Kathleen Carr and I got to know each other when she worked at edX. We’ve stayed connected over the years as she moved after edX to O’Reilly Media, and now to Pearson. Kathleen graciously agreed to answer my questions about Pearson, her current role, and her career path.
Q1: I’m trying to understand where Pearson fits into the conversation that higher education is having about non-profit/for-profit partnerships in online learning programmes. I think of Pearson as a textbook company, but I guess that is wrong. Is Pearson also an OPM (online program management) company? What is Pearson doing in the world of online learning?
Pearson is a digital learning company. It’s true, it started as a textbook company, but has evolved over the past 150+ years to become a global digital learning leader—one with the most relentless learner focus I’ve ever seen. Twenty thousand employees in over 200 countries are committed to our mission of bringing life to a lifetime of learning. We are focused on delivering quality online learning products and services to people of all ages and life stages, from K-12 (like full-time virtual schools), to Higher Education (OPM and more), and workforce skills. We connect with learners directly and via our academic partners. Of note, we were also named as a 2022 Fast Company Most Innovative Education Company.
One of the things we are most excited about is how the lines learning for higher education blurring as employers become between are increasingly receptive to alternateentials. This opens so many doors for learners interested in starting careers or upskilling, especially those who may not have been able to complete a degree. Innovative, alternate educational pathways are something we’re focused on with our college, university, and employer partners.
Looking at Higher Education specifically, Pearson’s Online Learning Services team knows that many learners want stackable credentials as a starting point for degrees. Not only are convenient stackables, but they can allow learners to assess academic programs with a more modest financial investment—to “try before they buy.” Learners want to be sure that their courses will provide the relevant skills that resonate with employers. We are actively working with partners on programs to meet this demand. Pearson has also recently acquired Credly to provide digital credentials for learners, which they can add to their digital resumes and share with recruiters/potential employers.
Our partners are also using Pearson+, our affordable subscription service for students to access Pearson’s digital textbooks. It has been used within my team to help universities substitute content that they have difficulty licensing from publishers.
Across all these efforts, we are striving to make education more accessible; We want to remove barriers to entry while building pathways to credit, because we know college credit and traditional college degrees are still powerful currencies that denote rigor.
Backed by years of experience in OPM (Online Program Management), Pearson understands that colleges and universities want to extend their reach with affordable programs to meet the needs of learners today. They want to lower costs for students and lower costs to promote their programs and attract new students. They want to build ongoing college/university affinity and allow for versatile, career-relevant credentials for a larger market, while fostering the development of incoming students who are prepared for degree programs. This is our wheelhouse, and I’m working on these challenges and solutions every day.
Q2: Okay, thanks for all that context. Let’s talk about your job at Pearson. What are your main responsibilities as a Senior Director at Pearson?
As Senior Director of Content Strategy and Product Development at Pearson, I am responsible for the content strategies we develop with new and existing partners. To be clear, my definition of content includes courses, certificates, degrees, and anything included within those products, like AI-based learning tools, discussions, assessments, and future formats.
I work to ensure we use the right content, in the right product form, for the right audience so that students have amazing, impactful learning experiences and pathways. My team is particularly interested in content that moves a learner along a skill continuum while nurturing them toward credentials that have significance in their life and work. Typically, these are credit-backed with a degree of progression. For example, nurses who responded to the pandemic by attaining certificates in telehealth and mental health.
We are working with several partners to build learning paths and apply a data-backed strategy to ensure learning leads to meaningful career moves—from upskilling to new jobs entirely. Our acquisition of Faethm, a robust AI driven data tool, means that we can predict skill demand today and 5-10 years in the future, making our content recommendations even more precise.
My content leadership strategy employs a disciplined innovation framework, data-driven recommendations, scalability, and process efficiency. We continually assess the landscape, the technology, and the needs of learners, today, and in the future.
Q3: Let’s talk about your career path. How did your background working for universities, in academic publishing, and at edX (back when it was nonprofit and university-based) prepare you for your current leadership role at Pearson? What advice would you give others who are thinking about a potential career at an education-focused company?
I’ve always been a people person and a communicator. (I like to say I run happy.) Writing was my first love, and publishing, which allowed me to interview and interact with people and write, seemed like a logical fit. And a Holy Cross alum gave me my first shot. While working in publishing, I also taught at Emerson College for several years. This helped one my empathy for the opportunities and challenges that classroom learning, and teaching, affords. (I also learned how humbling it can be to stand in front of 20 sets of eyes for three hours, while they look to you for answers and engagement.)
From there, I worked at Harvard Business Review Press (HBR), where I was mentored by incredible leaders, many of whom remain my closest friends. I was fortunate to work among great minds in innovation and business, like VJ Govindarajan at Tuck and faculty at Harvard Business School, like Rob Austin.
Looking to sharpen my business acumen, I earned an MBA and then looked to see where my HBR friends had landed—many were at edX and MIT. They helped me realize that my experience with universities, building partnerships and using content in new ways, was a perfect fit for online course content strategy. I took a job at edX where I loved the work and the mission.
I thought I’d found the pinnacle of collegiality, fun, and smarts at HBR and edX—until I came to Pearson. My Pearson colleagues are among the best I’ve ever worked with. Dedicated, truly learner-centric, supportive of each other, and on a path to push access to learning even further. I can’t imagine a more rewarding career than working in education. It was always the priority in my family, and it remains the priority in my life. If it is meaningful to you too, I would absolutely recommend pursuing it as a career—whether on the academic or ed-tech side. It is ever-changing and always evolving, which gives you the chance to learn something new every day.