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Publish or Perish
Educational Content at a Crossroads

By Clark Quinn / October 2009

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It's not news that we're experiencing increasing change. The quantity of information available is growing astronomically, new offerings are increasingly quick to be copied, businesses are under pressure to do more with less, and the internet is a disruptive force, threatening all manner of content industries.

Organizations have to become more nimble, more agile. Optimal execution is only the cost of entry, and organizations have to be tapping into continual innovation.

Publishers are not exempt from this. There are major pressures coming in a variety of guises. Yet, surprisingly, we're seeing little innovation in products, services, or business models.

Open Information
One of the major new pressures is the increasingly available content on the internet. From information from organizations establishing credibility and individuals publishing their own understanding, the quantity of information available on the web is increasing dramatically. Consequently, more and more individuals are choosing to live with what they can find rather than spend money.

And user-generated content is the next generation of the web, with ever-easier publishing opportunities. The amount of free information isn't going to go away. The open courseware movement is a further source of information.

Worse, the continuing effort to change textbook offerings with new editions is facing increasing pressure from irate students. Costs are high, and the novelty of the offerings isn't sufficient to make a compelling value proposition to a learner.

And it's not that the free information is suspect. When you have brands like MIT, there's little question of the authority. And Wikipedia has been demonstrated to be equal if not better than the Encyclopedia Britannica. The value of vetted information resources is decreasingly in demand.

(Not) Coping
Charles Jennings, former CLO for Reuters, recently cited the examples of Reader's Digest and Learning Tree International (offering instructor-led training, but with a library of offerings) suggesting that their problems arise from "a failure to innovate and a failure to adapt."

Both are publishers with solid content, but have been unable to create a new business model. In my own experience I have seen and learned how they're hampered by outdated technology and inflexible business models.

Some publishers are making inroads with online offerings, and new companies are coming up with disruptive models. The question is whether publishers as a whole can adapt or are doomed.

The Publisher Value Proposition
The question of whether there's a value proposition is not the issue. The value of editing, both in choosing what's worthy of publishing and ensuring that that quality is manifested in the final product, is still worthy. Indeed, in the age of information glut, it may be ever more valuable.

And the value proposition of a book is not diminishing. Individuals still buy—and read—books. The value of text is still high owing to a good data-to-bandwidth ratio, and likely will remain so whether the delivery vehicle becomes a smart phone, a tablet, or e-paper.

The real question is how that experience is revisited in the era of the internet. The online world provides new opportunities, but also requires new thinking. Giving away ancillary sites for textbooks isn't a valuable business model. Online content alone isn't sufficient.

The Experience
Pine and Gilmore, in their book The Experience Economy, talk about how the basis of business moves up a value chain. Starting with commodities, you add distinctiveness to create goods, then add activities to create service. The next step, they argue, is the experience. This is where the concept of the total customer interaction comes into play, from pre-sales to after sales support.

The opportunity is clear. The old cliché "it's not about books, it's about content" doesn't go far enough. What's needed is to make a compelling online experience, based on the content, tapping into the additional capabilities of the digital environment while not abandoning the value add.

For educational publishers, there's an additional consideration, and a market-differentiating opportunity. Pine and Gilmore suggest that the level beyond the experience is the transformative experience, where you pay for experiences that change you in desired ways. This is the core of education, when done right, and the ability to turn expert knowledge into a meaningful learning experience is a captivating premise. The question then is, how do you take a content business and turn it into an experience business?

Delivering Experiences
There are several components necessary to take a content development organization, and create an experience delivery capability. This includes executing an experience design process, developing and augmenting content for flexible delivery, and the capability to develop, trial, and deliver multiple and flexible business models.

Experience Design
Experience design is a new area, involving information architecture and design, engagement, and diverse media skills. Critically, it's having someone own the ultimate vision of the experience, and coordinating the elements to create the necessary engagement.

For educational publishers, an extra layer is learning experience design. To truly execute against this vision of an engaging experience and an effective learning experience, you have to understand not only learning, but also the alignment with engagement.

Learning experience design capability needs to be placed as a core competency, and one that is not in most publishers today.

Content Development
Underpinning the experience design is the content model. There are several ways in which an experience can be delivered: a monolithic version can be developed, which delivers the highest quality experience, but at a high cost and with limited flexibility; at the opposite end, compositing loose content is easy, but yields a low quality experience; in between is an approach where tight definition around learning components provides the ability to flexibly create different offerings yet structure compelling experiences and keep a tight rein on costs.

Developing against this model requires new rigor in processes and tools. Having authors write to an outline will no longer be sufficient, and a more coordinated approach to content development is required, developing the different components in synchrony from an agreed-upon vision. The notion of author will, of needs, have a new interpretation.

Tight definition supports flexible delivery. With strict constraints upon the content components, you get dual benefits: quality control upon the individual elements, and the ability to combine the elements into different offerings.

The dynamic market for content will require the ability to semantically define appropriate offerings, and pull together appropriate content packages that meet those needs. That only occurs if you have tight definition around the semantic components, and the ability to combine those elements programmatically through business rules.

Business Model
Adaptive and custom content delivery enables new business models. An initial investment in creating the underpinning understanding, resources, processes, tools, and systems is necessary to enable the creation of new business opportunities. While existing systems should be able to be coupled to the integrated infrastructure with service-oriented architectures, a comprehensive set of capabilities need to be enabled that include content management and governance, and flexible delivery tied to both business models and customer authentication.

The existing infrastructure of publishers is, by and large, not ready to accommodate these changes. The barriers are not technical nor procedural, but organizational, in the ways that financing is on tap to support experimentation, evaluation, and continual innovation.

Publish or Perish
Ultimately, the only persistent success model is continual innovation in experience offerings, combining services with offerings that meet transformation experiences with viable relationships between value and cost. Educational publishers must deliver a variety of cost-effective experience offerings that strike a balance between desire and affordability. Without market-relevant offerings, an organization will perish. Rather than publish paper, organizations must recognize that our technology has changed, and so too must the medium of delivery.

The increasing change we see in information, competition, and customer expectation makes the ability to continually experiment an imperative. The issue is not print versus digital delivery, but instead whether the ability to deliver quality content in any available format that creates a comprehensive learning experience is on tap for creative business relationships.

The need is for an infrastructure and associated processes that create a flexible platform for delivering quality content in meaningful experiences. That comes from integrating experience design, content structure, and experimentation around offerings to derive new offerings. The experience design, content structure, an the associated infrastructure can be defined to support flexible new offering, but the commitment needs to be made.

Educational publishers have a lot of opportunity to change, but little choice. The nature of their business and the changing environment provide little opportunity to do aught but find new ways to capitalize on their core value add of high quality content. Doing that in the digital era means leveraging that content to create a compelling learner experience. Understanding learner experience, content development processes that can deliver flexible learner experiences, and the ability to explore different offerings and exploit those that have market resonance is the fundamental change needed to publish, not perish.

While these thoughts developed across many experiences over the years with educational publishers and conversations with Mohit Bhargava of LearningMate, they have recently been reactivated and refined by exchanges with Algis Leveckis; I'm grateful to all.


  • Thu, 01 Jul 2010
    Post by Lisa Chamberlin

    That same Faculty Focus report ALSO said that Twitter is being adopted by higher education at a faster rate than it is by the general Internet-using public..."Twitters footprint reached 10.7 percent of all active Internet users as of June 2009 according to market-research firm Nielsen Company, so it would appear that higher education professionals are adopting Twitter at a faster rate than the average Internet user" (p. 9). So, while there are those who are vehemently against this latest Internet "fad", they will be assimilated. In fact, 3/4ths of the respondents expected to see their Twitter use rise.

    Bottom line is there is a bit of a learning curve as you figure out the follower/followee relationship. And, until you "get it" - you just don't get it. And once you do, you wonder why everyone isn't reaping the benefits of the give and take.

  • Tue, 08 Jun 2010
    Post by James Durkan

    Hend, I don't think the problems you raise are inevitable. I've found twitter invaluable. Spamming is not an issue and I find that the barrier of 140 characters forces me to be more disciplined.

    I've experimented, quite satisfactorily, with tweeting a lecture (as a learner). I found that it was by no means a passive experience. I had to concentrate hard on actively listening so that I could create a series of 140-character synopses of the lecture and its key-points.

    There are other valuable contributions that twitter can offer. A regrettable shortcoming of HE is that it focuses on equipping the student with the knowledge (cognitive domain) to play a role. This is to the detriment of imbuing them with the appropriate attitude and behavior (affective and behavioral domains) for that role. Shadowing a respected member of the chosen field via twitter can really round off the learning experience. It also provides the added value of underpinning the HE learning by creating a strong association with real world experience.

  • Mon, 07 Jun 2010
    Post by heaba

    I think it is unfair to blame any particular piece of technology on the inability of its potential users to adopt it to their particular needs. Twitter has its limitations, of cause, but so most of other Social Media tools out there.I believe Twitter is a powerful social learning tool - for both formal and informal learning - as I have demonstrated in my free How-To guide. --------------------------------------- New Technology

  • Wed, 26 May 2010
    Post by Jenny

    I think it is unfair to blame any particular piece of technology on the inability of its potential users to adopt it to their particular needs. Twitter has its limitations, of cause, but so most of other Social Media tools out there. There are also a number of advantages in using these tools. The trick is not to be afraid to experiment with various technologies - if some of these are not suited for your particular course structure and teaching methods there are always other tools that would.

    I wonder what response Facebook would get from a similar survey?

  • Sat, 22 May 2010
    Post by Jane Hart

    I believe Twitter is a powerful social learning tool - for both formal and informal learning - as I have demonstrated in my free How-To guide. Those who can't see Twitter's future in HE, should take a look at the wide range of ways it supports social learning. You'll find the free guide here -

  • Fri, 21 May 2010
    Post by Leon Cygman

    You said it yourself - "more than half the surveyed faculty members think Twitter has no future in academia or potential use in higher education". Just because it is a fad and many young people are using it, that does not mean that it is suitable for educational purposes. From my observations, the majority of posts are trivial, ego-centric and have little social value; then maybe I am following the wrong people. I guess I'm one of those educators who feel the same as the ones in the survey. Although an interesting phenomenon and a novel way to communicate, I did not see it as an educational tool, especially when there are so many others that can be used to provide a much richer teacher-learner environment.

  • Fri, 21 May 2010
    Post by Rex

    We recognized these same issues when we set out to build a web app that fixed them. The result was HootCourse, a web app that lets instructors easily use Twitter and Facebook in their classes.

    We're running a Summer beta program-- The more feedback we get, the better our solutions become. If you're reading this; you're invited. Just Google "HootCourse"

  • Wed, 28 Oct 2009
    Post by Steven Zucker

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Far too often discussion of digital texts cite price and weight but ignore any discussion of the critical relationship between content and design. At we encourage content creators to look beyond the familiar organizational structure of the textbook and its analogue finding aids. Open textbooks ought to take advantage of the webs inherent strengths and allow users to organize material in numerous ways while pointing outward to high quality resources elsewhere on the web. Hopefully, these new resources will seamlessly incorporate multimedia allowing users to listen, read, watch and most importantly respond. Here is an opportunity to directly engage students, allowing them to initiate or join conversations both in and outside the confines of the text. begins to do this. It is a free, award-winning and web-based art history text. Its content is supported by its design and we believe that its broad adoption is due in part to its focus on user experience.

  • Fri, 23 Oct 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Mark, thanks for the thoughtful response. I do agree that there have been a lot of experiments, but this is meant as a rallying call to strive for transformation, not just information.

    And I did mean more than just learning objects, and very much do mean focusing on how to create a meaningful experience, but under pragmatic constraints. I am concerned about the instructor experience, too, but by focusing on engaging learners in more meaningful activity, I believe the instructor gets to move from knowledge provider to discussion facilitator, and that should be a more rewarding activity (if you really care about the material and the learner, which can be an issue :).

    And by engagement, I mean a combination of things (cf my book, Engaging Learning): challenge, meaningfulness, active exploration, and more. The alignment between effective educational practice and engaging experiences drives my view.

    Thanks again, and I'll look forward to your thoughts on the tension between content and experience.

  • Thu, 22 Oct 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    I do think that disruptive technologies and differing abilities to react to those technologies will reconfigure the textbook publishing space, and I wholeheartedly agree that learner experience design is key. I would add that instructor experience is just as important, but perhaps you're including both by expressing it as "learning" experience design? Certainly there are many assumptions made throughout the value chain about what's needed in the student and instructor experience, but I don't always see much interest in publishers understanding that experience at a deep enough level to truly transform it. Instead they seem to throw new technologies at it, in the name of innovation, and see what sticks.

    While reading this I wondered if you were merely wanting publishing to reconfigure itself to embrace reusable learning objects and something like a learning activity management system. Do you envision more than that?

    I found an interesting tension in this article between content and experience. I want to say more about that, but I'll have to think about it for awhile first.

    I've written elsewhere in the publication about the ambiguity surrounding the term "engagement". What do you mean here by "alignment with engagement"?

    Thanks for the article!