don’t have when they initially go to college. They’re transitioning out of a high school environment, where there’s a lot of supervision and a lot of people riding them to get their homework done, to college where that’s not so much the case. And now they’ve got all these distractions, “Do I wanna play World of Warcraft? My social media is going off, I don’t have any way to really filter and adjust.” It’s difficult.

This is one of the reasons why, for example, K12 is having such a hard time with some of the distance learning. Higher ed fortunately has more mature students to deal with, but still there are issues there.

Ryan Eland: How do you think the Coronavirus crisis will affect the cost of higher education?

Ken Brooks: This is a very interesting topic. You could start to see splitting of the different service offerings from the university, mapped to the different kind of outcomes that people are looking to achieve. If you want a degree with particular academics, then you can go one way. If you want job placement, then you can go another way. If you want the socialization and the college experience, then you can do the classic four-year on campus immersion.

For international students, where part of it is being in the United States, or being in The United kingdom or Australia, there’s still going to be an opportunity there, once the flights and everything else open back up again. But I can’t help but believe that this is going to end up putting downward pressure on prices. We’ve been experiencing this on the material side, the course material side for a long time. And that’s caused a lot of changes in the higher ed business over the course of the past five to ten years.


Ryan Eland: What are your long-term predictions for education in a post Covid world?

Ken Brooks: I heard someone once say that there are two institutions that have been around since the middle ages, the church and university. And this is one of those things, Clay Christensen, was talking about. Once you get a digital backbone into an industry, it totally changes it. And this is driving that digital backbone right into the university.

So I would expect to see many changes, most of which we’re not going to be really able to predict. You read Chronicle of Higher Education or Higher Education Today and there’s all sorts of predictions about what’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody really knows. And so, it’s going to drive flexibility or require agility in the way we operate as publishers, and certainly in the way we operate as universities.

Perhaps we’ll see a lot of office buildings convert to residential spaces. I really do see the university beginning to split the different offerings that it has and focus more on the customer segments that really need, those who are interested in those particular offerings.

The residential experience, the academic experience, the ability to work with researchers, whatever those things are, be able to specifically identify what are the customer segments that are interested in them, and then come up with offerings that can attract. I’m afraid that we’ll see much more cohesion or much more success from the elite universities that have a reputation out there, and that that that will begin to further suck away students and revenue from the less well known.

But at the same time, in the past, having a job pretty much disenfranchised you from getting any further education. So as these distance learning offerings increase, perhaps what we’ll see is a much wider range of people going back for specialized degrees and specialized training. People have been talking about credentialing for a long time. Perhaps that’s going to end up being a valuable offer.

Ryan Eland: What are your predictions for the coming months?

Ken Brooks: The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what’s going happen in the fall. Are the enrollments going to be up? We took a look at some of the early summer enrollments, and those look like they were holding up pretty well, they were only 10%-15% behind what we would have seen last year.

Are student’s going to take a skip year? Are all universities going to have on-campus presence, or are they all going to be distance learning? If it’s just distance learning, what’s the value proposition, and are they going to need to cut their tuition because they’re not offering all the services, and students realize that?

I don’t think anybody knows what that is, and everybody’s trying to read the tea leaves. And depending what happens, it could be either a great year or it could just be a terrible year. And I don’t think anybody knows.

Ryan Eland: How do you think the education sector has responded to the crisis?

Ken Brooks: Yeah. The main thing that is just amazing to me, is that so many people were able to react quickly to getting online, making things happen, still continuing their classes in the spring semester. If this had happened 10 years ago or even five years ago, we wouldn’t have had the same video background or the video infrastructure, we would have had a much more difficult time making this happen. And earlier in the conversation, we talked about this taking 10 or 15 years and collapsing it into two months, that to me is just remarkable.

Institutions are known for not wanting to change very quickly, publishers are known for not wanting to change very quickly, and this just made it happen, and demonstrated that as an industry or as an institution, as a group of people, we can respond to those changes pretty quickly and deliver effective results. So I’m really pleased to see that, and pretty optimistic about the future. Whatever the future holds, we’ll be able to respond to it, either the publishing industry or education.

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