Sachet educational publishing in a digital and mobile world

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I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem and one packet of verb conjugations, please
I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem
and one packet of verb conjugations, please

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 in 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?


The American sports figure Casey Stengel once advised, "Never make predictions, especially about the future." (The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, among others, is meant to have offered similar advice.) Attempting to peer into a crystal ball is often a rather fun exercise; it is also something that more often than not ends in disappointment (except, perhaps, for those who later delight in how silly and presumptuous the predictor, and his prediction, appear in hindsight). Lots of very smart people regularly hypothesize about the 'future of publishing', and those of you who are interested in such things and who have stayed with this blog post this far hoping for some related insight may well be better served by clicking on that link than in hoping to learn anything from what is presented below.

That said, another American, the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, has observed that "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." It is from countries like the Philippines and Pakistan and (especially) Kenya, and not the highly developed countries of the OECD, that many of the usage and business models that are defining the new era of ' mobile money' are emerging, for example.  Might analogous sorts of business models be introduced, and tested, in such places -- in countries and contexts that face many challenge resource constraints but where mobile phones are increasingly ubiquitous -- that might provide insights into possible futures for educational publishing as well? I have no idea, but there are some emerging activities and long-standing contexts in so-called less developed countries that might be worth considering for a moment or two.

Consider, for example, the way that traditional textbooks are (in some circumstances) distributed, sold, paid for and 'consumed' in local markets in some poor countries. Textbooks themselves may be scarce and/or too expensive in such places. People still buy and use them, of course, but in ways that are perhaps rather different than what one might find in, say, Brisbane or Bologna. Instead, an entrepreneur may buy a textbook and rip it into many small pieces (individual chapters, for example, or individual problem sets or answer keys). These small pieces are then photocopied, divided and sold on as as-needed basis to students, one chapter or problem set at a time, in small increments for small amounts of money. Such activities are most likely illegal, of course. I am not advocating that this sort of activity is good or desirable or recommended (although if we are talking about  OER content, intellectual property issues may not be so acute). I am just pointing out something I have seen happen in practice in many countries.

So-called sachet purchasing, where people buy just what they need and can afford, in small amounts (but no more!), is an established phenomenon in much of the so-called developing world. A classic example of this is someone buying not a box of many bars of soap at a supermarket, but rather an individual bar (or even part of a bar) of soap from a small corner store or a person standing in a market space. One sees examples of sachet purchasing to a much lesser extent in markets today for learning materials than one sees in markets for, say, personal cleaning supplies, but the concept is the same.

Bars of soap (like physical textbooks) are of course physical goods that need to be bought in places where buyers and sellers are in close physical proximity to each other. You can't (to the best of my knowledge) digitize soap. You can certainly digitize books, though. Indeed, lots of people do this! Once digitized, breaking them into smaller pieces is a trivial task. They can now be delivered in very small pieces over mobile networks. One persistent criticism of the use of mobile phones in learning that I hear is that 'you can't read a whole book on a mobile phone, the screen is only so big'. While reasonable people can perhaps disagree on this point, there is much less disagreement about the utility of using mobile phones to read and digest small amounts of text.

Now, many long-time observers of pronouncements about the future of the digital economy will say that this sort of thing isn't new. Indeed, business models built on the delivery of 'micro-content' were all the rage back in the early days of the Internet. They foundered for many reasons, including the fact that mechanisms for micro-payment were not robust enough or in widespread use. In a place like Kenya, however, a widely-used, robust mechanism for micro-payment is literally in the palm of people's hands. It just so happens that this mechanism is a service -- 'mobile money' -- that happens on a mobile phone, the very same device to which micro-content in digital formats can be delivered and viewed.

Now, you could also argue that people are not willing to pay for digital educational content, especially with so much content available on the Internet for free. This is certainly true .... although this 'truth' may be in some cases contingent on who you are, and where you are. One of the most interesting findings to emerge from the Nokia Life Tools initiative, an SMS-based information platform designed for emerging markets that grew popular in places like India and Indonesia, was that there were many people in such places who were willing to pay for access to small amounts of educational content. In Finland and Europe, no one will pay for educational content, we were told by people who managed that project at an event at the World Bank last year, they expect it to be available for free on the Internet. But, based on our experience, there are people in poor countries who will pay for digital educational content, in small amounts, if it is relevant to them and available when they need it, presented in ways that are easy to understand and digest.

As part of an online "Twitterchat" organized by the London Book Fair earlier this year, I was asked about this particular business model in some low-income markets, and how it fit with existing business models of major publishers in established markets. I responded that I didn't think it did -- but that it is nevertheless a business model being explored by some of the small start-ups that are emerging to serve local educational needs in some low-income markets. Modular pieces of 'textbooks' are just one example of micro-digital educational content -- quizzes and test prep materials may especially lend themselves with delivery over mobile networks in small chunks. This is potentially quite relevant in places where there are very high stakes exams, where families may already be paying for related tutoring services (or would pay for, if only there were any nearby that they could access) and where these exams reward knowledge retention and regurgitation (as is so often, rather unfortunately the case in many education systems around the world) -- just the type of things that short digital quizzes and flashcards are (for better and for worse) well-positioned to reinforce.

(If I was asked to point people to markets where these sorts of business models are most likely to develop, I would suggest that they may look at places like Kenya, where the M-Pesa mobile payment platform is well established, where mobile phones are in widespread use, which have high stakes exams, and where there are the beginnings of a mobile edtech start-up scene.)

Will this sort of thing work? I have no idea. Even if the answer to this question is "yes", there are many challenges to overcome. Even where mobile payment systems exist, they are usually tied to one specific mobile network operator. Where network operators decide to offer various value-added services over their networks themselves, digital edtech start-ups may find themselves in a very difficult operating environment. The network operator can offer to buy the start-up for a very small amount of money -- and if the start-up refuses this advance, there may be little to (e.g.) prevent the operator itself offering this service (an especially acute danger in places where intellectual property theft may be common), or from providing preferential treatment to a competing product or service. I have seen business plans in markets without robust mobile money systems in place where start-ups have proposed being paid in airtime as a sort or ersatz currency, but this can often run afoul of the terms of use of a mobile network operator. Even where this is technically permissible, I would imagine that few mobile edtech start-ups are equipped to 'bank' large amounts of airtime, nor that easy, affordable mechanisms exist to re-sell or cash out so that this banked airtime can be converted into real money.

That said, if we are looking to places where innovative practices in the delivery of digital educational content may emerge, it might be worth spending some time considering how, where and under what circumstances such innovations may emerge from 'the edge', in places where we might least expect. The potential emergence of sachet educational publishing in an increasingly digital -- and mobile -- world is just one example of this.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the World Bank EduTech blog:  
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of two piles of lavender sachets ("I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem and one packet of verb conjugations, please") comes from Julie Lyn via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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