By John Helmer
We’re in a world where people don’t really understand what they want until you put it in front of them,’ says Toby Green Head of Publishing at OECD. He’s talking about the challenge of creating new digital products in a technology landscape that is changing very quickly (with no end to the ‘technology treadmill’ in sight) and where market research is of limited value; where what happened in the past in educational publishing is a poor guide to what will happen in the future.
This reflection comes from looking at OECD’s markets, which span both higher education and the workplace, and a remit that embraces not only information dissemination but, to a degree, instruction. We’re talking convergence.
Toby Green will chair the plenary session on ‘Cross-fertilisation’ at the ALPSP International Conference. The convergence of the education and workplace learning markets is likely to be a theme for this session, so we took the opportunity to convene a three-way discussion involving Reda Sadki, a learning innovation strategist who is working with OECD on precisely this area.
We discussed drivers for convergence, some of its effects, and also opportunities and threats for publishers.
Moving beyond a dissemination mindset
Reda’s vantage point on this phenomenon of convergence is informed by his time at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the IFRC), where he pivoted from managing publishing to ‘learning systems’. The IFRC, he says, was an organization that published massive amounts of information (750 information products, 12 million printed pages in 2009), with “little measurable impact”. ‘Ultimately I came to the realisation that the value in what was being published by the world’s largest humanitarian network could be found in the instructional and training materials, with a global audience of 17 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers. Where you could find impact was in the publications that teach people in a humanitarian emergency how to do very basic things such as putting up a tent and providing first aid care.’
He characterises the transition this realisation prompted as being from a concern over maximising dissemination – counting eyeballs and downloads – to looking at a deeper kind of impact in terms of what was happening behind the eyeballs. It is a shift that he implies publishers need to make themselves if they are to capitalise on the opportunities offered by this convergence.
Drivers of convergence
Reda sees two fundamental shifts driving convergence.
One is about changes in the economy of effort to do certain things. Publishing starts with dissemination and under the traditional model would tend to stop at that. It doesn’t necessary look at look at what people are doing with what it disseminates – largely because, pre-internet, it would have been uneconomic to do so. Technology has lowered the cost of, for instance, collecting rich data about what people are doing with a particular piece of knowledge.
The other is about the changing nature of knowledge itself. The book gave us a ‘container’ view of knowledge, where now – with knowledge flows getting faster all the time – it looks more like a process than a product. Attempts to capture and compartmentalise knowledge are doomed to fail, in his view, as they do not provide the answers that we need to be able to provide it in any useful way. Being an expert today is much more about knowing where and knowing how than it is about the individual accumulating large amounts of knowledge.
Echoing Reda’s first point, but framing it in a perhaps broader context, Toby sees the appearance of new possibilities for action with the advent of digital as the decisive factor. ‘If you think of the offline world, on both the publishing side and the education/training side, there were some natural constraints to what you could do …’
The book (or textbook, or journal) was bound. It had a finite number of pages and could be shipped to only so many people. The classroom could only have a finite number of people in it, and was very difficult to scale without massive expense in both infrastructure and people (i.e. teachers). Online removes a lot of those scaling constraints; so a class that could previously only reach 30 people can now reach hundreds of thousands.
Online has also massively lowered the cost of updating published information. A new print edition of a textbook, for example, is a major undertaking. In the offline world updates to knowledge would happen in batches, because it wasn’t feasible to do it in any other way. Online allows you to have a rolling update – giving us the concept of a living book – or, equally, a course that is constantly being tweaked and kept up to date.
These changes allow new ways of thinking. There are significant changes to the old paradigms – but they are changes that a lot of people are still trying to get used to, both on the education side and on the publishing side.
One area that publishing has been very successful in, Toby feels is integrating technology with content, and he gave several examples of workflow tools such as Mendeley that bear this out, and the work of other players in the wider information industry such as Bloomberg and Reuters.
However going beyond these essentially resource-based models and becoming more instrumental in the process of learning is another matter, and considering this led us to look at the different cultures these converging (or colliding) industries have.
Culture and authority
One of the most beautiful things about publishing, in Reda’s view, is the way in which culture, in both the specific and the wider senses of that word, is embedded in its fabric. This gives a different feel for the value of the content, and its importance in terms of the emotional relationship we have with works of the mind and aspects such as cultural diversity in what is published. While e-learning taps into a rich history of learning theories and education, it still has something to learn, he feels, from the culture of publishing in this respect.
Knowledge management, by contrast – which he feels to have failed – seems obsessed with putting pieces of data into pigeonholes, without proper regards to the more important activity of building a culture to make sense of the vast amounts of information and data that organisations receive and generate.
From the publishing side, Toby observed that the linkage of education and training has always been weak. Textbook sales were seen as by-product of publishing activity, where existing titles were picked up on by educators – or else the preserve of a highly specialised branch of publishing that knew how to do them.
Now, with the collapse of barriers that limited thinking in the offline world, and with digital reducing costs and lowering barriers to entry, the idea of publishers working with partners to adapt their content to create courses is far more achievable. And here is a further cultural change: the idea of working with partners. ‘Before, companies did everything themselves; they didn’t really use networks of freelancers and partners in the way we do now’.
My own reflection on the different cultures, having worked in e-learning and digital publishing, is that there is less concern about provenance of knowledge on the training side of the fence. Academic publishing has a culture of sources, citation and reference that is currently in the process of automating in a characteristically rigorous way (CrossRef, ORCID, etc.). In e-learning, on the other hand, where content is often produced using an organisation’s internal SME knowledge, individual authorship tends to be more submerged, and it is often possible to wonder: where is this point of view coming from; who is telling me this?
As somebody who works for a ‘who’ (the OECD) Toby can’t help but believe that at the point of convergence, this difference offers an opportunity for organisations like his own whose content carries the stamp of accepted and established authority in their particular field. This could also apply to the learned societies, but doesn’t necessarily hold true for larger, more generalist commercial publishers.
Effects of convergence, chilling and otherwise
Given the way that internet power laws operate in any online space – tending to favour one or a very few brands and condemn everyone else to place on the ‘long tail’, these questions of identity and authority are critical online. Certainly their effects have been seen in the case of MOOCs.
Arguably, it is the presence of educational ‘super-brands’ such as Harvard and Stanford that has allowed online education to break through to public consciousness in the way it now has, under the banner of MOOCs. Interestingly however, other HE institutions in this rarified upper strata that have chosen not to participate in this gold-rush so far – notably Oxford and Cambridge in the UK – don’t seem to be especially troubled by the phenomenon.
It is the ‘squeezed middle’ of second tier universities who see MOOCs as a threat to their livelihood, and the opinion of many is that solution in future will be for institutions to find or build specialisms in particular unique areas. Get ‘niche’.
Reda locates a particular opportunity here in the troubled issue of ‘the fit in today’s world of the capacity of universities to prepare people for the workforce or for the demands of society’. Sub-degree, competency-based qualifications represent, in his view, ‘a huge gaping hole’ that knowledge-producing institutions are in a privileged position to address.
He cites a client he worked with who had seen an Oxford University course on the area they worked in, but believed they could themselves build one ‘a hundred times better’. This sparked for him the idea that an organisation that has the practice – that actually does the job – could now, through the affordances of technology, build an educational offering of high quality.
An organisation that in addition starts with a strong publishing function is particularly well placed since they will already have the quality development processes that will make it much easier to build educational experiences around that content.
Playing the long game
Of course, underlying all this talk of opportunities is the necessity for publishers to make their digital investments pay, and while moving into creating educational experiences around content might represent an opportunity for some organisations, there usually has to be some threat element in play to compel action.
Reda pointed to the scrabble for data around MOOCs, which as early as 2013 prompted publishers to offer access to their textbooks within MOOCs in return for the user data. In a data-driven world, he would consider not having some such access to this type of data as a risk.
This has to be see in the context of attempts by publishers to use digital to bring textbooks to life, not all of which have proved wildly successful with users, and the idea, argued by some, that MOOCs themselves are textbooks: that, ‘MOOCs perhaps represent the first form of digital textbook to reach a mass audience’.
Given factors like these, organisations can’t afford to not experiment and try new things if their businesses are to grow and survive.
In Toby’s view, publishers still largely think they’re in the business of selling content. He sees very few examples of textbook publishers migrating online in a way that works. ‘Part of the challenge is that since individuals are so reluctant to spend any money for content online – and bearing in mind that the offline textbook market was largely an individual-purchase model – it is very hard to see how a textbook publisher is going to get a return if they simply put their textbook online’.
Data driven-models mean that money is made elsewhere than in the same transaction, so the challenge is to look at your publishing business in the round. A publisher such as Wiley, whose acquisitions in the learning space follow a strategy around the lifetime value of a customer – from education through to their professional life – might (notionally) balance losses in one part of the business by larger gains in another. This would involve looking at the value of the individual rather than the value of the training.
‘That’s what makes the web so hard, but at the same time so interesting: you have to consider where the value is, and the lifetime value could be very long … it’s very difficult to look individually at each particular piece: you have to look at it holistically.’