Textbook policies in an increasingly digital age

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"Should we continue along our current path, or acknowledge that others are blasting off in other directions?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?

In the past, World Bank policies in this area have often been conceived to help inform the procurement of printed textbooks under World Bank education loans to countries.  This is perhaps not surprising, given the outsized role that the World Bank and other international donors have played in financing the provisioning of textbooks in many countries around the world.  While this sort of thing will not disappear any time soon – the current World Bank education project in the Philippines is one noteworthy example of current World Bank support for large scale textbook procurement -- one presumes that, for a variety of reasons (including more direct budget support), the Bank may be doing less targeted lending to countries to help them buy textbooks in the future, but that the institution’s role in providing technical assistance to countries as they attempt to navigate a changing landscape may become more pronounced.  As/if this change occurs, it will be interesting to see if there is a related transition from considering textbooks as a one-off, large scale procurement exercise (which is how some critics characterize donor activities in this area, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps a bit simplistically) to more strategic considerations of the provision and use of learning resources as integral components of an on-going process (both within the education system to promote learning and discovery in various ways, and from an economic development perspective as well).

Given the changes that have occurred over the past decade, and a presumption that many more are to come, the current World Bank textbook policy document, which mentions technology-related issues to a very limited extent -- almost as an aside and largely when talking about ‘distance learning’ -- may seem to some observers to be (bluntly speaking) more an historical artifact in many places than something of relevance to the increasingly crowded space where ‘education’ and ‘technology’ meet and overlap.  This is not to say that there is nothing from the 2002 document that is relevant today.  Far from it!  For the most part, the components of the general ‘statement of operational guidelines’ that begins on the first page of the current document remain as relevant in 2012 as they were a decade ago. The importance of textbooks and reading materials for education; of having an affordable, sustainable supply system; of involving the private sector and promoting choice and competition; of ensuring that there is equitable access to materials and that cost should not be an obstacle for poor students; of local language instructional materials; and of promoting transparency in purchasing decisions and respect for intellectual property, etc. – these sorts of things seem to me to remain quite reasonable high-level guidance for any policies and practices in this area going forward.

Once you get beyond such statements of high level principles, however, the current policy offers little to no practical guidance useful to help answer many of the sorts of questions I receive regularly from ministries of education.  Things like:

• How do we develop and maintain an online national educational portal featuring digital learning materials?

• How can we make sure that our content is available on as wide a variety of devices as possible – and which devices will be the most important for us to consider in our purchasing decisions?

• We have announced plans to buy lots of tablets for our teachers and students – what sort of content should we develop for such things? (And what about things like dedicated e-readers – and mobile phones?)

• Korea has announced its intention to move to all digital textbooks by 2015 – how are they (and others) going to do this in practice, and should we be thinking about doing something similar?

• What role should social media play in our strategies and policies around educational learning materials?

• How can we promote the development of a vibrant digital media industry?

• Should we consider adopting, or promoting, the use of open education resources?

• Given that teachers and students have access to millions of education resources on the Internet, how should we consider the use of such materials, and how should this influence our learning content strategies?

These are just a small sample of the types of questions related in some way to ‘digital learning materials’ that I have received from ministries of education over the past year.  In addition to these sorts of queries, I note that I often find that many of (what I consider to be) the most important questions are initially not asked, and so I usually try to introduce into such discussions sets of questions related to topics like intellectual property, piracy, the differences in working or partnering with technology firms compared with old-line publishers, ‘digital safety’, user-generated content and other themes that either are not currently on the radar screen for such groups (but should be) or are beyond the scope of how ministries of education often (narrowly) approach the topic, based on how things were done in the past.

I have never worked on a ‘textbook’ project per se, and so have little substantive advice to offer the World Bank team preparing the new guidelines related to the production or dissemination of textbooks the ‘old-fashioned way’.  That said, since joining the World Bank fifteen years ago, I have been quite active in dozens of projects (and an eager observer of scores more) that have sought to fund, develop, introduce, sustain, monitor, and evaluate digital learning resources of various sorts in low and middle income countries.  I have also participated in various activities related to the theme more generally in sets of ‘advanced’ countries, including being part of the OECD team that eventually produced Beyond Textbooks: Digital Learning Resources as Systemic Innovation in the Nordic Countries, which looked at a set of countries consider by many to be at the frontier of thinking and practice in this regard. With that in context/perspective in place, and it case it might add anything to current debates and discussions that are occurring as a result of the World Bank’s announcement that it is revising its ‘textbook policy’, I thought I’d offer, in no particular order and with no pretensions to comprehensiveness,

Ten comments related to digital learning resources
of potential relevance to the development of
the World Bank’s new guidelines for textbooks and reading materials

1. Procurement decisions can promote – or inhibit – the development of competitive, innovative, sustainable local digital educational publishing industries

In many lower income countries (especially in Africa), educational publishing makes up over 90% of the overall publishing market.  In places where disposable income is at a premium, and where the culture of buying books is not well ingrained, the health of the local publishing industry largely depends on procurement processes in the education sector.  To the extent that you believe that education systems – or more broadly, opportunities for personal learning and growth in general – are well served by having vibrant, dynamic local publishing markets, is it worth considering how the way government tenders for textbooks impact such markets?  (Some governments may decide that this is not important, and prefer that only government publish educational materials for use in government schools – that is another case entirely, and one that I am not trying to address here).  There are potentially some very real tensions in many places between the desire for an education system to acquire educational content at the lowest price per pupil while at the same promoting the development of competitive local markets and educational publishing ecosystems that can help best support the needs of an education system, as well as the needs and desires of individual learners, over time.  Does lowest cost in the short run equate to lowest cost in the long run?  Where a large tender for textbooks run for (for example) a period of five years, and this is the only large scale tender of consequence in a given market, might this not damage the prospects for a diverse set of competitive local actors to develop and strengthen over time?  If the ‘losers’ can not afford to stay in business, leaving only a few ‘winners’ (or in the worst case, only one), how might this impact the provision of educational materials over time in a given place?

The links between the health of local publishing and local tech industries appear to be growing in many places.  Where a country is actively promoting the development of local technology firms and vibrant, competitive local industries (in both technology and publishing), while at the same engaged in procurement processes in the education sector that are potentially at odds with such goals, are there any useful models to consider to help meet both objectives?  In some places, for example, large procurements are broken into many smaller pieces (I have heard this referred to as ‘micro-procurements’, but I assume there is actually a specific term for this) as a way to foster industry development while at the same time meeting the more immediate needs for low-cost, high quality educational content (digital and traditional).  I don’t know how this sort of thing works in practice, and what trade-offs it might entail.  I do know that, where donor money is involved, procurement activities can often be very complex, and there is an understandable desire for countries to lump as many things together as possible into large tenders so as to help ‘lessen the pain’, as it were. Is this the right approach, and if not, what other options might there be?

2. Partnerships – international/local, publishers/tech firms – are increasingly important

In speaking with both technology firms and publishers, international and local, I have noticed the extent to which partnerships of various sorts seem to characterize emerging markets for digital educational materials in many low and middle income countries.  International publishers teaming up with local publishers; local publishers partnering with local tech firms; local tech firms partnering with international publishers; international tech firms partnering with local publishers: The combinations and permutations are often difficult for me to track and follow.  Conversations with firms in each of these four ‘quadrants’ often highlight to me the importance of having a diverse set of potential partners to choose from. If a government considers this sort of thing to be desirable (and I concede that some may not), how might it -– and the donor agencies with which it partners -- support such linkages as part of its larger effort to ensure that the highest quality educational materials are available in the most accessible ways at the lowest possible cost to learners, both inside its formal education system and outside of it?

3. Intellectual property issues should be high on the agenda, and carefully considered

Once content is digitized and made widely available, it becomes easier and easier to steal it.  This phenomenon has brought about a radical restructuring of the music industry; the movie and ‘video’ business are currently being reshaped by it as well; and the educational publishing industry is beginning to feel its effects.  The digitization of learning materials, together with the proliferation of ‘alternative’ approaches to licenses for various type of digital content (like Creative Commons, which has helped spawn the OER movement, see next item), is causing many education systems to re-think approaches to educational content.  Piracy has of course always occurred – incidents where countries ‘buy’ textbooks from publishers and then decide to just print more copies as they see fit, feeling that they now ‘own’ the content itself, are not unknown.  That said, these sorts of issues become much more acute when content is digitized, connectivity enables this content to be distributed in the blink of an eye, and an explosion of low cost end user devices make accessing and reading such content as easy as flipping a switch or pressing a few buttons. Some countries (like Indonesia, and Poland) are beginning to mandate that publishers make their printed content available for free in digital versions, and others are promoting, or contemplating, a variety of alternative approaches to intellectual property and publishing as a result. Many intellectual property issues are challenging traditional approaches to the ownership and use of education content today, and it is hard to see that things will become any simpler or less complicated in this regard in the future. Is there any guidance that can fruitfully be offered in this regard?

4. The ‘open educational resources’ movement is changing the way educational materials are created – and used

The current World Bank textbook guidelines were drafted in an era when discussion about things like ‘open access’ and ‘open educational resources’ were still largely fringe topics discussed among various niche groups.  Over the past decade, we have seen an explosion of interest and activity in promoting and utilizing ‘open education resources’, which are (in the words of the Hewlett Foundation, which through its grants has been a key supporter and enabler of related activities) "teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others." The OER ‘movement’, which has been to a large part been made possible by the rapid diffusion of ICTs,  challenges traditional approaches to the production, procurement and use of educational materials.  Should you buy what you can get for 'free'?  Should government-funded or -purchased education resources be 'open'?  How can, or should, ‘open’ resources and traditional textbooks be considered together as part of an educational system’s larger approach to ‘content’?  In an age where Khan Academy content is increasingly being incorporated into national educational portals and where the World Bank itself has prominently gone ‘open access’, silence on related issues in its advice and guidance to governments would be, at the very minimum, rather curious.

5. Content and assessment are becoming more closely linked

Over the past few years I have noted to myself, when sitting through many PowerPoint presentations and in subsequent informal conversations, that more and more educational publishers are referencing their work in the field of ‘educational assessment’.  I have had a few ‘publishers’ tell me that they are actually ‘assessment companies’. (At the same time I find that the line between ‘publishing companies’ and ‘technology firms’ is getting quite blurred in many ways. )  If this is indeed true -- my evidence for this phenomenon is purely anecdotal -- there are a few potential explanations for this.  As the traditional educational publishing business is disrupted in many ways, and where certain types of learning content are increasingly seen (rightly or wrongly) as commodities in certain quarters because they are available ‘for free’, closely anchoring educational content within an assessment platform or tool might make compelling business sense.  It is (I would assume) more difficult to pirate and then market an assessment engine or platform than it is to copy and re-distribute education content that someone else has created. However one feels about the value of open education resources, one potential Achilles heel of the ‘OER movement’ is that, while there are lots of groups working on ‘open content’, there do not appear to me to be many organizations working on ‘open assessment systems’. To what extent might it be useful to consider issues related to ‘assessment’ when offering guidelines about textbooks and other educational content?

6. The lines between the delivery of ‘content’, and the devices or technologies on which such content is used, are blurring

Just as issues related to content and assessment may be starting to become more closely linked, making less clear the distinctions between a ‘good’ and a ‘service’, so too (from a procurement perspective) the lines between ‘content’ and the hardware and software that enable the use of such content are blurring.  When many countries seek to ‘computerize’ their schools at a mass scale for the first time, they often leave aside serious contemplations of just what educational content will be accessed and used (and created) on such devices.  (This phenomenon is so widespread that it was #3 on the EduTech list of ‘worst practice in ICT use in education’.) In some countries, there are very real worries that purchases of hardware may actually divert monies from budgets used to purchase learning materials – at least in the short run.  While all of this is going on, the very nature of the textbooks themselves are changing in some places (one oft-cited example of this is the ‘flexbook’, an initiative which is assembling lots of educational content and then enabling educators to pick and choose from it to, in effect, ‘create’ a textbook out of many disparate parts, in line with governing curricular standards).  Content developed for a specific device may not be usable at all on another device,  leading to potential dependencies in the tendering process and increasing the potential danger of ‘vendor lock-in’ in ways that have not bedeviled the market for printed textbooks in many countries like what has happened in the technology sphere.  Even if the tools and marketplaces continue to change, might there useful approaches to help inform decisions that will be made while these changes are occurring? Given all of this confusion and increased ‘blurriness’, to what extent might new guidelines help countries achieve some greater clarity on how they might proceed going forward?

7. The move to using more digital content creates new opportunities to promote greater equity – while at the same time potentially erecting some even higher barriers that can exclude various groups

The current World Bank guidelines contain some very important and strong statements about equity of access to, and use of, educational materials.  As learning materials are increasingly available in digital formats, how places consider issues related to ‘equity’ may need to change.  Indeed, approaches to ensuring equitable ‘access’ to digital materials will need to carefully consider how such access may be different based on gender and for traditionally marginalized groups and special needs populations. To what extent is guidance in this regard useful, relevant, and possible?

8. In a fast-changing area like digital learning resources, care needs to be taken to promote innovation – and not stifle it

Whatever shape or form new guidelines related to the procurement, production and usage of education materials might take, such guidelines might do well to consider, and potentially attempt to anticipate (as possible), mechanisms which are open to ‘new approaches’.  One challenge in many places is how to translate functional specifications into the technical specs that are quite often the salient feature of individual tenders. Given how quickly things are starting to change, might it be useful to help alert and orient key stakeholder groups and partners to the variety of ways that the ‘industry’ is changing and innovating, in the hope that doing so might avoid instances where innovative approaches, products and services are effectively not considered because they do not represent business-as-usual?

9. International donors can play important roles in fighting corruption and promoting greater transparency

I have never worked on a textbook project myself, and have no first-hand knowledge about any of these sorts of things, but typing words like ‘textbooks’ ‘tender’ ‘corruption’ into your favorite search engine will quickly yield lots of news reports and allegations that do raise a number of red flags for me.  As procurement of digital learning materials becomes more prevalent, many of the traditional watchdog groups that monitor malfeasance in tendering processes may be challenged to figure out how to cope with terms of reference that include new technology-related approaches, tools and practices where various sorts of chicanery and skullduggery could potentially hide.  To what extent might guidance in this area be appropriate and useful – to say nothing of (potentially) welcome?

10. ____

As I have done with other ten-item lists that have been published on the EduTech blog, #10 is left deliberately blank, both as an acknowledgement of my own limitations, as well as a prompt for others to add their thoughts and suggestions.

The point here is not to be comprehensive. This list is meant to be a bit idiosyncratic, and to highlight some technology-related topics that perhaps are perhaps not always considered within mainstream textbook-related discussions within the international donor community.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, the chief executive of one of the leading education publishers is quoted as saying that the printed textbook is dying: "The only real question is when." The ‘when’ may come sooner in a place like South Korea (which has announced that all textbooks will be digital by 2015) than it will, for example, in most lower income countries.  But the change is coming … to what extent should we attempt to speak to, and be relevant to, this new reality?

As with all posts on the EduTech blog, my goal in presenting these thoughts and questions informally (and incompletely) here is meant to serve in a small, modest way to help continue the conversations the World Bank is having with numerous different stakeholder groups as a result of our decision to revise our current 'textbook policy'. My views and opinions are not necessarily those of the World Bank – feel free to contribute your thoughts and perspectives below.

Of potential related interest:

Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("Should we continue along our current path, or acknowledge that others are blasting off in other directions?") of the launch of the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis was taken in the course of an airman's official duties and, as a work of the U.S. federal government, is in the public domain.  [United States Air Force image ID 100514-f-0000c-603; author: Capt. John Peltier]. It comes via Wikimedia Commons and was a finailist in that organization's Picture of The Year 2010 competition.


Michael Trucano

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

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