Education Unbound Unwound: Lessons for educational publishers in a social media world
The problem for publishers is this: they're one of the few industries who don't sell to the people who use their products. Ultimately, though, they need to keep making money, so let's see how the current model is working for them in the long term.
They sell to the middlemen (teachers), who then have to sell it to the customer (the student). The customers' feedback ("this is boring") merely makes the middleman feel even less motivated to spend any more time on the unit of work as necessary. The feedback stops with the middleman, there being no standardised feedback mechanism that is part and parcel of the purchasing-resell experience. If the middleman has the motivation, the original product merely serves to give more work to the middleman to create an alternative product that suits the customer's needs (resource-creation around the textbook course).
If this really were a business in any other product, I think I'd be calling in the administrators soon.
That was the feeling I had on Tuesday night after debating as one of four on a panel on what impact social media was having on education, what impact it could yet have and how this would affect the publishing and broadcast industry.
In Online Creative Communication's hour panel debate and the hours of informal debate that followed I'm not convinced we really got to the bottom of those last two questions, and I left feeling that a lot of the people doing the business of 'traditional publishing' have the same aspirations that many educators would have for something new and different from the textbook, CD-Rom and accompanying 'interactive whiteboard compatible' web or network service, but have the same fears of what 'them upstairs' would say about it.
In an age where the buzzword is 'Media Convergence', the feeling I get resoundingly from the chalkface is that life in school and life in the real world are increasingly diverging. The average length of one session on Bebo is 36 minutes, averaging out at about 47 minutes per day (that means lots of kids going onto Bebo every other day and spending maybe more than an hour in one sesh). Your average UK teen currently spends 1400 minutes a week online, and only 60 of them in front of a computer in school (most of which may be offline, on a slow connection or on a networked proprietary exercise).
Just looking at the comparison between a social network like Bebo and the lack of interactivity in your average VLE by comparison, shows this divergence. We can also take a look at the kind of non-social simplistic games provided by publishers at the moment, games which amount to little more than drill and (s)kill, with a limited number of levels and only one (or a few) correct answers. Compare that to the ultra complex games made of hundreds of levels and open-ended plot lines defined by the player.
For publishers, though, until they see education getting more aligned with this 'real world' they will not pander to it - because the end-users of their products, regardless of whether they like the products or not, don't actually have the cash to buy them.
Publishers as Change Agents
For me, the whole industry needs to reconsider its role in education change. I'm not sure they see how powerful their role in education change is. They are the tail and they are wagging the dog. They have a superb opportunity, along with examination boards, to make a reality in schools the pedagogy of the world's top performing countries (based upon assessment for learning, not assessment of learning, and rich tasks truly centred around the desires and directions of the learners). The could be working on leading a change to quality teaching and learning of the kind we see in Finland, New Zealand, Australia and, to some extent, Scotland, rather than attempting to apply the summatively assessed high-stakes tested pedagogy of the world's biggest countries, such as the United States, India and China.
It's not an easy ride. Just last week I had a teacher from France ask why she would attempt to engage learners in creative writing with a computer game, when, for her, it was so much easier just to show a film. Sure, showing a film is a pleasant experience but you can't do it all the time. Likewise, video games and social networks are arguably just as or more engaging for the young person of 2007 and should enter the toolset of any teacher. It's not easy for them, but teachers like this one have to remember that it's not about them: change requires relearning, giving a damn enough to give a go with something that engages the students. Is lifelong learning just something to which we're going to pay lip service? Surely for publishers, to, there's more money to made in lifelong learning than from just thirteen year's worth of statutory learning.
My final point: the market is there. And if it's not it can be made. In East Lothian, in just one year, we've gone from a handful of teachers sharing their work around a table in one room and on their blogs, to over 300, over a third of the total workforce. Teachers talking not about textbooks and the latest course they're thinking of buying (the kind of thing I see on email discussion lists) but on the pedagogy they have been trying in their classrooms, and the positive results they are gaining from it. It didn't just happen; it was nurtured.
Publishers talk about the fear factor the teachers they speak to would have were they to go down the route of children taking more control of their learning, but especially using technologies the teachers themselves understand very little. Yet, few of these same publishers would say their resources were anything other than "learner-centred". Are publishers just paying lip-service to the notion? Would they put their money where their mouth is and engage in active re-training of teachers to make a better product sell? Softease have been doing this really successfully, showing many teachers and schools why podcasting is an important ingredient in changing the way we teach and learn by holding workshops and engaging further through their numerous blogs.
This, I think, is where the biggest dent can be made:
Five Things Publishers Can Do Now To Survive In The Abundance And Connectivity Of Social Media
- We need to help people over the barriers to change, rather than bullishly attempting to break these barriers down. If anyone tries to break a barrier they'll end up sore and failing. Helping the change over the barrier will let it run on.
- Publishers should start appealing directly to their end-users by giving them free stuff. There is a market in giving it away to them, and charging those with the purse strings. Just ask Mark at Coffee Break Spanish about the last 10.5 million downloads of his 'little podcast'.
- We never see a community of learners related to a textbook. There's a market there waiting to be exploited. I can see how it would work, too. Costs little, makes customers and end-users feel valued and involves everyone in making the product better.
- I will continue to avoid trade halls at conferences, because I just start to annoy the stall holders. "But I can do this already with these free tools", a phrase that has been met with every excuse you can imagine. It doesn't matter if I need to log in to two separate sites to do what I want, it doesn't matter if it's not a "one-stop-shop" if it does what I want it to do. When pretty much everything traditional publishers is available for free, and when really what I want my students to be doing is remixing and creating their own content, what purple cows are you going to give me to make me part with cash?
- I'd hope to see fewer publishers pandering to the digital natives/immigrants thesis in order to continue selling easy products, selling on the ignorance of customers about what is already out there for free. My pet hate is the school podcasting service that will charge you the best part of $5000 to host a podcast created on Open Source software (Audacity). The whole process could be done by a school for free or a maximum of $100 to do it really well.
Pic: Textbook Money