Digital Culture & the Future of Educational Publishing

Already in the late 1990s, I heard predictions about the impending doom of educational publishers.  As the first experiments with e-readers and e-books emerged and early online residents discovered the potential of a read and write web, scholars and others publicly mused about the future of the publishing industry.  Today we see any number of significant trends that continue to impact educational publishers:

  • interactive and multi-modal e-books;
  • the web as network and social spaces more than a simple content repository;
  • mobile devices;
  • consumer demand to access the same resource across devices;
  • the new literacies notion of reading as socially-negotiated meaning;
  • open textbook projects;
  • open source publishing;
  • folksonomies;
  • print-on-demand;
  • social media as a blending of content, community, connectivity and collaboration;
  • any number of options for rapid editing and re-versioning;
  • the notion of the digital collective essay (as evidenced publicly on Wikipedia and more often privately in collective writing projects within Google Docs, Sharepoint, Wikis, etc.);
  • the online media sharing movement (e.g. YouTube as the second most used search engine next to Google);
  • adaptive educational software and personalized learning products (e.g. Dreambox);
  • the content experience within serious games, game-based learning, gamification, and simulation-based learning;
  • self-publishing with the option of low-cost editing and marketing (unbundled resources for authors and editors);
  • grass-roots digital content curation that organizes current resources for easier consumption (e.g.;
  • peer-to-peer content sharing and distribution (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Google Docs, Dropbox, etc.);
  • growing public confidence in content from sources that did not go through the traditional editing process;
  • transmedia migration;
  • open courseware;
  • and open courses.

Many informed educational publishers need not worry about any of these trends, as the leaders are already exploring, using and/or considering the implications of everything on this list. In fact, several have brilliantly honed in on a few and started to integrate them into their products, services, platforms and communities. The wise publishers also take heed of Henry Jenkins work, not to mention the important lessons of the current transformational impact of blended learning. With regard to Jenkins’s work, I’m referring to his idea of Convergence Culture, the concept that new media do not completely replace all old media as must as old and new converge.  In terms of blended learning, I’m pointing to the convergence of the digital and the physical and not thinking of them in either/or terms.

There are promising opportunities for publishers that embrace and leverage any or all of these (albeit some are quite divergent from traditional business practice).  This requires the humility, willingness and effort to revisit certain organizational values, internal policies and processes, as well as reconsidering how they think about, share, protect, and/or use “resources.”  With all of this stated, companies tend to navigate changes, even ones as rapid and transformational as the ones listed above, as long as they remain excellent at discovering the greatest needs and problems of their client base, and investing the most resources in developing agile products and services that genuinely meet those needs and address those problems.  Of course, this also includes looking a few years into the future, getting good at some predictions about the coming needs, and this can be a challenging part of serving a Wild West sector like education.

One of the greatest risks is the publisher that underestimates what I believe to be the disruptive innovation of open source, grassroots digital content collaboration, and self-publishing.  Dismissing these as of inferior quality is the classic response of a company that is getting ready to be disrupted.  After all, the idea of a disruptive innovation, as noted by Christiansen, is that it starts by providing an inferior product to an audience that is not served or poorly served by others in the industry.  Self-published products may seem crude to publishers (just as some cringe or scoff at the typos that show up in a largely unedited source like this blog), and yet they serve a significant and growing population.  For example, I will have more people read this blog post in a week than the total sum of people who read most of the articles that I’ve published in more traditional sources.  I just met an early childhood educator who has 500,000 vistors to her web site every week!  While there will remain an important role for more carefully edited and professionally produced content and educational resources, I can’t help but think that there are amazing and needed roles for publishers to fill within the world of open source, grassroots collaboration, and self-publishing.

What are your thoughts about the future of educational publishing?  Feel free to share in the comment area or via one of my social media extensions to the blog (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

3 Replies to “Digital Culture & the Future of Educational Publishing”

  1. David Black

    My thoughts about this are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I believe that traditional educational publishing is dying a slow death as innovative teachers are increasingly leveraging resources in the ways you suggest in your post. However, the one caveat I consider is the growing impact of the Common Core. It seems like many districts and schools who embrace the Common Core are seeking resources clearing aligned with those standards. To that end, it seems like traditional publishers are wise to embrace the Common Core because this provides them an opportunity to extend the lifespan of an increasingly dated business model.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comments. I know that many publishers are focusing upon the Common Core because it becomes an easy and compelling selling point. Publishers often focus upon products that can sell to very large populations. Otherwise, it is difficult to justify the significant R & D investments for a new product line. So, how do they meet the needs of institutions that want to be distinct, to do things differently? Traditional publishing thrives on uniform schooling. As an advocate for diversified schooling options and choice, I do not see traditional publishing models as being especially helpful.

      • David Black

        I completely agree, but because of the Common Core, I think that those models will survive longer than they would have otherwise.

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