Publishing is dead…

James Farmer is one of online education’s freer thinkers, and he’s recently speculated that the new technology might put us publishers out of business by letting teachers share work directly.

So, not thinking about putting Ian out of business, but I’m sure that people will have attempted a kind of open source lesson-plan / resource wiki kind of thing, but they can’t have been that successful because otherwise, I guess, I’d know about. Am I right? Do you reckon there’s wikipedia-esque potential for this kind of work?

The generic name for this kind of thing is disintermediation and it was very hot buzzword during the internet bubble (ahhhh….the good old days…). The great thing about the bubble is it was 5 years ago, and we are now starting to see which of its predictions will come true (we all buy airline tickets online now) and which won’t (clothes shops have stayed stubbornly in the High St).

Publishing is certainly getting pushed online, but its fundamentals have remained remarkably constant. I’ll refer to the case of educational publishing, but in fact the general principles hold true across the discipline.

Think back to the time when pupils learned from things called books. Publishers didn’t physically make those books (that’s printers) nor write them (that’s authors), so what did they do? Their primary role was to

  • find someone suitably qualified to write a book,
  • incentivise them to actually complete it more-or-less in time for when other teachers needed it
  • reorganise it so that other people could actually teach from it
  • pay an artist to illustrate it
  • lay it out smartly to make it a better read
  • make teachers aware that it was there and would be useful to them
  • finance all the above well ahead of any sales, without any guarantee that money would be recouped.

Very little of this changes just because the content is online. Teachers are as prone as they ever were to starting a project, failing to finish it by the start of term, and then getting swamped by workload. Left to themselves, they also tend to write exclusively to their own teaching methods. You will have noticed that you can very rarely pick up work by another teacher from another school and just use it. With a good textbook (and certainly a good Chalkface pack) you can.

In fairness to James, he’s addressed some of these issues by suggesting the use of wikis or aggregation tools. Wikipedia, after all, is famously peer-edited. Wikipedia relies on a large number of contributors who do not themselves write new material, but who edit, collate and de-duplicate the work of others. That requires a mindset (a compulsion to detail, order and completion) that is almost the opposite of that required to be an effective teacher (massive tolerance of chaos and a focus on the process not the endpoint).

The bottom line is that to make James’ idea work, we’d need to pay someone to keep it all in order. And to make sure meaningful contributions were completed even after the start of term. And…

You get the idea; we’ve just reinvented the publisher. So Publishing is dead … long live Publishing!


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