Last week, the 182-year-old publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt added a new chapter to their ongoing digital evolution with the launch of HMH Labs. The education-focused space will bring new technologies into classrooms, textbooks, and perhaps most importantly, the hands of students.
Over the past few years, Boston has developed into a center of education innovation. With startups like Ellevation Education and Panorama Education setting up their headquarters locally and the edtech incubator/shared workspace LearnLaunch anchored downtown, companies and programs are increasingly looking to leverage the technologies and talent coming out of the universities in town (in particular their education schools) in the hopes of better serving teachers and students. However, within the pro-edtech environment, the legacy education publishing companies, like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Cengage, and Pearson have been regarded as being late to innovate. (Cengage, Pearson, and MacMillan were even part of a lawsuit to reign in textbook startup Boundless Education late last year.)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been making recent progress, however, trying to reap the benefits of the booming edtech community. The company made two acquisitions this year that bolstered its place in the digital publishing and school-focused news spaces. The new HMH Labs will be lead by vice president Claudia Reuter and overseen by the company’s chief technology officer (and former White House chief information officer) Brook Colangelo.
“There is a real opportunity that we can take advantage of and harness what’s happening in the edtech space,” Reuter said of the lab’s potential. Colangelo said that the main focus of HMH Labs will be to pull ideas out of the company that can be “problem solvers,” by opening up online education opportunities to more students and making the wide-spread acceptance of digital resources easier for educators. At the outset, the company plans to run hackathons through the new lab and add 20-30 new engineers.
“We are looking to bring in new tech talent and to unlock that talent that is already within the company,” Colangelo said. “This is about harnessing that power inside of HMH. There is no shortage of good ideas here, and we are building so rapidly that we’ve never given free time for people to prototype and explore.”
On the most basic level, the company is looking to use the new tech lab to transform how larger (read: older) educational publishing companies can innovate, trying to do something that smaller upstarts are able to do with more flexibility. Ultimately, Colangelo said the mission at HMH Lab’s heart is to improve the lives of students. The goal, he said, was “to rapidly simplify the delivery of educational technology solutions in the classroom and at home.”
But Houghton Mifflin Harcourt doesn’t need to get better at innovating just for the sake of the institutions and students who use its products. Like many legacy publishers, the company is facing threats from upstart companies whose new technologies are gaining wider acceptance (many had long faced uphill battles to push their products into school systems bogged down by education board bureaucracy) And the influx of funding to startups from influencers like Bill and Melinda Gates and even Mark Zuckerberg has buoyed edtech companies that a few years ago may have had difficulty getting off the ground.
It’s a brave new world for educational publishing companies, and with HMH Labs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt seems intent on not losing its alpha-level status.