A colleague of mine raised the issue of Cartels in relation to discussions we were having on the state of Educational Publishing in Canada and it caused me to reflect deeper on the issue. I would like to share my thoughts on the subject.
Cartel culture runs deep in corporate Canada. Publishers, Media Consortia, Telcoms and, abominably, Beer Producers being the most culpable. Unfortunately, this has stifled innovation because the bottom line for any Cartel is predicated on maintaining the status quo. Recent announcements on a collaboration between Pearson Publishing and Google may signal a change in the wind, however, I remain cautiously skeptical and I cannot help but feel that it might be nothing more than a savvy co-branding exercise.
Canadian publishers have had an entitlement to the wallets of our students and they have been soundly rebuffed by them over the last 10 years in their flight from the bookstores. From the announcement alluded to earlier, it would seem that publishers would like to enjoy the same level of control over the emerging landscape. Why else would one approach the emperor of the internet (Google)? It is a truism to say that the net ecosystem by its nature is infinitely complex, decentralized and democratic and it will be curious to see how a Cartel mixed with a virtual monopoly can provide a product or service that resonates with the vox pop of the wired generation.
While educatonal publishers still have an important role to play in the media ecosystem they need to eat humble pie in my estimation. Something inside me tells me that this meeting between Google and Pearson is like lavalife for publishers. Google is the Yenta who is powerful enough to force an arranged marriage that we scholars and our students didn’t necessarily ask for or want. Using Google in this manner avoids the messy business of having to engage with the very audience who has rejected your offer of marriage in the first place! The scene reminds me of a titled aristocrat desperately seeking a hasty marriage to a well endowed bride in order to shore up his sagging fortunes.
For the less cynical, perhaps, the threat of extinction has caused them to consider what is at stake and they have listened to a constituency that they have largely ignored in the past. The publishers in Canada need to understand the new ecosystem into which they have been unwittingly mired in—an ecosystem where the “consumer” has a significantly different set of attributes and a demonstrably greater degree of power to shape and even create the very content they consume—it is an exquisite act of self-cannibalism. One might say that we are at the dawn of a renaissance in vanity publishing—my blogging activity, for example. And this is where publishers might actually be able to add value in ensuring that vainglory does not trump quality of content. Other factors in the media ecology are also worthy of consideration and may present opportunities for the hungry publisher. They should avoid the lure of trying to create a leviathan content technopoly (I suspect this is why Google is involved) and work on building value for their audiences. I get the sense that they wish to use these technologies to simply lock down and secure a distribution channel for their content and continue with the status quo. The challenges are much greater and it hinges on technology.
Technology is a thread that is ubiquitous in all disciplines and continues to be an invasive (gaining access into areas traditionally not enabled with technology) and disruptive species that causes social and economic turbulence or “disruption”. There is no “settling” of these turbid waters—no period of calm where we can establish the lay of the land and start utilizing it in some meaningful way. By the time we think we comprehend it, it has morphed into something else. This means that we must come to terms with the fact that there are no “set pieces” in education and that this means a significantly lower ROI on assets generated and a much shorter window in which to capitalize on any generated content and it is at “content” and its authorship/ownership where I think the publishers are, unfortunately, nostalgic.
We no longer live in an age where an artefact or content is the thing valued, rather, value inheres in the ability to connect, stay connected and maintain and explore the dynamics of a relationship (ie. Facebook). Content is a by-product of these relationships but the value to the participants lies not so much in what is produced but in the relationships themselves. At the root of internet content generation on social networks is a fundamental human need to instantiate our being in vis-a-vis the “other”. Nowhere in history is it more true than the internet age. Only pre-literate cultures enjoyed such a degree of radical interconnectedness.
If publishers could grasp the fact that their future lies not in securing and indenturing content rather, as brokers of deep and transformative relationships, they may actually be able to bring significant value to the current ecosystem, otherwise they are doomed to be horse traders in the age of the automobile. As content producers they have failed to deliver in terms of price, usability and timeliness. If every domain of human activity is technologically enabled in some way it stands to reason that the diffusion cycles of these technologies will be fairly aggressive and cause knowledge to obsolesce in 12-28 month cycles. Teaching and Learning and Educational Publishing, like it or not, are inextricably linked to the innovation cycle and demand agility in our adaptation to the new ecological niches they create. This is an incredibly demanding task and I don’t believe that traditional publishing workflows and value chains can support this. We need to explore adaptation strategies that engender collective co-authorship and collaboration even highly fragmented forms of micro-monetization (App Store comes to mind) that allows everyone to participate in a YouTube style economy. The traditional “customer” has a significant role to play in the generation and shaping of content in this new economy with a larger share in both the benefits and the responsibilities. Facilitating this process, with a view to encouraging and promoting excellence is, to my mind, the new publishing paradigm.
Facebook has categorically proven the value of relation over content and that the sense of authorship has morphed into a domain of co-creation and collaboration. Our students should actually be participating in building learning domain architecture, experiences and content. Not being considered as the bottom of a vertical food chain!
I have been working for the past 8 years on building a “Knowledge Garden” This project at GBC School of Design (an experimental lab in developing crowd-sourced approaches to educational content creation, curation and distribution) has and will continue to support experimentation in new paradigms of engagement and I would be very keen to develop a partnership with an interested publisher to share in the co-creation of new learning methods from the ground up. We could certainly benefit from their expertise in content management and distribution and we could show them how this can be transformed into something new and meaningful for the wired generation.