In the course of my job at the World Bank helping ministries of education in middle and low income countries think about, analyze, plan for, implement and evaluate issues, ideas and projects at the intersection of the worlds of technology and education, I spend a fair amount of time considering issues related to the digital publishing of educational materials. The World Bank has over the years funded the purchase of lots of textbooks around the world and we maintain active dialogues with scores of education ministries, helping to provide related advice and technical assistance.
In many countries, especially poor ones where disposable income is very low and where there is not an established culture of leisure reading, the educational publishing industry is sometimes largely indistinguishable from the publishing industry as a whole, and government purchases of textbooks (and/or government directives about which textbooks families or schools should purchase, where such things are not centrally procured) have huge, often determining influence on the direction of the publishing industry in general. In order to better understand how all of this impacts educational publishing, I talk regularly with lots of 'traditional' educational publishers, big and small, both international and local. I also talk a lot with technology companies who do things that look a lot like educational publishing to me, or who provide the tools and services to enable and support related activities.
Last year I participated in two fascinating events a few weeks apart, the EdTech Industry Summit in San Francisco and a symposium convened by the International Publishers Association (IPA) at the London Book Fair. (I was lucky enough to be at the IPA symposium this year as well.) At these meetings, the agendas and items discussed were largely the same, but were often approached from quite different perspectives. For the sake of argument here -- and I admit I am greatly oversimplifying things by making this characterization -- EdTech Summit participants were mainly 'tech companies', while the London Book Fair event was mainly attended by 'traditional publishers'. (I concede that such distinctions are increasingly difficult, and less useful, to make as time goes on; in my opinion all publishers are technology companies these days, whether they self-identify as such or not and/or whether outsiders see them that way.)
At both events, a data point that was quoted quite often was that '1% of national education budgets around the world are devoted to the purchasing of textbooks and other learning materials'. While I have never been able to find this assertion supported by hard data, I have heard it expressed so many times over the years by people who work in or around the educational publishing industry that I have taken it as almost 'conventional wisdom'. Whether this figure is actually .5% or 2% or 4% (or whatever), what has struck me when in conversation with many vendors is that many traditional publishers have, in the face of the steady rise in many countries around the world of large scale purchases of laptops and tablets for students and teachers, worried that technology purchases are eating into traditional budgets for the purchases of textbooks.
As one traditional publisher put it to me at the London event in 2013, "we need to figure out how to protect this 1% so that it is not tapped to buy iPads". Contrast this with a statement made to me by an enthusiastic founder of an edtech start-up in San Francisco, who said that the goal of firms like his was to "eventually capture 20% of education budgets" by transforming the way education is delivered as a result of the use of new technologies. Whether or not such figures are accurate, they for me exemplify a difference in perspective and ambition that is consistent with many stereotypical characterizations of brash young tech entrepreneurs in their hoodies (and/or khakis) versus the tweedy old-school booksellers whose business model that I have been told on many occasions -- especially by those not that business -- was one for "dinosaurs".
(While conceding that the business models for selling books will have to change rather radically going forward, a concession to which no educational publisher I know would object in the age of e-readers and hypertext, of apps and APIs, I am fairly confident that extinction rates for edtech startups will remain much greater than that of book publishers for the foreseeable future, although in the end I wouldn't be too surprised if the most successful 'tech' firms doing business in this space end up buying up a lot of the 'publishers' -- some of whom will themselves be buying and merging with 'tech' firms along the way.)
If we accept the premise that educational publishing industry in the 'developed' countries of Europe and North America are being, and will continue to be, increasingly radically disrupted -- a contention with which I expect few people would disagree -- what might this mean for business models for educational publishing in less developed, 'poor' countries? Will the related business models from OECD contexts simply, and eventually, be transplanted to middle and low income countries? Or: Might some new business models for digital educational publishing emerge from less developed countries, based on specific local contexts and consumer demands in an increasingly digital -- and mobile -- age?
This list certainly isn't comprehensive. As with all posts on the EduTech blog, the standard disclaimers should apply (e.g. these are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent official views of the World Bank, etc.). It is perhaps worth noting that these sorts of suggestions are typically made and discussed within a specific context: A country has decided, for better or for worse, that it will consider significant new investments in digital teaching and learning materials. With this decision already made, policymakers are looking for some additional perspectives and inputs to help guide their thinking as they move forward.
In other words: These sorts of recommendations typically are not meant to inform higher level discussions about fundamental strategic priorities in the education sector (although, where they may help trigger reconsideration of some broader decisions made at higher levels, that may not always be such a bad thing). They are not meant to help, for example, policymakers assess whether or not to spend money on digital textbooks versus buying related hardware, let alone whether or not investments in digital learning resources should be made instead of spending money on things like school feeding programs, improvements in instruction at teacher training colleges, or hiring more teachers. Rather, they are more along the lines of:
Here is some potential food for thought.
With that context and those caveats in place, here are ten general recommendations that education officials contemplating the use of digital teaching and learning materials at scale across a country’s education system may wish to consider during their related planning processes:
Across Africa, a variety of devices are increasingly being used to disseminate and display teaching and learning materials in electronic and digital formats. As costs for such devices continue to fall, and as the devices themselves become more widely available and used across communities, the small pilot, and largely NGO-led, projects that have characterized most efforts to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be, distributed to schools.
Few would argue that the use of such devices do not offer great promise and potential to improve the access to and quality of education by providing access to more educational content than is currently available inside and outside of schools. Internet connectivity can provide access to millions of educational materials available on the Internet; low cost, handheld e-reading devices can hold more than a thousand books. Depending on the availability of connectivity, or local resourcefulness in transferring materials to devices manually, digital content used in schools can be updated more regularly than is possible with printed materials. Depending on the device utilized, this content can be presented as ‘rich media’, with audio, video and animations helping content be displayed in ways that are engaging and interactive. It is possible to track electronically how such content is used, and, depending on the technologies employed, to present content to teachers and learners in personalized ways. In some cases , this content can be delivered at lower costs than those incurred when providing traditional printed materials.
Given the increased availability and diffusion of consumer computing technologies across much of the continent in less than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of widespread misconceptions about the promise and potential of using digital technologies and devices across Africa to increase access to learning materials appear to have taken hold. On one level, this is consistent with the ‘hype cycle’ model of technology diffusion in which, according to Gartner, a technology breakthrough is soon followed by a period of time of “inflated expectations” about what sort of changes might be possible as a result.
A few countries across Africa are considering rather ambitious initiatives to roll out and utilize digital textbooks, a general catch-all term or metaphor which I understand in many circumstances to be ‘teaching and learning resources and materials presented in electronic and digital formats’.
How much will such initiatives cost?
Reflexively, some ministries of education (and donors!) may think this is a pretty straightforward question to answer. After all, they have been buying textbooks in printed formats for a long time, they have a good handle on what such materials traditional cost, and so they may naturally presume that they can think about the costs of ‘digital textbooks’ in pretty similar ways.
Many people are surprised to discover that calculating costs associated with the introduction and use of digital teaching and learning materials is often a non-trivial endeavor. At a basic level, how much an education system spends will depend on what it intends to do, its current capacity to support such use – and of course what it can afford. As they investigate matters more deeply (and sit through many presentations from publishers and other vendors, sometimes wowed at what is now possible and available while at the same time rather confused about what is now possible and available), education officials seeking to acquire digital teaching and learning materials for use at scale across an education system may find costing exercises to be, in reality, rather challenging and (surprisingly) complex when compared to their ‘standard’ textbook procurement practices.
The World Bank is revising its Operational Guidelines for Textbooks and Reading Materials [pdf]. Commonly referred to as our 'textbook policy', this is a guidance document for our ‘clients’ and partners in ministries of education and finance, our own staff and (to a lesser extent) broader stakeholder communities interested and involved in the development, procurement, dissemination, and assessment of the use, of learning materials (especially within the context of World Bank-funded projects in the education sector).
The current policy dates from 2002. My first reaction when I heard that the World Bank would be revising its “textbook policy” was to the term itself. In 2012, surely we should be thinking beyond just 'textbooks', more broadly encompassing a wide variety of educational resources than the traditional conception of a printed book landing with a thud on the desk of a student? Despite regular proclamations from certain quarters about the impending ‘death of the printed book’, printed textbooks – especially in the developing countries where the World Bank is active -- aren’t going away any time soon. That said, there is no doubt that the landscape of and business climate for ‘educational publishers’ is changing radically in much of the world, and that this change is being fueled in large part by the increased distribution and adoption of a variety of disruptive technologies, which are increasingly to be found in schools and local communities, even in some of the poorest.
How might, or should, a new World Bank ‘textbook policy’ be relevant and useful in such a world going forward? How narrowly – or expansively – should it consider its guidance related to learning materials? To what extent should such a policy attempt to signal or highlight the potential relevance or importance of certain trends, approaches or perspectives – especially as they relate to the emergence of a variety of new technologies?
What does it take to introduce e-books and e-readers into communities in low income countries -- and is this a good idea?
Judging by the increasing number of inquiries we receive here at the World Bank on this topic, we are not alone in asking such questions. If you want help in trying to answer these and related queries based on evidence from pioneers in this area, you will most likely find yourself at some point in contact with the folks at the Worldreader NGO. Co-founded by one of the former senior executives at Amazon, Worldreader is working with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world". Jonathan Wareham, a professor at ESADE in Barcelona who serves on the Worldreader - Spanish Foundation Board and collaborates with the organization on various research activities into the use of e-readers and e-books, recently stopped by the World Bank to talk about what Worldreader is learning from its work in Africa.
A few years ago, a World Bank study highlighted the fact that there simply aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive. In response to this reality, some people at the World Bank have been exploring various options for addressing the 'textbook gap', including initiatives investigating the potential cost-effectiveness of 'e-books' for African students.
At the other end of the spectrum from the situation that exists in schools in many low- and middle-income countries in Africa, students in one East Asian nation may soon not have access to textbooks either -- at least the old fashioned, printed kind.
Back in 2008, a World Bank study on Textbooks and School Library Provision in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [pdf] noted that "There is little or no evidence in any of the 19 countries reviewed of any systematic approach to, or consideration of, the full range of secondary textbook cost reduction strategies", adding that "Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades."
In other words: There aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.
A number of groups are looking at this reality and wondering if the use of inexpensive e-book readers may be able to help. One such group at the World Bank is exploring an e-book pilot initiative in Nigeria (which has been examined previously on the EduTech blog). This pilot is looking at what it might take to deliver textbooks in digital formats for reading by secondary school students on dedicated e-readers, and what might happen as a result. It is not just looking at the use of official textbooks, however. The project team is also seeking to investigate the potential impact on educational achievement of making small libraries of digital books available to students on e-readers. In doing so, it is intrigued by studies such as Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, which found that
In the United States and Europe and a number of other places, sales of e-Book readers are growing by leaps and bounds, and many people hope to find shiny new portable electronic reading devices under their Christmas tree later this month. (Many of those who don't celebrate this particular holiday would be quite happy to receive them as well, of course.)
At the same time, organizations like the World Bank are being asked to help finance very expensive, large-scale purchases of printed educational material in many countries. (And because of the success of Education For All in many places, such purchases are bigger than ever before.)
Should poor countries in Africa be exploring investments in things like eBook readers for use in schools?
Well, one way to find out would be to set up an experiment to test various approaches and solutions in pursuit of an answer to this question.