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. scoop.it);
  • 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).

An Infographic is not Accurate Just Because It Looks Good

While I’ve been in higher education for the last seven years, I started my career in a middle school classroom.  I remember teaching social studies and often using the KWL method with the students.  Accordingly, I would ask the them what they already knew about the subject that we planned to study next, and we would create a massive (or minute) list on the board.  Quite often, the items that students recalled came from a movie or an episode on the History or Discovery channel.  Some of what they remembered was accurate, but not all.  Frequently, their knowledge fit into the category of historical fiction, which was expected, given that many of the movies related to the subject (the Civil War, for example) fit into that genre.  What became clear to me was that teaching the subject required teaching something new to students, but also helping them to unlearn some of the “visual facts” that already existed in their minds.  In fact, students often enjoyed learning about the subjects because of the high-interest film version of the events.  After reading about these events, many also enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences between what they were learning and what they saw on the screen.  They didn’t need to stop liking the films, but they did need to re-categorize that information, sometimes moving it from the non-fiction to the fiction shelves in their minds.

Images stick.  Think back to some of the first movies that you saw as a child.  If you are like me, you can conjure up at least one or two vivid scenes from that movie.  The same is true for many of us when it comes to still pictures, commercials, and multimedia messages that we’ve encountered over the years.  There is a reason that companies invest large amounts of money into creating image-rich advertisements and messages about their products and services.  It is because they are effective.  This is why information and media literacy are such important skills today. If we consider traditional literacy important so that students can function in a world of print, then it is equally important to help cultivate literacies that prepare us to live in a world of multimodal text (texts using more than one type of message: print, audio, video, images, etc.).

Over the past decade, we saw a rapid increase of infographics as a popular example of multimodal texts, and I’m delighted to see them.  In fact, I collect infographics, especially those dealing with topics related to eduction or digital culture. At their best, infographics convert pieces of data into a vivid, concise and high-interest knowledge visualization.  They are wonderful teaching and learning tools, and inviting people to create their own is an excellent way to help learners work at the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as they make sense of information about a given topic.

Just as there are affordances, there are also limitations when it comes to infographics.  When students started typing and submitting papers using a word processor, I noticed something interesting.  When you type a rough draft on a word processor and print it out, it looks clean and complete, even if the content is far from clean and complete.  Visually, the paper looks good.  If anyone takes the time to critically read the paper, then it becomes apparent that it is not a finished product.  The same is true with infographics.  The data in an infographic is no more or less accurate because it is visual, regardless of how good it looks.  Just like that draft in the word processor, the visual rhetoric of an infogrphic requires that one read it carefully and critically. Toward that end, here are some of the questions that we might want to consider asking during and/or after reading an infographic.

  • Is the data accurate?
  • Are there unstated assumptions?
  • What biases are present (not that biases are necessarily bad, but surfacing them is still valuable)?
  • Who created the infographic?  Does that person or organization have a mission or agenda (Again, this not necessarily bad, but it helps us to understand the context.)?
  • What sources did the creator use?
  • Did the creator provide access to those sources so that I can check it out for myself?
  • What is fact and what is opinion?  How do they support the opinions and substantiate the facts?
  • What relevant data is excluded (Since infographics are usually intended to be concise, much is usually excluded.  This is both an affordance and limitation of infographics.)?
  • How do the graphics and how do the design decisions influence the way that I and other readers might think about the topic?  How would the message change with a different visual representation?

Many of us, myself included, do not take the time to ask many of these questions when we read infographics.  Often, I read them for entertainment as much as information, also for examples of different ways to visually represent ideas.  And yet, infographics are often educational tools, communicating messages intended to stick with us, even to influence the way that we think or act.  At minimum, they serve to draw greater attention to a topic.  That alone is a means of influence, elevating the significance of a topic by prompting us to think about it a bit more than we did before, leaving visual residue in our minds that is often easier to recall than text.

Similarly, I’m not sure that infographics are usually designed in a way that encourages us to analyze and ponder.  Quite often, they are made for quick consumption, intended to gain the attention of the “readers” for a minute or two before they move on to something else.  To read such a visual critically may require that we discipline ourselves to pause, think, even research a bit; and that is a difficult thing to do.