Mobile Learning ML11: Weeks 4-5

Educational Publishing Must Change 

Even if you aren’t in the business of producing content that will be delivered to K-12 classrooms, you know intuitively that 20-pound textbooks are a vanishing breed of instructional materials in the United States.

If you’re in educational publishing here, however, you are doing everything you can to delay the funeral, including packaging those textbooks with “digital resources” that augment what’s in that big book and providing online games and smartboard accessories. You are highlighting studies of the “digital divide” to show that books are more accessible than computers for swaths of students, especially those who are disadvantaged in other ways. If you’re smart, your sales force is well-versed in their territories’ computer usage and ownership statistics, both in schools and in communities they service.

And there are some quite legitimate reasons that online resources would leave some students out of the learning process, a condition that you can’t accept if you’re a firm believer in the value of public education for all in a democracy, as I am.

All of that has been and continues to be debated in blogs and commentary online and in the administrations of school districts across the country. Here I want to provide a little insight into publishing itself, specifically from the point of view of product development, i.e., textbook development and creation.

The flip side to outward-facing sales are internal processes and procedures. I’ve written elsewhere about how textbooks are generally developed. I want to think a bit here about what an embrace of elearning and mlearning could mean for the day-to-day operations of a textbook company or a development house. For instance, I’ve worked, both as a full-time employee and as a contract or freelance worker, for educational publishers in the K–12 market, creating textbooks as well as ancillary materials.

I’ll lay out a situation that I think will highlight what has to change: Let’s say I’m creating a workbook to go along with a science textbook, and that workbook focuses on what you need to know because you live in a particular state (say, for instance, Ohio). The Educational Publisher (EP) wants to create that workbook as an ancillary to its General Science textbook so that its more competitive in the Ohio market, and as the editor I create the content. A decade ago, this is what I would have to do for the project:

  1. Identify all the relevant state standards for that grade’s workbook
  2. Plan out how to incorporate all the relevant state standards in the 6o pages the publisher has planned for
  3. Make sure each lesson complements and augments the relevant part(s) of the student edition textbook
  4. Write and edit the readings and activities (e.g., short answer response) to appear on specific pages (or hire a freelancer to do so)
  5. Identify and/or describe any art or illustration to go on that page with the reading and activity

In a completely print-based textbook context, five general realms of activity will reliably get you an Ohio Workbook to accompany your General Science textbook. (After this comes the page production process that’s standard to any publisher: proof cycles, editing, and any permissions you need for art or content;  I’m just focusing on basic content creation here.)

Fast-forward to now. What would change about this process in a full elearning environment? Leaving aside IT-related matters such as device compatibility, operating systems, and so on (i.e., the really technical stuff), I would still have to do the above, but I would also need to add at least some of the following activities (in no particular order):

  1. Plan and/or produce and/or find related video content, which requires me to think about sound and movement
  2. Plan and produce audio content
  3. Evaluate all text for its fit on a variety of screens, which requires me to adapt some of my writing skills to shorter lengths
  4. Plan and create interactive activities in which students would have immediate feedback on their efforts, which requires that I think about the limits of what students could do (such as not writing essays because they would not get immediate feedback)
  5. Plan and create activities that result in a student-generated product that a student would submit to a teacher for feedback or assessment
  6. Plan and create activities that allow students to work together using their devices, which requires me to have more understanding about what would work in a classroom environment as well as about social media tools
  7. Plan and create activities that would work even without an Internet connection
  8. Plan and create activities that could potentially be used as a whole-class experience via Smartboard technology, if a teacher wishes to use an eworkbook activity in that way
  9. Find and evaluate other web-based resources to provide to students and teachers in links or through portals
  10. Create motivational games/experiences that reward students for going through the activities
  11. Create experiences/activities linked to the student’s location in a particular place (for instance, if the student is in southeastern Ohio, a link or some content about the formation of the Appalachian Mountains)

(These are the examples I could think of—I wonder what younger, more technology-savvy folks would add?) With digital products, too, teachers and students expect updated content at all times, so there are a variety of completely new editorial processes that need to be established to make sure that the econtent is current and relevant (and no broken links). They would also want to know immediately when any update had been made, which means rigorously tracking changes and errata and setting up a communications process.  In addition, teachers would expect functionality such as receiving reports about access and use of the eworkbook and perhaps a way for them to go into a particular student’s eworkbook to provide feedback or help. That functionality also entails thinking about what part(s) of eworkbook activities can be “sent” or monitored.

It’s tempting to dismiss these problems and think that educational publishers are just being conservative in lagging behind just-in-time, just-for-you elearning. But they’re really just figuring out what their new jobs will be in a world where everyone with electricity and a device can access realms of information at any time. The short answer, then, is that educational publishers may want to embrace elearning, mlearning, and their new technologies, but that to do so entails nothing short of a superhuman effort coupled with a complete rethinking of what the business actually is in the wake of the embrace.


3 Responses to Mobile Learning ML11: Weeks 4-5

  1. The diversity of content and presentation media available and demanded these days suggests publishers start thinking across subjects and away from the “all that’s known in this field on that subject” definitive textbook. Instead of supporting curriculum with static objects why not lead in providing content for the more dynamic curricula that we need?

    At the college where I work we build “current content” for distribution online then release it into the wild without thought for its lifespan. Without support or maintenance it slowly withers away. Links break, content relevance fades and instructors little-by-little pare no longer useful chunks off it and bring in their own content. We do this because we still think, budget for and build static objects of knowledge, stuff we can walk away from and declare complete.

    We need publishers, or at least someone who fills that role in society. Their creativity and commitment to ideas matters. As does the ability to make sense of and assemble materials into comprehensible areas of knowledge. Publishing needs to change? Yes. But the answer goes deeper than throwing stuff out onto the net without any follow-up support. Stewardship of knowledge is a role that, like it or not, publishers fulfill in our society–I don’t hear that in discussions of information where raw access is all that matters and the rest will self-assemble itself.

    Thanks for the thoughtful blog.


    • leahgrrl says:

      Thank you, Scott, for dropping by! It’s hard to imagine some of the changes that will happen in this industry. Like anything being hit with rapid technological development, I think there will be casualties as well as opportunities.

      That support and maintenance issue is a huge one for any educator in a digital milieu. Several years ago a company I worked for was embarrassed to find a few of its online links actually linked to Things Children Shouldn’t See. There is a role for dedicated support and updating, etc., but that probably means more people. In an era where publishers are shedding people in favor of outsourcing…it will be interesting to see.

  2. I wonder if any system that sheds people in the process of serving people can hold itself together for very long? At the college where I work we have been cutting staff to survive so we can continue to “serve” our community’s educational needs. The remaining staff is over-worked and feels devalued and yet is expected to be exemplars of community values?

    To me the question is what exact value is it we are demonstrating? Maybe I’m naive but it seems like the education field and those who support it are in need of declaring some real place where they stand and stop running from politicians and every fool who declares we are better to not trust or value each other.


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