November 29, 2007

Education Unbound Unwound: Lessons for educational publishers in a social media world

Textbooks 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.

Media Convergence Divergence
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

  1. 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.
  2. 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'.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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


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Thanks for a very thought-provoking post - I'm sorry I missed the Education Unbound event. I should be upfront and say that I'm one of 'them upstairs' at an educational publisher.

I think first of all, I'd challenge your assertion that publishing is one of the few industries to have a 'middleman' between its products and consumers. On the contrary, I might go as far as to say this is the norm (most of my personal purchases go through a retailer, either on the high-street or online; and most of my business purchases are made on my behalf, eg IT procurement). In addition, not everything created by a publisher IS for the student - much of it is for direct use by the teacher.

I think secondly I would distinguish between a 'market' and a 'community'. I totally agree that more learning communities are a good thing, and that we will see more of them. I doubt whether most commercial publishers will see them as a revenue opportunity (and perhaps nor should they).

Finally, I'd like to say that 'traditional' publishing tends to support the 'core' demands placed on schools. Whether we like it or not, the bulk of resource spend is on supporting qualifications in core subjects. And that's where any sensible business will focus its investment.

However, I definitely don't want to sound complacent, and I do think there's a social shift happening that not all publishers will keep up with. Personally I'd like to see more small-scale experimentation/piloting with groups of key stakeholders, including publishers. By and large these will happen because a few committed inidividuals in the industry (probably not senior managers) will make it their business to engage. Digital subversives, perhaps?

Hi Ewan,

Excellent post - well argued. You need to talk to Eylan Ezekiel - he's thinking exactly along these lines:

I'll point this post out to him too.

Is that Canadian currency in that photo? Very colorful.

Hi Ewan,

Would prefer to be a retailer than a charitable middleman/distribution outlet. Teachers have always bought in bulk direct from the publisher to get the best deal for their students. This requires a lot of work as they have to hound slow paying families for money not the school. The cost of unsold non returnable books has in the past has been taken from my science budget. A win win situation for the publisher.

Anyone who has a bright idea to help students through exams can bombard me with information about their product and exhortations to convince the students that they should buy while I collect money and distribute for free.

I agree with a number of points made by the publisher above. They often produce a top quality product and in science many of the books are backed up with a DVD. The next step would be to put it all online but the usual problems of controlling copyright apply. There is a real dilemma for publishers

......should have said that I am commenting on the situation from a New Zealand perspective.

I can summarise my reaction to this post very quicky - Hell YES!

My blog is broken at the moment (due to bandwidth piracy) - so the link to my many posts on these very points are not working at the moment.

Thanks also to Mark B for making this connection between us.

Ewan - the answers to your plea for change are beginning to appear, if slowly.

Intiatives, such as ODE at Pearson, show that even the biggest publishers are trying to adapt.

The blocks are not just within industry. All the 'stakeholders' (as Stephen calls them) in our world of education need a clear imperative to change.

One of my clients, at them moment, is Oxfam Education, and this non-commerical organisation is struggling with exactly the same problems of perception as those that chase the profit margin.

I am not going to use this space to list them all here - as my blog should be working soon, and you could read them there.

It is as much up to us to find common cause for these different perspectives - and I would love to be part of the 'Digital Subversives' trial that Stephen suggested. I could get lots of publishers involved, a fair amount of authors, and maybe a few policy makers along.

I think what we need is to prove a complete publishing model, from idea to a final resource - that does not depend on traditional assumptions.

Mark and I have been working on a plan for a few months now - and I am involved in a project that might help make this a reality - called ODE (

If you, or any one else reading, wants to make this revolution a reality, let's stop talking, and do it! Get in touch

Hi Ewan

I was at the Education Unbound debate last week.

In your blog you seem to be addressing secondary school teachers. Don't you have an audience of teachers in primary schools as well? If so, you need to be more aware of that audience's needs. You also assume that all educational publishers operate in the same way. They don't.

BEAM (BE A Mathematician) is a specialist educational publisher that provides resources and support about how to teach maths in primary schools. We provide innovative and informed resources for both children and teachers, including both published games and interactive games on CD-ROMs. We also publish interactive whiteboard resources to help teachers teach, alongside good quality resources for children to use in the classroom. We've produced two CD-ROMs of maths raps that are stunningly good.

You say that so many resources can be accessed online. That is true in some ways, if you know where to look, but it is less true for primary schools. You cannot replace good board or card games with downloaded and printed. You cannot download real objects, or well-designed material that children need to handle. You forget that primary age children need to use and manipulate real things in their learning. You cannot feed them a diet of badly designed and poorly edited downloadables. Primary school children don't have easy access to computers at the moment – they have timetabled sessions, and then they have to share as pairs if they are lucky. So you cannot easily organise for them to browse through online material. Not all primary age children have access to computers at home. So you have to cater for all needs, all situations.

We are aware of the ICT skills and knowledge of children, even as young as 3. The debate at Education Unbound has made us think more about the potential of using a wider range of the technology available, and the much more flexible and creative style of learning that children have when they use this technology.

We work closely with schools on developing our materials, and we are constantly made aware of the limitations within which schools operate. We had, for example, planned to produce some interactive programmes for young children where they could count and dance using dance mats. We can see how you could use a Wii so effectively for active maths learning. But you find me a school that has a dance mat or a Wii. We can only produce resources for technology that schools actually have. Schools lag behind current thinking. Educational publishers tend to lag behind schools. Well, we at BEAM like to think that we lead schools in their maths thinking, but we can only use the technology they have.

We are interested in exploring ideas about the innovative use of technology in primary schools for the technology that schools have now or will have in the near future.

Hi Sheila,

I don't ignore primary schools at all, and in the panel referred almost exclusively to primary school examples. I'm also well aware of the need for good 'face-to-face' resources for all teachers, but given the title of the debate, we're looking at one area of resourcing and publishing in particular, not the whole range of things that teachers need to use in their daily toolkit for teaching.

If you wish to visit schools with dance mats or wiis then please do just come to Scotland where the investments has been made, by schools themselves, and, in England, you'll find plenty of languages classrooms using Sonica Spanish and others using RM products that allow dance mat games to be used in other areas.

Again, it's not because you don't see it that it's not there, nor that you should not think about innovating in that area. I find these arguments almost anti-innovative.

We do have one thing in common - we both help schools with what they have. What I would like to see is the vast majority of publishers starting to take the lead instead, as you put it, lag behind schools. I think the will and desire in schools is there, and the trick is finding sustainable means of supporting it.

My blog is working again - so those 'Glass Ceiling' posts are accessible again.

Expect some specific replies to Ewan's points on the blog over the next few weeks.

Hi, Ewan,

Good to read your article, but I feel that your comparison of Web2.0 with VLEs is like comparing chalk and cheese. They have very different functions and functionalities.

Perhaps the most significant point is that Web2.0 is far more accessible and intuitive than such VLEs as are actually running properly at this time.

When, eventually, VLEs become ubiquitous (and they will) first of all teachers and students will have to spend some time getting familiar with all the potential services that we are promised. Secondly, teachers will have their work cut out, possibly for several years in some cases, discovering how VLEs will revolutionise Teaching and Learning.

Eventually, all VLEs (not just those designed by DIY enthusiasts) will provide the connectivity to appropriate Web2.0 and Web3.0 applications and resources.

A fair point, Ray, that there is no reason why VLEs can't tap into the goodness that Web 2.0 type tech is already offering, but my question is: why do we have to wait for VLEs to become ubiquitous before the collaborative opportunities of Web 2.0 are taken up? Can we not just leapfrog or, better still, integrate (sharpish) what we already know works really well for learning from the 'live' web into the Firewall?

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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